beginner’s mind

The power (and pitfalls) of criticism

wrathful deity

From time to time people write to me with interesting questions or observations. Often, the less time they’ve been practicing Buddhism and meditation, the more interesting the questions are. As Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” (I don’t think Suzuki is entirely right here, but he’s certainly not entirely wrong either).

The other day a fellow called Boon wrote to me from England. He’d been reading the Dhammapada, which is one of the most ancient Buddhist texts, written in an archaic form of the Pali language. He’d been wondering about criticism, and its role in spiritual practice. He’d seen passages such as these:

One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.

He who pays attention to the faults of others (and) is always irritable, his defilements grow. He is far from the destruction of the defilements.

Boon correctly understood that what’s been warned against here is getting caught up in criticism based on ill will. Our negative emotions are rather sneaky, and try to take over the more creative aspects of our life. So we take up Buddhist practice, which is about learning to eradicate ill will (plus craving and delusion) from our lives, but our ill will co-opts our spiritual practice. We take spiritual “rules,” and ideas about right and wrong behavior, and instead of using them as tools to help us develop more mindfulness and compassion, use them to judge others. We take the yardstick against which we are to measure our own practice, and use it as a rod to beat others. And so we’re neither mindful nor compassionate. We think we’re being “spiritual” as we criticise others, but really we’re just reinforcing our sense of separateness and superiority. This is the opposite of spiritual practice, disguised as spiritual practice.

But, Boon wondered, does this imply that we should “simply stand aside and watch [others] as they slide down the slippery slope, continuing with their unskilful ways without pointing out their faults or helping them?”

That doesn’t sound very mindful or compassionate either. Once a horse master came to talk to the Buddha and said that when he worked with his horses, sometimes they needed mildness, sometimes they needed harshness, and sometimes they needed both. If a horse reponded neither to mildness nor harshness, then he’d simply destroy the horse.

The Buddha said he did the same with his monks! Some needed encouragement. Some needed criticism. Some needed both. If a monk responded to none of these approaches, then the Buddha would destroy them by refraining from giving feedback at all. What the Buddha meant by this was that someone who isn’t open either to encouragement or to reproof is beyond saving. They’re headed on that slippery slope, and there’s nothing you can do for them. In reality, the Buddha didn’t destroy anyone; people destroy themselves. But we can take from this that it’s spiritually very destructive not to give people criticism when they clearly need it.

Boon said he’d also seen other passages in the Dhammapada suggesting that criticism was spiritually useful.

Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a (buried) treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a wise person. To associate with one like this is good, not evil.

Let him instruct, let him advise, let him restrain (one) from uncivilized behaviour, (and the result will be that) he will be dear to the good and detestable to the bad…”

We need to be open to criticism. What’s clear here is that the criticism that’s being described is coming not from ill will that has co-opted a person’s spiritual life, but from a place of clarity and insight. When someone can see that we’re engaging in actions that will cause suffering for ourselves and for others, then it’s helpful for us if they share their wisdom.

Intent is crucial. If the intent is to be helpful, and comes from genuine compassion, then this is totally different from ego-based criticism that causes separation and a sense of superiority.

Given how hard it is to avoid ill will, I do think we need to be very careful about offering criticism. And we should try using the carrot of encouragement before resorting to the stick of criticism. But sometimes is has to be done, and notions that Buddhism is “non-judgmental” can often be misleading.

The emphasis on the Dhammapada is on receiving criticism, anyway, not on giving it. Compassionate criticism is a blessing that we should be grateful to receive, but when it comes to doling it out, we need to be cautious.

So how can we skillfully give criticism?

  • Remember that your concern is with the wellbeing and happiness of the person you’re talking to. Even if you’re talking to them because they’re causing pain to others, they’re causing themselves pain as well. The aim is not to hurt the other person, or to impose your will on them, but to end up in a state of mutual harmony.
  • Ask permission. If you say, “Do you mind if I make an observation?” the person will be primed to receive your viewpoint, and it won’t come as a random bolt from the blue.
  • Be careful to distinguish facts from value judgements. Let’s say you tell someone they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” because at the speed they’re driving you don’t feel safe. Probably that person thinks they’re being perfectly safe. Presumably they’re not themselves feeling fear as they drive. There’s no point of contact between their experience and yours. They don’t think they’re “irresponsible” or “driving badly” and your criticism just seems like an attack. That’s because you’ve imposed a value judgement on them. What if instead you said, “Actually, I’m feeling anxious travelling at this speed …” [That’s a true statement of fact, not a value judgment.] “…I think I’d feel more relaxed if we were going a bit slower.” [That’s also a fact, not a value judgment].
  • Concentrating on facts (things any neutral observer, even your “opponent” can agree on) also means that you don’t focus on the person, but on actions. You’re not using inflammatory language, where you criticise the person as a whole. You’re just concentrating on one particular facet of their engagement with the world.
  • Know when to back off. When you get heated, or the other person gets heated, it’s time to cool down. At the very least, pause the conversation, even if just for a minute or two, so that both of you have time to regain some composure. When your conversation stops being a discussion and starts being an argument, it’s all become rather pointless. If it’s clear that you’re just going to fight, apologize for bringing up the topic at a bad time, and move on to something else.
  • There’s a lot more to skillful criticism than this, but these are things I’ve found useful. What have you found useful in giving constructive feedback or criticism?

    [Mea culpa: I don’t always have the mindfulness or compassion to practice these hints. That doesn’t detract from any validity they may have.]
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    Muhammad Ali: “Children make you want to start life over.”

    Muhammad Ali

    Probably all of us have looked at a child and wished we could start our lives over again. We can’t erase the past, but can we find a way to start over? Bodhipaksa, Buddhist practitioner of 25 years and a parent for one year, looks at the art of starting afresh.

    I find something touching in the image of Ali, a giant of a man whose career involved a brutally physical sport, looking at a the joy and innocence of a child and wishing to start life over again.

    I’m sure we’ve all had those thoughts — “Wouldn’t it be great if I could go back and erase that error? Wouldn’t it be great if I could erase all those mistakes, make better choices, start over, create a better life?” We all have those moments of regret, of wishing that we could right the wrongs of our past.

    And yet here we are, trapped in this eternally-unfolding present moment. The past is out of reach because it doesn’t exist. Certainly we have memories of past events and an imagination that can visualize our returning to past events and re-running them so that they unfold differently, but those memories and imagined episodes take place of necessity in the present moment. There really is no going back.

    Ultimately those regrets, those desires to create a new past amount to our unhappiness with the present that we find ourselves in — the present that we, and events outside our control, have created. We look at the present, at our circumstances, our feelings of unhappiness, the absence of experiences we desire and the presence of experiences that we would rather not have, and the answer seems to lie in the past. In somehow changing the past. In changing a past that is out of reach and immutable.

    And those feelings or dissatisfaction with the present, of wishing for a different present, can become awakened when we are with a young child. There the child is, full of potential. And children, although by no means blank slates or free from negative emotions, lack many of the unhelpful learned habits that we have accumulated over the years.

    I look at my 14-month-old daughter and I see a being who is completely free from hatred. She has no regrets, no baggage. She doesn’t label herself, doesn’t judge herself. She doesn’t think of herself as being successful or a failure, popular or unpopular, good or bad, rich or poor, lucky or unfortunate.

    And to her everything seems new and fresh. Today’s 20th reading of “Pat the Bunny” or “Barnyard Dance” is as delightful to her as the first (I wish that were the case for her parents). When she falls down she simply picks herself back up. She doesn’t lie there saying “I’ve tried walking. It doesn’t work. I’m just not a walking kind of person.”

    The simplest things are intriguing. She’ll take immense pleasure simply from moving her hands. A leaf picked up on a walk is a world of fascination.

    She has, in short, what Suzuki Roshi called “Beginner’s Mind.” And that’s something we all, certainly at times, want, and even crave.

    There’s no chance, of course, of finding our child-like wonder and freedom from baggage by transporting ourselves back in time and literally starting life over. Such magic is for another universe, not the one in which we find ourselves. But we can find another way to start over. And that way is through mindfulness.

    When we long to start over we are, paradoxically, doing the exact thing that has caused many of our problems in the first place. We’re unmindfully getting caught up in longing and craving. We’re caught up in an aversion to our present-moment experience, fleeing to an imagined past in order to escape the present moment.

    But the freedom of the child lies in being entirely in the present moment, not being caught up in thoughts, fantasies, and regrets, but simply experiencing and staying rooted in actual experience: experience of the body and its sensations, in the heart and its emotions, staying rooted in the senses. That’s the key difference, in this regard, between us and young children. We have learned to spend more time in our thoughts than in the full range of our experience. We become lost in thinking. Thought becomes a kind of alternative reality — like the Matrix of the popular movie — in which we live out our hopes and fears.

    To escape from this Matrix we need the Red Pill of awareness. We need to become mindful of our thoughts. And this requires experiencing the parts of us that are not thoughts. We need to learn to stay grounded in the body and its physical sensations, to remain alive to the senses and the rich impressions that flow through them into the theater of the mind. We can do this by immersing ourselves in the sensations of the breath flowing in and out, in the sensations of the body as we do walking meditation, in the heart’s feelings as we cultivate lovingkindness.

    And in doing so, the power of the Matrix — our inner alternate reality — becomes less strong. We’re less drawn to becoming lost in thought.

    And we begin to see how our judgments of ourselves are part of the Matrix of illusion. Our sense of ourselves as successful/failed, good/bad, rich/poor, blessed/damned starts to fade away. We’re no longer as fooled as we were by those categories, which we start to see as extraneous to reality and artificially imposed upon it by the mind.

    Increasingly free from judgment, increasingly rooted in our present-moment experience, we find that we are “starting life over.” In every moment we are starting life over. We’re starting to experience Suzuki’s Beginner’s Mind, not trapped in the present moment but free in the present moment.

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    “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” by Shunryu Suzuki

    book cover Available from and

    A respected Zen master in Japan and founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, Shunryu Suzuki has blazed a path in American Buddhism like few others.

    From diverse topics such as transience of the world, sudden enlightenment, and the nuts and bolts of meditation, Suzuki always returns to the idea of beginner’s mind, a recognition that our original nature is our true nature.

    With beginner’s mind, we dedicate ourselves to sincere practice, without the thought of gaining anything special. Day to day life becomes our Zen training, and we discover that “to study Buddhism is to study ourselves.”

    Suzuki had a rare dedication to the teaching of meditation, which was apparently due not only to a natural inclination in that direction as a gifted teacher, but also because as a newcomer to the US he found his English to be inadequate to expounding the deep Zen teachings that he has mastered. And so, turning a handicap into a strength in true Zen style, Suzuki taught in a simple, although suitably paradoxical style.

    Although his grasp of english was basic and he taught in simple language, his teaching does not in any way lack depth. On the contrary, Suzuki finds ways of surprising us and even of shocking us out of complacency. The central teaching of Beginner’s Mind — a complete openness to our experience — is a profoundly useful one and one that has entered the wider culture.

    My favorite teaching from this book is the notion that if you want to control a wild bull, give him lots of space. Try to confine him and he’ll fight. Give him a big field and he’ll just stand and eat grass. The bull of course is the mind, and the field is mindfulness. Have a spacious, expansive, open field of awareness, and the mind will settle down.

    I’ve often heard readings from this book dropped in before sits on intensive meditation retreats, and perhaps this is the best way to use this book. Reading it through like a novel would be to miss the point, for Suzuki taught from a state of meditation and his words should be received in meditation. That doesn’t mean you should only read the book on retreat, but that it’s best read in small doses, reflectively, and perhaps just before your daily practice.

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