Category Archives: Speech

A good visitor

In this surprising (to me) sutta, the Buddha gives his monks and nuns specific “do”s and “don’t”s for visiting with lay families. Normally monastics would visit laypeople either to receive a meal or to tend to someone’s needs, physical or spiritual. There are some useful guidelines for us to consider in the sutta:

Monks, possessing five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is displeasing and disagreeable to them and is neither respected nor esteemed by them. What five? (1) He presumes intimacy upon mere acquaintance; (2) he distributes things that he does not own; (3) he consorts for the sake of creating divisions; (4) he whispers in the ear; and (5) he makes excessive requests. Possessing these five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is displeasing and disagreeable to them and is neither respected nor esteemed by them.

Monks, possessing five other qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is pleasing and agreeable to them and is respected and esteemed by them. What five? (1) He does not presume intimacy upon mere acquaintance; (2) he does not distribute things that he does not own; (3) he does not consort for the sake of creating divisions; (4) he does not whisper in the ear; and (5) he does not make excessive requests. Possessing these five qualities, a monk who is a visitor of families is pleasing and agreeable to them and is respected and esteemed by them.  (AN 5:11, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

Most of these recommendations apply equally to ordained and lay people. We can seriously put people off by presuming an intimacy that we haven’t earned through a long relationship.

I can hardly imagine the situation in which a monk or nun “distributes things he or she doesn’t own”, so I’m going to leave the second instruction aside for now.

“Consorting for the sake of creating divisions” is clearly a transgression of one of the right-speech precepts, but one could also create divisions non-verbally, by appearing to side with one individual or group against another.

“Whispering in the ear” is a wonderfully vivid description. It brings to mind palace intrigue or any form of communication that implies secrecy from someone who is present. In any case, it is poor form to whisper to one person while others are present. At a minimum, it implies an in-group and an out-group.

Making excessive requests will make anyone unpopular. We’ve all known people who have asked for more than others wanted to give.

By being aware of these specific actions that we can take or refrain from taking, we can monitor how our visits are received. We can put ourselves in the place of the host(s) and ask ourselves whether we would welcome the behaviors occurring. We can notice when others are particularly good or bad guests. These factors are components of cultivating relationships that support the development of integrity and wisdom, in ourselves and others.

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Filed under Friendships, General, Relationships, Speech

Fair share

When we live with other people, it is common for us to feel we are doing more than our fair share of the communal duties, i.e., keeping common areas clean, shopping, yard maintenance, cooking, dishes, etc. This can be true whether we live with a partner we love unreservedly or with random roommates. Often everyone involved feels they are doing all the work, which is an impossibility. It can be hard to recognize what others do that benefits us.

The Buddha was the leader of a large and diverse community of monks and nuns. The community members arrived from different backgrounds with different customs, and part of their training was learning how to live together in a way that promoted their development in the Dharma.

In our times, an analogy for the effect of living in a monastic community has been described as putting a collection of sharp stones into a jar and shaking the jar until the stones are smooth. Living in close community can wear away our rough edges, if we approach it as a training.

[Anuruddha says] “Surely, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.”

[the Buddha] “But Anuruddha, how do you live thus?”

[Anuruddha] “Bhante, as to that, I think: ‘It is a gain for me, a great gain for me, that I am living with such companions in the holy life’. I maintain bodily acts of loving-kindness toward those venerable ones both openly and privately; I maintain verbal acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately; I maintain mental acts of loving-kindness toward them both openly and privately. I consider: ‘Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?’ Then I set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do. We are different in body, but one in mind. That is how, Bhante, we are living in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes.” (from MN 31, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

The key may be to ask ourselves, “Why should I not set aside what I wish to do and do what they wish to do?”. When we are disposed to love someone, we automatically consider their desires along with our own, but unless we pay scrupulous attention, it is common for our self-centered ways to creep back to the forefront. If we consider the mundane tasks of living as work we’d rather not do, then we inevitably (if unthinkingly) feel that someone else should do them.

One strategy is to view our own acts of deference as gifts, as a practice of generosity. We can recognize when resentment starts rising up and examine its causes. Are we being taken for granted? Is our presence being de-valued? Is our perception clear? If we can calmly discuss divisions of labor, many difficulties can be avoided, but even more can be accomplished if we take the attitude that living together is an opportunity to train ourselves in generosity.

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Showing we care

Giving, endearing speech,
beneficent conduct, and impartiality
under diverse worldly conditions,
as is suitable to fit each case:
these means of embracing others
are like the linchpin of a rolling chariot.
– – from AN 4:32, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The title given to this sutta in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book, The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony, is “Four Means of Embracing Others”. This is how we show others we care, whether they are family members or strangers, participants in a community we are part of or from a group we are suspicious of.

We can think of each of these actions and their opposites to gauge the likely results. When we are generous to others, the mood of the recipients and any others who witness the exchange is likely to be lifted, even if the gift is as simple as a smile. If we send signals that we are protecting what we consider ours, we draw away from others, and they are likely to notice and respond in kind.

Endearing speech is probably the most useful way of neutralizing tension and promoting good will. If our tone of voice carries the clear intention of kindness, it shifts all the conversation in a positive direction. Likewise, if our words are combative or sarcastic, we spread a bad feeling and might cause others to withdraw.

An easy way to practice beneficent conduct is simply to move out of others’ way, whether in a vehicle or on foot. There is an art to creating space for others, and when we practice it, it may not be noticed, but it will have an effect, at least on us. Another type of beneficent conduct is when people help each other out unexpectedly. There were some recent stories in the news of people getting into strife in swift waters and the people nearby forming a human chain to rescue them. Most of us respond when we see others in difficulty, especially if it’s a dramatic situation. But even in mundane ways, we often take up opportunities to be of service to others. We can recognize these moments and appreciate them for the skilful actions they are.

“Impartiality under diverse worldly conditions” – what does that mean? We could think of it as a sense of fairness, of treating others and ourselves as equals. How this is embodied is not always obvious, but it could start with simple politeness.

When these four ways of being are practiced, the wheel of life runs smoothly; and when this linchpin is missing, the wheels are bound to fall off. We can prove this principle in our own lives. No matter what we’re up against, giving, kind speech, respectful conduct and fairness will help set things right.

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Filed under Causes and results, Friendships, General, Generosity, Harmlessness, Relationships, Speech

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

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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