Whose Faults to Discuss?

In Suzuki Roshi’s lineage, there are a variety of translations we use for the Sixth Major Precept.  I’ve mainly heard it stated as some variation on “Do not speak of the faults of others” or “Do not slander.”  When I received the precepts as a layperson, I’m pretty sure that we used “Do not speak of the faults of others,” and in my ordination as a priest (I just looked back at the ceremony to be sure) I chanted “A disciple of the Buddha does not slander.”

It was with some surprise, then, that I recently came across a translation with a very different feeling—“Not to discuss the faults of other home-leaver bodhisattvas” (my emphasis.)  I read that in Kaz Tanahashi’s translation of Dogen’s short fascicle “Jukai.”  I know I’ve read that fascicle before, and in Kaz’s translation, but somehow my eyeballs had just run right past those extra words.  Now that I’m looking, though, I see this all over the place.  Nishijima and Cross have “not to discuss the transgressions of other bodhisattvas, be they lay people or those who have left family life.”  And in the Brahma Net Sutra, which is the original basis for the 16 bodhisattva precepts in the Zen school, I find:

Sixth Major Precept:
On Broadcasting the Faults of the Assembly

A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns — nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly. 
As a Buddha’s disciple, whenever he hears evil persons, externalists or followers of the Two Vehicles speak of practices contrary to the Dharma or contrary to the precepts within the Buddhist community, he should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. 
If instead, he discusses the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.

Whoa!  To my ear, not slandering and not broadcasting the faults of the assembly have an entirely different—even contradictory—feeling.  The version I’m more familiar with, not discussing the faults of others, has a certain wonderful humility to it, an acceptance of other people just as they are.  Pine cones are pine cones, sparrows are sparrows, this person manifests this person perfectly in all her intricate and unrepeatable specificity—what could there be to criticize?  This other version, though, feels more like: don’t speak of our faults.  Other people’s faults are cool, but make sure not to criticize anyone in our sect.  You know.  Might make us look bad.

This is a familiar attitude, to be sure—in families, in political parties, in corporations, in the institutional Catholic Church, in cults—but I’m not sure that it offers much guidance in terms of living an awakened life.  It’s worth noting, too, that a Parajika offense is the most serious class of transgressions, up there with killing and stealing, and more serious than such secondary offenses as storing deadly weapons or starting wildfires.  Seriously.

There’s a generous and a less-generous interpretation of all of this, I suppose.  One could make the case that these precepts were developed in community, and that in that context, not criticizing other followers of the Mahayana basically equals not criticizing anybody.  If you live in sangha and only interact with other sangha members, not criticizing the sangha means not criticizing anyone.  I see how we could try that line of thought, but I don’t really buy it.  It feels feeble, excuse-making.  It feels like trying to read a more universal and tolerant sensibility back into a pretty straight-forward us and them commandment.

In the SFZC version of the full-moon ceremony, after the assembly recites the Sixth Major Precept (usually “I vow not to slander”) the doshi recites:

In the Buddha-dharma, go together, appreciate together, realize together and actualize together.  Do not permit fault-finding.  Do not permit haphazard talk.  Do not corrupt the Way.

Go together, appreciate together, realize together and actualize together.  That’s so beautiful.  But who’s the we there?  Me and my friends?  Me and the others of my school?  Me and people like me?  Me and all beings?  Where’s the line between those whose faults I won’t broadcast, and those whose faults I will?

In other news, the Spurs are carving their way through the NBA playoffs.  I haven’t seen Tim Duncan this spry in years.  The Spurs are my team, so I would never criticize them or speak of their faults—but man do the Lakers look terrible against Oklahoma City.

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4 Responses to Whose Faults to Discuss?

  1. All good points, Hondo, and a reasonable conclusion. As one who prefers transformation to conformity of any kind, what makes sense to me of this precept is: Don’t Gossip, don’t engage in speculative conversation about any party who is not present.

    In other words, if one has some confusion about the appropriate conduct of another, one should either clarify it privately with a teacher, or with the person directly.

    However, I think it is also appropriate and proper, in any case, to cultivate the practice of stating with accuracy what is obvious and nothing more or less – that is, without added narrative or any other form of opinion, but in a way that is subject to correction of any error or the addition of other facts.

    Along these lines, I have taken upon myself to define three rubrics of compassion that I use to help me organize my own conduct: 1) Intending only that my thoughts, words, and deeds be helpful and harmless; 2) intending to experience fully what I am experiencing; 3) intending to take nothing personally… so that I might repeat this virtuous cycle and in the process perfect my embodiment of the six paramitas.

    Thank you for raising this issue and stating it in a way that lets us examine the karma of our dharmic positions.

  2. shosan justin z says:

    First off, I am so glad you are not a Lakers fan. Second off, man, you are looking to open up a nice can of worms here, but a tasty can of worms. My simple summary of my views on this is that, if someone does some serious misdeed within the sangha, temple, monastery, etc, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be faced. Not swept under the rug. Isn’t that the whole point of our practice? to face things? to react in an appropriate manner? if someone, particularly someone in a position of power/someone who is a leader within a sangha, does something that causes harm, they should be approached and the issue discussed, in a appropriate manner and at an appropriate time.

  3. Koun says:

    You’re raising great questions here–thank you. I tend to think that part of our privilege (and responsibility) as modern-day practitioners is to embrace and embody the generous interpretation, when we can. Honestly addressing faults while not using them as means of separation is a task at which we’re practically guaranteed to fail. Good luck to us!

    Gassho,
    -koun

  4. Elliot says:

    Great Blog! The topic helped clarify the ways in which i have found faults in other practitioners and I must admit I am somewhat ashamed. The seriousness of the precept might be in part due to the possibility of fault-finding to cause a schism in the Sangha. This would be absolutely tragic. Furthermore I like the precepts let-it-be tone. I don’t think much can be achieved through discussing our faults and there is much potential harm in the behavior. Finding and working on faults can of course be negotiated between teacher and student. At least I think the precept doesn’t prohibit this.

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