On January 3, just after being sworn in as the first Palestinian-American congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) was caught on record referring to President Donald Trump as a “motherfucker” in calling for his impeachment. Immediately, a swarm of comments demanding an apology flew in on the winds of social media, and a counter-swarm rose to her defense.
President Donald Trump tweeted that Rep. Tlaib had “dishonored herself and her family” with her use of foul language. The irony was pointed out in a heartbeat, as people posted quotes of Trump saying “grab them by the pussy” or “Listen, you motherfuckers” in a reference to China, while others highlighted his frequent use of insulting, misogynistic language. Even Samuel Jackson, noted for his use of the word in question across several Hollywood films, chimed in in support of Tlaib.
But hypocrisy is a separate issue from the question of whether or not cursing is morally wrong—or in the Buddhist vernacular, whether cursing violates the Buddha’s teachings on right speech.
Before I continue, full disclosure: I recently spent two weeks in Mexico, where I bought and frequently wore a T-shirt that had a picture of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata saying, “Chinga Tu Madre, Donald.” (Let’s just say the words on the shirt have much in common with Tlaib’s comment, and that it was very popular with locals, who regularly greeted me with laughter and thumbs-up signals.)
I did have some qualms about the shirt, though. And they echo the objections to Tlaib’s remark: am I sinking to Trump’s level? Is this counterproductive?
So I went back to the Buddhist sources for some guidance and asked, “Did the Buddha ever use impolite or harsh language?” The answer: yes, he most certainly did.
In one case, the Buddha was discussing Brahmin priests’ pride over their caste purity and decided to take them down a peg with an illustrative joke about the sexual habits of dogs (in the Dog Discourse, AN 5:191). The Buddha also satirized ideas about God, telling an elaborate comedic myth that presents Mahabrahma, or the Great Brahma, the Creator God, as a deluded, arrogant, and clueless divinity (DN 11). Then there was the time in the Discourse on Devadatta (AN 8:7) when he said Devadatta, his cousin who wanted to hijack the sangha [community] for his own ego, was destined to be reborn in hell.
As calm, loving, and magisterial as many of the Buddha’s words are, he also chose at times to use such shockingly harsh or impolitic language. As the Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu pointed out in an interview for Tricycle, the Buddha “didn’t belong to the school of thought that views upsetting remarks as necessarily harmful. When he saw that someone’s defilements were ridiculous, he had no qualms about holding them up for ridicule.”
At first glance this might seem to contradict the Buddha’s statement in the Brahma Net Sutta (DN 1) that one should speak words that are “soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing, and pleasing to people at large.”
Even among early Buddhists, the tension here raised some issues, as shown in the Sutta to Prince Abhaya (MN 58). In that sutta, the leader of the Jains, Nigantha Nataputta, sends Prince Abhaya to try to trip up the Buddha by getting him to denounce all speech that is “unendearing or disagreeable to others” and then challenges him with a “gotcha” question about the harsh words he used about Devadatta.
But the Buddha surprises the prince and says that he will not denounce all disagreeable speech. Instead of giving a categorical yes or no answer about the permissibility of using rude or unpleasant speech, he lays out a different standard. “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others,” the Buddha tells Prince Abhaya, “he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.” In other words, if you don’t have anything nice to say, just make sure you say it at the right moment.
So the Buddha’s guidelines on right speech place a higher value on the truth, merit, and timeliness of our words than on how polite they are. This is consistent with the rest of the Buddha’s teachings, which judge actions by one’s intentions and skillfulness.
Still, while the Buddha used strong words, I did not find any examples from the Pali Canon of the Buddha using outright profanity. I did not have to look far, however, before I found Buddhist masters who did. Chinese Zen masters as early as the 9th century took to swearing as way to provoke awakening and change in their students.
To take one example, the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, Linji Yixuan (Jpn. Rinzai Gigen), was once asked what “the true person with no rank” (the enlightened mind) was. He replied, “What a shit-wiping stick!” Yunmen Wenyan (Jpn. Ummon Bun’en) enjoyed Linji’s enlightening profanity so much that he repeated the motif, saying once, when questioned, that Buddha was “a dry shit-stick.”
The tales of the Zen masters are rife with examples of them yelling, swearing, and using insults or theatrical gestures. All of these behaviors are obviously dangerous interpersonal choices, yet Zen tradition affirms that they can be used therapeutically by one who knows the trick and whose motivations are pure. (The tradition also warns about abusing these examples.)
And recently, the idea that profanity or impolite speech can at times be skillful seems to have received support from scientific studies. According to Psychology Today, “instead of thinking of swearing as uniformly harmful or morally wrong, more meaningful information about swearing can be obtained by asking what communication goals swearing achieves . . . [such as] joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression.”
After pointing out that swearing can have a cathartic effect that helps to manage pain, the article continues, “Despite this empirical evidence, the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media.”
In the case of Rep. Tlaib, one could argue that her use of harsh language had constructive intentions. We would certainly be mistaken to take her profanity as a more serious issue than the political and moral crisis she is deploying it to address. While she may have harshly rebuked President Trump, she also provided an outlet for the pain that many people have felt as a result of his policies and speech. For some, her use of profane speech was cathartic and motivating and was experienced by many as offering healing and hope, despite it being a case of potty-mouth. In that, there may have been a hint of the Zen master.
Of course, however, we do not have the omniscient eye of a Buddha that would allow us to come to a definitive judgment. We can only guess at Tlaib’s intention or speculate about the possible ripple effects from or backlash to her comment. But when it comes to our own words, we can have more insight.
It would seem wise to be careful with harsh language—and doubly careful about the intentions with which we speak it. We should remember that the biting or crude remarks cited above were all carried out by Buddhist masters who practiced for decades to purify their hearts and learn how to communicate skillfully.
So what about my T-shirt? Well, as profane as it was, the Mexican locals who saw me wear it seemed to interpret it as a gesture of solidarity and humanity, not as an offense, and everywhere I went, it provoked smiles, laughter, and warmth. The experience reinforced my hunch that profanity itself is empty, neither good nor bad: it all depends on the m0!#%rf*cking context.
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