The Karma of being Overly Critical of Others

From the Autobiography of Ajahn Mun (1870 – 1949)

Many Buddhist Masters have talked about the existence of nãgas which are intelligent divine beings. Ãcariya Mun once told his disciples about his encounter with a nãga which was overly critical. It is useful to use this story as a mirror for us to reflect if we also share the same habits of that nãga. If we do, then this story would be a big incentive for us to improve ourselves.

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At one point Ãcariya Mun spent some time living in Chiang Dao Cave. This cave was home tNaga2o a great nãga who had kept guard over it for a very long time. Apparently this nãga was rather conceited and had a tendency to be overly critical of monks.

During his stay in the cave, Acariya Mun became the object of this nãga’s constant criticism. It found fault with nearly everything he did. It appeared incapable of accepting Ãcariya Mun’s thoughts of loving kindness, probably as a consequence of its long-standing enmity toward monks.

At night when Ãcariya Mun wore his sandals to do walking meditation, the nãga complained about the sound of his footsteps: “What kind of a monk are you, stomping around like an unbridled race horse? The sound of your sandals striking the earth shakes the whole mountain. Did you ever think you might be annoying somebody with all that noise?”

It raised these complaints despite Ãcariya Mun’s composed manner of pacing softly back and forth. Hearing the criticisms, he took care to walk even more softly than before; but still, the nãga wasn’t satisfied: “What kind of a monk are you, walking meditation like somebody sneaking around hunting birds?” Occasionally, Ãcariya Mun’s foot would stumble on a stone in the meditation path, causing a slight thumping sound which elicited another reproach: “What kind of a monk are you, bucking up and down your meditation path like a chorus dancer?”

There were times when Ãcariya Mun leveled out the surface of his meditation path to facilitate smooth, easy walking. As he moved stones around and put them neatly into place, the nãga complained: “What kind of a monk are you, always moving things around – you’re never satisfied. Don’t you realize that all your fussing about gives others a splitting headache?”

Ãcariya Mun had to exercise special care with whatever he did at that cave. Even then, this opinionated nãga would find an excuse to criticize him. Should his body move slightly while he slept at night, he could sense psychically upon awakening that the nãga had been criticizing him for tossing, turning, wheezing, snoring, and so on.

NagaFocusing his attention on this angry, hypercritical nãga, Ãcariya Mun always found its head sticking out, peering at him intently, as though it never took its eyes off him. Vicious-looking and mean-spirited, it refused to accept any merit dedicated to it and was determined to indulge in feelings of anger that burned like a fire inside its heart.

Seeing that it compounded its evil karma all the time, Ãcariya Mun felt truly sorry for the nãga. But as long as it showed no interest in reasonable discourse, it was impossible for him to help in any way. All it could think about was fault-finding.

On one occasion, Ãcariya Mun explained the general principles underlying a monk’s life, specifically mentioning his own purpose and intentions: “My purpose for being here is not to cause trouble to somebody else, but rather to work as best I can for my own benefit and the benefit of others. So you should not entertain ignoble thoughts, thinking that I’m here to cause you harm or discomfort. I am here consciously trying to do good so that I can share the merit of my actions with all living beings without exception. That includes you as well, so you needn’t be upset thinking that I’ve come just to annoy you”.

“Physical activity is a normal feature of people’s everyday life. Comings and goings are part of living in this world – only the dead cease to move about. Although as a monk I am always self-composed, I’m not a corpse in repose: I have to inhale and exhale, and the force of my breathing varies from one posture to another. My breathing continues to function while I sleep, as does my whole body; so, naturally, there will be some sounds emitted. The same is true when I awaken and begin walking-meditation, or perform chores. There is some sound, but always within the bounds of moderation. When have you ever seen a monk standing frozen stiff like a corpse, never moving a muscle? Human beings don’t behave like that”.

“I try hard to walk as carefully and softly as possible, but still you complain that I walk like a race horse. In truth, an animal like a race horse and a virtuous monk mindfully walking meditation could not be more different, one from the other. You should avoid making such comparisons. Otherwise, you become a wretched individual aiming for a berth in hell. It’s impossible for me to satisfy all your unreasonable whims. If, like everyone else, you expect to find happiness and prosperity, then consider your own faults for a while and stop lugging the fires of hell around in your heart all the time. Only then will you find a way out”.

“Criticizing other people’s faults, even when they really are wrong, merely serves to increase your own irritation and put you in a bad mood. My behavior here is in no way improper for a monk, yet you keep carping about it constantly. If you were a human being, you’d probably be incapable of living in normal society – you’d see the world as one big garbage dump and yourself as pure solid gold. Such feelings of alienation are due to emotional turmoil caused by your hypercritical attitude – which gives you no peace”.

“The wise have always condemned unjustified criticism of others, saying it brings terrible moral consequences. So why do you enjoy doing it with such a vengeance – and such indifference to the painful consequences? I’m not the one who suffers from your criticism – it is your own emotional health that’s adversely affected. Such ill effects are quite obvious, so how can you be unaware that your whole attitude is wrong?”

“I’m fully cognizant of everything you are thinking, and at the same time, I have always forgiven you. You concentrate on doing terrible things that consume your mind and ravage your heart as though you can’t get enough of doing evil. Were your condition a disease, it would be an untreatable one”.

“I have been trying to change your mental attitude, just as I’ve long been trying to help many other living beings. Human beings, ghosts, devas, brahmas, yakkhas, and even great nãgas far more powerful than yourself, have all accepted the truth of the Lord Buddha’s teaching on karma. None, except you, have angrily criticized the value of Dhamma (Spiritual Truths), which is revered throughout the world systems. And you’re so peculiar that you won’t accept the truth of anything at all”.

“The only pleasure you take is in making derogatory remarks and angrily censuring people who have done nothing wrong. You devote yourself to these as though they were propitious actions. But the wise have never thought that such actions foster peace and security. When you finally slough off the skin of this ill-fated existence, you won’t encounter a pleasant, pain-free existence, unaffected by the evil consequences of your actions”.

“I apologize for speaking so candidly about the principles of Dhamma, but my intentions are good. Nothing malicious is intended in my remarks, regardless of what misconceptions you may have. Since the very beginning of my stay here, I have tried to do everything in a careful, restrained manner, for I know that this is your home and I’m concerned that my presence here may inconvenience you”.

“Although I am well aware that you’re an individual who delights in looking for things to criticize, I still can’t seem to avoid being seen in a disparaging light. I myself experience genuine contentment, unaffected even by constant criticism. But, I worry that the repercussions of your dogged pursuit of evil will be extremely unpleasant for you”.

“I did not come here in search of wickedness or evil. Being quite sure that everything I do and say emanates from a pure heart, I have no fear that my actions will incur any unpleasant moral consequences”.

“As soon as intelligent people begin to understand the difference between secular matters and spiritual ones, they tend to appreciate virtuous conduct, admiring all wholesome, meritorious actions performed for the sake of peace and happiness. From ages past, the wise have always taught living beings to feel good about being virtuous. So why do you adhere to the maverick notion that it’s all right to strip yourself of virtue and wallow in evil? You seem to detest virtue so dreadfully much that you can’t be bothered to reflect on your own vices”.

“Although I won’t be experiencing the dire consequences that await you, still I fear for you in that miserable state. You must stop thinking in ways that are harmful, for the mean intent behind your actions has the power to deprive you of all moral value. Such undesirable consequences, bringing unimaginable torment, are what I fear more than anything else in the world. The whole world dreads old age, sickness, and death, but I don’t fear them nearly so much as I fear evil and its attendant consequences.

“People with kilesas (negative thoughts or mental habits) tend to eschew spiritual principles, preferring instead the things that religious tenets proscribe. So ordaining as a Buddhist monk to practice the Teaching and the Discipline requires us to undergo an agonizing character transformation. Even though I knew how difficult it would be to oppose the kilesas, I nonetheless felt compelled to join the monkhood and endure the severe hardship. The extreme discomfort caused by constantly opposing the kilesas – that’s what makes the practice so difficult. But if we desire to transcend karma and the defiling kilesas that create it, we must endure such torment – for kilesas always steadfastly resist the teachings of the Lord Buddha”.

“I’ve come here to practice, living in this cave like a worthless social outcast, solely because I fear evil and its consequences. I did not come here to harm or trouble anyone. Nor do I feel contempt for any living being. I respect them all as friends whose lives are also subject to the law of karma, and who are thus all of equal intrinsic value. I dedicate the merit of my actions equally to all beings with the hope that they may live in contentment wherever they may be. I have never taken the arrogant attitude that I’m a human being ordained as a Buddhist monk and therefore superior to my companions in birth, ageing, sickness, and death”.

“You too exist within the sphere of karma, so you ought to humbly reflect on how your own faults affect you. Criticizing others without proper consideration will never bring you good results – it merely piles up the ill effects of bad karma, which then linger on indefinitely. You should feel dismayed by your errant behavior and drop this dangerous practice. Only then can you hope to become a good individual with a chance for a better, happier birth in the future. Then your mean, angry heart will soften, and you can avoid being engulfed in misery forever”.

“All living beings in the universe – from humans and animals to devas, brahmas, and yakkhas – cherish happiness and loathe suffering. They do not have an aversion for Dhamma simply because they can’t yet put it into practice. Dhamma has always been the quintessential nature of the universe. Those beings who are in a position to practice Dhamma find great satisfaction in it – for instance, human beings. Their state of birth makes them well suited to the practice of Dhamma”.

“You yourself are a living being who’s fully capable of distinguishing between good and bad, and thus choosing what’s most beneficial for you. So why do you do just the opposite? I’m puzzled that you seem content to revel in those things which the wise abhor while scorning those which the wise applaud. You know about dukkha (suffering) and you hate it, yet you strive to produce the very causes that bring you great unhappiness and discomfort. The wise tell us that our efforts to find fault with others produce consequences that cause greater and greater unhappiness – exactly what you shamelessly do all the time. You may not be interested, but although I’m fully aware of your despicable thoughts, I’ve always forgiven you. I’m not angry or offended, but I do feel sorry for you. Thus, I have decided to tell you the plain truth. Should it prove useful to you, I shall be pleased for your sake. I receive no unpleasant consequences from your thoughts for I’m not the one who engages in them. All I experience are peace, serenity, and loving compassion that have long been my heart’s abode.”

The nãga didn’t make any comment as Ãcariya Mun explained these various aspects of Dhamma, but it did experience the rise of some salutary thoughts while listening: ‘This monk talks a lot of sense. But right now I’m unable to do as he says, being still too content with my old ways. Perhaps I’ll have more interest in my next existence. This monk has many awesome qualities – he even perceives things that should be unknowable’.

‘How can he know my private thoughts? I live in a hidden world, yet somehow he sees me. Over the years, many monks have come to stay in this cave, but none have known about my existence, much less my thoughts. I’ve even forced some of them to flee because I couldn’t stand having them around. But this monk knows everything, including my thoughts. Even while sleeping he remains aware. Later, he can tell me exactly what I was thinking, as if he hadn’t been asleep at all. Why am I so opinionated that I can’t take what he teaches to heart and put it into practice? Like he said, I must surely have some very grave karma. Despite knowing the despicable nature of my mind, he still makes an effort to explain how his daily activities are not intended to bother me. My present state of existence is certainly unfortunate. He’s right when he says that I’m quite capable of distinguishing between good and bad. Yet I’m hampered by my wretched conceit, meaning that my next life will probably be just as unfortunate as this one – and so on indefinitely’.

After a short pause Ãcariya Mun asked the nãga if it had managed to understand any of his explanations on Dhamma.

The nãga replied: “I understand everything you so kindly explained to me. But unfortunately, I’m burdened by some very grave karma and I’ve yet to grow weary of my wretched condition. I’m still debating this matter with myself and I haven’t come to any definite conclusions. My heart tends to gravitate toward a state of degradation, as it always has, so it balks at listening to the Dhamma you are teaching.”

Ãcariya Mun asked the nãga what it meant by saying that its heart liked to gravitate toward a state of degradation.

The nãga answered: “My heart enjoys finding fault with you all the time, even though you’ve done nothing wrong – that’s just the way my heart is. I don’t know how to convince myself of the harmful effects of this tendency so that I can correct it and practice the way of virtue from now on.”

Ãcariya Mun offered some encouragement: “Careful consideration will convince you that such bad tendencies are truly harmful. Once you are persuaded, then evil will naturally begin to fade from your heart, ceasing to be so conspicuous in the future. But by assuming that these tendencies are beneficial and then encouraging them, you will naturally tend to think in an endless variety of ways that are detrimental to you. Unless you hurry to improve things now, you’ll keep on doing evil until you are completely beyond help. I cannot do this job for you. I can give some guidance, but it’s up to you to make the necessary adjustments in your character. The onus is on you to press ahead, trying to accomplish this as best you can. Once you do, you will see the dangerous aspects of your character gradually diminish as beneficial qualities develop, displacing them until all that’s left is pure, simple virtue, untainted by any form of evil. By placing your faith in the Dhamma of the Lord Buddha, which has always helped living beings to transcend dukkha, you will always be contented living under its protective influence. Never feeling distraught, never disturbed, you will remain even-tempered in every situation. You won’t be moved to praise one thing as good or criticize another as bad, and so suffer the resulting consequences – conduct that’s contrary to the way of the wise.”

At the conclusion of these remarks, the nãga promised to make an effort to follow Ãcariya Mun’s advice. In the days that followed, Ãcariya Mun kept an eye on it as he continued with his own practice. He noticed some improvement, as the nãga was able to restrict its hypercritical tendencies by exercising some measure of control over them. But he also noticed that this effort caused the nãga much consternation. So finding some excuse to leave the cave, he moved on – which pleased the nãga. His association with it ended there.

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