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Responding to Praise and Blame

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Art work by Frank Kliewer;

A vivid account in one of the earliest Buddhist texts describes how the Buddha guided his disciples in responding skilfully to both praise and blame. The story is full of his wisdom about how we can avoid harming ourselves or others through our speech and how we can navigate through life while maintaining mindfulness and equanimity

I am reposting this to coincide with the online retreat I am leading for Tricycle this month,

One day (we learn from a Buddhist discourse called the Brahmajala Sutta) the Buddha was walking from one town to another in the heart of the great empire of Magadha in Northern India, accompanied by five hundred monks. One imagines them walking slowly and mindfully, perhaps with their heads bowed, each holding the begging bowl that was one of their few possessions. And they would have walked in silence. Monks presumably like talking as much as anyone else, and there are scenes in the discourses in which the Buddha comes across monks who are chattering away. But in the presence of the Buddha or his senior disciples the monks generally behaved themselves and maintained ‘noble silence’.

Walking a little behind the Buddha along the same road were Suppiya, a practitioner belonging to another sect, and his disciple, Brahmadatta. Not long before, two other practitioners—Mogallana and Sariputta—had left Suppiya’s sect to become the Buddha’s leading disciples, and Suppiya was ill-disposed to the man he found walking ahead of him. All down the road he loudly criticized the Buddha and his monks to Brahmadatta, and the boy defended them just as vigorously. That night the Buddha’s group pitched camp, perhaps meditating together in the darkness before lying down to sleep. But the silence was broken by the voices of Suppiya and Brahmadatta continuing to argue.

The next morning a group of monks sat together to discuss the conversation they had overheard. From the account of their discussion that we are given it seems that they didn’t know how to respond, and what they say seems confused: ‘Isn’t it extraordinary that the Buddha is so great that different people respond to him in such different ways.’ They sound rather like a politician who is criticized from the left and the right and argues that this shows that their policy must be correct.

At this point the Buddha joined the monks, and added his perspective. He wasn’t interested in the content of what Suppiya and Brahmadatta were saying or even what that might suggest about him. The important aspect was the monksattitude on hearing praise and criticism.

Monks, if anyone should speak in disparagement of me, of the Dhamma [the Buddha’s teaching) or of the Sangha [the community of which they were members], you should not be angry, resentful or upset on that account. If you were to be angry or displeased at such disparagement, that would only be a hindrance to you. For if others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, then you must explain what is incorrect as being incorrect, saying: ‘That is incorrect, that is false, that is not our way, that is not found among us.’”

If we could all practice these words of the Buddha, the world would truly be a different place. When we are criticized we feel under attack, and defensive instincts kick in physically and emotionally. Our stomach tightens, our mouth becomes dry, our shoulder muscles tense—but we usually don’t notice these responses, and we often don’t even notice consciously that we are feelingangry, resentful or upset’. Our attention is drawn instead to the thoughts that spring up in our mind in response to the attack. The Buddha parodies our reactions in The Dhammapada: we think to ourselves, ‘He hurt me, he abused me, he robbed me.’ I think you should repeat these with a whiny voice to get the proper effect.

As anyone involved in teaching Buddhism in the West will know, the Buddhist view that anger should not be expressed raises understandable concerns among people encountering it for the first time. “Does that mean I must repress my experience? I’ve been a doormat all my life and I need to be assertive and express what I am feeling!” The answer is in the reason the Buddha gives for not getting defensive: ‘That would only be a hindrance to you.’ In other words, the emotional hooks that join us to emotions like anger also fasten us to painful and reactive ways of thinking and, in the end, these are hurt us (to say nothing of the people with whom we are angry). Another version of the problem of denial affects more experienced practitioners, who can use this teaching to avoid saying difficult things. We may even hide our emotional responses from ourselves beneath a blanket of meditative calm so that we can preserve a sense of ourselves as ‘good Buddhists’.

In fact, the Buddha’s stress is on being honest and truthful, and presumably this can include honesty about our feelings. But there is a world of difference between telling someone that you are feeling upset, and bawling them out! The Buddha is not saying that we should be entirely passive, and simply accept whatever is thrown at us. He suggests that that the monks should indeed respond to criticism, and he cites a case where the criticism is incorrect, saying that we should calmly offer a true account. To be fair, I think this needs to be supplemented by saying that when we believe a criticism to be true we should accept it and admit our faults. So there is a case for debate and disagreement among Buddhists and between Buddhists and followers of other beliefs, but the key is how you go about it. As one western Buddhist teacher puts it: ‘Better dishonest collision rather than dishonest collusion,’ but reasonable discussion is better than either.

The stoicism the Buddha advocates in the face of criticism might be difficult enough to accept and apply, but what the Buddha suggests next is an even harder practice:

“But, monks, if others should speak in praise of me, of the Dhamma or of the Sangha, you should not on that account be pleased, happy or elated. If you were to be pleased, happy or elated at such praise that would only be a hindrance to you. If others praise me the Dharma or the Sangha, you should acknowledge the truth of what is true, saying: “That is correct, that is right, that is our way, that is found among us.”

Not taking pleasure in praise is a stern standard. We all want—perhaps we need—the appreciation of others, especially if we are trying to keep going in a difficult undertaking, such as practising Buddhism. And surely, offering this is precisely what the Buddha had in mind when he enjoined his followers to practice ‘kindly or loving speech’. But as every flatterer knows, the listener’s need for affirmation can override their awareness of the truth, leaving them prey to forces that cause suffering.

The key word is ‘elated’. The Buddha is warning against the tendency of the mind to appropriate praise to augment the prideful ego. It may that we become swollen by applause, or it may be that we cling to it to stave off self-hatred. Either way, we are engaged in an skewed emotional response that preempts honest self-awareness. It is not that we should reject praise, just that we should not become attached to it. Once again, there is an important unstated corollary to the principle the Buddha outlines: if we receive undeserved praise for qualities we do not possess, we should put the record straight.

In the discourse the monks are not faced directly with Suppiya’s criticisms. They simply overhear the discussion and this scenario offers the opportunity for them to observe the dynamic of praise and blame more dispassionately than if they had been involved in it themselves. It can be disconcerting to overhear other people talk about you (although, as Oscar Wilde says, the only thing worse is people not talking about you), but it offers a chance to notice how you feel and find a creative response.

I have discussed the implications of the Buddha’s words for individuals who are responding to criticism and praise, but in the discourse Suppiya is criticizing the group to which the monks belong, and is even easier to rationalize our defensiveness when our group rather than ourselves, is under attack. In fact, this is what you encounter when you open a newspaper—especially when religion is involved. According to the teaching in this discourse, there is no place for ‘righteous indignation’, let alone a notion like blasphemy (which, amazingly, is still a crime in the UK, where I live). Conversely, there is no place for ‘triumphalism’, the malaise within the Catholic Church that was identified by Vatican II whereby one mistakes worldly success (grand buildings, swelling membership, and so on) for spiritual integrity. It is reassuring that this advice appears on the first page of the user manual of early Buddhism, although it has to be said that both indignation and triumphalism can be found among Buddhists in both Asia and the West.

When I read a teaching by the Buddha like this one Sutta it seems that I encounter a quite incredible reasonableness. On one hand his advice is extremely simple, but on the other it is very hard to apply, and I think the cause of this combination is that the teaching goes very deep. Seriously undertaking to moderate our responses to praise and criticism is a profound, transformative practice—as far reaching, I suspect, as the most esoteric meditation practice. To achieve the degree of equanimity the Buddha proposes we shall need a great deal of help, and will need to consider aspects of communication that are not quite so simple as what the Buddha outlines: understanding why someone may be criticising us and empathizing with them; learning to distinguish facts from interpretations; learning to acknowledge our angry responses without being driven by them; and expressing what we believe to be true in ways that others can hear. But we can be guided in our more psychological concerns by the touchstone the Buddha suggests in The Brahmajala Sutta: find what is true—as opposed to what we would like to be the case—and let that be our guide.