DT-Humane Speech (Pema Chödrön series)

Tonight I’ll continue a series of dharma talks based on Pema Chödrön’s book Welcoming the Unwelcome. Her ninth chapter, titled “Speaking from our Shared Humanity,” deals with the theme of wise speech. What she calls “bodhisattva speech” comes from the heart and communicates respect for oneself and others.

Underlying humane ways of speaking are the Buddha’s instructions for practicing right speech. Instead of rigid regulations or laws, these teachings are more like guidelines for living consciously, compassionately and harmoniously. His list of unwholesome verbal behaviors includes lying intentionally, talking maliciously, speaking harshly, and gossiping.

The Buddha outlined very specifically what lying entails: “Not knowing, [a man] says, “I know” or knowing, he says, “I do not know;” not seeing, he says, “I see,” or seeing, he says, “I do not see;” in full awareness he speaks falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end.”

Usually a “trifling worldly end” has to do with boosting one’s ego. Mark teases me about how I often avoid admitting that I don’t know the answer to a question. Instead, I tend to hazard a guess. The other day, he asked me for the Spanish translation of a can of beans. I answered, “una tina de frijoles.” We both laughed at the image of a bathtub full of beans. I’ve been practicing the mantra, “I don’t know,” and it’s a relief to let go of feeling that I have to know so much.

Besides giving instructions about not lying, the Buddha cautioned his disciples not to repeat slander or speak with an intention to cause discord, because such malicious speech creates divisions among people. We witnessed how vindictive political exchanges during the 2020 elections polarized many voters and discouraged some from voting at all.

Aside from pointing out the consequences of malicious speech, the Buddha described how a person who speaks harshly, “utters such words as are rough, hard, hurtful [or] offensive to others, bordering on anger, [or] not conducive to concentration.”

Despite good intentions and worthy causes, our speech may be inflammatory and divisive rather than unifying. Pema points to the classic example of antiwar protestors who scream, “No more war!” and use their peace signs to bludgeon opponents. Words that are rooted in fear, anger or irritation can provoke strong reactions that hurt our cause more than help it.

Even more prevalent than harsh speech is the unwholesome behavior of gossiping. According to the Buddha, a gossip “speaks at the wrong time, speaks what is not fact, speaks what is useless, speaks contrary to the Dharma…, speaks such words as are worthless, unreasonable, immoderate, and unbeneficial.” Amidst Facebook postings and tweets, we can become lost in stories about people we don’t know and will probably never meet.

Pema describes how she and a friend developed a habit of gossiping about other people and criticizing their actions. After feeling increasingly uncomfortable about this habit, Pema said to her, “Let’s not do this anymore.” Instead of being offended, her friend was relieved to stop gossiping because she too had felt the toxic effects of badmouthing others.

Speaking from the heart stems from a feeling of being interconnected and leads to a sense of intimacy. During forty years of imprisonment at San Quentin, Jarvis Masters has become a dedicated Buddhist practitioner and an advocate for right speech. He tries to use words that defuse potentially explosive interactions among prisoners and guards. He observes that guards who view prisoners as problematic or threatening talk down to them in ways that lead to further alienation. But if a guard speaks from a place of shared humanity, prisoners tend to respond in kind.

It takes time and effort to engage in mutually respectful dialogues. The most recent World Wildlife Fund magazine outlines how the organization’s mission is evolving. In the past, WWF assumed a leadership role in conserving natural resources around the world and viewed development as an adversary to conservation. Now, WWF representatives listen to and support Indigenous and local community leaders as they develop their own projects that combine conservation and sustainable livelihood—projects such as ecotourism and trading non-timber forest products like honey. When custodians of the land are empowered in this way, the ecological benefits are palpable and durable. In the words of one WWF negotiator, “Relationships move at the speed of trust.” And trust is established with wise speech and deep listening.

Sometimes, instead of practicing to renounce unskillful patterns of speech, I find it more motivating to focus on cultivating what the Buddha called four wholesome kinds of verbal conduct: speaking the truth; using words to promote harmony and friendship among people; speaking in ways that are “gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable…;” and uttering such words as are “worth remembering, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.”

Those of us on the dharma path know that in order to speak wisely we must look within at our habitual mental patterns. If I acknowledge my tendency to judge myself and others, I can set an intention to infuse my speech with a humbler, kinder attitude. As Pema says, “When we speak from our own vulnerable good heart, what comes out of our mouth can be more healing than divisive. Instead of making others feel bad about themselves, our speech can help them connect to what is best within themselves.”

Jack Kornfield observes that “[w]hen we are busy, and conflicts or difficulties arise, we can easily find ourselves overwhelmed, or reacting to problems in ways that make things worse. Because experience happens so quickly, unskillful habitual responses can come out of our mouth before we know it. It helps to practice skillful responses when things are easy. That way when things are tough, a healthy pattern is available, already set.”

Zen master Dogen taught that to “speak after reflecting three times” helps us to choose words that are beneficial to both ourselves and others. In order to communicate skillfully, we need to discern when it’s time to speak and when it’s time to stay silent. Discernment helps us sense when to assert firm limits and when to talk softly and gently. Most importantly, we must learn to discern what tends to trigger us. Pema quotes Shantideva, the 8th century Buddhist sage, who advised disciples to “remain like a log of wood” when they were provoked.

What he meant was to pause before speaking and to interrupt the momentum of habitual reactions, which often make a challenging situation worse. If we can stay with the experience of letting heightened energy move through the body, we can slow down and sense space opening up. Then we have an opportunity to discern our inner process and to choose a wise response. In a difficult interaction, this pause for reflection also allows the other person to calm down.

Jack Kornfield has a term for the moment when we stop and release identification with problems and reactions. He calls it “the sacred pause” and explains, “In a moment of stopping, we break the spell between past result and automatic reaction. When we pause, we can notice the actual experience, the pain or pleasure, fear or excitement. In the stillness before our habits arise, we become free to act wisely.”

In general, it helps me to remember an all-too-often broken resolution to listen more than I talk. If I take a deep breath before speaking, I benefit from waiting a moment to consider whether or not my words will be of use. In that pause, I can pay attention to my posture, noting if I am leaning forward with too much energy in a conversation. When my body returns to center, and I sense my feet touching the ground, my speech becomes more authentic.

Pausing also allows me to notice my intention for speaking.  Often there is a clue—a feeling, an impulse, or a thought. If not, I can ask myself, “What is my intention for saying what I am about to say to this person?” It’s best if I can remember to do it before I speak. And it also works well to notice my intention while speaking, or even afterwards. When I become aware that my intention is unwholesome, I have a choice to abstain from speaking altogether, or to reframe what I’m talking about in the midst of speaking.

Becoming aware of our motivation makes a big difference in how we communicate. To cultivate that awareness, Jack recommends asking ourselves a series of questions, “Are we caught up, upset, angry, trying to get even, [and to] win at any cost? …. When there is difference or conflict, do we genuinely want to hear about the concerns of the other? Are we open to learn, to see other perspectives?”

*Take a moment to turn inward. Close your eyes and reflect on your own wholesome and unwholesome habits of speech. What are your intentions for right speech?

Refining our capacity to speak skillfully is an ongoing practice. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche told Pema that to grow in wisdom she had to “learn the hard way”—through trial and error, by not getting it right. She suggests experimenting with speaking from a place of shared humanity, gradually learning to adapt to different situations and seeing that what works with one person may not work with another. When we are interacting with complex human beings, all we can do is try our best to speak from a kind, awake heart.