Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Elephant in the Room

So what happens when gossip runs amuck among friends or even in a spiritual community?

The first basic in Buddhist ethics is, "Do no harm." Bottom line. Everything else is on top of that. Then Buddha taught the 10 Unwholesome Actions to show us what would harm ourselves and others. Of these, four are related to harmful speech: gossip, slander, harsh speech, and lying.

Harmful speech may seem less serious than some of the other Unwholesome Actions, such as killing and stealing, but the effects can be devastating and violent. Words can utterly destroy a person's reputation, create division between people where there was none, and wipe out a future.

Sound familiar?

So if we are on the hearing end of gossip or slander, what to do? As much as possible, we can try to avoid being a safe harbor for gossip and instead, confront those spreading wrong speech. Here are some ideas.

• First, check in with your experience. How does it make you feel to hear this? What is arising in you? Do you have a physical sensation? Does your mind run to want to hear gossip? Do you immediately believe it? Does it make you feel dirty? Superior? Sad? Connect with the space beyond the arising sensations, thoughts, and emotions, and go from there.

• Remember your direct experience of the person being talked about and ask yourself if this even makes sense or if they could have been misunderstood.

• Hold to the actual facts without a perceptual overlay. It is one thing to say what happened and another to say what you think it means. As soon as you start saying what a person's reasons or motivations are without getting it first-hand from them, you are surely making stuff up... i.e., lying.

• Interrupt the person gossiping and encourage them to speak directly with the person they are criticizing.

• Interrupt the person and point out that they are speculating on intention, which they cannot really know.

• Interrupt the person and let them know you'd rather not discuss the faults of others, whether real or perceived.

• Ask, "Why do I need to know this? This doesn't help my mind be peaceful so I'd rather not know."

• If you know the truth to be otherwise, say so. "I was there and that's not true."

• If it's coming from a person who habitually participates in harmful speech, you might sit down and have a heart-to-heart with them about how it makes you feel.

• Even if it's coming from someone you respect or an authority figure, remember... according to Buddhism, only a fully realized Buddha has complete omniscience. They could be mistaken. And even then, Buddha said not to believe anything simply because he said it. We are never to abandon our own wisdom mind.

• If the people involved are from different cultures, remember that it could be an invisible culture clash. Some things which are valued in the west, such as open communication, are seen differently in other societies. Asian cultures in particular often have difficulty in confronting directly so open communication may be felt as argumentative or confrontational when it is not intended to be.

• Either don't believe the gossip or else go directly to the person being criticized and ask their side, with an open mind and heart. To believe the gossip without going to the person themselves is to become a participant in it. Not going directly to a person denies them the opportunity to grow if they need it, or to tell you what is true for them.

• Become someone who creates harmony between others. Instead of slander, be a peacemaker. Instead of harsh speech, speak with kindness, remembering the basic good heart of the other person. Instead of lying, speak only what you are 100% sure is the truth. Instead of gossip, make your speech meaningful and helpful.

• If, despite your best efforts, the environment is rife with gossip and slander, leave it if you can. If you can't leave it, minimize your exposure to those who carry tales. Get in, get out. Toxic environments can affect one's own energy and health.

• Finally, remember that those who are engaging in harmful speech are suffering too. Moreover, they are creating the cause of more suffering for themselves in the future. No matter what they've said, don't attach to it too strongly and don't throw them out of your compassionate heart, even if they appear to have thrown you out of theirs.

Harmful speech is like a runaway train that can ruin even the best of relationships and organizations. And it's all based on perception. The Heart Sutra teaches us that perception is empty, as well as forms, feelings, mental formations and consciousness. Which means that it is our own mental habits that cause us to perceive the way we do. It's called "karmic vision;" it's just the way we see things. If we consistently hold pure view when thinking of others, we may be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

So we might ask ourselves, when I think and speak of others, am I spacious or suspicious? Our answer says much more about our own minds than about the objects of our perception.

With that being the case, where do we get off being judge and jury of anyone? I am reminded of a quote by Brendan Behan: "I was court-martialled in my absence, and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence."

Or Pema Chodron, when speaking of forgiveness: "They were that way for only an instant, and even then, only in my mind."

For this reason, I am committed that Harmless Speech be at the very foundation of Luminous Mind. This organization will not operate according to gossip and slander. If you study here, you will not be discussed by me privately or publicly. Decisions will not be made on the basis of gossip. If there is ever a conflict, I will come to you directly and listen with my ears and heart wide open. And you are always welcome to come directly to me as well. Even if we ultimately disagree, I will not speak in a way to harm your reputation, privately or publicly. In every way possible, Luminous Mind will be a refuge where students' basic good hearts are nurtured, free from an atmosphere of suspicion and negativity.


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