SuttaCentral

Let's Talk About Being "Non-Judgmental"

So, I would like to continue the discussion, maybe disagreement, that @Joe.C and I have found ourselves in on another thread.

I am looking to discuss this idea of being “non-judgmental.” It is my opinion that this idea doesn’t truly exist in the form it is sold to people. If anybody would like to join this discussion, I am welcome to be schooled on this topic from both sides of the aisle, since my understanding is that this is a contested topic, and I think it would be interesting to discuss it.

5 Likes

Warm greetings,

Please see MN 19. In this Sutta the Buddha before full enlightenment divides his thoughts into two classes: the unwholesome and the wholesome. This is using self judgment. He sees the harm in the unwholesome and then abandons these thoughts. He sees the benefit of the wholesome thoughts and allows those to remain.

This process of self examination and discernment led to his full awakening.

If the word “judgement” has a bad connotation, how about being wisely selective and discerning?

With metta,
Ayya Suvijjana

11 Likes

Thank you Ayya for that input! This reference to the text reinforces in a way my own thinking.

I am of the opinion that we must constantly be judging. Not necessarily in a negative way, as in “this suck or that sucks,” but looking at things as either beneficial, or not beneficial … or something along those lines.

I personally think that the contemporary Buddhist (especially western, or “Americanized” versions) leaning of being “non-judgmental” is not actually found in early texts. I think that choosing to be non-judgmental, is indeed, a judgement. So, in my mind, one can ever truly be “not judging.”

1 Like

In classical Buddhism, there was the concept of tolerance (Skt. ksanti) that involved being detached from negative judgments. The examples that pop into my mind are avadana stories. There’s the story about the ascetic who was dismembered by a jealous king because he was liked by the king’s harem.

There’s also the common description of the Buddha’s equanimity, a person could be rubbing incense on one arm and another person could be cutting the other arm, and he’d have no reaction emotionally to it. I guess you could describe it as absolute stoicism.

In bodhisattva literature, the paramita of ksanti involves tolerating people’s behavior, even when it’s personally abusive. Rather than resenting it or retaliating in kind, they are exhorted to consider the person as mentally ill. (I personally think this could be the origin of the Christian “turn the other cheek” ethic.)

I’m not sure if this fully addresses what you mean by non-judgmental in a modern context. It usually refers to judgments that are arbitrary or don’t serve any good purpose like those connected to sexism, racism, etc. It has gotten a bit out of hand in American culture (and as in all things American, it has turned into a tug-of-war between two extremes).

7 Likes

Yes! I think what you are describing to me is like equanimity, and makes total sense. But, even then, you don’t have to like it internally, you just happen to not be commenting on it, or being bothered by it externally. Which like you mentioned the modern context (what I am mostly looking at here) and how we see this thinking proliferate is a “I create my own world, let me go inward, and focus on my internal reactions to things” or some wellness-inspired version of that. What this does, in my mind, is create an opportunity to retreat from real life, or real-world problems in the name of being non-judgmental or equanimous.

1 Like

Yes. Post-modernism was originally intended to undercut arbitrary value judgements, but it’s been turned around and made into a weapon by the target audience from what I’ve seen the past couple decades. “Oh, there’s no absolute truth, you say? No actual morality? So, I can be as delusional and evil as I want? Great, thanks for the rationalization I needed!” It’s a really bad situation reminiscent of 1930s Europe.

When it comes to ordinary social judgment, it does seem like a basic function of human society and culture. It’s a bit like the immune system in a person’s body, except it polices people in social situations. Like the immune system, it usually functions well and keeps us healthy, but sometimes it goes haywire and becomes self-destructive. So, we have to exercise proper judgment about our judgments.

I heard a story once from someone who visited Japan a long time ago. They were a second-generation Japanese American, so they were really American in culture. When they made the mistake of eating on a subway platform, they got lots of hard stares from the natives in the crowd around them. They later learned that it’s considered bad manners to eat in a public place. Why? It contributes to littering, and Japanese culture is obsessive about orderliness and cleanliness. So, this social judgmental about eating in public was used to discourage littering!

3 Likes

This is correct, there is a tendency for some to do this in the name of mindfulness or equanimity. There is in some situations a place for an equanimous response but it has an agenda- the removal of suffering. This is instructed in the suttas:

“In the same way, the monk, when not loaded down, does not load himself down with pain, nor does he reject pleasure that accords with the Dhamma, although he is not infatuated with that pleasure. He discerns that ‘When I exert a [physical, verbal, or mental] fabrication against this cause of stress, then from the fabrication of exertion there is dispassion. When I look on with equanimity at that cause of stress, then from the development of equanimity there is dispassion.’ So he exerts a fabrication against the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the fabrication of exertion, and develops equanimity with regard to the cause of stress where there comes dispassion from the development of equanimity. Thus the stress coming from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the fabrication of exertion is exhausted & the stress resulting from the cause of stress for which there is dispassion through the development of equanimity is exhausted.”—MN 101

There is a place for ‘bare awareness’ as a modality of mindfulness:

"The intuition by Ñånaponika Thera that “bare attention” (or
“bare awareness”) is a valid modality of mindfulness practice
appears to be quite accurate. Such practice requires stepping back
from the usual involvement with experience by way of cultivating
receptive and non-interfering mindfulness. "—Analayo

2 Likes

Thanks! I was actually hoping you would respond @paul1

I am somewhat more aligned with how Thanissaro Bhikkhu talks about bare awareness. I know Nanaponika and Analayo both explain it a bit differently.

“…because of the modern tendency to equate mindfulness with bare awareness or bare attention, we have to look particularly at what dependent co-arising has to say concerning the nature of attention and consciousness (which is often confused with bare awareness) and their relationship to right mindfulness. The first lesson is that neither of them is bare. In the untrained mind, each is conditioned by intentional activity—through the factor of fabrication, and the sub-factor of intention in name-and-form—so that by the time they come into contact with sensory data, they are already preconditioned by ignorance to receive and attend to those data in a particular way. Even in the mind on the path they are still preconditioned, because the purpose of knowledge in terms of right view is to condition consciousness and attention in another direction, toward the ending of suffering. Only when ignorance is totally eradicated, at the culmination of the path, is there an experience of unconditioned awareness. Until that point, consciousness and attention are inevitably purposeful in aiming at happiness: unskillfully in the untrained mind; with increasing skill in the mind on the path” [edit: I forgot to add the last paragraph that helps with context]

Microsoft Word - Right MindfulnessD1.doc (accesstoinsight.org)

It’s essential, I find, to judge right from wrong. Still, who can claim to know the ultimate truth?

1 Like

A conceptual place should be made for ultimate reality in the mind from the early stages. That means separating samsara or conditioned reality from the practice, which even in its simple acquisitions of dhamma turns the mind towards nibbana. So there should be two realities.

In MN 19 the Buddha-to-be describes his experience of separating right from wrong which led to awakening. Even before he had experienced awakening he could see thinking right thoughts leads to samadhi and nibbana, so this is a case where insight precedes serenity:

“I discerned that 'Thinking imbued with renunciation has arisen in me; and that leads neither to my own affliction, nor to the affliction of others, nor to the affliction of both. It fosters discernment, promotes lack of vexation, & leads to Unbinding.”

1 Like

If there is lust in the mind, one knows there is lust by oneself. This truth need not be ascertained by another.

Similarly, when one pay attention to the cause leading to lust, one knows for oneself that it is the cause.

When lust ceases due to the cessation of the cause, one knows that by oneself as well.

With the view straightened, one thinks, speaks, acts and lives accordingly. One practices cessation earnestly, mindfully, with joy, tranquillity, bliss and equanimity without lapses.

Thus, understanding lust, its cause, its abandonment, its cessation, experiencing mind without lust and developing the path leading to cessation; the ultimate truth, can all be known by oneself.

1 Like

Buddha is definitely judgemental when He defines what is unwholesome and what is wholesome; what should be done and what should not be done; what is possible and what is impossible.

2 Likes

New England was settled by Puritans fleeing Laud and Wentworth. Virginia was settled by Cavaliers fleeing Cromwell and the Saints. This has made us a people of extremes, radicals in the north, conservatives in the south. If you have doubts about reincarnation, contemplate American politics. . .

2 Likes

I personally think that “judgment” often means “discernment + conceit + reward / punishment”. The discernment is the baby, the rest is bath water.

1 Like

Ah… Interesting topic.

The questions arise then. Maybe a wise person can answer?

Who is judging then? Is there any being that can truly judge the world/things? How can one judge without phasa (influence of contact of senses)?

If there is, then how can one relate the Buddha teaching of Anatta (selfless)? Also, how can one relate to teaching of dependent of origination, that all things arise due to conditions and cease due to conditions?

This gets to the heart of the path and it’s a source of direct experience to note the cycle of impermanence at every opportunity as the mind is conditioned by survival to choose only the ripest input. Everything the mind looks at it assumes the illusion of continuity, meaning the thing will stay in its present form, when in fact there’s an imperceptible erosion going on. This balances that tendency and results in insight because it’s an experience of reality, that’s what insight is. To achieve this there has to be conscious counter-conditioning. There is an expanded reality beyond the present moment due to the memory component of mindfulness.

The cycle of impermanence:

Cycle of impermanence 1

Seen in the ageing of rock stars at different stages of life:

1 Like

And here we have the nub of it. Being non-judgmental is a part of the path, it is useful in some circumstances, but it becomes a shorthand for the whole path. Why? Historically, I’d look to Christ’s “judge not” (which has inculcated a respect for non-judgement in western cultures), Krishnamurti (from whom we get the “bare awareness” idea), and the modernist influences on the vipassana movement (which valued “objective” observation because it is “scientific”.)

Where is non-judgment useful? Well, one example given in the suttas is where someone visits an ashram, hears a teaching or idea, and doesn’t really understand it, or how it relates to the Buddha’s teaching. So, “neither accepting nor rejecting” they inquire into the meaning of it. This refers to a temporary suspension of judgement, an act of epistemological humility, and an acknowledgement that we do not always have the capacity to make a meaningful judgement.

This is not the only context where it’s good to be non-judgemental, but it nicely illustrates the idea.

5 Likes

Being judgemental as in making commentaries on what one experienced based on one’s preferences is not encouraged.

However, judging the situation as in investigating the cause of mental phenomena, deliberating on its destiny and then decide on the next course of action is. This was similar to how the Buddha instructed Rahula.

Can you provide a reference in the suttas?

Because I wonder how one lives their life as it occurs in reality by this advice. Does one, as their dentist is drilling into a tooth and causing pain, say nothing about this?

I think in Migasala Sutta, the Buddha clearly said no one can judge another’s attainment, except the Buddha himself. So with this aspect, we ought not to be judgemental.

But with others such as moral issues etc., I think personal judgement is important. Let’s just treat it as “wise consideration”.

2 Likes