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Buddhism and Me: Right Speech 
27th-Jan-2012 01:20 pm

1. Introduction
2. The Three Refuges
3. The Four Noble Truths
The Eightfold Path:
4. Right Understanding
5. Right Intent

When one feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do.

― Buddha Gotama

And so we move to the part of the Eightfold Path that deals with Ethical Conduct. These aspects of the Path are simple in their codification as lists of behaviours, which is helpful for me because following the tenants of right speech, action and livelihood is remarkably difficult to keep up at all times. Behaviour, however, is in a constant feedback loop with my mental state; if I speak or act out of anger, hate or fear, I cultivate those unhelpful emotions.

It’s hard, because speech is such a natural, automatic part of our lives that it’s all too easy to speak without thinking. Most people, I’m sure, speak without thinking first. I know that my own speed of thought sometimes is so much slower than my speed of speech, that you can clearly tell when I’m being mindful about my speech and when I’m not. And yet, what I say is so important that it’s dangerous to not be mindful of it.

This has been illustrated for me a few times over the years, when I’d say something without thinking and the consequences have been serious, for the people I hurt with my words and of course, for myself. I have lost friends after a glib tweet – no exaggeration.

And because it’s so hard for me, this is why I commissioned the bracelet in the first place – so I could have a constant reminder of how the Buddha recommended I speak, in accordance with the principle of minimum harm. This is what the large beads represent.

In the Pali Canon, Right Speech has four parts. I have five beads on my bracelet, which originally started as a mistake of my own, but I like to stick with. The four parts laid down by the Buddha are as follows:

  1. Abstain from false speech: lies and deception
  2. Abstain from slander, or speech that causes disharmony and emnity
  3. Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language
  4. Abstain from idle gossip

I’ve added one in the middle: – speaking at the right time. The five beads on my personal practive bracelet, therefore, represent to me (not quite in the same order) Speaking truth, speaking kindly, speaking at the right time, speaking with good intention, and speaking productively.

Speaking the Truth

(bead: obsidian)

Really, there’s not a whole lot to say about this, except to point to the quote I started this post with: In a practice that is all about, that revolves around waking up and becoming free from delusion, deception is the closest thing I can come to the root of all ‘sin’ – if you’ll excuse a word that doesn’t really have a place in this discussion.

If I can lie to you, then nothing I can ever say or do can be trusted.

If I can lie to myself, then I can convince myself that anything is acceptable.

If I can hide in my own delusions, I cannot truly say I am walking the Path towards Awakening.

There’s more to speaking the truth than not telling straight up lies, of course – look at the affirmation required in UK courts, for example: The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Leaving something out could be deception. Silence on a matter in which I hold the truth could be the same as propagating the lie.


Speaking Kindly

(bead: malachite)

I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that no matter how much truth is in what I say, there’s a difference between shouting a rant from a soapbox, and presenting my argument for reasoned discussion. One certainly attracts a lot of attention, but often it’s more shouting, without listening. I’ve been involved in many altercations that have just been two sides shouting at each other, and sometimes that’s cathartic for either side? More often it’s hurtful, spiteful, and quickly devolves into behaviour that beyond merely shouting at each other.

Conversations are more productive than arguments. They are less stressful, they are easier to listen to, and they start with the assumption that the other party is a person, too.

You see a lot of tone arguments being thrown around in internet discussion – and I do not mean to say that it’s acceptable to dismiss what someone says because of tone. It’s not acceptable. Nor is it productive. But if you treat discussion like warfare, then it’s worth acknowledging the benefits of it giving that ammunition to your opponent.

I don’t want to treat discussion like warfare. I want to understand the person I’m conversing with, and I want communication and interaction with my fellow being to be as pleasant, as harmless, and as as full of love as can be managed.

And to do that without sounding condescending? That’s a challenge.


Speaking at the Right Time

(bead: resin sculpted trilobite)

Even if something is the truth; even if I word something in the most compassionate, reasoned way possible, there’s a right and wrong time for everything. Sometimes it’s as simple as “don’t dump your girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.” Sometimes it’s “you are dealing with crap in your life right now so telling you this bad but non-urgent news can wait.” Sometimes “I’m leaving this conversation in five minutes so perhaps I shouldn’t start accusing you of something that needs a long discussion.”

This also means that when it is the right time, I should talk. Sometimes silence is unhelpful. Procrastination can be harmful too.

I’ve caused myself and others enough suffering by not saying something at the right time. It never came up! I was waiting for the opportune moment! Excuses, excuses.

Right speech is speech at the right time. When it’s appropriate, and not before or afterwards.


Speaking with Right Intention

We’ve done right intention. It’s always a good idea to bear intentions in mind, in actions, in livelihood and in speech. I’ve mentioned it’s been a struggle for me, but right speech is in general a challenge for someone who loves the sound of her own words as much as I do.

Sometimes I feel that something needs to be said to someone.

Sometimes I examine that ‘needs to be said’ idea.

And yes, sometimes I do find that what I mean is “if I say something to this person, then something positive and beneficial might come from this. Sometimes, though, it’s because I’m hurting and I want that person to hurt. A perfectly human and understandable reaction; who hasn’t lashed out? It’s just not helpful. Right speech is speech that comes from Right Intention.

The intent of renunciation. The intent of harmlessness, the intent of loving kindness.

If my words don’t come from these roots, I don’t need to give them the power of being said.


Refraining from gossip

(bead: ceramic with writing.)

This one’s very personal to me.

And it’s bloody hard.

Gossip is a way of reinforcing social bonds between two people through the use of a third. And social bonds are important. Friendship is important. But when it comes at the cost of perpetuating stories about someone else, I’ve been trying to turn away from it.

It took me a lot of work until I could stand to be alone in a room next to people who were talking, without being convinced they were talking about me. It took me a while before I could hear the words “we’ve been talking about you” without going into a panic attack. Sometimes I still get it. This has been a struggle for me.

So, my aversion to gossip? Not always rooted in the healthiest of origins, I admit. And yes, sometimes I find myself talking about someone in not the kindest of lights. Sometimes I open a floodgate of unmindful venting about a person who I believe has wronged me. Sometimes I’m a hypocrite.

This is why I have the bracelet; to remind me.


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29th-Jan-2012 03:23 am (UTC)
Judaism prohibits gossip in very strong terms, and it is pretty much universally acknowledged as the one prohibition that almost everybody breaks. Not that this makes it okay, but it does highlight how incredibly difficult it can be to avoid gossiping.

There was a thing a couple years ago to try to get people to abstain from gossip for a period of two hours every day for a week. I was having trouble taking that seriously for a while, but I think I've come to appreciate its potential good effects; if nothing else, it means that during that two-hour period, you have to at least pay attention to what you're saying -- and if you can put it off for two hours, it can make you reevaluate whether you really need to say it at all.
29th-Jan-2012 04:29 am (UTC)
I like that idea. To set aside a specific time and work on it. This is what meditation is to mindfulness practice, of course - the creation of a safe space for nothing but mindulness.

I think I can definitely see the value in setting aside time for not gossiping, to literally practice living without it.

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