Okay. We know we should be more mindful of our own speech, sure. But what about when rumors are flying about you, or someone is spreading gossip and it’s hurting your reputation? What should you do then?
There is a beautiful Buddhist text dating back to the fourteenth century known as the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Bodhi can be translated from Sanskrit as “open” or “awake” while sattva can be translated as “being,” so it is an open-hearted being. A meditation master known as Ngulchu Thogme composed these verses so that we could live a full life with open hearts, in order to be helpful to those around us. Many of these practices revolve around applying virtue to even the toughest of our everyday situations. For example:
Should someone slander you
Throughout a billion worlds,
With a heart full of love, to proclaim his good qualities in return
Is the practice of a Bodhisattva.
When we hear that someone says something even remotely negative about us, our initial instinct may be to harden our hearts and retaliate. You might think, “That jerk. I trusted them and now they’re spreading all these lies and gossip about me.” Armed with an iPhone, you can be three texts deep accusing them before you even know you’re reacting negatively. So when you find yourself the victim of other peoples’ mindless speech, it’s a good time to put your meditation training to work and pause before responding.
It’s important to realize that you have complete control over how you work with your speech, but zero control over what comes out of the mouths of others. Let’s say you date someone for a while, break it off, try to be extremely kind in the break-up, and walk away wishing that person well. You vow not to say a mean word about them. You’re feeling pretty good about yourself, acting like a deeply spiritual breaker-upper.
Then your ex posts on social media that you’re a [insert your least favorite quality about yourself + your favorite expletive]. He may as well have slandered you throughout a billion worlds. In Ngulchu Thogme’s days you had to go tell people gossip in-person. It took forever to slander someone across a neighborhood, much less a billion worlds. Now, with a click of a button, you can say something extremely negative about someone on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail, and text—all within a minute—and literally reach thousands of people instantaneously. This is, of course, why we should always examine how we use our speech in ways that are beneficial or, at the very least, in ways that aren’t harming others.
When we fall prey to gossip and slander, Ngulchu Thogme suggests we take a beat, examine the situation, and respond instead with kindness. What else can we do? Comment on everything they post, trying to correct other people’s perceptions? Release a newsletter with the subject line “I’m not a smelly loser”? Get on a rooftop with a megaphone and tell everyone that you’re not the jerk, he is? That just makes us look bad, and spins the wheels of aggression ever further. We can’t expect to come off looking good when we act in vengeful ways.
When we are able to pause a moment and not immediately react to slander, we might see just how incredibly attached we are to having a “good” reputation. For example, as a Buddhist teacher I enjoy when people think well of me. That said, I also have many foibles and make mistakes from time to time. When someone speaks ill of me, whether they are correct or not, I could get very hurt. But it’s not me that’s hurt when that happens, it’s my ego, my inflated sense of who I am. It’s my reputation that takes a blow, and one’s reputation does not (spoiler alert) equal happiness.
There is an old Chinese proverb: “Slander cannot destroy an honest man; when the flood recedes the rock is there.” In other words, even if someone attacks your reputation, if you remain strong and trust in your own goodness, then when the gossip dies down people will see that you continue to live in a virtuous way. The floodwater of slander drops a bit and you remain unchanged; you are still a kind, decent human being. There is something trustworthy about a person who can do that, remain patient in the midst of being attacked and people are magnetized to individuals who remain calm and unperturbed in those situations.
Related: The Glass is Already Broken
In these types of verses we are invited to view whoever is wronging us not as an enemy but as a teacher to help us work with our own mind. Here we can look at our pride and attachment to people speaking well of us. Our slanderer could even be considered a friend who helps us get over ourselves, deflating our pride and ego. In that way, we may even be able to feel gratitude for him and speak well of him overall.
To return to the previous example, if your ex yells about how horrible you are and you remain unperturbed, who looks bad? Him or you? Very likely, if you stand your ground over time and the level of slander recedes, it will be him. Imagine then how amazed everyone (including the ex) would be if you could then find the room in your heart to forgive him, just a little bit, and mention even one kind thing about him.
When we are wronged by other people’s mindless speech, we can kick and fight and scream about how they are wrong, or we can show how decent a person we truly are. Actions speak louder than words, and if we follow Ngulchu Thogme’s advice we end up feeling refreshed, with a heart full of love and a renewed confidence that we can remain resilient even against the worst barbs people throw at us.