In the catalog of Super Villains, Slander has an impressive visage (or visages, since slander has so many faces). I’m imagining Slander as an imposing figure: clad in brazen armor, perhaps, standing upon scorched earth, sneering; humanoid (since I doubt there’s a person alive who’s never slandered, at least amongst those who have achieved the power of speech), but insectoid as well, as befits something so pestilential. So maybe it wears the iridescent carapace of a dung beetle, and you can’t really discern its eyes…because that’s the nature of slander. Slander is a coward. Inside that hard and shiny surface is a dark, shriveled thing that feeds on heaps of lies and misery. And the touch of slander is poison…
Um, to dial it back a bit, the legal definition of slander can be found here: http://definitions.uslegal.com/s/slander/ It is “the oral communication of false statements that are harmful to a person’s reputation. If the statements are proven to be true, it is a complete defense to a charge of slander. Oral opinions that don’t contain statements of fact don’t constitute slander. Slander is an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation. Slander is a subcategory of defamation.” However, slander in Buddhism is much, much more encompassing. How many of us have said something negative to or about someone “for their own good”? Perhaps it was even true; at least, we perceived it as being true. Not slander, you might think…but you would be wrong, from a Buddhist if not a legal standpoint.
In his writing “The Fourteen Slanders”, Nichiren, quoting an unnamed scholar, lists fourteen ‘evil causes’, grouping them under the term slander. (To read “The Fourteen Slanders” in its entirety, see http://tinyurl.com/d4koclg. It’s extremely poetic and evocative.) They are as follows: (1) arrogance, (2) negligence, (3) wrong views of the self, (4) shallow understanding, (5) attachment to earthly desires, (6) not understanding, (7) not believing, (8) scowling with knitted brows, (9) harboring doubts, (10) slandering, (11) despising, (12) hating, (13) envying, and (14) bearing grudges.
Well. I think I can accurately state that at one time or another, I’ve managed to cover all fourteen (though probably not all at once)! Some of them seem straightforward enough. Take arrogance: if you read my post “Seeing the Elephant”, in which I discuss the concept of the Ten Worlds, you might gather that arrogance is an expression of the world of Anger. Since we’re talking about evil causes, let’s go with the idea that we’re not dealing with the enlightened aspect of anger. No, this would be the kind of anger that flares up when some complete idiot is clearly incapable of understanding that my reasoned, fact-based argument is far superior to his moronic blathering on the issue. See how easy that was?! That my argument may indeed be correct is not the issue; it’s the attitude I have toward the other person that allows it to become an evil cause, and as long as I have that attitude, the odds are entirely against me being able to change his mind. All I’m doing is convincing him that I’m the jerk/moron/asshole.
Negligence? Why, I can do that too! All it takes is a little inertia…add a soupçon of not caring…a dash of can’t be bothered with that right now…and I’m tripping down the evil paths once again. That friend who called me a few days ago…that thing I was supposed to do for work…that promise I made to myself that I kept for about a week and then decided was too much trouble…again, all too easy. Sigh…
Moving right along to “wrong views of the self”…a Buddhist believes that everyone possesses the Buddha nature. But even if I manage to believe that most other people have that potential for enlightenment, there’s almost always somebody, somewhere, that defies that belief. Maybe it’s the psycho that tortured a dog. Or the bully that makes me sick to my stomach when I think about having to be in the same room with him. Or maybe it’s not another person at all that I have doubts about; maybe…it’s me. Because even though I try really, really hard not to slander other people, and usually succeed, self-slander is so insidious that I often don’t even realize I’m doing it. The little voice that says things like “you can’t do that” “you’re not capable” “failed again-why try?” is the voice of self-slander, and as long as I’m listening to that I can’t possibly believe that I’m a Buddha of unlimited potential. But it’s more than just self-esteem. All the unearned gold stars, blue ribbons, and pats on the back are no substitute for a real sense of accomplishment. It’s no less wrong to have an inflated sense of self; for example, my inner voice might just as well be saying things like “you’re so smart, you don’t have to study” “those people have nothing to teach you” “why should you spend any time with losers like that”. Even the most brilliant among us has something to learn, even if it’s only a sense of appreciation for being so gifted (not that that’s a small thing!).
Shallow understanding…been there, done that. Wore out the T-shirt. Easy to be facile, isn’t it? As Nichiren says, “To accept is easy, to continue is difficult. But Buddhahood lies in continuing faith.” I can’t count the times that I’ve heard some bit of wisdom and thought, “Yeah, sure, I get that”, only to realize later (when I could actually apply it to my own life) that I had only the most superficial grasp of its meaning.
Attachment to earthly desires…oh, I have lived that one. I hasten to point out that there’s nothing wrong with desire! In fact, Nichiren wrote a letter to one of his foremost disciples, the samurai Shijo Kingo, explaining the principle found in the Lotus Sutra that “earthly desires are enlightenment”. Clearly, the problem lies not in the desires per se, but in the attachment. I haven’t gone so far as to renounce my faith because I prayed for something (or someone!) that I didn’t get, but…let’s just say I’ve done some stupid things along the way, whilst telling myself “Hey, it’s for my enlightenment!” (See: “shallow understanding”…)
Ah, but what’s worse than shallow understanding? How ‘bout…not understanding? Tough one…I may have thought I was, but wasn’t understanding something at all. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist equivalent of sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing “la la la la la la”…i.e., willfully refusing to listen to what one doesn’t understand, without even attempting to grasp the meaning. I’d like to think I’ve never done that, but I’ve probably done it a time or six. And if I didn’t, I’m sure I managed the next one, “not believing”. They do sound a little like fraternal twins, don’t they? “Meet my twins, Not Understanding and Not Believing…they’re inseparable, these two!” (Again, see: “wrong views of the self”)
If these preceding evil causes seemed somewhat vague or not clearly defined, you’ll love the specificity of the next one, “scowling with knitted brow”. You there with the chonmage hair-you, with the gangsta face-you know what I’m talking about. It’s not so much the expression, it’s the attitude it represents. With roots in the world of animality, it’s the ferocious grrrrrr that says to the world you are not prey; you are predator, to be feared. Problem is, the hard shell of invulnerability that you have created for yourself perverts any kind of normal relationship you may want to have, because you are walling off your own heart. That’s why assassins make bad friends. It took me a long time to discover that real strength beats a show of strength every time.
Harboring doubts…it’s natural to have doubts, isn’t it? It’s a human thing. Anyone who’s ever prayed for something, hoped for something, tried something new, done something (so, just about everybody) has probably had at least a moment of doubt: will it happen? will this work? did I do the right thing? even when the evidence is there to indicate probable success. In the realm of faith, we often venture into what seems like completely uncharted territory; even if our prayers have been answered in the past, the small doubt creeps in…will it work this time? Can I do this? If we have not yet had a successful result, the creeping doubt can gain even more of a foothold; i.e., we harbor it. In doing so, we feed the delusions that blind us until we can no longer see a clear path to our objective. The way to combat this tendency is to uproot doubt like a noxious weed before it has a chance to take hold.
Next up in our list of fourteen slanders is…slander. The reason that slander (as in the legal definition, at least for starters) is such an evil cause is that it is a negation of what a Buddhist professes to believe, which is that all living beings possess the Buddha potential. It is simply not possible to slander someone and simultaneously see him/her as a Buddha. This also applies to self-slander. The same holds true for all the remaining evil causes: despising, hating, envying, and holding grudges. And yet…I’ve done every one of those things. Never intending to make an evil cause, perhaps not even aware of doing so, but…I have absolutely despised, hated, and envied. I have held grudges so tightly you’d think I would have to break something to pry them out of my life. And yet…somehow, when I am able at last to let them go, I become more whole.
Throughout my decades of Buddhist practice, I have often slandered others and myself without even realizing it. Or I have somehow justified it, in the name of speaking out against evil, not realizing that I have made an evil cause myself. Because it is essential to our happiness and that of our fellow humans to recognize and combat evil, we must exercise great care not to commit slander. Slander is ineffective as a weapon against evil, because it is itself an evil cause. In his writing “Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment” (http://tinyurl.com/7noeuxc), Nichiren attributed the persecutions to which he was subjected throughout his life to his past slander of the Lotus Sutra, “It was such an august and precious Lotus Sutra that in past existences I put under my knees, despised, scowled upon in disgust, and failed to believe in. In one way or another, I maliciously ridiculed those who, studying the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, taught them to even one person, and carried on the life of the Law.” (The Law he refers to here is the universal Law of Cause and Effect, not any governmental code or statute.)
And yet, he welcomes the persecutions, because had he not been subjected to them, “I might have remained in the three or four evil paths. But now, to my great joy, I am sure to sever the cycle of the sufferings of birth and death, and attain the fruit of Buddhahood.”
Following Nichiren’s example (even though we probably won’t be attacked with swords and staves, exiled to a remote island where few survive, or almost beheaded, as he was), we should seize any opportunity to eliminate slander from our lives. If we do not, we hinder our own enlightenment, and remain imprisoned by our lesser selves. To put it more succinctly, slander destroys benefit. We can pray and chant till the cows come home, but if we continue to complain, doubt, hate, despise, hold grudges, etc., no matter how much we feel justified in doing so, we undo all the good deeds we have done. We must destroy slander…or slander will destroy us.
P.S. After re-reading this post, I wondered if I’d perhaps conveyed the impression that it was dangerous to say anything that might be construed as the slightest bit critical or “negative”, or that I was espousing the dreaded “political correctness” in order to promote peace and light. Not so! Although all life possesses the Buddha aspect, the sad reality is that certain behavior, particularly on the part of humans, can make it extremely difficult to discern. When we encounter evil, or observe someone headed down a destructive path, it is not slander to speak up. What is important is the intention with which we do so. If we are genuinely concerned with fairness, justice, and (ultimately) the happiness of the person or persons concerned, we do not make an evil cause. But if we speak from arrogance, from ego, or to hurt, we do. Instead of combating evil, we have succumbed to it…we starve our “inner Buddha” when we feed the “slander beast”.