Does the Buddha ever say unpleasant things to people? Abhaya Sutta

Once, there was a Prince – Prince Abhaya, who was told by a teacher of one of the other religions, the Niganthas, named Nataputta – to set a trap to try and defeat the Buddha in debate so that the Prince’s name would spread far and wide as the Prince who defeated the all mighty and powerful Buddha.


The Prince who tried to Trap the Buddha

The trap that was set for the Buddha was a 2 pronged question:


“Would the Buddha ever say something unpleasant to someone?”


And they had prepared different counter attacks depending how the Buddha would respond:
  • If the Buddha said yes, they would say, “Then what’s the difference between you and a normal, everyday person?  Because even a normal person can say bad things about people!”
  • If the Buddha said no, they would reply, “Then why did the Buddha scold his cousin Devadatta for doing unwholesome things?  Devadatta was not happy about that!”
So they set up this trap for the Buddha as a “Gotcha!” so that the Buddha would be stumped – so that the Buddha would be as if he had something stuck in his throat and couldn’t swallow it or spit it out – that was what this 2 pronged question was designed to do.


So does a Buddha only say nice, happy, pleasant things to people?  Does a Buddha never rock the boat, never saying unpleasant things that are difficult to people to hear?


How about you?  Would you always only want to say nice and happy things to people only?  If someone is doing something wrong – would you not have to say something straight to them that they may not want to hear?

5 Factors to Right Speech – TAIUT

How did the Buddha respond?  He said that there was no simple yes, no answer to this – because the Buddha responds differently according to the situation.


So how the Buddha responded can be a lesson on how we, ourselves speak – as well as how we write and how we post things on the internet.


More importantly, these 5 Factors can be used as a standard – as a checklist – to see the Truth of what other say as well, what we read in the media and in books and articles and magazines and on the internet – how can we tell if the things that we read can be believed or not?


So the 5 Factors to Right Speech are:
  1. Truth:  Is it True?  Is there legitimate evidence for this?  What’s the original source for this?  Or is it based on hearsay or rumor or second hand sources?
  2. Accuracy:  Are the details correct?  Did you get the facts straight for each of the points?  Or are some of the details wrong?  The devil is in the details.
  3. Importance: Is it important to say this, is it beneficial, is it valuable, is it worthwhile to say this?
  4. Unpleasantness:  Will it be unpleasant for the listener to hear?
  5. Timing:  Is it the right time to say this?  Or would another time be more appropriate?  Would another time and place have a more
A Buddha speaks when something is true, when the details are correct.  He speaks when it is important and beneficial to do so – and if it’s negative feedback, he says makes sure he says it at the right time – a Buddha doesn’t say things at the wrong or inappropriate time.
So let’s have a look at each of these factors in more detail.


Truth and Accuracy

It’s important not only to speak and act based on the truth – but also that the details of that truth are accurate and correct.  So if it’s important, it’s wise to pay attention to the details.


Purpose:  To Seek the Bare Truth – no more, no less

The aim is to get the bare, unadulterated Truth within the proper context – with nothing more added on and nothing that’s been taken away from it.  This will help facilitate correct understanding.


Wrong Views distort how we see things – subsequent wrong actions would then flow from this

Because if we unknowingly believe the wrong things – because we think they are true – then we live our lives according to wrong information.  Our world view becomes tinted, tainted and colored by that false information that we’ve taken to be real.


If we wear rose colored glasses, we might think that the whole world is red.  Is the world really red?  No.  It just seems to be so because we don’t realize that we’re looking through a red filter.  That’s the problem with personal biases to the truth – the problem of coming from the wrong perspective – wrong view.  It’s also why Right View is the 1st Step on the Noble Eightfold Path.


Simile of the Snake in the Dark

Suppose you’re walking home in the darkness – and you see a snake on the ground and then you jump back out of fright, your heart beating, hands sweating.  You shine a light on it – and you realize that it was only a rope.  There was nothing to fear.


That’s what happens when we mistake something that is false for what is true.  That’s why it’s so important to get your facts straight upfront and as early as you can – otherwise you could be making decisions and taking actions based on wrong information.  If this wrong information isn’t addressed, it gets carried down and the problem could get bigger and bigger down the line.


If you start with the wrong assumptions – anything that is based on those assumptions will also be wrong.  So if you don’t address it upfront whilst the mistake or incorrect information is still small – it can grow bigger and get carried on down the line, costing you a lot of time, money and wasted effort.


As the Tao Te Ching says – take care of things when they are small – this way things are less likely to get out of hand down the line.


Disagreements on the Truth – How do we handle them?  

Test the validity of the arguments – the real Truth will be able to stand up to the tests.
Sometimes, there’s conjecture as to what is true or not – people disagree.  If someone disagrees with us, don’t necessarily just shut them out – listen to them.  See whether their argument has merit or not.  Question them – ask them questions.  Is the objective evidence for or against their argument?


Test the validity of their argument.  A good argument will be able to stand up to different tests – you don’t need to force it down people’s throats.  A weak or poor argument will be refuted easily.


How good an argument is, rests on the strength of the argument itself backed by solid evidence from primary, original sources (not from 2nd and 3rd hand accounts or opinions)


Tactics to Be Weary of

With these tactics, you’ve just got to recognize them and call people out for using them on you and then bring the attention back to the main points

Beware of Ad Hominem attacks on the person rather than on the argument

1 tactic that people use when they know that their argument has been refuted – is to ridicule your perfectly good arguments by attacking the person, rather than attacking the argument.  It’s when you know that you’ve got them and they can’t really argue back – so they start attacking you rather than the argument.  And they will use ridicule and they will call you all sorts of nasty names.


If their argument is so sound, let it stand by itself to scrutiny – don’t let others take you off on a tangent from the key points – keep the main thing, the main thing.
If they attack your character rather than your argument:
  1. It tells you something about their character
  2. Don’t fall for it – don’t let your attention be mis-directed.


Bring the attention back to the point at hand.

Beware of Non-sequiturs

Non-sequiturs are arguments that don’t logically flow from the premise.  You ask something and they say something else.  It’s another misdirection tactic.


Beware of strawman arguments

A strawman argument is when you say something – and then someone attacks something totally different that they attribute to you.  But you never said it!
So be careful of when people pull these tactics on you.


Look at things from all different perspectives – the blind men and the elephant

A few blind men gathered around an elephant to see what it is was like – one said it’s like a brush, another said it was like a tree trunk, another said it was like a large snake, another said it was like a large fan.  And they all argued and disagreed with each other.


Who was right?  If they could see the whole elephant – they would know that they were all right for different parts of the elephant.  So it’s important to get a holistic view of the situation to look at the same thing from different angles and different perspectives – to get a complete understanding of it rather than just a partial understanding.


Be Open to the Objective Evidence and be Humble to Adjusting and Correcting your Views

Sometimes,we ourselves also need to be able to let go of our ego and be open and willing to have our own arguments questioned and ourselves open to being wrong and corrected as well – IF the objective evidence is there for us to change.  The key is the objective evidence.


Be Mindful of Personal Biases

Be mindful of your own personal biases.  A simple way to remember this is – the 3 poisons – greed, hatred and ignorance.  So you ask yourself – am I under the influence of greed?  Of hatred?  Of delusion?  When assessing something or making big decisions – because it could hurt you now or in the long run because your ability to make clear, best decisions will be hampered and poisoned by the 3 poisons.



Is your view infatuated by liking/greed.  For example – if you are really like or love someone and are infatuated with someone – then you can easily overlook their deficiencies.  They might do or say something wrong and you will make up some excuse for them.  Because in your eyes, whatever they do is perfect (even if your friends look at you and think – what the hell do you see in that person!)



If you really hate someone – it clouds your judgement of them.  Because whatever they do – you will distrust – even if they have good intentions – you can easily project your own distrust onto their actions.  And if you really, really hate and despise someone – you won’t be able to see them clearly.  It’s possible that you can be unfair to them.  And if your hatred is so great – it’s possible that you can say false things about them – if it ever comes to that, your own credibility is put into question at that point.



With ignorance, you educate yourself, do your homework and check sources!


Check Sources

How do we tell whether something is True or not?  Check sources!
Just because someone says it is so, does not necessarily mean it is so.  You can’t just say something and just shout loudly and claim that it’s true!  That sort of argument wouldn’t even hold up to high school level essay standards.  You need evidence to support the assertions.
And you don’t just want a little bit of evidence – a little bit may not be enough – you want overwhelming evidence!  That’s your finishing move to end the argument there and then.
With Google these days, a simple google search would allow you to verify sources.  Remember the original, primary sources have greater weight and greater strength of evidence than secondary and tertiary sources – which are more like interpretations and second and third hand accounts (which could very well be biased).
Make sure that they are primary sources, original sources, quoted in context.  If a topic is important enough, it behoves you to not just believe whatever is written about it – but to personally go and check out the primary sources for yourself.  Don’t just rely on second hand information – because they may or may not be right.  Don’t be lazy.  Do your own homework.  Do your own detective work.


The Buddha’s Lesson to the Kalama people

So don’t just blindly believe people!  The Buddha himself said in the Kalama Sutta:


Go ahead and doubt if it’s worth doubting

The Kalama people asked the Buddha, “There are so many teachers that pass through here, saying how good they are whilst attacking other teachers – what should they believe?
The Buddha gave one of the best replies, “It’s proper for you to doubt if you are doubting that which is doubtful!”


He continued with these guidelines:


Do not necessarily believe something just because of:
  • Reports:  Just because it’s been reported – if it’s reported – find out the original person who said it to see whether it’s true and whether the details are correct.  Don’t just rely on second or third hand reports.
  • Repetition:  Just because it’s been repeated all the time by everyone – just because something is popular does not necessarily mean that it’s right
  • Tradition:  Just because it’s tradition – we’ve always done it that way!  Doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better way.
  • It’s in the book:  Just because it’s in the book/scripture – books are written by people – and people can be wrong too.  This is the power of authority of the written word – people assume that just because it’s published in a newspaper or magazine or on a website, it must be right – not necessarily.
  • Surmisings:  Just because it’s been surmised, i.e., that something is true without evidence to support it
  • Specious Reasoning:  Just because of specious reasoning – an argument that looks true at face value but when you delve deeper, you find that it’s false
  • Conjecture/Incomplete information:  Just because logical conjecture – in other words a conclusion based on incomplete information – sometimes, partial information looks very different after you’ve been able to see the complete picture
  • Inference:  Just because it’s been inferred – sometimes inference is not enough – don’t just jump to conclusions that don’t logically follow the premise.  Association does not necessarily mean causation.
  • Incorrect analogies:  Just because of analogies – some analogies might be correct, some not correct
  • Pondering similar views:  Just because of agreement with others through pondering similar views – just because your views are the same as someone else’s views does not necessarily mean that they are right views.  Because it could be an echo chamber – where your own incorrect views are being echoed back to you.  That’s just a bias through a notion that’s been pondered over.
  • Experts:  Just because expert said it – experts can be wrong – sometimes dead wrong.  When needed, I have questioned experts – for further clarification – to see if what they say is true or not.  Sometimes, it can save you or your family.  You need experts but don’t give up your own wisdom and judgement – don’t just always defer to higher authority because sometimes, you might be right and experts might be wrong.  Sometimes, you’ll need to listen to the experts.  At other times, if you have strong evidence that the experts are wrong – you might need to say stuff the experts – and get a second and third opinion from other experts to build a more complete picture.
  • My Teacher said so:  Just because they are my teacher – don’t just take what your teacher says as gospel!  They could be wrong too!  Monks and nuns are not infallible.  Even enlightened people – who are not fully enlightened – could not see what the Buddha himself saw.



When you speak or write, focus your energy on the important things, the beneficial things, the things that are worthwhile saying (rather than on the frivolous things).  Everything either adds or detracts from your argument – so make sure your words count and helps to support your arguments.


Don’t go off on tangents that are irrelevant and/or not connected with the goal.  Try to make it so that people get something of value from their interactions with you – so that you are giving as you speak, with no expectation of any return.  So that even if you never see them again, you know that you’ve done your part to try and help them, even if only in a tiny way.


Unpleasantness and Timing

If you have something unpleasant you have to say it – it’s important to realize that there is a time and a place to say it.  You need to consider the the right time to say it – choose a wise time to say it.


Don’t say it to them when they are tired, or angry and stressed out – let them calm down first and rest up.  If someone’s made a mistake, you don’t have to publicly embarrass them in front of others for it – doing this may make you feel good, but it could be counterproductive as they might resent you for it.  You might be better off speaking to them in private about it.


There are all sorts of theories about how to give negative feedback – like the sandwich technique and what not.  But personally, I like to be straight and direct about it – no beating around the bush – and then telling them the reasons why.  And you can follow up with something worthy that they have done or achieved.

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