Speaking well

From MN 58, translated by Andrew Olendzki:

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others
—such speech one also does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Such speech one knows to be
untrue, incorrect,
and unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
— such speech one does not utter.

Such speech one knows to be
true and correct,
but unbeneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others
—such speech one does not utter.

Such speech as one knows to be
true, correct,
and beneficial,
and which is welcome and agreeable to others:
—one knows the time
to make use of such speech.

Why is that?
Because one has compassion for beings.

In sum, we should only say what is true, correct, and beneficial, whether or not it is welcome and agreeable to others. In both of those two cases, we have to gauge the right time to speak; in all other cases, we refrain from speaking, if we are to speak with compassion for other beings.

Interestingly, this sutta includes the case where we might say something untrue or unbeneficial because we feel someone else expects it. This might include letting people think we agree with them by nodding along, even when we know it’s not quite right. We have the option of abstaining; neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

If, to the best of our abilities, we filter our speech for truth and good intentions, we still have to consider whether our words will be welcomed. Even if they’re not welcomed, sometimes it is appropriate to say them. For example, friends could point out inconsistencies to friends, parents should guide their children, teachers strive to find ways to make corrections easy to accept by students.

Andrew Olendzki suggests: Try this out for yourself from time to time as the opportunity arises. Can you catch yourself about to say something untrue, and reflect upon whether it really needs to be said? I don’t think as laypeople we can set for ourselves the task of never saying something incorrect, but we can learn to pay closer attention to what we are saying and perhaps even the motivation behind our saying it. Remember the Buddhists are not as concerned with setting a high standard of always upholding ‘the Truth’, since such an idea is rather abstract and every moment and context is unique, but they are very concerned with investigating carefully our own behaviors and training ourselves to speak with greater integrity.

Andrew puts his finger on the important point – with awareness we can strengthen our integrity as reflected in our speech. We can bring our best intentions and words (and actions) together.

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The right words to the right person

Monks, a talk is wrongly addressed when, having weighed one type of person against another, it is addressed to these five [inappropriate] types of persons. A talk on faith is wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith; a talk on virtuous behavior is wrongly addressed to an immoral person; a talk on learning is wrongly addressed to one of little learning; a talk on generosity is wrongly addressed to a miser; a talk on wisdom is wrongly addressed to an unwise person.

And why is a talk on faith wrongly addressed to one devoid of faith? When a talk on faith is being given, a person devoid of faith loses his temper and becomes irritated, hostile, and stubborn; he displays anger, hatred and bitterness. For what reason? Because he does not perceive that faith in himself and rejoice in it. Therefore a talk on faith is wrongly addressed to a person devoid of faith…[etc. for each of the other wrongly addressed talks, and then the same list in reverse for properly addressed talks on each subject]. – from AN 5:157, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The Buddha is making a narrow point here: don’t give the benefit of your wisdom to people who won’t appreciate it; it will only aggravate them. Most of us have had this experience. We say something that we think is obvious and find that the person listening has an opposing point of view; they might even get angry, sparking an argument. This is a matter of discernment. For every view that we hold, we have to assume that others may hold differing views; there is no truly safe topic of conversation. Even if we are praising someone we see as clearly praiseworthy, someone else will object to that characterization.

We can talk about faith, virtuous behavior, learning, generosity, or wisdom, and these are wholesome subjects for discussion, but we must consider whether we are approaching a willing companion in conversation of each of these topics.

We also have the choice of starting every conversation with a complaint, a criticism, or a report of injustice (usually to ourselves). There’s a certain temporary comfort to be found in assuming the posture of a put-upon citizen. But over days and weeks, this becomes tiresome for everyone. Once again, holding to silence may become an appealing option.

We could think of the advice given in this sutta as a corollary to cultivating wholesome companions. With whom could we discuss generosity? Ethical behavior? Learning as a positive virtue? Wise acts? These are the people we might do well to seek out.

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Listening to ourselves – error

Friends. It appears that the cartoon that I embedded in today’s post shrank in the process of being sent as an email. To see the cartoon clearly, please click the link on the bottom of that email or this one.

Very sorry. It’s a mystery.

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Listening to ourselves

By studying how to create harmony in our homes and communities, we are also learning to generate harmony within ourselves. If we forego using harsh speech with others on a regular basis, our own internal speech is likely to become less harsh. If we set the intention to address others with compassion, we may remember to include ourselves in the circle of those deserving of compassion.

How can we improving our ability to create harmony through skillful speech? We can identify any patterns in our own speech that cause friction with others. Most of us have some characteristic (possibly more than one) that others find aggravating, and sometimes we can be quite unaware of it (them).

 

Once we’re aware of our particular flaw, we can start to correct for it by catching ourselves when we exhibit that behavior.  We can learn to keep silent when the specific “alarm bell” rings alerting us that we’re about to react without thinking. When we fail in our intention, we can apologize and ask for forgiveness. But until we become aware of how we step on others’ toes, we are just stomping around creating problems wherever we go.

To discover how we might become more harmonious with the people we’d like to have as friends, we have to start by listening to ourselves – not just to our words, but to our tone of voice and the intention behind the way we present ourselves.  We also need to observe how our words and actions affect those around us. Do other people listen intently when we speak? Do they come closer or move away? How does the expression on their face change? This isn’t a quick glance, but an ongoing study of how we are affecting those around us moment by moment. We shouldn’t try to make everyone happy all the time, but we can become aware of what dynamic is occurring when we interact with others. If people we respect are responding to us in ways that indicate something less than appreciation, we may need to do a deeper investigation.

If we have a trusted friend with whom we can discuss this sensitive topic, we can find the right time and ask for advice. Sometimes we already have a pretty good idea of which of our habits are displeasing to others, but often we don’t understand why. Only by fearless self-inquiry, with or without the help of a friend, will a clear picture emerge.

Of course, some of us may be free of flaws and generating harmony wherever we go – um, possibly –  but just in case, some reflection is in order.

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Questions and answers

In Buddhist traditions, as with many other religions and cultures, debate holds a special place. Part investigation, part competition, it is common for people to engage in back and forth conversation in an attempt to sharpen their wits and prove their points. The Buddha was often challenged by the proponents of other paths. In the sutta quoted below, he lists four specific types of questions and the appropriate ways to answer them.

Bhikkhus, there are these four ways of answering questions. What four?

(1) There is a question to be answered categorically, e.g. Q: ‘Is the eye impermanent?’ A: ‘Yes.’

(2) There is a question to be answered after making a distinction, e.g.  Q:’ Is the impermanent the eye?’ A: ‘Not only the eye, the the ear, nose, etc. are also impermanent.’

(3) There is a question to be answered with a counter-question, e.g. Q: ‘Does the eye have the same nature as the ear?’ A: ‘With respect to what?’ (with respect to seeing – no; with respect to impermanence – yes).

(4) There is a question to be set aside, e.g. ‘Is the soul the same as the body?’ 

These are four ways of answering questions. – from AN 4:42, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi, with examples from the commentaries (taken from footnotes to the AN)

Much of our public conversation at present is characterized by artificially constructed “yes or no” questions. These guidelines may help us talk with each other in ways that bring more clarity and (perhaps) less volatility.

If someone says “You’re either with us or against us”, we may well ask, “Who is ‘us'”? If someone asks how the universe could have been created without an underlying intelligence, we can put that question aside as unbeneficial. When someone categorizes people as “lifters or leaners”, we might ask whether we haven’t all been both lifters and leaners at different times in our lives.

We can also practice mindfulness by not reacting to every scrap of news (every tweet) that floats across our awareness, at least not right away. An enormous percentage of the daily “noise” of the news turns out to have no consequence by the next day. It’s liberating to realize that we can let things pass by, can take our time deciding what to allow into our consciousness, and what to respond to.

As with many of the practices involving speech, we can always consider the option of listening, of waiting and reflecting before we speak. With practice, we can recognize questions that can and can’t be answered with a yes or no. Even if the questioner’s intention is provocative, we can reply with seriousness. We can use a question to reframe an issue to the benefit of those open to conversation. In this way, we can increase the level of harmony in whatever company we find ourselves in.

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Filed under Compassion, Mindfulness, Speech

What to say?

One of the distinctive traits of human beings which differentiates them from animals, is their capacity for speech. Words can create enmity or friendship, can win or harden hearts, can deceive others or open them to new pathways of understanding. [The opening of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to chapter “Proper Speech” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony.]

Mindfulness of our speech is a limitless field for learning. We are speaking animals, and our talking often continues internally when it stops externally.  One benefit of pursuing an examination of our speech is that we can hear our silences as well as our words.

Monks, when speech possesses five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. When speech possesses these five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. – AN 5:198, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi.

It would be very challenging to pass these five tests each time we open our mouths: Is it the proper time? Is it true? Are we speaking gently? Is it beneficial? And are we speaking with a mind of loving-kindness? It could be awkward to take the time to review these questions before every time we speak. A short-cut may be to prepare by using the last instruction as a general checkpoint. Anything that is said carelessly or in anger will fail the test of being spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. If, when we are about to speak, we use the time it takes to breathe in to check our intention, we may be able to avoid saying something we regret. It is better to not respond “in rhythm”, to allow an unexpected silence, rather than to speak with a negative intention, or to speak without thinking at all.

Speaking off the top of our heads can cause misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Interrupting is almost never “at the proper time”. Even if we feel we are speaking from the heart, it’s important to consider the situation and the listener(s). This will be for our own benefit as well as that of others.

How can we approach the intention to speak well, as described above, as a practice? First, we need to listen to ourselves. It may also help to listen to others, to compare their speaking habits to our own. Some people seem to have difficulty not speaking, even when they should be silent. Others will express their personalities almost every time they speak, for good or ill. What are our characteristics in speaking?

We might focus on truthfulness, or timeliness, or checking for the intention of loving-kindness. Undertaking one of these qualities at a time may make our progress more discernible. Considering silence as a option can also be helpful in many situations.

 

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An anger-eating demon

There is a curious sutta in which an unnamed, deformed demon challenges the followers of Sakka, the ruler of the devas, by brazenly taking Sakka’s seat. As Sakka’s subjects revile the demon, he becomes visibly less ugly and more attractive. How can this be? They report this strange phenomenon to Sakka, that an “anger-eating demon” has claimed his throne. So, Sakka kneels before the demon, presses his palms together in salutation and says, “I, dear sir, am Sakka, ruler of the devas!” Sakka repeats this phrase another two times and each time, the demon becomes visibly more deformed and ugly and then disappears. Sakka re-takes his seat and says:

“I am not one afflicted in mind,
nor easily drawn by anger’s whirl.
I never become angry for long,
nor does anger persist in me.

“When I’m angry I don’t speak harshly
and I don’t praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
out of regard for my own good.”
— the full sutta is here: https://suttacentral.net/en/sn11.22

It’s almost as if the anger-eating demon is an embodiment of a negative quality, and clearly stating the present reality dissipates the “bogey man’s” power. It could be a parallel to when the Buddha is confronted by Mara, the embodiment of delusion, and simply says, “I see you, Mara”, which makes Mara withdraw.

An Australian artist named Sebastian Moody has produced a number of public works. One of them is displayed in an underpass I often drive through:

the-more-i-think-about-it-the-bigger-it-gets-1.png

Don’t we all experience this? If we are worried about something and keep on worrying, doesn’t it grow until it clouds our mental state? If we are planning a happy event and obsessing over the details, don’t we lose perspective? If we go over something (anything) in our minds again and again, doesn’t it become distorted?

Because Sakka is not prone to anger and not vulnerable to the worries of his followers, he is able to see clearly how to bring things back to reality.

The mindfulness technique of naming what is true right now, in a flow, can help us stay in balance.  For example: “tension in the stomach”, “feet on the earth”, “this in-breath”, “this out-breath”, “cool air on the skin”, “slumped posture”, “tense jaw”, etc. By taking this inventory of our direct physical experience as we become aware of it, we can interrupt the flights of fancy that take us out of our present reality. It could be as simple as noting “this body is sitting/standing/walking”, and experiencing that fully.

Another available technique is to shift our attention to the space we are moving through – not the apparently solid objects but the empty space in which everything we can experience exists.

Our minds are difficult to tame. All we can do is accept the challenge and persist in developing mindfulness of the body, feeling, mental states, and phenomena as we perceive them.

 

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Filed under Anger, Causes and results, Mindfulness, Patience