Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Dealing with unsolicited advice

(5.74) When others offer wise advice or admonishment
That, though unsolicited, is nevertheless beneficial,
I should accept it graciously and with respect,
And always be willing to learn from it.

Sometimes I think it would be a good idea if people who attended Dharma teachings were forced to sign a document before they entered that had two commitments on it:  (1) I acknowledge that the Dharma teaching I am about to receive is personal advice for how I need to change, not an explanation for how everyone else around me needs to change, and (2) I vow I will not give advice to anybody who doesn’t ask for it.

When I first started attending Dharma teachings, all I could think about was how my now wife, my parents, my friends, etc., needed to hear this.  It was so clear to me that the Dharma was the solution to all of their problems.  This attitude pervaded my first many years of Dharma study, and I fooled myself into thinking this was my bodhichitta talking – seeing Dharma is the solution for all the problems of all living beings (except apparently me).  When I had my final meeting with my teacher, Gen Lekma, before I left for Europe, I asked her for some parting advice.  She said, “train in the first of the three difficulties.”  I guess that was her subtle way of telling me I need to identify my own delusions.

Most people, though, will just react defensively when we point out their faults and delusions.  Most people will instead just find a bunch of faults in us when we do so, and then we will enter into a destructive cycle of escalating mutual resentment.  They will seek to show why we are wrong and will actively work to reject our advice, even if it is exactly what they need to hear.  This is why, for ourselves, we should never offer people advice about what they need to do unless they are asking us with a mind of faith.  Yes, this is a high bar.  Intentionally so.

But sometimes people will still give us all sorts of unsolicited advice.  Let’s face it, most human speech is the cataloging of the faults and failings of others.  People are usually not shy telling us what we are doing wrong; and even if they are, behind our backs all sorts of things are being said about us.  This is just part of modern samsara.  No point wishing it was otherwise, instead we need to find a healthy way of responding to it.

Shantideva points the way:  we should graciously accept it and be willing to learn from it.  We must listen, without reacting, just listen.  Just because we are Dharma practitioners, especially if we are Dharma teachers, we expect everyone to listen to us.  After all, we have the Dharma.  We know…  We have to look at this trait. We must be open to advice or criticism, be rid of our proud minds.  We should never think, “I have nothing to learn from this person.”  We often switch off as if there is nothing to learn.  I remember once, many years ago when I was active on NKT-chat, I had some personal problem that I went to Kadam Lucy about.  After she gave me some typically great advice, I thanked her and said it was great to have somebody I could go to and get wisdom from.  She said, “why don’t you ask on NKT-chat?”  I said, “I answer their questions (arrogantly implying that they couldn’t answer mine).”  Without missing a beat she said, “oh, that’s funny.  I find I have something to learn from everyone.”

Instead we should think “what can I learn from what others saying?”  Often when we’re listening we’re just waiting to speak.  That’s not listening, it is a big mistake.  Just waiting to speak is not listening.  We need to learn to just listen – to listen with an open heart.  If we learn to listen well, then we’ll even hear the sound of Dharma whistling through the trees.

(5.75) To anyone who speaks the truth,
I should say, “You have spoken well”;
And whenever I see others perform meritorious actions,
I should offer praise and develop genuine joy.

Of course in modern conversation we would never use a stilted phrase like “you have spoken well,” but the sentiment we should express is the same.  I met somebody shortly after college who was unlike anybody I had previously met.  He had two amazing qualities I have ever since sought to emulate.  When he was shown to be wrong, he would admit it and change his views on the spot.  When those he was discussing with were wrong, he would just ask questions – questions which when answered helped the other person realize they were wrong without feeling attacked.  He was a devout Christian, which for me at the time seemed like a contradiction – how could somebody be such an intellectual and a Christian at the same time (the arrogance of youth…).  He said, “I was atheist before.  But since then I have been convinced by the weight of argument.”  Wow.  It’s reminiscent about the stories of old where spiritual masters would enter into debate with the condition that whoever lost would have to change their views.  Sadly, this almost never happens today, but we can choose to be like the masters of old.

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