Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(Reprinted with permision)
The personality disorder that is
now called "passive aggression" used to be called "deviling."
I like the term deviling better. It more accurately describes
this peculiarly insidious way one individual strives to harm another.
It also allows for an erupting, active component of attack. Not
all passive aggressions remain passive.
That deviling is a furtive, dual invocation of the shadow's enmity
and the persona's pride comes as no surprise to us. The devilor,
with his sleek self-image and his crippled rage, is too vain to
allow himself to be charged publicly with jealousy and hate, yet
he is so filled with such base emotions that his thin skin is stretched
to capacity. What to do? What to do? He cannot - like the rest of
us - explode like an overfilled balloon in a fit of temper. No,
he must quietly open the measured valve of spite, carefully releasing
his pressured malice. The devilee will not hear the faint hiss.
What often does surprise us is the range of victims of such covert
attacks. People will devil their own children, spouses, parents,
co-workers and neighbors. They will also devil their confidantes
- priests or psychiatrists - people to whom they have appealed for
Unlike overt hostility that announces itself from the moment the
person feels aggrieved, passive aggression proceeds in stealth,
always prepared, in the event it is detected, with an excuse that
seems reasonable or an apology that seems spontaneously genuine.
When the aggression ceases to be passive and identity and intention
are revealed, the devilor concocts a benign motive, claiming that
he was forced to act in the cause of some great communal good.
Deviling is not a fist. It is a poison pen letter or a thousand
petty acts which range from stealing a piece of a picture puzzle
that someone is working on, to losing messages or misdirecting mail,
to making "slips of the tongue" in which confidential information
is "inadvertently" disclosed, to turning off a clock's alarm so
that someone oversleeps, to hiding someone's eyeglasses or keys
- and my favorite from years ago before the age of transistors -
to a neighbor who secretly removed a little tube from the back of
the TV set each workday morning so that his wife couldn't watch
television in his absence. He led her to believe that she was too
stupid to operate the set properly. (In those days there were many
picture adjustments to make.)
But the singlemost terrible element of the act of deviling is
not the strategy or the tactics, it is the ready acceptance of collateral
damage. Deviling is not a surgical strike that confines injury to
a specified target. Let us say, for example, that a man buys tickets
to take his wife and children to a show; and his aunt, who lives
in his home, feels that she, too, should have been included in the
party. She may secretly chafe so much that she spitefully destroys
the tickets. It gratifies her to see the family prepare for an event
that will not occur; and on the appointed evening, when the man
discovers that the tickets are not where he put them, she may affect
alarm and make a grand gesture of helping to search for them. The
family is distraught. Her grievance was with the man - not with
his wife and children; but their disappointment is irrelevant to
her. She may even reason that since he values their happiness and
is distressed to see them so upset, this collateral grief is actually
And even more than this, if it should have happened that the man's
son showed those tickets to a friend, suspicion will fall upon the
son for he will have been "the last person to have seen" the victimed
tickets. The boy is virtually indicted. We may logically know that
the last person to have seen the tickets was the person who destroyed
them; but what protest of innocence from the boy can remove the
presumption of guilt that clings to him? He is blamed. And his misery
is of no consequence to the aunt. When is the last time we heard
of a trial being interrupted by someone who steps forward to confess
to the crime because he cannot bear to subject an innocent man to
Two kinds of deviling are of special interest to pastors and counselors:
one is practiced by a person who is psychologically predisposed
to assert moral or intellectual superiority over others but who,
unfortunately, is as bereft of ideas as he is of integrity. He is
not unintelligent, but he is sorely handicapped by a lack of imagination
and courage and by the additional burdens of envy and contempt.
Thus encumbered, he dare not try to establish his own sangha or
write his own articles, which would unnecessarily expose him to
peer review. He therefore resorts to reconnoitering various groups
until he finds a likely staging area for his show of superiority.
Beyond accessibility, a group requires no other qualification.
In a sangha setting, he initiates the relationship with great
enthusiasm, hailing the group's written works as nothing short of
revelatory, engaging priests in spirited discussions, ingratiating
himself with offerings and with praise. Carefully he elicits personal
opinions about various aspects of the Dharma. Daily he sighs with
enormous relief that he has finally found clerics he can unreservedly
And then, overnight it seems, from out of this foundational relief,
a superstructure of unassailable rectitude rises. From atop it,
he discerns the iniquities and inadequacies the sangha has tried
so cleverly to conceal. As if broadcasting a public-service message,
he accuses and condemns; and the sangha members learn that the joy
he once expressed at having encountered them was not occasioned
by compatibility but by his having found a few more fakes to expose.
Often the quack complaints are ludicrous. I once received a curt
email from a woman who, inflated perhaps with the notion that she
was a reincarnation of Torquemada, accused me of heresy. Heresy?
Zen has no universally accepted dogma and tenets, no single governing
scripture, no Vatican-like council or Pope that sits in judgment
of doctrinal variance. Further, Buddhist scripture sanctions a complete
array of approaches to the divine - from the conservative, 'right-hand'
or solo (single cultivation) path which we follow, to the 'left-hand'
sexually engaged and explicit (dual-cultivation) path of the esoteric
groups. There is virtually nothing under the sun that can be described
as heretical within Buddhism's myriad schools. Members of one sangha
are free to disapprove of the paths of others, but not with the
intention of charging them with heresy, unless, of course, they
are trying to be funny.
There are other forms of stealth. We hear of priests who, soon
after taking formal vows of celibacy, decide to take a "principled"
stand against this requirement and publicly criticize their religion's
hierarchy for persisting in such absurdly medieval practices. They
seek "modernization" and "relevance in contemporary society." When,
we wonder, did these priests first discover that they were members
of a religion whose priesthood was celibate? Surely it was after
they were invested with the dignity of office. Throughout congenial
years in seminary or monastery, they voiced no opposition to the
rule and pretended a readiness to conform their lives to it. Because
they have been so patient in their manipulative strategy, these
'reformers' suppose that no one will notice the ploy, that no one
will ever suspect them of being opportunistic and duplicitous. Naturally,
they see themselves as heroic.
In everyday society deviling individuals may suddenly appear as
"made-to-order" friends, persons we meet who share so many of our
interests, whose generosity exceeds our own, whose intelligence
and refinement both comfort and inspire us. Once we open ourselves
to them, they strike; and we recoil, feeling the sting of their
betrayal, painfully aware that we were much too easily deceived.
In a religious setting, we know these persons did not have a corrective
epiphany. They are as they were from the beginning: people who crave
attention, who need to dominate, who enjoy inflicting pain, who
stalk their prey at night but by day are careful to appear indolent.
The pity is that this peculiar flaw in character, like a cracked
windshield, does not submit to correction. It is always there, distorting
The second kind of deviling is practiced by a person who comes
to a cleric asking for help. Often he will say that he is seeking
guidance but in truth he is seeking authorization to do what he
is already doing or intends to do. Although a cleric may not openly
speak about conversations with him, he is not similarly constrained.
He is free to twist statements out of context - an innocent remark
being deliberately misunderstood so as to give license to an unlawful
or unethical action. A nod of commiseration gains the force of imprimatur,
becoming an official endorsement of the validity of his opinions.
A figurative remark takes on literal construction, a metaphor is
concretized in fact. Before the cleric knows it he has endorsed
euthanasia, divorce, adultery, and putting elderly parents in nursing
A more serious problem may arise with a person who approaches
a cleric in genuine distress. Conveying the details of personal
calamity, he commands much attention during the weeks or months
his life is so unsettled; but then, when finally he is restored
to stability, he feels compelled to make adjustments to the historical
landscape. He now sees himself as a granite monolith - not as the
conglomerate rubble revealed in all those conversational bits and
pieces. He regrets having imparted such intimate knowledge of himself,
of having confessed his guilt or disclosed his vulnerability. Fearing
this detailed information - this cache of weapons stored in the
cleric's armory - which may one day be used against him, he launches
a pre-emptive strike. The attack comes out of nowhere. At about
the same time the cleric is feeling good about having led a person
through some very rocky terrain, he learns that he's been branded
a meddling gossiper, intrusive and shameless in his need to slander
innocent parishioners. The cleric is not a shepherd - he is a sheep
that requires guidance. And his once desperate parishioner must
warn the world of his pastoral imposture.
It is as if someone whose heart had stopped beating were to file
assault charges against the bystander who, using standard resuscitation
techniques, had thumped upon his chest - with such obvious but lamentable
success. The bystander cannot deny that he pounded on the fellow's
chest. The worrisome thing is that any still photograph of the encounter
might be interpreted as evidence of the charge.
The cleric recovers. He or she is usually too busy with sincere
persons to linger in regret. But for the person who cannot resist
the need to be duplicitous, to harm in payment for help, there may
be an unforeseen consequence; for a counselor, once compromised
by such a breach of trust, can never again be of use to him.
Years ago I had a student who claimed he was a struggling writer
and needed Zen to help him through his stressful times. He had heard
that I recommended yoga as part of a spiritual regimen and asked
for some basic yoga instructions. We discussed various books - there
were not then many on the market - and I showed him my favorite
one - an old, out of print book that was particularly rich in yogic
lore. I gave him a printed hand-out, the directions for a dozen
asanas, but he returned the following week saying that when he tried
to focus on a posture, too many questions scattered his thoughts.
He needed more detail, specifically the kind of information that
was contained in my favorite book. He pleaded with me to borrow
it, pledging that he would return it the following week. I lent
him the book; but the next week he said that he was still studying
it at home. When I saw him again weeks later I immediately asked
for the book; but he affected surprise, saying that he had already
returned it. Dramatically he showed me precisely where he had placed
it on the sofa; but I knew that he had not returned the book. I
never saw him again.
Months later I did see a new paperback book on yoga. He was listed
as the author. I was incredulous. I looked through the book and
in various places read uncomfortably familiar passages. I wondered
what I would say to him if he ever contacted me again. A few years
later, from hundreds of miles away, he emailed me asking for advice
about a serious marital problem he claimed he was having. I was
polite but fearing that my response was intended to furnish textual
material for another book, I could give only standard platitudes
about marital obligations.
Email, too, presents extraordinary opportunities for mischief.
Computer scientists are understandably proud of their ability to
trace a document to its source and to authenticate it. They have
devised sophisticated security systems. They encrypt. They decode.
They follow subtle electronic trails that to them are as obvious
as footprints in fresh snow. The technical complexities of such
protection are astonishing - something the Louvre or Fort Knox would
But the average man does not fear the loss of DaVinci's Mona Lisa
that may or may not be hanging in his living room. The average man
is not concerned about the gold bouillon that may or may not be
stored in his basement. He fears the pickpocket on the street or
the waiter who improperly adds a check to give himself an extra
twenty dollars. And so it is with email - the Feds may be prompted
to act in matters of espionage or child pornography, but they are
unlikely to show up to trace the source of an email that purports
to contain someone's allegation that his neighbor poisons cats.
The deviling "pickpocket" version of this computer crime may involve
no more than the printing of two emails, one from one person and
one from another, and then affixing the top of one to the body of
another and photocopying the composite. To the unaided or non-scientific
eye the resulting document appears authentic. The person who accomplishes
this low-tech feat can make any correspondent appear to have written
anything. For his victim, proving otherwise is a prohibitively expensive
matter especially if he may not become aware of the forgery until
months later. A sanctimonious third-party guarantee of authenticity
- of having reproduced correspondence between others exactly as
it was transmitted to him - is usually a devilor's warranty.
When the problem is not authenticity, it may be even more pernicious,
involving a kind of entrapment, a duplicity that allows one person
to shape communication between himself and his victim so that it
fills a predetermined form. It is as if one person is secretly taping
a conversation between himself and another unsuspecting person,
a person whose disposition he well knows. He scripts a dialogue
and cleverly induces his respondent to recite the needed words.
He disguises leading questions and bends responses so that they
seem to follow the torsions of his plot.
The effects of devilment are always sad. We look at the person
who has gone to so much trouble to inflict an injury and say of
him what we often say of a con-man: "If only he had put that much
effort into honest work, he would have made a fortune." But we understand
that it is not merely the need for money that motivates the con
man. It is something else - that secret satisfaction of tricking
others, of making them suffer, of imputing to them some guilt or
despised stupidity that not only absolves him of blame but lauds
him for giving them the fate that they deserved.
For as long as Buddhism has existed, these troublesome people
have caused problems within a sangha or wherever else they go. The
Buddha clearly recognized them and anyone who has to withstand their
assaults can find comfort in his acknowledgments.
From the Dammapada Canto XXI: 291:
He who desires happiness for himself by inflicting injury on others,
is not freed from hatred, being entangled himself in the bonds of
From Canto V: 73, 74:
Unwise is the monk who desires undue adoration from others, lordship
over other monks, authority among the monastic dwellings and homage
even from outside groups. Moreover, he thinks, "May both laymen
and monks highly esteem my action! May they be subject to me in
all actions, great or small." Such is the grasping desire of a worldly
monk whose haughtiness and conceit ever increase.
What do we do, then, when we fear that we're the victim of deviling?
First we need to scrutinize our own psyche, searching for those
feelings of inadequacy that made us vulnerable to flattery, to needing
to be needed beyond some prudent limit. Likewise we reflect upon
our own speech: were we too effusive in our praise, too incautious
in our remarks? Do we need to be more disciplined in our expressions,
avoiding ambiguity and extravagant metaphor? And we must also wonder
whether a fear of positional instability has inclined us to cleave
so strongly to anyone who seems to offer support.
We do not want to retreat from friendship or, when asked for help
or advice, to be inhibited from giving it. Ultimately, we know that
we cannot help others who are in peril without exposing ourselves
to danger. We, too, have to make up our mind to take critical heat
or to get out of the Dharma kitchen.
We ought not to participate in devilment by tolerating it. We
should not silently acquiesce to accusation or savor as fact any
tidbit because it is deliciously prurient.
And when we find a devilor in our midst, what should we do? Do
we assume that his flaw in character will admit to no remedy? Perhaps
it will - but only if he repents of his actions. But there we have
the stymied qualification. It requires courage to confess, and a
devilor, by definition, is a coward. What is needed to change him
is a divine act of Grace.
Sometimes our best course is to pray for this even as we turn
away from him and from his acts.
Not even the Buddha held out much hope for engineering a better
According to Canto IX: 123.
As a merchant who has limited escort, yet carries much wealth, avoids
a perilous road, as a man who is desirous of living long avoids
poison, so in the same way should the wise shun evil.