Harmonious speech

After truthfulness, the next subdivision of right speech is speech that is not divisive, that doesn’t set people apart from each other. What could be more relevant today? The temptation to think and talk about “those  terrorists” who are so different from us that they don’t even value life, is all around us. We are invited to fear and condemn “the other”, whether it is jihadists or asylum seekers. Once we allow the view of “us versus them” to take hold in our minds, intentions of ill will are not far behind. For this reason, guarding our speech is a duty we must take seriously if we want to move towards inner peace.

This is not to say that we approve of everyone and everything. We use our discrimination to distinguish harmful acts (of body or speech) from loving ones, generous acts from small-minded ones. We see these as they are; acknowledging them. Then we start the work of NOT going straight on to anger, condemnation, and a desire to eliminate the perpetrators of harmful acts. We can hold immediate realities in our minds without jumping onto the judgment seat. Anger only clouds our thinking, and if peace is to be found, it is in the direction of trying to understand and have compassion for all beings.

What does compassion for harmful beings look like? When the Buddha was confronted with another person’s anger, he saw that it was generating pain primarily for that person. The Buddha acted as a mirror, reflecting the hate back to its source, refusing to engage with it. This is no easy task when we’re hearing about murderers and their victims. At the same time, we should ask ourselves who is served by our response of outrage and vindictiveness?

I don’t have an answer to the question of whether the intensified bombing taking place now is an appropriate military response by nation-states. The question is beyond my ability to understand. But for our own hearts, it seems clear that understanding and patience are preferable to burning hatred. We can also turn our attention to the many compassionate and helpful acts being done by ordinary people everywhere.

So let us all watch our words. Let us be the agents of peace by not contributing to the verbal conflagration taking place around us. We can carve out a zone of sanity by our non-participation in divisive speech.

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In the Pali canon, right speech has four parts: (1) truthfulness, (2) harmonious (not divisive) speech, (3) gentle (not harsh) speech, and (4) meaningful (not useless) speech.

Often the first type of right speech is used as shorthand for all four categories, and as we saw in the previous post (but one) truthfulness is the first principal; if words are not truthful, the Buddha would not speak them.

Right speech is a key to continuous mindfulness: we watch our words for their truthfulness (or un-) with as few lapses of attention as possible. As with doing anything with great care, it’s difficult to maintain awareness, but it sharpens the mind wonderfully.

Truthfulness is the foundation of integrity. Often it’s the first thing we look for when assessing character in other people. If we know that someone is careless with the truth, we are not drawn to them, even if they’re entertaining. When we hear someone say one thing to one audience and then the opposite to another audience, distrust is created.

Being truthful with others helps us to be honest with ourselves. We can get caught up in deluded thinking, justifying ourselves and blaming others, until our perceptions start diverging from consensual reality. If we use right speech, truthfulness in particular, as our guide with others, we may also find ourselves correcting our inner self-talk. When we discover this happening, we know we are on the right track.

Lastly, there is a type of comfort available to us, a confidence, if we have committed to truthfulness in all our dealings with others. When things go spectacularly wrong, here is a raft we can cling to – our own ability to tell the truth, to ourselves and others. It’s not a destination, but can be a home.

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Extra – events in France

Dear friends,

Today I interrupt your regularly scheduled program to reflect on events of the past 48 hours in France.

Many wise and useful things have been said, but this is the basis of my contemplation:

What are they fighting about? About their perception of the world.

These words are taken from a talk by Ajahn Sumedho, “The Need for Wisdom in the World”. It answers the question: Why does anyone fight? People fight because their perception of the world leads them to a position where fighting seems reasonable. The question of what creates those perceptions is impossible to answer fully, and may or may not be useful to pursue.

In Ajahn Sumedho’s essay, he goes on to say:

As human beings we can make our lives into great blessings; or we can become a plague on the landscape…

This provides the foundation of my own response to outrageous events in the world. We can react by dividing the world into “us” and “them” and cling to a mind state of hatred toward the other. Another response is to consider what we can actually do, what our public and private response can be. I have decided that the best I can do is to keep cleaning up my own act; keep the precepts, maintain my sitting practice, choose to seek understanding rather than control, and live so my life blesses (as much as possible) others rather than condemning or criticizing.

So many feelings: shock, outrage, fury, sadness, compassion, determination. Feelings are powerful and should be acknowledged, not denied. At the same time, if we watch these feelings, we can’t help but notice that they are fast-moving. We can get stuck into one or let them all flow through. If we have to get stuck into one feeling, let it be compassion – for all of us.


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What would the Buddha say?

One of the most useful roles of hiri and ottappa (conscience and concern – see previous post) is in protecting our speech. While we might think long and hard before committing a deliberate act, our words sometimes flow out in a torrent with no filtering gates. There are a few different ways in which the Buddha described Right Speech, but let’s start with a checklist. In the canonical text quoted below, the Tathagata is a name for the Buddha, approximately “thus gone”. He frames his lesson to a prince by covering every variant of speech being true or untrue and beneficial or unbeneficial, and then goes on to consider whether the words to be spoken will be welcomed by those who hear.

[1] …such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[2] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[3] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech.

[4] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect and unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[5] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[6] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has compassion for living beings.
– from the Abhaya Sutta, MN 58, translated by Venerables Nanamoli and Bodhi

If we all used these guidelines, we might not speak very often! In four of the six cases, the Buddha doesn’t speak. The only times when he does speak are when his words will be true and beneficial. Give these two conditions, he will still not blurt out his thoughts, but will choose the appropriate time to say something. Appropriateness of context and the listener’s willingness to hear come into play. For example, if we want to say something true and beneficial to a friend, but we know it will be difficult for them to hear it, we can choose a quiet, private time when complicating factors are absent. If we have something true and beneficial to say that we believe will be welcomed, we can still choose a time when the listener can focus on and appreciate these words.

It’s also worth noting that in items 4 and 5, flattery is identified as unskillful speech. Telling people what they want to hear is a temptation to be carefully weighed.

The shorthand checklist we can use is:
— is it true?
— is it beneficial?
— is it the right time?

The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)

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Living with others

Like the Roman god Janus, every person faces simultaneously in two opposite directions. With one face of our consciousness we gaze in upon ourselves and become aware of ourselves as individuals motivated by a deep urge to avoid suffering and to secure our own well-being and happiness. With the other face we gaze out upon the world and discover that our lives are thoroughly relational, that we exist as nodes in a vast net of relationships with other beings whose fate is tied up with our own. Because of the relational structure of our existence, we are engaged in a perpetual two-way interaction with the world: the influence of the world presses in upon ourselves, shaping and altering our own attitudes and dispositions, while our own attitudes and dispositions flow out into the world, a force that affects the lives of others for better or for worse.
– Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_23.html

Our discussion of the ethical training factors of the Buddha’s Eight-fold path begins with acknowledging that we are social animals. We affect others and they affect us, whether we agree to this arrangement or not. It is impossible to insulate ourselves from the influence of other beings, and it’s likewise impossible to shield others from the effects of our words and actions. We can make choices about who we pay more or less attention to and, to some degree, who we spend time with. But as humans, we are embedded in humanity. Given that we will be attracted to some humans and repelled by others, how can we skilfully navigate the many choices that we make every day? What guardrails can we apply to the flow of our words, actions and work?

According to the Buddha, the human world is protected by the “twin guardians”, two forces in the mind that watch over and guide moral behavior. The first guardian of the world is hiri, a word that connotes conscience, moral intuition, and self-respect. It refers to that within the human psyche which knows the difference between right and wrong, between what is noble and ignoble, between what is worthy of respect and what is not. Each of us has within us an innate moral compass, and it is the view of the Buddhist tradition that religion is not the source of this but rather a form by which it is given expression. The second guardian of the world is ottappa, which comprises such notions as social conscience, a cultural or collective sense of morality, and respect for the opinions and the rights of others.

Anything that we do that is wholesome will be done with the support and guidance of these two inner guardians. Conversely, everything we do that is unwholesome can only be done when these moral guides are disregarded.
– Andrew Olendzki in “Removing the Thorn”, p 53 in Unlimiting Mind

We can take a moment now to appreciate the importance of wholesome friends. We are responsible for our own actions, and our own conscience and self-respect act as the primary guardians. At the same time, there are people whom we are reluctant to disappoint, and they perform an additional, invaluable feedback function. If we have a sense of what a respected person in our life would or wouldn’t approve, that knowledge protects us.

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Why behave?

Having spent a few weeks contemplating what the Buddha meant when he instructed us in Right View and Right Intention, we now turn from the “Pañña” (wisdom) portion of the 8-fold path to “Sīla” or the ethical trainings.

While all the aspects of the Buddha’s 8-fold path support and reinforce each other, we investigate the individual steps to help us understand how that happens. Whatever view we hold strongly influences our intentions, which in turn govern how we act in the world. We can also read the situation in reverse order: how we behave can bring light to what our intentions are and what views we hold.

The ethics section of the path is concerned with how we relate to other beings. It is comprised of Right Action, Speech and Livelihood, which we can consider together to start with. First, why do some of us bristle at the word “morality”?

The English word “morality” and its derivatives suggest a sense of obligation and constraint quite foreign to the Buddhist conception of sila; this connotation probably enters from the theistic background to Western ethics. Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics, not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony. In fact, the commentaries explain the word sila by another word, samadhana, meaning “harmony” or “coordination.”
— Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4

This is just one way in which the Buddha’s words are often misunderstood. By applying a western, theistic world view to the teachings, we overlook the fact that the Buddha and his contemporaries were living with an entirely different world view. A hierarchical structure with mankind at the pinnacle was completely foreign in ancient Asia, and can still seem strange to people in other cultures.

So let’s take a step back and consider that if we undertake the goal of creating harmony with our actions, it is a guide with an entirely different feel and flavor from obedience to external orders. If we have the creation of harmony as our goal, we evaluate our potential actions/words primarily in terms of how they affect ourselves and others. We all do this to some degree, but how much weight do we give to the effects of our words and actions on others?

More on this next time.

P.S. I’ve created a “Links” link at the top of the page, to give easy access to some of the places I’ve referred to.

P.P.S. As a reminder:

The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Action, Speech and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)

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Intentional harmlessness

The third aspect of Right Intention on the Buddha’s eight-fold path is the intention of harmlessness. The first two are intention of renunciation and of good will.

The intention of harmlessness is thought guided by compassion (karuna), aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive, and violent thoughts. Compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness. Whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, from http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch3

In practice, the intention of harmlessness is compassion for other living beings, a wish that they not suffer. We recognize that people are fragile and sensitive, even when they appear not to be. We try to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to step out of our own views and make the effort to imagine what other beings might be feeling, what vulnerabilities they may have.

In this, as in other activities, slowing down can be a big help. As Andrew Olendzki has said, “We don’t have free will; we have ‘free won’t’.” This is what I take him to mean: It is impossible to insulate ourselves from our histories and current stimuli (for good or ill), but we can choose to NOT act on an impulse that arises. For me this connects with the idea: “First, do no harm”. When we are unsure about what to do, doing nothing (for a time) is often the best path to take.

Intentions are the link between our views and our behavior. Before any word or action, there is an intention, which we may or may not be aware of. Because our own intentions are sometimes hidden from us, we can only guard against any harmful intention (and appreciate our intentions of harmlessness) through mindfulness that is as continuous as possible. Sometimes it’s only after we act that we see what our intention was. Sometimes it becomes clear in the middle of an act, and sometimes we are alert to our intentions before we act. With practice, we can choose to follow our wholesome intentions and set aside our unwholesome ones.

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