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The ten non virtuous paths of action

The ten non virtuous paths of action

Part of a series of teachings on The Easy Path to Travel to Omniscience, a lamrim text by Panchen Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen, the first Panchen Lama.

  • The four factors that make a karma complete and a condition for a future rebirth
  • Examining the three physical and four verbal non-virtues in order of severity
  • Looking at the non virtues in terms of the four factors

Easy Path 16: Ten non virtues (download)

Good evening everybody, wherever you are on the planet right now, whatever day it is or time of day it is. We will continue on the teachings on the Easy Path. We’re on the section on karma. So, we’ll do the meditation on the Buddha, like we usually do, and I’ll read the requesting verse from the section on karma, and then we’ll have the teachings on karma.

Begin by coming back to your breath. Let your breath and your mind settle down. 

In the space in front of you, visualize the Buddha, made of golden light, and imagine that he is surrounded by all the direct and lineage spiritual mentors, the deities, the buddhas, the bodhisattvas, arhats, dakas, dakinis, aryas, and Dharma protectors. In short, you’re sitting in the presence of a vast number of holy beings. These bodies are all made of light, and they’re all looking at you with acceptance and compassion. Think your mother is on your left and your father is on your right. All the sentient beings throughout space are all around you, and the people you have difficulty with or you feel threatened by or don’t like are in front of you, between you and the buddhas. You have to make peace with them in some way or another if you’re going to see the Buddha

Then think that we are leading all the sentient beings to taking refuge and generating the four immeasurables and purifying and accumulating merit through the seven-limb practice and the mandala offering. Then we’ll recite these prayers, contemplating their meaning, and thinking that everybody else is reciting them together with us.

Think that there is the Buddha sitting on top of your head and also on top of the heads of all the sentient beings around you. Imagine, as we say the Buddha’s mantra, that light flows from the Buddha into us, into all the sentient beings, purifying negativities and also bringing realizations of the path.

With the Buddha on the crown of your head, let’s contemplate. The conqueror’s scriptures say: 

One: from a cause that is the practice of virtue, only the result of happiness can occur, not one of suffering. And from a cause that is non virtuous, only a suffering result can arise, not one of happiness. 

Two: although one may perform only minor virtues or negativities, when either fails to encounter an obstacle, it gives rise to a result of great magnitude. 

Third: if you perform neither virtue nor negativity, you will experience neither happiness nor suffering. In other words, if the cause isn’t created, the result won’t be experienced. 

Fourth: if the virtue or negativity performed encounters no obstacle, the action performed will not go wasted. It is certain to produce either happiness or misery. 

Furthermore, depending on the recipient, the support, its object, and the attitude, an action will be more or less powerful. Having generated faith based on conviction in this, may I strive to do good, starting with minor virtue, the ten virtues, and so on, and may my three doors of action—my body, speech, and mind—not be sullied by even the slightest non virtue such as the ten non virtues. Guru Buddha, please inspire me to be able to do so.

 Make that request from deep in your heart. 

In response to requesting the guru Buddha, five-colored light and nectar stream from all the parts of his body into you through the crown of your head. This happens to all the sentient beings around you, as well. It absorbs into your mind and body and into the minds and bodies of all the sentient beings around you. The light and nectar purifies all negativities and obscurations accumulated since beginningless time. 

It especially purifies all illnesses, interferences, negativities, and obscurations that interfere with generating faith based on conviction in the law of karma and its effects, and purifies all obscurations that prevent you from correctly producing, engaging in virtuous deeds, and abstaining from negative deeds. 

Your body becomes translucent, the nature of light. All your good qualities, lifespan, merit, and so forth expand and increase. Think in particular that having cultivated faith in the form of conviction in karma and its effects, a superior realization of abstaining from negativities and engaging in the correct practice of virtue has arisen in your mindstream and in the mindstream of all others. Although you may strive in this manner, if due to the feebleness of your antidotes and the strength of your afflictions, you are sullied by non virtue, do your utmost to purify it by means of the four opponent powers and abstain from it henceforth

Think you’ve gained the ability to do that, to purify your negativities and abstain from them henceforth.

The ten non virtuous actions

As I mentioned, this evening we’re going to talk about what’s called the ten—sometimes it’s negative, destructive, non virtuous, or unwholesome; it depends on what word you want to use—paths of action or paths of karma. Karma simply means action. These ten are called paths of karma or paths of action because they serve as the paths that will lead you to unfortunate rebirths, and conversely, the ten virtuous, or wholesome, paths of action are the paths leading us to fortunate rebirths.

These ten, to lead to an actual rebirth, need to have four branches complete. This is really important because many times we do actions and not all the factors are complete, so we would really need for it to be strong enough to cause a rebirth, for these four factors to be complete. If these four aren’t complete, then the karma may ripen, not in terms of a rebirth, but in terms of a condition that we experience during one of our lives.

We have the ten non virtuous paths and the ten virtuous ones. When we talk about the ten virtuous ones, there are two ways of talking about them: one is that simply abstaining from the non virtuous actions is a virtuous action. So, it’s simply being in a situation where you could do one of the non virtuous actions and saying, “Nope, I’m not going to do it.” Or by keeping precepts so that all the time you’re not doing negative actions, then just the abstention itself is a virtuous action. In addition, the ten virtuous paths of action include thinking in the opposite way or acting in the opposite way of a negative action. For example, one of the destructive actions is killing, so not killing is a virtuous one, and protecting life is another virtuous one—protecting life being the opposite of killing. 

There are three negative actions that we do physically primarily, four we do verbally, and three we do mentally. Nowadays we may also do physical verbal negative actions, for example, in the sense that we write emails. Emails are a physical action, but because it all involves communication with others, communication is put under the action of verbal. Writing emails would be a verbal virtue or non virtue.

We’re going to go through the ten, and, like I said, for each to be a complete action so that it’s strong enough to bring a rebirth, it has to have four factors. 

  1. The first factor is the object that you’re acting upon. It’s also called the basis. 
  2. The second factor is the complete intention and the complete intention itself has three parts:
    • first is recognition of the object that you’re acting on. 
    • second is the motivation, the intention to do the action.
    • third, because we’re talking about the non virtuous actions, one of the three poisons of confusion, anger, or hostility must be involved. 

So, those three together form the second factor, the complete intention. 

  1. The third factor is the actual action.
  2. The fourth is the conclusion of the action. 

We’re going to go through all ten, looking at these four factors because this will really give you so much more information so that when you start to examine your life and the kind of things you’ve done, you’ll have more tools to actually determine if you’ve created a full negativity or a full virtue—one that is going to lead to a rebirth.

We’ll be first discussing these in terms of the non virtues. We’ll list the ten.

The three physical non virtuous actions:

  • Killing
  • Stealing
  • Unwise or unkind sexual behavior 

The four verbal non virtuous actions:

  • Lying 
  • Divisive speech or creating disharmony
  • Harsh words 
  • Idle talk

The three mental non virtuous actions:


Let’s start with killing. The first one, the object—that is who we’re acting on—is any sentient being other than ourselves. This is already indicating to us that suicide is not going to be a complete nonvirtue, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Second, we would need to have the complete intention. So, first, we recognize the object—whoever we want to kill—when we go to kill them. We identify them, the object, correctly. If you want to kill one person and you accidentally kill someone else, again, it’s not complete. 

Then for the intention to kill, you need to have the wish to kill. If you only wish to harm them physically, but they die as a result of it, then it’s not a full action because the intention wasn’t to kill. Then one of the three poisons has to be involved. Of the three poisons, which ones do you think of when you think of killing? Anger. It’s easy to think of that because you want to harm an enemy; however, we can also kill out of attachment. For example, killing an animal because we want to eat its meat or we want its fur or its skin. We can also kill out of confusion or ignorance. This would be, for example, doing animal sacrifice and thinking that it’s a virtuous action when it’s certainly not. It’s interesting that it can be all three. 

Then the actual action of killing can be done by ourselves, or it can also be done by asking somebody else to kill. Even if we’re not the one who does it, if we ask someone else to do it, we get the karma—the full karma—of killing. It can be done by poisons, weapons, black magic, inciting others to kill, or helping someone else to commit suicide. Somebody who is a commander of troops, because they’re ordering others to kill, gets the negative karma of many actions of killing. They may not actually be doing the killing themselves, but they told other people to kill.

The fourth, the conclusion, is that the other person has to die before you do. If they die at the same time, or if they die after you, then it’s incomplete because the karma isn’t accumulated on the mindstream of the same person who did the action. It’s accumulated on the continuation of that mindstream, but not on you in this particular life.

Accidentally stepping on ants is missing the intention; it’s not a complete action. If you think, “I’m going to burn down a house no matter who’s in it,” then you get the karma of killing all those people who are in it. If you think, “I’ll burn down the house. There won’t be any human beings in it, and I don’t care if the animals die,” then you will get the full karma of killing the animals, but not the full karma of killing the human beings. That doesn’t mean it’s karma-free, but just that all the branches aren’t fulfilled.

You may say, “Well, what about punching someone or beating someone up?” It falls under that nonvirtue of killing, but it’s not a complete action because maybe you didn’t have the intention to kill the person or, in fact, they actually didn’t die. But it falls under that kind of category, even though it’s not a complete action.

If we rejoice after we kill or harm someone, then it becomes heavier. If we regret it immediately afterward, then it really reduces the potential of that action to bring a result. It’s best is to abstain from doing it, but if we do it, then it’s better to regret it immediately afterward.


The second physical non virtue is taking what hasn’t been freely given. It’s called stealing. We don’t think of ourselves as stealing, but how many times have you taken things that haven’t been freely given to you? That puts a different kind of spin on it. The object has to be an object of value that belongs to another person that we take as our own. There are different ideas about what “an object of value” means. In general, it’s taking something that, according to the law wherever you’re living, it would be reported to the authorities, and you could potentially be prosecuted or have a misdemeanor offense for taking this thing. 

So, taking a pencil may not be a complete action of stealing; it has to be something of more value. But it does include things like not paying taxes we’re supposed to pay, or not paying fares, not paying tolls, or not paying fees that we’re supposed to pay. If these were of enough value that you could get in trouble for not paying them, then it would contribute to it being a full action. But, again, just because it’s not a full action doesn’t mean there is no detrimental effect from it. If something is owned by both you and someone else, and you take it just for yourself, it’s not a complete action of stealing because it already partly belongs to you. If somebody has lost something, but they haven’t given it to you, and you take it for your own—“Finders keepers losers weepers”—then it is taking what hasn’t been freely given to us.

Then the first part of it being a complete intention is identifying the object correctly. You steal what you intended to. An incomplete intention would be, for example, if someone gave you something and you forgot that it was given to you and you didn’t return it. Then you didn’t have the intention to steal. It would be something like that. If you borrowed ten dollars, and you forgot how much you borrowed, so you only repaid five, again, that’s not complete because you forgot. You didn’t have the intention to steal. 

The second part of that is having that intention, and then the third part is one of the three poisons being present. Which one of the three poisons do we usually associate with taking what hasn’t been freely given? Attachment, okay? That’s easy to think of, but it can also be done out of anger. An example would be plundering the wealth of the enemy. You’re angry at an enemy, so you go in and you take all their stuff. It can also be done out of ignorance, because in some different religions they may think if somebody is old, it’s okay to take their things. 

Or maybe you think that stealing isn’t negative. Or perhaps you have some kind of really defiant attitude thinking there is nothing wrong with cheating on your taxes because “The government taxing people to start with isn’t fair.” Or it might be something like cheating people in a business deal and thinking it’s completely okay to do that. That could be a combination of confusion or ignorance and also greed. Or sometimes people may think that because they are a holy person or renunciate, it’s okay for them to take things that belong to other people. Or many times we think, “Well, I’m working for this company. They don’t pay me enough, so it’s okay if I charge my personal meals on the company’s charge card or if I take things from the office to use for my own personal needs.” So, stuff that actually belongs to the company we use for ourselves without asking permission. That could be, again, ignorance and attachment involved.

Then for the action, sometimes stealing is done by threatening someone with force, through a show of power, like a robber might do. Sometimes it’s by stealth; you just go in and take it. Sometimes it’s by cheating someone, having a fraudulent transaction, using faulty weights and measurements, borrowing something and then deliberately not returning it and hoping the other person forgets about it. Borrowing something and then thinking, “Well, this person should have given it to me anyway, so I’m not going to return it.” We have a lot of ideas like this, don’t we? I mean, the way we rationalize stuff can be pretty creative. Then, the conclusion of the action is that we think, “Now this object belongs to me.”

For monastics, if an offering is distributed and you take it two times without having the right to have more of it than others, it’s considered stealing. Giving someone a fine in excess of what they should be fined is also stealing. Obliging someone to give money through sweet-talking them or by coercing them so that they feel obliged to give it, that’s also considered stealing. If we steal something and then later regret it and pay the person back, it’s still a completed action of stealing, but, of course, it’s going to be less weighty, because we’ve paid them back for it and whatever afterward.

Unwise or unkind sexual behavior

The third physical non virtuous action is unwise or unkind sexual behavior. I’m not going to teach this according to how it’s usually taught because it’s my personal opinion that this one depends a lot on the particular culture you’re in as to what is considered unwise and unkind. For example, in Tibetan culture, a woman having more than one husband is completely okay. In some Arab cultures, a man having more than one wife is considered okay. There’s that kind of cultural difference. 

Here the object is having sex with someone who is celibate, or someone who is in the custody of their parents. This would include a child. There’s no kind of break-off point, but you can reasonably think a child, a teenager, or someone who is naive, who doesn’t understand what’s going on, would be non virtuous. That would be the object. Also, if you’re in a relationship, then engaging with someone outside your relationship, or, if you’re single, having sex with somebody who’s in another relationship.

So, you identify the object: you have sex with whoever it is you intended to, and this has to be a person who you shouldn’t be having sex with. It’s not including your spouse. It’s not including consensual sexual relationships. But now there is a whole big discussion about what consensual means. On college campuses now there is this whole thing of, “yes means yes,” and “no means no,” and if you’re not specific enough, then it’s not consensual.

Then, second, you have to have the intention to do it, and third is that usually unwise or unkind sexual behavior is done with attachment. It could be done with anger; for example, raping the enemy’s spouses or children. Here, they put that under the action of unwise and unkind sexual behavior, but in modern times, many people consider that to be more violence in general, rather than sexual misconduct. It’s kind of both. Ignorance would be thinking that having sex is a very high spiritual practice or thinking that it’s very chic to have extramarital affairs and that it is completely okay, as long as nobody finds out. It’s that kind of attitude. Then the complete action is having sexual intercourse. That’s the action, and then the completion of the action is having some feeling of pleasure from it.

This is one action of the seven non virtues of body and speech. The other six, if you tell someone  else to do it, can be a complete action that you accumulate the karma for. This one, telling somebody else to have sex with someone, won’t be a complete one because if you are not having delight in it, it isn’t fulfilled. In this one, they never talk anything about, for example, STD’s, and nowadays that’s a big topic. It’s a big issue. So, I would include in this non virtuous action having unprotected sex. If you know that you carry some disease and have unprotected sex, or even if you don’t think you have something, but you’re not sure, and you haven’t discussed it with your partner, a case where you could pass on an STD to another person—that would definitely fall under unwise and unkind sexual behavior.

Also, using a person just for your own sexual pleasure. This is very touchy because in one way you could say, “Well, it’s consensual. They consented.” But in another way, if you know they have a different motivation than you do—maybe your motivation is just the pleasure, and you know that they’re developing some fondness for you and some emotional affection, but you don’t have any of that for them; you just want the sexual pleasure, and you don’t care if they’re getting attached to you, and they get hurt because of it—to me that’s unkind. I would consider that unkind sexual behavior.

I don’t think this idea of, “If it feels good, do it,” and “If nobody finds out about it, it’s okay,” is a very good rationale. You can ask John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and a number of other politicians what they think about this. I hope most of them learned their lesson. Recently, the governor of South Carolina went to Argentina to see his lover, and his staff was telling people he was off walking the Appalachian Trail. [laughter] That’s a good one, isn’t it? It’s these kinds of things where you’re going to cause havoc in your own relationship, or cause havoc in somebody else’s relationship, that are unwise. A lot of times people think, “Well, nobody else will find out.” But I can’t tell you the number of people who come to me and say, “You know, when I was a kid, I knew mom or dad, or whoever it was, was having an affair.” You think your kids don’t know, but your kids know. It just really kind of makes a mess in relationships. Don’t follow my generation’s lead on that.


The fourth non virtuous action is lying. This is denying something that we know is true, or claiming as true something that we know to be false. It’s knowingly misleading others by giving wrong information, purposely giving people bad advice because we want to harm them, or giving them wrong teachings because we’re jealous. We don’t want them to know and become a better teacher than us. It’s also inventing faults to slander others, and, of course, our favorite: little white lies. All of these are included in lying. 

The object is a human being other than yourself who is capable of understanding, in human speech, when you lie. The heaviest objects we lie to, of course, are bodhisattvas, our spiritual mentors, and our parents. Bodhisattvas and spiritual mentors because they are objects of refuge and they guide us on the path, and our parents because of their kindness. How many of us have not lied to our parents? So, that’s the object. If you lie to your cat or if you lie to someone who doesn’t understand the language you’re speaking, it’s not a full action. [laughter] We could say, “Maitri, I’ll give you three cans of cat food tonight,” and it would be completely okay. Well, that just means it’s not a complete action. It doesn’t mean it’s okay. Maitri and Karuna will still know. “Three cans of cat food? Hmmm. Pay up.”

Then the second part of lying is having the complete intention: recognizing that what you’re about to say doesn’t accord with the truth. You clearly realize that what you’re going to say is not true, and you’ve purposely altered the truth. Then, the second part of that is that you intend to distort the truth. And the third part is having one of the three poisons. So, of the three poisons, which one do you think is usually involved with lying? It’s very often attachment, isn’t it? We want something, or we want to protect our reputation. It can also be out of anger. We want to deceive our enemies; we want to ruin someone’s reputation because we’re angry at them, so we make up lies about them. Or we’re really angry or jealous of somebody at work and we want them to make a mistake, so we give them wrong information so that they make a mistake. Then ignorance would be, for example, thinking that it’s really amusing to lie or that there’s nothing wrong with lying. 

I’ve lived in a number of different cultures, and I’ve always marveled that different cultures have different definitions of lying. In Tibetan and Chinese culture, very often saying that you’ll do something, even though you have no intention of doing it, is not considered a lie. It’s considered good manners: you don’t want to disappoint someone, you don’t want to ruin someone’s reputation, you don’t want to hurt their feelings, and so that’s not considered lying in those cultures. But in our culture, those things, even with those good motivations, are definitely considered lying. Somebody calls on the phone, and a family member answers, and you don’t want to talk to that person, so you say, “Tell them I’m not home.” Nowadays, people don’t have the opportunity to lie like that so much; they just don’t answer their phone or text back, and then they lie directly saying, “My phone was turned off,” even though it wasn’t and they got the text. But a lot of these little white lies, I really don’t understand why people do them. My feelings wouldn’t be hurt if someone said, “Sorry, I can’t meet you on that day. I have another plan.” Or if someone said, “This isn’t a good time for me to talk,” that’s fine. Just tell me the truth. It’s okay. This thing about lying like that really puzzles me, because when I find out about it afterward, about these little white lies, then it really makes me lose faith in the other person.

So, those are the three motivations of lying. Then the actual action can be with words or gestures or in writing. The worst kind of lie is lying about spiritual attainments. That’s the worst kind of lie because people get the wrong idea about you and think you have spiritual realizations or spiritual powers that you don’t have, and it’s very, very detrimental for other people. We should never, ever lie about our spiritual capacities.

Sometimes lying is just for our own well being. Sometimes it’s to harm others. Sometimes we type it. Sometimes we speak it. Sometimes we make a gesture. Sometimes we just think it’s humorous to lie. I notice with some of my teachers, often when they’re joking, they will say something, and then they’ll clarify afterward: “Joking.” Sometimes it happens that you’re joking and the other person doesn’t realize it, so they take it seriously, and they get really offended and really hurt. So, if we’re joking, we need to be careful if what we’re saying is not true, in a joke, that either we clarify, “Oh, I’m joking,” or that it’s so completely obvious, and you can tell by the other person’s expression that they understand that you’re joking, and they don’t take it seriously.

The completion of the action is that the other person understands you, and they believe you. If they don’t believe you or they don’t understand what you’re saying, then it becomes idle talk rather than lying. But again, I really wonder sometimes why people lie because if someone lies to me, I think, “What? They don’t trust me to be able to handle the truth?” Somebody pointed out that actually they’re not trusting themselves to be able to handle the truth. But I’ve had people lie to me about different things and then I find out afterward, and I think, “Hey, you could have told me the truth. I can handle knowing this. You don’t need to cover it up.” I often don’t understand why people lie. Also, when there’s lying, there’s always double trouble because there’s the initial action you did, then there’s the lie you told. Our politicians know about this. 

I wonder what would have happened if Bill Clinton had said, “Yes, I had sex with that woman.” I mean, think how many millions of dollars the country would have saved. This was the one scandal that everybody could understand. It was like public amusement. While it was going on, I was doing a three-month retreat. So, before I entered retreat this was going on, and when I came out after the retreat, it was still going on. I wonder what would have happened if he had said, “Yes, I had sex with that woman. I’m sorry. It was a stupid thing to do.” I don’t think you can impeach someone for having sex like that. 

Audience: [inaudible] 

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): I don’t think you can impeach someone for having sex like that, right? The impeachment was because of the lie, wasn’t it? The lying always creates so many more problems. There’s the initial action, and then there’s perjury, when you lie on the stand, and you get charged for that. So, I don’t know. I think it’s very interesting. Spend some time on this during retreat. It might even be good to have a discussion group on it. Look back at your lies and wonder, “Why did I lie? What did I think I was going to get out of lying? What did I think I would not get because I lied?” 

Somebody’s going to say, “Well, what happens if someone comes up here and there’s a hunter with a rifle who says, ‘Where did the deer go? I want to kill them, or where did so and so go? I’m really angry, and I want to kill him.’” Clearly you don’t say, “Well, just over there.” I mean, come on. You protect life as much as you can. Lying here refers to your getting some personal gain out of it. In many situations, you can just change the topic, or you say something that makes nonsense, or you do something else in order to protect somebody if clearly someone wants to harm them.

Divisive Speech

Then the fifth non virtue is divisive speech. This is separating others by speaking the truth or by lying, and causing disunity and bad feelings amongst other people. Here the object is people who are friendly with each other and you want to get them to be unfriendly with each other.  Maybe you’re jealous of their friendship, or your partner is friendly with someone else—you don’t like that and you’re jealous—so you want to separate them. Or it could be two people who are already not on good terms and you want to make sure they don’t reconcile. The heaviest here is causing division in the Sangha community or causing division between a teacher and a student—between a spiritual teacher and a disciple.

The second part, the complete intention, is recognizing the parties involved that you want to cause division and disharmony between—people or groups. You have the intention to destroy their friendship, to stir up trouble, or to cause disunity. If you don’t have that intention to cause problems between the people, but your speech has that effect, then it’s idle talk. It’s not divisive speech.

Which of the three poisons do you usually associate with this one? Usually it’s anger. We’re mad at someone. We have to be very careful about. We’re mad at someone, so we want other people on our side. Say you’re in an office, and you’re mad at someone. You think, “I’m going to talk to the other people in the office about how bad so and so is and what so and so did, because then all these people will be on my side against so and so.” We’re deliberately trying to create disharmony.

Sometimes we’re not trying to create disharmony. We’re more venting. We think, “I’m really upset about something, and I just want to blah and criticize someone. ‘You’ll never guess what this person did? I’m so fed up.’” But we have to check whether we’re venting or whether there’s a part of our mind that wants the other person to join in with us and think poorly of another. A lot of times, who do we vent to? We vent to our friends, and what do we expect of our friends? They’re supposed to side with us. So, I vent to them. I’m venting, but I also want them to think poorly of this other person and be on my side. That’s not so good. It just creates a lot of division amongst people and results in people feeling bad about other people and mistrust and so on.

Sometimes, if you’re really upset and you need to talk to somebody, you need to say, “Look, I know I’m venting, so please don’t think badly of the other person, but I just need to vent for a minute, and then maybe you can help me learn to handle my anger.” There, if you really clarify, “Hey, I need to vent. Don’t think poorly of the other person,” it’s not going to be as strong as if you are really trying to turn someone else’s opinion against the other person. This could be dangerous. It happens in offices. It happens in families. It happens in monasteries. You can do it by telling the truth or by lying. You might think, “Well, I’m just telling the truth by saying what this person did.” But if your intention is to get them in trouble and you want everybody else to dislike them, that’s not so good. If your intention is, “There is a problem here, and I need to bring it to the attention of the boss or the community, so I’m bringing it up,” then it’s not divisive speech because your intention is to solve a problem.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Venting is divisive speech unless you qualify that beforehand with, “Look, I know I’m angry, and I’m owning my anger, but I just need a chance to say something right now and have somebody hear it. But I know I’m angry, so don’t think badly of the other person. I just need to get this off my chest.”

Also, dividing people is usually done out of anger because you want something either out of jealousy or out of attachment. For example, there is a couple, and you want to have a relationship with one member of the couple, so you badmouth the other member to cause division and then that person will become good friends with you. We do that one, too, out of attachment, don’t we? Then out of ignorance, it could be thinking that we’re going to cause disunity among people in a certain group because we think, somehow, we’re helping them even though we’re not helping them.

The actual action is causing disunity among friends or preventing people who aren’t getting along from reconciling. If we know that saying something true is going to cause one person to have bad feelings for another, then unless our motivation is something positive to help one of the people involved or to bring to light a difficulty in a group, then we shouldn’t say, “Well, I’m just telling the truth about so and so, and I just want everybody to know,” when our actual intention is to ruin that person’s reputation. This can often happen out of jealousy. We’re jealous of someone. Someone has something that we wish we had and we don’t want them to have it, so we tell other people bad things about them so that they’ll think badly of the other person. Then we think, “Well, that person’s out of the way. Now the person whose attention I want will pay attention to me or they’ll give something to me,” or whatever it is. 

Causing disunity can be done by a forceful expression of something. You just blurt something out. Sometimes it’s done in a calm voice, but your intention is really nasty. Sometimes you go behind someone else’s back, and you tell another person something nasty about that person. Or sometimes you can do it even in a meeting. There could be a meeting at work or a meeting between people and you just say something nasty about somebody to get everybody to turn. It doesn’t have to be behind their back; it could also be in the presence of that person. You can do it by saying, “So and so said this about blank,” or “This person said something about that person.” 

Maybe this person vents to you about what that person did, but you’re thinking, “Oh, it would benefit me if they didn’t get along so well.” So then you take what this person told you when they were venting and you go to that person and say, “Do you know what so and so said about you? I’m your really good friend who’s telling you so you’ll know that this other person is a nasty person.” But your intention is to cause division. If your intention is that there has been some misunderstanding between people and it needs to be corrected, then you might go to someone else and say, “Oh, I heard so and so say this. I know it’s not true. I think it’s good if you go and talk with them so that there isn’t a misunderstanding.” Then you’re actually trying to create harmony, not disharmony. Then the completion of the action is, again, other people understand what you’re saying and they believe it.

Harsh Words

Then the sixth non virtue is harsh words and abusive language. This includes sarcasm, jokes intended to hurt other people, insulting people, ridiculing them, swearing, making fun of them, picking at them. It’s anything that is going to hurt somebody else’s feelings. So, it might be calling people names, joking about something that you know they’re sensitive about, screaming at someone because they did something you don’t like. 

The object is a sentient being who’s hurt by our words. It could actually be a physical object: we’re just so mad at the weather, or we say, “I’m so mad at my computer, I could throw it across the room.” You’re saying harsh words to your computer. Your computer doesn’t understand, so it’s not a complete action. “This computer isn’t working just when I’m in a hurry.” The heaviest is harsh words towards your spiritual teacher.

The second part, the complete intention, is first to recognize the person you want to hurt: “I want to hurt so and so’s feelings.” Then you go for it. You intend to speak those words. You intend to hurt their feelings or you intend to humiliate them. You intend to make them feel inferior. You intend to offend them. This is not talking about situations where we have no intention to offend someone but they do get offended, or we have no intention of making someone feel left out but they feel left out. Here, you need to have that negative intention.

Which of the three poisons is this one usually? It’s usually anger. It can also be done by attachment. For example, you’re with a certain group of people and you want to be accepted by that group of people, so you join in making fun of so and so. We usually attribute this behavior to teenagers. Unfortunately, as adults we still act like teenagers, and we do it, too. You want to be accepted by a group of people at work, for example, so you join in making someone a scapegoat, or making fun of someone, teasing them, hurting their feelings. And it’s done out of attachment because we want to fit in with this group of people. It can also be done through ignorance; for example, thinking that we’re being very clever. “Look how clever I am. I can give all these insults with such wit.” That can be the motivation. 

Then, the third factor, the action itself—speaking the words—again, it can be true words or it can be untrue words. This action can be both harsh words and lying, or it could be just the one or just the other. Sometimes we do it face to face. “I want to humiliate someone, so I scold them in front of a group,” or “I want to humiliate them so I call them names in front of a group,” or “We’re having a meeting, and I want to hurt someone’s feelings by pointing out the mistake they made, so I point that out at the meeting in front of everyone so that this person feels quite embarrassed.” There are many ways to have harsh words.

When ignorance is the motivation, another thing could be the way we tease children because we think it’s so cute as adults to make fun of kids. “Oh, Johnny still believes in the boogeyman. Johnny’s still peeing in his pants.” It’s thinking that it’s so cute to embarrass a child or to ridicule a child when it really deeply hurts their feelings.

Then here, too, the completion is that the other person understands what we say and believes that we mean it. The action isn’t complete if you’re screaming at your car or at your computer or some inanimate object. Unless Siri talks back to you. [laughter] Maybe Siri says, “Do not scream at me.”

Idle Talk

Then the seventh non virtuous action is idle talk. This one is a huge obstacle to spiritual practice. That’s why the retreat is going to be silent—because some of our talk. For example, we’ll have a discussion session, and that will be really valuable because we’re talking about something meaningful, but so often our talk is just idle talk. You come to a retreat, and you don’t know anybody, so you start talking: “Here’s my identity. Here’s what I like. Here’s what I don’t like. Here’s what I do as my occupation. Blah, blah.” We are creating an identity; amusing people; showing people how smart we are, how witty, how humorous; and bolstering our ego, basically. It becomes a huge distraction when you’re trying to develop a spiritual practice because we can waste hours and hours in idle talk.

The object is something that has no real meaning or importance, but you treat it as if it were very meaningful and very important. Then the second factor, the intention, is that you actually think  this is very meaningful and important. You can complete this one by talking to yourself. [laughter] Unlike the other non virtues of speech that require another person who you’re talking to, you can do this one to yourself.

You need to have the intention to chatter because of carelessness. What affliction is usually associated? Very often it’s ignorance. We just feel there’s nothing wrong with it. Sometimes it’s attachment because we just want to make ourselves look good. Sometimes it’s anger because we want to disturb someone to prevent them from accomplishing something. We’re mad at someone, and we want to obstruct them by just chattering to them.

The action itself is unnecessarily speaking words. Here, I think, our motivation is very important because very clearly, it doesn’t mean every conversation you have with someone has to be something of great meaning and importance. Sometimes at work you’re chit-chatting with people, or you chit-chat at the grocery store or at the bank or wherever you’re going, because it creates a good, friendly relationship. That’s not considered idle talk, as long as you clearly know what you’re doing: “I’m talking out of friendliness because I want to be friendly and make this person feel good and help to establish some connection with them.” 

With people at work, you chit-chat about this or that; we also chit-chat with strangers, or when you’re on the phone because you have to call someone to ask them a question. You call Amazon to return a book you don’t like and instead of scolding them, you say, “Thank you very much for helping me. How are you? What country are you in?” [laughter] Whenever I have to call for assistance with the computer, I find it very interesting to ask them, “Where are you from?” I wouldn’t call that idle talk because you’re doing it for a purpose, but here we’re talking about just blab blabbing for the sake of blab blabbing. 

It could be things that are true. It could be things that are not true. It could be, sometimes, telling myths, telling legends, praying for terrible things to happen to people, reading erroneous texts out loud to give people wrong ideas and distorted views. It could be something like that. It could be worldly stories: “Guess what so and so did?” So, this is just gossiping, joking. Again, if you’re doing it for a purpose and you’re clear about that, it’s not idle talk, but, otherwise, it’s just gossip, a joke, talking about politics. You can have a serious conversation about politics and you can have a dumb conversation about politics. It could be talking about sales—where is the cheapest place to buy this kind of this or that—and spending hours doing this.

Do you know what people spend a long time talking about? Food. “What did you eat last night? How did you make it? Where did you go to eat? What are we going to order?” Have you ever noticed when people go out to eat, they spend an incredible amount of time talking about what to order. I don’t think it’s just my family. Even when they’re going to do takeout, you have to start the ordering a half an hour before you intend to place the order. “What are you going to have? What are you going to have? Maybe you want to do it. I had this last time. It wasn’t so good. I feel like having this. I wonder if we can have this, but without that ingredient in it. Last time I asked about it, but I don’t know if you feel like doing it, and this restaurant is actually better, so maybe we should get takeout from that restaurant. How much are we going to order because maybe we want to go for chocolate covered bananas afterward.” People spend hours talking about food.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: It can also be bickering, speaking behind someone’s back, or being argumentative. A lot  of times people get a big kick out of bickering. People who have been married a long time, that’s how they communicate. They just bicker. It’s just a habit. It’s like arguing, but over petty, petty things, very stupid things. Instead of being polite to each other, it’s just like picking at each other. This also could be speaking behind someone’s back, being argumentative, reciting prayers and liturgies from other religions. That can be idle talk if you’re saying something you don’t believe in, and it’s not for a good reason. It could be repeating jingles and slogans; this happens a lot in our meditation actually. [laughter] One person came here who did a three-year retreat and she was telling me that all these jingles from when she was a little kid came up. “The ants are marching two by two, hooray, hooray.” “A horse is a horse, of course, of course.” All these kinds of things. Now I just planted seeds for something. [laughter] What other ones do you remember? Mickey Mouse: “M.I.C.K.E.Y”

Idle talk can also be complaining and grumbling. “Oh, yeah, that’s what I have to do today. This person, they’re bugging me again and they’re on my back again. I didn’t do my chore. I’m only three weeks late. Why are they complaining about it again? They need to do their chores on time, too. Who is this person? Why are they reminding me to do my chore? I did it five weeks ago. It’s okay. This is perfectly clean. That’s just a little bit of dirt. Well, maybe not a little bit, but now the road has changed, so actually it’s somebody else’s job to clean. They should go complain to that person who’s now on the road.” 

Idle talk could be joking, being silly, singing, humming, whistling for no reason, speaking like a drunk or a crazy person, speaking stupidly, talking in connection with the five wrong livelihoods, hinting at people to give you something, or flattering people so they’ll give you something. It’s this kind of talk. It could be telling stories and gossiping about government leaders, celebrities, what is written in People magazine. It might be talking about wars, or talking about crime when we’re unable to affect or improve the situation. It’s just being a busybody, talking about what everybody else is doing. It can be any of that.

Then the completion is actually expressing the words out loud and someone understands. Well actually, for this one, someone doesn’t even have to understand you because the most serious thing about idle talk is just distracting someone who’s practicing the Dharma. So, we don’t do that, do we? We don’t go to somebody and tell them our problem for three hours. One of my teachers said, “There is no time limit on appointments.” I think people go in and they just talk and talk and talk and talk, and at the end he says, “Then?” Meaning, “So what?” But we all know what it’s like to be with someone who just yak-yak-yaks when we would rather be doing something else. We never think of ourselves as that person who yaks, yaks, yaks and disrupts someone else’s time.

I’m going to leave a little bit of time for Q and A. There are still three more. We’ll do those next three next Friday.

Questions & Answers

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: What’s the impact of my behavior of doing all these actions, even if they don’t seem initially terribly serious ones? If they are things that are complete actions, and we’ve had a strong motivation for doing them, or we’ve done them many times, or we’ve done them in relationship to our parents or spiritual teachers, or the poor and the needy, something like that, then the potential of the action to bring a rebirth gets increased. We’ll talk about the results later on, but in general, full and complete actions bring a maturation result, which is the rebirth you take. They bring a result that is concordant with the cause, which has two branches. One is you tend to do the same action again. The other part of that is whatever you did to someone else, there is the tendency for someone else now to do it to you, and then it also ripens in the environment that you’re living in.

All these things influence what we experience in our life. We’re always thinking, “Well, why does this happen to me?” The basic reason is, “I created the cause.” If it’s something unpleasant, it is because we did something that is in some way related to one of these ten. If we are having happy results, we did something related to the opposite of the non virtues. Knowing about this is very helpful because this way we know we can create our future now, depending on what we say and do and think. If we don’t want to have suffering in the future, stop doing the things that create the causes of suffering. If we want to have happiness in the future, start doing the things that create the causes for that.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Someone is terminally ill and they want to kill themselves. They are not asking you to help them, but they’re asking you to sit with them during the dying process? It’s a difficult thing because on one hand, you’re not directly killing them. On the other hand, would they do that action if you weren’t there? It’s not like you have the motivation to kill them, certainly not. I think in that kind of situation, instead of getting into the technicalities about karma, if you don’t feel comfortable being with someone while they’re killing themselves, then you say, “I’m really sorry; I don’t feel comfortable being with you when you do this. It would be very, very difficult for me to sit there and watch you do this. I couldn’t do it with a clear conscience or I couldn’t do it with a peaceful mind.” 

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Idle talk is very expensive, and we do a lot of it.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: What are you doing exactly: idle talk mostly and goofing off? Oh, just out loud you’re going, “…da, da, da, da, da.” It’s a good thing to become mindful of that because the people around you may not want to be hearing that. In the meditation hall, if someone pokes you, you might be going, “…da, da, da, da, da,” and not be aware of it. It’s helpful just to become aware of that stuff and to also become aware of when things are going round and round in our mind, when we’re humming or chanting things. It’s not necessarily super negative, but our mind is just filled with blah blah. This is verbally talking to yourself; it’s not thinking about things. We do talk to ourselves.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: If a terminally ill patient requests euthanasia and the doctor does that, is it negative karma? Yes. Actually, what’s quite interesting is that in our monastic precepts, the precept to abandon killing, one of the root precepts, resulted from a situation of some people asking others to kill them. Even if it’s that kind of situation, killing is still a broken precept for a monastic to do that. It’s a defeat. It’s a negative action to do that. Of course, it’s different than killing someone out of anger, but it’s still killing.

When it comes to euthanizing pets, why do we do it? We say it’s to put them out of suffering, but we don’t know where they’re going to be reborn. Usually, it’s because we can’t stand to see their suffering, so it’s to end our suffering. We’ve had two cats here die. Both of them died during retreats and the thought never entered our minds to euthanize them. Someone mentioned afterwards about that, and I was so surprised, because it never even came into my mind. They died with everybody in the retreat around and knowing and saying prayers out loud and praying for them and everything.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: If you have the intention to harm someone, and that person’s practicing the Dharma so their feelings don’t get hurt, I still think it’s a complete action, because you have that intention and you want to do it. The other person is protecting themselves by not getting hurt, but the main thing in doing actions is your intention, not the other person’s response. If we steal from someone, even if the other person hears about that and then gives us the object, still we created the negative action of stealing unless they gave it to us before we consider it ours. The main thing is coming from us. In terms of killing, yes, it has to be the other person dying before us. The main thing is us—our mind.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: They always talk about, for example, getting angry and criticizing a bodhisattva or insulting a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, from their side, is not going to get offended or angry, but we sure create a ton of negative karma from that.

I think you have something to meditate on this week, and then we’ll get into the three speech ones next week: the mental non virtues. Thank you.

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.