Lojong Practice Journal: Don’t talk about injured limbs
The 59 slogans through a social justice lens
The slogan “Don’t talk about injured limbs” is one I’ve understood to mean that we should not gossip about others’ shortcomings but its phrasing bothers me. The implication is that an injured limb is a failing, a fault, an imperfection. This wording is an example of the ableism that runs through many traditional Buddhist teachings. In many translations, it’s not remotely subtle. The translation used by Kelsang Gyatso (p.91, Universal Compassion) is written as, “Do not speak about degenerated limbs.” In the case of Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary (p.73, Enlightened Courage), physical disabilities are practically conflated with moral shortcomings and ignorance:
“We should not discuss the handicaps of others. If they cannot see or walk well, if they are not intelligent or even if they have transgressed their vows, we should not call them blind, cripples, idiots, etc.”
You may be wondering why this matters because surely, we shouldn’t gossip about disabilities? And of course we shouldn’t, but this slogan is about wise speech when it comes to how we talk about other people’s imperfections, and disability is not an imperfection. This slogan is a reminder not to talk about the faults of others’ as if we are superior. Sort of the “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” of the Buddhist canon, with “sin” equating to ways we mess up because we are human. The point is that we shouldn’t gossip about others as if our shit doesn’t stink.
I strive to be aware of how the language we use frames the attitudes we have. Words can reinforce systems we have all been born into — systems that consistently rank human worth and value across all levels of society. Pausing to consider a word and its social implication is a significant part of my practice. A year ago, I wouldn’t have noticed the ableist phrasing of this slogan, but now it’s as obvious to me as sexist language in Buddhism has always been.
It speaks volumes about social attitudes and beliefs to equate an injured limb to a fault. And when I say ‘fault’, I mean any of the number of things we humans do as a result of passion, aggression, and ignorance. Faults are prejudiced implicit biases and ill-informed opinions. Faults are fixed ideas of ourselves or others that keep us trapped in habitual patterns of harm. Faults are the edges we work with as complex beings who can be both incredibly compassionate and incredibly cruel. An injured limb is not a fault. That’s just an injured limb. Being abled doesn’t equate to superiority, nor is it an advantaged embodiment for waking up.
It could seem like I am disregarding this slogan with this very commentary. Here I am, pointing out a flaw in the choice of the translator! But again, this slogan isn’t saying we can’t offer constructive criticism or that we should throw our discernment out the window. By naming the ableism in the translations and commentaries on this slogan, I’m not laying blame on any one individual but pointing at the cultural pervasiveness of ableism. We live in an ableist society and so we have all absorbed ableist biases. I’m owning my own growing awareness of ableism, how I’ve absorbed it, and how I’m working to unlearn it.
I did find a translation that wasn’t so problematic in Traleg Kyabgon’s book, The Practice of Lojong: “Don’t talk about others’ weak points.” This is an example of a translation that doesn’t equate an individual’s shortcomings with a disability, and gets to the heart of this slogan’s guidance.
No one is a perfect, flawless being who gets it right all the time — ourselves included. This is why we should examine our motivations before we open our mouths to say something about someone’s shortcomings. Are we pointing to someone else’s flaws so we don’t have to look at our own? Are we about to speak from a place of thinking we are better than someone else, as if we aren’t products of the same conditioning? Are we speaking from a place of condescension, or a place of compassion?
When we focus on and talk about other people’s weak points, we are often doing so in order to give ourselves a sense of superiority. It’s also something we do to put blame on an individual, rather than seeing the reality of systemic and cultural issues. When we fixate on someone as being a “bad” person, it renders us incapable of seeing them as full, complex beings as capable of waking up as anyone else. It also absolves us of looking at the work we have to do as people living in and influenced by the same culture.
This blog was originally published on Medium.
This is part of a series of posts I am doing to support my practice.
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