Praise and blame are like echoes that don’t ultimately exist, explains Rose Taylor. But we still have to know how to work with it.
If you know that all the many utterances of praise and blame
Are sound-emptiness, unborn,
Like the sounds of guitars, echoes, and thunder in the sky
Then all attachment and aversion to these sounds of praise and blame
Will be completely pacified.
—Unchanging Sky’s Beautiful Melody, Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
As conveyed in this verse, the Buddhist teachings on genuine reality tell us how praise and blame are merely empty sounds with no true existence. In essence, they are no different. We are able to distinguish the concepts of praise and blame only by contrasting each with its opposite—each depends on its opposite for its own definition. They do not have any independent identity in themselves. These sounds of praise and blame are merely unborn sounds, like echoes reverberating or thunder rumbling in the sky.
This can be quite difficult to remember when we are faced with praise or blame. Our minds are easily carried away with the alluring sounds of praise and disturbed by the harsh sounds of blame. So it is useful to examine the relationship between them, develop skillful methods for working with them, and investigate their ultimate natures.
The Relationship Between Praise and Blame
Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, teaching in Spain in 1995, spoke of praise and blame this way: “The more people there are who praise you, the more people there will be who criticize you. For example, if you become president a lot of people support you and praise you, but then more and more people also criticize you.”
Even when we simply look at praise and blame in an everyday context, we find that. The more you are praised, the more others criticize and blame you. This is known in England as the “tall poppy syndrome”—the flower that grows above the rest will be cut down to size. Whatever praise there is lifting a person up, an equal force is applied to keeping them on the ground. An example could be a mother who has had a successful week at work finding her stock of blame and criticism well maintained by her censorious children. Or a teenager whose friends pay her the greatest compliment by trying to imitate her innovative new outfit but upon returning home she finds her father outraged that she left the house in such attire.
This even happened to the Buddha. While he had many devoted students, his jealous cousin, Devadatta, was continually attacking him. He spread vicious rumors about the Buddha and tried to kill him. Since that time, while many revere the Buddha, others have been extremely hostile, resorting at times to vandalizing or destroying Buddha statues.
My current inspiration for thinking about working with praise and blame came out of a recent incident. My husband, Ari Goldfield, and I were invited to teach in Asia and we were exchanging emails with the organizers about the program. At one point, we emailed our standard document about our diet and other details pertaining to the visit, as this usually proves helpful for our hosts. But not in this case—they thought our message was inappropriate and were offended by our forthrightness.
On the same day that this happened, we received another email from two lamas in America who were hosting us upon our return. Their email thanked us profusely for the same document and said how useful they had found it. This highlighted how one person can find something laudable while another finds it despicable! These differences can become even more extreme when communicating with people from other cultures. Receiving praise and blame on the same day for the same communication was an excellent illustration of how praise and blame are not ultimately valid.
Furthermore, this relativity does not just occur from the perspective of others but also from our own side. Some words may seem like praise to one person but blame to another. When I was teaching a Tibetan language class at a study program in Nepal, one of my friends taking my class accused me of being too demanding. These remarks were intended as criticism but I received them as praise! I really appreciated my own teachers who had pushed me. These students had come a long way and were paying to be there in difficult circumstances, so I was going to try to progress their studies as much as possible.
We all have our own ideas about what is good and what is bad; praise and blame are fluid and indeterminate. This is a good reminder of the Mind-Only tradition’s teaching on how our experiences are created by our own minds, our own ways of thinking, rather than by some objective external reality.
Working With Praise
While praise and blame are not ultimately true, that does not mean that we should disregard them outright. There are skillful methods for working with the praise and blame we receive.
When considering praise, first we need to be aware of the habits of our own minds. Some of us can be heaped with praise but it never touches us; we have a perfectionist streak and always feel we could do better. We disregard praise. The problem with this is we never feel encouraged and lifted up by the appreciation of others, and then we miss something that can really help us in our efforts. In this case it is important to allow the praise to touch us. We do not need to solidify it and make it a cause for arrogance, but we can feel that something we have done has positively affected another person and they have appreciated it. We can simply be touched by the praise and then let it go. This can then energize us for further endeavors. If we are prone to self-doubt and lack confidence, we can sometimes remind ourselves of other’s appreciation of us in order to balance our mind’s habit to view ourselves negatively.
Or we might have a tendency toward arrogance. Then praise becomes a cause for feelings of bloated superiority. In this case, we need to remember the teachings of impermanence and interdependence. This experience of praise is a single fleeting moment and we should not fixate on it, solidify it, and try to carry it around with us. It takes a lot of energy to do this because the moment naturally passes and fades. We find ourselves repeatedly telling others about it in order to hold onto the moment. If we develop such arrogance based on someone’s appreciation, we should examine whether we can truly claim authorship of this act. We do this by examining all the various causes and conditions needed for this action to have occurred. When we do so, we cannot maintain our arrogance because we know how many things far beyond ourselves also played their part.
For instance, when students in my Tibetan class praised my teaching, I would recall all the elements that came together to make such an event successful. I thought of the kindness and generosity of my own teachers who shared their knowledge with me that I could now impart to others. Also, I thought of how the students’ intelligence, enthusiasm, and harmonious conduct helped create an environment conducive to learning for everyone.
When we consider things in this kind of light, we do not get carried away by the praise we receive. This is important not just in terms of reducing our propensity for negative mental states but also for our own development. If we get too attached to praise, we run the risk of simply trying to recreate whatever previously earned us praise. This can be deadly to our path. We become afraid to explore other ways of doing things and get struck in imitating ourselves. In dharma, we are encouraged to live in the present moment, in each fresh instance, rather than freeze our experience and no longer relate directly to what is appearing to us.
This problematic tendency for self-imitation has been noted in the art world. Some artists, writers, and poets who were highly praised and successful in their own lifetimes got stuck for decades in repeating the style that first garnered them critical acclaim. Some of those who were not recognized until after their death were freer with their style and continued developing and evolving. So, whatever positive feedback we receive, we need to maintain a fresh approach in each moment, just as we do in meditation, by not trying to recreate or hold onto an experience. Every moment requires us to live fully and freshly present.
Working With Blame
When we find ourselves the object of another’s blame or criticism, it is good to try to establish a balance in our reaction between being open to the criticism and learning what we can from it and not being overwhelmed and utterly discouraged.
First, we create some space around our immediate, instinctive response. Ordinarily we may argue back and delve into a heated debate over the merits of the accusation. Or we may shut the conversation down and refuse to hear what we are being told. Or perhaps we launch a counterattack. Whatever our own individual pattern of reaction, it is good to take a moment to hold ourselves back from knee-jerk reactivity.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said that one of the greatest gifts we can receive or offer is genuine feedback. So, when someone criticizes us, it can be very beneficial for us to listen openly to what they are saying. There is a Chinese proverb with a similar meaning, “Words that are good for us to hear, do not sound pleasant.” What is beneficial for us to hear is not necessarily the easiest thing to hear, nor is it always the easiest thing for others to tell us.
Many of us avoid confrontation and giving genuine feedback, preferring the path of least resistance, letting things slide rather than creating a tense situation. The one person I really engage critically is my husband, and I am grateful that he does the same with me. Our strong love for and commitment to each other provide a supportive ground for when we need to have what would otherwise be difficult conversations. So, if someone has the courage to step forward and offer a critique directly to us, the least we can do is hear them out.
When we listen openly, without holding onto our own agenda, we are more likely to hear what is being said. Then we can evaluate the information with clarity. If there is merit to the criticism, then this can be a wonderful learning opportunity. If we truly listen and examine the criticism and find no merit in it, then what harm has been done? We have had an opportunity to listen to another person’s view of the world. This again reminds us that we all create the worlds we live in, no one person’s perspective is going to always completely accord with another’s. This is a helpful opportunity to see the cracks in what we usually perceive as being some kind of uniform reality that we all participate in.
The Importance of Adversity
In his commentary on Atisha’s slogan, Be grateful to everyone, Trungpa Rinpoche discusses how important it is to have these moments of adversity in our lives. “If everything was lovey-dovey and jellyfishlike, there would be nothing to work with,” he says in Training the Mind. “Everything would be completely blank. Because of all these textures around us, we are enriched. Therefore, we can sit and practice and meditate.” By having these moments of discord, our mind’s habits are illuminated; we see the ways in which we are attached, what we want, and what we want to avoid. When someone offers a negative view of our actions, it challenges our carefully constructed self-image. We clearly see where we get stuck, what makes us angry, and where our patience, compassion, and skillfulness are limited. In this way, if we bring such moments of difficulty to the path and use them to discover more about ourselves, then they are a great gift.
On the other hand, some of us overly fixate on the blame and criticism we receive from others. We replay it in our minds over and over again, and it keeps us awake at night. If this occurs, our view needs to be broadened. We have become too focused on this one instance, carrying it around with us wherever we go, long after the discussion has finished. Trungpa Rinpoche advises: “Whatever takes place… do not take [it] all that seriously. Whatever comes up… do not regard [it] as the ultimate, final problem, but as a temporary flare-up that comes and goes.” In such moments, it is worth expanding our view, recognizing that we can never please everyone all the time. We are always on this shaky ground in samsara; we can never get things quite right, we can never make everyone happy. What one person appreciates, another dislikes. As Milarepa sang to one of his main female students, Sahle Ö, “Trying to make others happy is endless.”
While it is good to examine the feedback we receive, at the same time we do not want to fixate on it. If there is something to learn, we can learn it, but then we should just let the experience go. This one moment does not define the totality of who we are. As we know from the foundational teachings of Buddhism, there is no truly existent self to be definitively characterized in any way at all. We all are like dreams and reflections, merely the coming together of momentary causes and conditions, constantly changing. While acknowledging the details of this criticism, we should not lose sight of the big picture. Just as with praise, we have a light touch; we listen to the criticism, we learn what we can, then we let go.
The Ultimate Witness
Even though you try to engage skillful methods for working with praise and blame, if you find yourself getting confused and losing your sense of what is an accurate interpretation of your actions, then this slogan from Atisha is very useful: Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one. As Trungpa Rinpoche explains, “You should not just go along with other people’s opinion of you. The practice of this slogan is: always be true to yourself.”
It is good to try to hear what others are saying to us, but really listening to ourselves is most important. This does not mean that we should just go along with our superficial mental chatter, our wishful thinking, or our neurotic self-doubt. Rather let us deeply listen to and tap into our own self-knowledge, rooted in our meditation practice. We all have this self-knowledge—in the Buddhist teachings it is called self-awareness. We know our own experience and no one else can know it or tell us what we are experiencing. As Trungpa Rinpoche says, “You have never been away from yourself for even a minute. You know yourself so well. Therefore, you are the best judge of yourself.” Because we know ourselves better than anyone else, taking the time and space to hear our own careful and well-considered praise and criticism is highly beneficial. That is what will be most accurate.
In summary, Shantideva provides a simple verse in Entering the Bodhisattvas’ Way on maintaining some sense of equanimity and not being too heavy-handed in our approach to praise and blame:
While there are some who criticize me,
Why rejoice when others praise me?
While there are some who praise me,
Why be offended when others criticize me?
The True Nature of Praise and Blame
In a song that Milarepa sings to the teacher Shakya Guna, he advises him not to be attached to the fame, comforts, and happiness of this life, and not to fixate on conventional terms. At one point, he sings, “Criticism and praise are echoes, don’t you understand?” In doing so, he is encouraging both Shakya Guna, and us as well, to use wisdom that realizes the true nature of reality to work with such worldly concerns as praise and blame.
In addition to the skillful methods described above, we should also recall the ultimate reality of praise and blame—they are merely sound-emptiness, like echoes. We do not ignore them, because they do appear. But neither do we fixate on them because they are not truly existent, they are emptiness.
And we know that they are empty, not truly existent, because we cannot have the concept of praise without its opposite, blame, and yet we cannot know blame without knowing what praise is. Praise and blame are only dependently existent; they have no independent nature of their own.
When we are praised or blamed, then, we should consider these circumstances to be just like a person being praised or blamed in a dream. We ourselves are not truly existent, solid entities, nor are any of the phenomena we interact with. In this way, we know the equality of praise and blame; their essential nature is exactly the same, appearance-emptiness.
Holding a sense of this equality in our experience is what allows us to maintain some stability and sanity in the face of seemingly extremely divergent appearances. While we do not deny the relative differences in our experiences, most of us have wandered too far from the essential nature of our experiences. This is like being seated on the end of a seesaw; it causes us to be thrown up and down by events. If we can move to the center of the seesaw, to the heart of our experience, we become more balanced and stable.
This is the way we experience one-taste, equality.