Right Speech – 12/26/2016

Over the past weeks, as we review components on the Noble Eightfold Path, we have discussed how the wisdom of Right View (or Understanding) and Right Thought (or Intention) can help us live more skillfully in our daily lives.  Tonight’s topic is Right Speech, which falls under the category of morality on the Eightfold Path.

When I join fellow meditators in taking a vow of silence during month-long retreats, I am aware of how that vow protects our practice, allowing us to focus our energy inwardly and promoting deep states of concentration. At the end of retreats, while we practice speaking mindfully, I face the challenge of staying connected with emotions and physical sensations. Have you noticed how hard it is to stay embodied and grounded while talking?

Well aware of the pitfalls of verbal interaction, the Buddha gave various instructions for practicing Right Speech.  Instead of rigid regulations or laws, these instructions are more like guidelines for living consciously, compassionately and harmoniously.

When he was listing ten kinds of wholesome and unwholesome behaviors for some Brahmin householders, the Buddha reminded them that the roots of unwholesome conduct are greed, aversion and delusion. He divided unwholesome behaviors into three categories; three are physical [killing, stealing and engaging in sexual misconduct]; three are mental [coveting what others have, bearing ill will, and holding wrong view or distorted vision]; and four are verbal: 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. My husband can report that I avoid admitting when I don’t know the answer to one of his questions. Instead, I tend to hazard a guess. If we are speaking Spanish together, I like to invent so-called “creative responses” for forgotten phrases or vocabulary words. Recently 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. My 90-year-old mother is one of my teachers in this practice. Her memories are increasingly vague, and when I ask her about events, she often acknowledges, “I can’t remember.”

Like other Buddhist precepts, the injunction against lying is a guideline, not an absolute.  Sometimes words that are scrupulously honest seem unnecessary and unkind. Probably all of us have withheld some truth with an intention to protect others from difficult or overwhelming news. When one of my friends was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he asked a mutual friend of ours how her father had died. She decided not to tell him that her dad had suffered terribly from that very form of cancer.

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. In political campaigns, candidates regularly tell reporters negative rumors about their opponents, without checking facts about the slander that they are spreading, or worse, they willfully distort their adversary’s words or actions. The damage can be painful and misleading. The result of malicious verbal behavior is that many potential voters are so skeptical and disillusioned about the claims of political leaders that fewer and fewer people vote in elections.

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.”

Often harsh words stem from ignorance. Years ago, I witnessed a nonverbal student with autism learning to type on a computer keyboard. Among his typed messages was the statement, “I am not stupid.”  For over a decade, Jarrod had listened to people commenting about his low level of intelligence and talking in front of him as though he didn’t exist. Now that he has a respectful audience for his communication, Jarrod no longer has angry outbursts. In fact, he writes poetry and exhibits his drawings and paintings in galleries. He has proven how inaccurate those harsh comments were.

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 so many Facebook postings, tweets and text messages, the opportunities to gossip are multiplying.  We can become lost in stories about people we don’t know and will probably never meet. It can be helpful to note our curiosity about other people’s private business, especially if it involves a scandal. If someone has just told us a tasty morsel of gossip, we have a choice about whether to ask questions to continue the conversation or to steer the dialogue towards a more wholesome topic.

[In Sutta 58,] when he was debating about Right Speech with Prince Abhaya, the Buddha recommended saying what is true, correct and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome to others.

I have been reflecting upon what criteria determine whether something we want to say is of benefit or not. While I was teaching a music therapy seminar in Spain, one student arrived without handing in any homework.  Her class presentations revealed basic misunderstandings about the method we have been practicing. When her classmates attempted to give her feedback, she lashed out defensively, alienating members of the group, and she rejected my attempts to give her guidance. At the end of the seminar, I made the difficult decision with my co-teachers to suggest, in a private interview with the student, that she discontinue the training. Despite her angry response and her refusal to listen to our reasons, I spoke the truth for her own sake, as well as for the benefit of the group.

When we want to say something that is unwelcome, it can be difficult to discern whether or not our speech will be beneficial. At such times, it’s useful to notice our habitual patterns: withdrawing, holding back, feeling paralyzed with confusion, or moving forward.  The pattern may differ depending on whether or not the conditions feel supportive.

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 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.

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 [quote] “gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable…;”  and uttering such words as are “worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.” [unquote]

Let’s take a moment in silence to consider which of these wise and beneficial patterns of speech we might cultivate for ourselves.

Are there any questions or comments about this step on the Noble Eightfold Path?