When we were teenagers, my brother had a funny little routine about gossip. He would begin with “I never say anything about anyone that isn’t good,” and then, leaning over as if to whisper in your ear, he would add, “and, boy, is this good!” Usually that was followed by something really juicy. We find this play on words amusing, because we recognize in ourselves the seemingly harmless temptation to speak ill of others and to listen to such speaking. What’s interesting about this precept is that, unlike, say, killing or stealing, it’s about speaking, which doesn’t seem so serious. And yet, the Gatha of Atonement, chanted every morning in Zen communities, reminds us that “all evil karma ever committed by me” arises through “body, mouth, and consciousness.” Still, we want to say, how can speaking of others’ faults be as harmful as stealing? After all, as children we learn to defend against name-calling with “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but names can never hurt me.” But how many of us can say really truthfully “Names can never hurt me”? How many of us are completely free of the effects of the various versions of “name-calling” when it’s aimed at us? And don’t forget, in addition to namecalling, speaking of others’ faults can take many forms—for example, gossip, complaining, putting down, and passing on hearsay, among others. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the one whose faults are talked about or the one who is the subject of gossip, and asking how it feels, can help us see how serious this can be. In the end it can damage whole communities.
As with all the precepts, we can take this one very literally: Never ever speak of the faults of another. Or, contextually: sometimes it’s appropriate to speak of the faults of others depending on the circumstances. Or, from the point of view of Oneness or the One Body, it becomes non-speaking of the faults of others. From this point of view, which isn’t really a point of view at all, the separation needed for such notions as “faults” or “speaking ill” or even “others” doesn’t exist. It is here, too, that the precepts are no longer guiding principles of behavior, but are manifested naturally as our very being. It’s interesting to look at a few different versions of this precept not so much to consider these different levels or dimensions but simply to bring out some of its various aspects in our ordinary lives. The Bodhidharma version, as translated by Aitken Roshi, is “Self nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the flawless dharma, not expounding upon error is called the precept of not speaking of the faults of others.” The late John Daido Loori Roshi’s translation refers to this as “refraining from speaking of others’ errors and faults.” Zen Master Dogen’s version is “In the Buddhadharma there is one path, one dharma, one realization, one practice. Don’t commit fault finding. Don’t commit haphazard talk.” Elsewhere Dogen writes “Do not let them talk of others’ errors and faults.”
Notice what we have here: Not finding fault, which suggests that we actually look for faults. Not speaking of the faults of others, which, as mentioned above, includes such forms of speaking as gossip, complaining, and passing on hearsay. Not letting others do it, which points to our willingness, even eagerness, to listen to such speaking. And not expounding upon those faults, which makes me think of the pleasure of shared “analysis” of the behavior of others: in other words, going on and on exercising our great “perceptiveness.”
So what are faults, anyway? That’s really worth thinking about. We should, of course, include related words such as “failings,” “foibles,” “defects,” “weaknesses,” “shortcomings,” and so on. “Foibles” don’t seem as serious a fault as “defects of character,” but talking about them may be just as harmful. But before we get to the talking-about part, notice the moralistic connotation of these words, an assumption that things or people should be other than what they are. Notice the should here. When we find fault, not only do we have a preference, but we are ready to reject something, to exclude it from our world and definitely from ourselves. From the perspective of the Absolute, the One Body, Bodhidharma’s “flawless dharma,” this is, of course, impossible or doesn’t even make sense. Not only is the dharma faultless or “flawless,” but nothing can be excluded. There is no “outside.” Within our relative world, however, there are faults, and sometimes, in appropriate ways and appropriate circumstances, they need to be corrected. But often what we think of as faults may not be so at all—especially when whatever it is is not harming others and is just something I reject in myself. “Thank God, I don’t have her elbows!” might be an example.
So why do we talk about others’ errors and faults? What’s in it for us? Well, probably a number of things. Sometimes there’s the need for reassurance that I’m right. Or that I’m good. Or that I’m at least not like that, whatever “that” may be. It can also be a way of avoiding what I imagine will be a confrontation. It’s an avoidance of telling the truth, of putting truth where it belongs. So in speaking about as opposed to speaking to someone, we’re failing to honor this precept. And that’s often what we do. We’re afraid. Also motivating us is the need to get someone over to my side about an issue. Most striking of all is the unconscious desire for intimacy with the one to whom I am speaking. But this is a delusion, since it is nothing but false intimacy. In fact, it’s amazing to think that we actually use speaking about the faults of others in order to feel connected. Notice the contradiction, the delusion, here: We use, and even create, separation from one thing or person to overcome separation from another! We are afraid of genuine contact, so we find something or someone to complain about or gossip about. It occurs to me that the “expounding upon” the errors and faults of others in one of the translations mentioned above is part of this. It means telling stories about, analyzing, enjoying being very “perceptive” with another at someone else’s expense, as if this shared enterprise brings us closer together.