In first establishing himself
In what is proper
And only then teaching others,
The sage will not be stained. [i.e. one’s reputation will not be stained]
As one instructs others,
So should one do oneself:
Only the self-controlled should restrain others.
Truly, it’s hard to restrain oneself. (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
“Do as I say, not as I do” is a losing strategy; it’s the equivalent of instructing others when our own knowledge is incomplete or wrong. Because these verses refer to self-control, they point to the question of how deeply we are established in our ethical standards. Do we show great attention to detail regarding our speech and actions? Do we avoid speaking when angry? Can we identify a beneficial motive in our hearts when we act?
It is generally true that actions speak louder than words, that is, how people behave in the world demonstrates their character better than what they might say in a particular situation. It’s often pointed out in the Pali canon that we can’t know people well unless we live closely with them for a long time, noticing how they behave in a variety of situations with different people. If we observed ourselves as another person might, what would we notice?
This lovely story about a Zen monk called Ryōkan illustrates the point that our actions are more powerful than words:
Ryōkan never preached to or reprimanded anyone. Once his brother asked Ryōkan to visit his house and speak to his delinquent son. Ryōkan came but did not say a word of admonition to the boy. He stayed overnight and prepared to leave the next morning. As the wayward nephew was lacing Ryōkan’s straw sandals, he felt a warm drop of water. Glancing up he saw Ryōkan looking down at him, his eyes full of tears. Ryōkan then returned home, and the nephew changed for the better.
Zen story from Soul Food, edited by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman (p. 81)
Few of us would know how to behave in such an awkward and challenging situation. The monk in the story did what he always does, showering people with love and compassion.
Still, we can take care not to get out in front of our own abilities, worldly or ethical, in our dealings with others. Meditation teachers are usually conscious of not teaching “from a book” but grounding our teaching in our own experience and understanding. We are all teachers in some ways and also all students in some ways. Remembering these two truths can help to keep us humble, open, and compassionate.