Compassionate Criticism

On the Sixth Grave Precept: Do Not Talk about Others’ Errors and Faults

What could give one more pleasure, rush, and release of pent-up anger, envy, pain and hurt than — “You wouldn’t believe what so-and-so did”? Let’s bask in the glory of their follies, set them right, show them the error of their ways, and they will change.

Most likely, they won’t. Only I can change.

Is All Criticism Unacceptable?

The precept, even in the gentle rendition of Boddhidharma’s “refraining from speaking of others’ shortcomings,” seems to put a muzzle on criticizing others, on pointing out their errors and faults. Doesn’t it then contradict the “Do not lie” Fourth Precept?

While criticism for criticism’s sake, or for the pleasure of retelling the juicy details of another person’s errors, may be reprehensible, I find fault with rejecting criticism altogether.

  • One doesn’t grow without being given an occasional shot of reality of one’s behavior and actions.
  • Relationships don’t get mended without negative issues being aired.
  • An uncriticized boss may think s/he is doing an admirable job, while being a dragon to his/her employees and bleeding the business.

In all these cases, ignorance of one’s errors and faults hurts.

Can we separate idle gossip from healthy criticism? Yes, I believe, we can. How about compassionate criticism? Criticism given in a way that focuses on actions, those ‘errors’ and lapses of judgment, rather than ascribing some lasting traits to a person’s character.

I, for instance, praise but also criticize my students’ writing, so they could learn from their errors and write better next time. As a matter of fact, any learning is based on committing errors and then learning from them. A teacher must put them in front of the student and explain them because overlooked and uncorrected, those mistakes are bound to repeat.

Again, I focus on writing errors, not the person’s character; my intention is to fix the skill, not the person. I want my students to improve as writers without losing their dignity.

Gossip, on the other hand, does not fix the error. Instead, it perpetuates negativity within the gossiper himself. On many occasions, I find myself being left with a bitter aftertaste after tasting the delicious fruit of gossip.

Tolerance for Criticism

There may also be a cultural bias in the precept. In the Jewish culture, we have a comparatively higher tolerance for criticism. Criticizing others and receiving criticism, when done responsibly, do not lead to losing face. Tolerance towards criticism is viewed as a sign of maturity. Moreover, underneath a person’s unpleasant demeanor, there might be a real concern for me, the desire to help me.

“Uh-oh, looks like I really screwed up that project… Well, thanks for pointing that out. What can we do to fix it?”

While gossiping and gloating over other people’s mistakes contradicts the spirit of this precept, compassionately delivered criticism is a healing skill.

In Fall 2015 and Spring 2016, I studied at Zen Center of Los Angeles towards formally receiving the Buddhist precepts (‘jukai’). As part of preparations for the jukai, the aspirant was expected to reflect on the meaning of each precept. This is the sixth of the ten essays in the series. My jukai ceremony took place May 28, 2016.