Questions about idle talk
Stages of the Path #71: Karma Part 8
- Why idle talk (gossip) is said to be the least destructive of the nonvirtues of speech
- How gossip becomes creating disharmony with our speech
- Looking inside at our own feelings when we’re upset and want to lash out with our speech
There was a question from one of the people who has been watching the Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner about gossip, or idle talk, the seventh of the ten nonvirtues. This person was saying, “Isn’t gossip really destructive, because it can damage somebody’s reputation, or somebody’s job, or their self-esteem. It can be such a really harmful thing. So why is it said that it’s the least harmful of the four nonvirtues of speech?” That was the question.
What’s happening here is the term “gossip” is a bit confusing. We’re dealing with translation terms. I think the term “idle talk” is more accurately describing what that seventh nonvirtue is. Idle talk, meaning just talking about nothing of any value, just kind of “blah, blah, blah,” to waste your time. Sometimes that gets translated as “gossip,” because gossip could just be “blah blah blah.” But also we associate “gossip” with…. Gossip can be pretty malicious, and I think that’s what this person is talking about. So I think it’s better to translate that seventh one as “idle talk.” Just talking about “blah blah.” And that’s why it’s the least powerful of the seven.
What we in English call gossip is very often “creating disharmony with our speech,” or “harsh words.” Isn’t it? When we think about what the word “gossip” means? “Oh, I’m telling all these bad stories about what somebody’s doing. Sometimes I lie, I exaggerate. I want to ruin somebody’s reputation. Or I just dump out all my hostility and criticize somebody. Or I tease them, or I make fun of them. I say all these really mean things about them being their backs.” That’s what is often associated with the word “gossip.” And that is actually quite negative. And that could fall into–depending what you’re saying–it could fall into lying, creating disharmony, harsh words. All these kinds of things.
We really want to take care with that because we hurt other people’s feelings when we talk meanly and so on to them or about them. And when we do that we harm ourselves, because we’re putting that same angry negative energy into our own mind. We think we’re getting it out of our mouth. I’m mad at somebody, I don’t like somebody, I’m jealous, so I just go “blah” and talk all sorts of nasty things about them, thinking that the bad feeling I have, if I say those nasty things I won’t feel bad. I’m getting it all out. But I don’t know about you, after I say nasty things, or criticize somebody, or shout at them, or whatever, I don’t feel very good inside myself. You feel very stirred up, don’t you? And then you look at what you said and it’s very often to somebody you really care about. “Eww, what did I just do?” You can see right then and there, we think we’re getting the negative energy out, but actually, we’re just increasing it in ourselves.
This isn’t to say when we’re upset we stuff the emotion down and we don’t feel it, and we negate it, and pretend we don’t have it. That doesn’t work either. If we’re upset or we’re angry we acknowledge that, but then we start looking at that feeling and saying “is this feeling really an appropriate response to whatever the situation is?” Because sometimes we take things a little bit personally. And sometimes we exaggerate what we think the meaning of what somebody says to us is. We impute all sorts of stuff on it and give it a meaning that it doesn’t have, and then get upset. So it’s often very good. Don’t stuff the emotion, but don’t think it’s going to go away just by trashing somebody.
I hope that clears it up for the person who asked. It’s a good question. Here we see how translation can kind of tilt something one way or the other.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.