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Verse 29: Vulgar and insensitive actions

Verse 29: Vulgar and insensitive actions

Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.

  • Insensitive words or actions can ruin trust in relationships
  • People tend to remember how we make them feel more than what we do or say

Gems of Wisdom: Verse 29 (download)

Yesterday we talked about body odor. Today it’s, “What is the sharp thorn quick to pierce but hard to extract? Vulgar and insensitive ways that negatively impact the minds of others.” Things like harsh speech, causing disharmony with our speech.

What is the sharp thorn quick to pierce but hard to extract?
Vulgar and insensitive ways that negatively impact the minds of others.

It’s really true because it takes a long time to build up trust in relationships, and if we aren’t careful with our speech we can say something really damaging that breaks a lot of trust that it took a long time to build up. Or again, doing something physically that just shatters trust that takes a long time to build up. So, “quick to pierce but hard to extract.” Vulgar and insensitive ways that clearly have behind them the motivation to harm. Then quickly they harm other people and it’s very difficult to repair it. It’s like the fish hook goes in well, but can’t pull it out very easily.

I’m sure we’ve seen this in our relationships a lot. We usually remember it most regarding other people’s vulgar and insensitive ways. But our own, it’s just they took things the wrong way, and they’re too sensitive. But actually, maybe sometimes we have vulgar and insensitive ways that really pierce people and hurt them quite a bit.

I was talking recently with one person who was telling me that he has kind of a sarcastic sense of humor and he likes to kind of poke fun at people, and he said especially when he feels that people are getting on a high-horse, he likes to use his sarcastic sense of humor to chop them down. And I said to him, “Well, what good does that do?” And he said, “Well, sometimes I feel kind of better having done that.” And I said, “What kind of person does that make you, who feels better by hurting other people’s feelings?” “Well, I don’t really want to hurt them. But sometimes I do get off on jabbing them a little bit.” I said, “Really? That makes you happy to cause other people pain and hurt their feelings?” So this discussion went on back and forth for a while. He was always trying to explain it in one way or another, cover it in some way or another. Until finally I think he got the point. I wasn’t going to let up on that one.

I can have a sarcastic sense of humor, too, and I know that it can only be used with some people, because some people, they don’t understand it as humor and they really take offense, and they feel very hurt. And if my motivation isn’t to hurt, then, even if I like that sense of humor, why do I use it if it contravenes my motivation not to hurt? And then also because it brings about so much of a mess in relationships. You know? You say stuff and then, “Oops, why did I say that?” And then you try and backpedal instead of just saying, “I’m sorry. That was totally inappropriate of me to say.” I mean that would be the best way. Because if we said that right away and we owned it, fine, people would be okay. But we always try and backpedal, “Well, I didn’t really mean this or that, or you’re just too sensitive, you took it the wrong way, it was really humorous, blah blah blah…” And that never really reassures the other person of our good intention because they pick up on the fact that, well actually, we had a bad intention and now we’re just trying to cover our tushes. So that destroys a lot of trust. We have to be quite careful.

You can see this kind of thing happening with speech a lot. You see it in marriages, too. People are married and then one partner gets attracted to somebody else, they go off for a fling, and the marriage is really damaged. Or one person gets violent, you know, they’re having a quarrel and one person gets violent, it really damages the trust, people find it very difficult to stay together.

Be really careful about vulgar and insensitive ways.

Also, because we may do a lot of things that other people find pleasing, but what they remember is the one thing that we did that was obnoxious. And that’s how we remember other people, too. We expect people to do nice things. When they do, we don’t notice. But the one thing they do that we don’t like, “Oooh, look at them, they did nyahhh.” And then we tell it to the whole world instead of talking about that person’s good qualities, which are plenty, too. So to realize that we do that, then other people do that, too, and they will remember the ways that we hurt them.

Also regarding this, sometimes people may not remember the exact words we said, or the exact thing that we did, but they will remember how they felt. And if people remember, “Oh, I felt humiliated,” or, “I felt not-heard,” or whatever it is, they will remember that feeling even though what we said or did they may not remember. So it’s really something to be careful about.

They often advise to see ourselves as kind of representatives of the Triple Gem, and if we kind of see ourselves that way then we tend to be more mindful and have more introspective awareness in how we talk and interrelate with other people, because we care about the effect of our words and speech and of course what we’re thinking and feeling on others, too. So that can be something that helps us to be more careful, recognizing that people could…. It’s not fair for people to judge the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha based on how one person acts. It’s really rather short-sighted to do that. However, people do that. So it’s good—as much as possible—to be aware of how our actions and speech influence other people.

And not because we’re afraid or we feel obliged or we feel guilty, but because we actually care about other people. And when we actually care about them we don’t want them to have wrong ideas. We don’t want them to have hurt feelings.

Now, having said that, there is one little pitfall in this, and that is when we try to be a good example to others. That’s very different from being a good example to others. Because when we’re trying to be the good example, or we’re trying to be the representative of the Three Jewels, then we usually have some agenda and some expectation of how the other person should respond to us. “They should see me as wonderful, because I’m trying to be a good example, I’m trying to be a representative…. Why aren’t they seeing me as wonderful? They should be.” Yes? And then we get grouchy, we get cynical, basically because ego had fed into our motivation and we wanted some kind of personal recognition for this.

I think it’s like what I had to understand—because I went through this—is stop trying to be a good example and just be who I am and try and be mindful and careful and have introspective awareness because I care about others. And to admit when I make a mistake. Because that works much better than trying to be the perfect Dharma practitioner that everybody is going to admire. Because that’s just another ego trip. Right?

[In response to audience] Okay, when you ask a sincere question and somebody comes back with a rhetorical answer that sounds like they’re putting you down.

I think most of us have had that happen. And most of us have probably done that to people.

I know when I do that to people, it’s often because I’m trying to get them to think about why did they ask that question. Because if they had thought before, they would have known the answer to the question. So I have to admit, I’m usually annoyed because, “Why are you bothering with asking me something that you can figure out yourself?” So I know for myself I usually do that in those kinds of situations hoping somebody will look at themselves and say, “Well, why did I ask that question?” However, people usually don’t. They usually think, “Hmmph, listen, I asked why this shape was an A, and why did they answer like that?” They won’t necessarily do that. However, I keep doing that in hope that one day they will figure out that they could figure it out for themselves.

Anybody have any good ideas how to do that, when you think that somebody asked you a question and…. I mean, actually, you have faith and confidence in that person that they’re intelligent enough to answer it. Do you just say that? Like, “I think you’re intelligent enough to answer that yourself.” Would that work for you? Okay. I will type it out and make it a shortcut so I can put it in a lot of emails.

[In response to audience] And that’s actually…. “It depends on who says that to us.” But that’s actually not such a good criteria to use, is it? Because no matter who says something to us, we can potentially learn something from it if we think about it. But we’re often quite prejudice about who we will listen to.

Like you said, if one of your teenaged students kind of answers you like that, you’ll kind of reassert yourself. But teenagers, they see our trips. They’re often very good at seeing our trips. Too good at seeing our trips. Never too good to see our trips.

Often what I’ll do is I’ll say to the person, “What do you think?” In hopes that then they’ll think. Yes. I’m sure you’ve all gotten emails from me like that. [laughter] If you haven’t, look forward to it.

[In response to audience] I think sometimes it might be a power thing. It’s like, “You said something to me that I felt less-than, so I need to assert myself here. And if I speak harshly about you, I’m then going to put you in your place, and assert that I’m supreme.” It could be that. And that’s coming, often, from fear. You know? Fear and insecurity. Because nobody likes to feel fearful and insecure, so we get angry and we attack back.

Same thing governments do. And I’ve also discovered, it seems like—or at least other people have told me—that some people like to quarrel because maybe in their home there was so much quarreling that’s the way people communicated with each other. So people talking nicely to each other feels weird to them, whereas if you quarrel it feels very familiar and it’s some way to connect to somebody. But it’s really a horrible way to connect.

Because I’ve noticed that some people…. There was one person I was working with and I’m not somebody who likes to quarrel like that and go back and forth, and he’d really get upset when I refused to engage. It was more than just banter. Banter and joking is one thing, but this was like, “Let’s have a fight.” And it was like, “I’m not interested, thank you very much.”

[In response to audience] Well in those kind of situations, where you’re with a group of people and somebody starts some kind of slurs against another group, I often just say, “That makes me feel very uncomfortable. I feel very uncomfortable to hear other people being spoken of in that way.” So I usually start off with that. And then I see how they react.

[In response to audience] So that’s the whole thing of sarcastic speech is kind of a method of defense to shift the focus to somebody else away from me who just happens to do the same behavior. [laughter]

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.