Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

_________

*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.

Skillful Speech–Part One: What Jesus Taught

 
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . .
     a time to keep silence and a time to speak. . .
                        –Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b (NRSV)

 

I sometimes find it difficult to know when to speak up and when to bite my tongue. It seems that controlling what one says is one of the hardest things to master.  

These days many people are examining the problem of vitriolic speech  in our culture, talk so inflammatory that it is comparable to throwing sulfuric acid in another’s face. Some claim that caustic speech in the media is harmless because

Fighting Hippos–Photo by Melissa Schalke–Dreamstime.com

it’s only “entertainment.” Others decry the loss of a more genteel way of expressing ourselves. People on both sides value the freedom to speak openly in a democracy.

Rather than focus on legal dimensions or proper etiquette, I would like to look how we use words from a spiritual perspective.

Twisting the truth is as ancient as Adam and Eve, who both used words to shift blame away from themselves: when caught in disobedience, Adam blamed Eve, and in turn, Eve blamed the snake. Although their words may have seemed logical at the time, they were not able to hide the truth from God. 

While there is nothing new about distorting the truth or using words in an attempt to manipulate others, what is new in our time the ease with which so many of us can spread our words around the globe within seconds. The sheer vastness of communication today makes it more important than ever before to raise questions about the words we choose, the tone in which we convey messages, and the truthfulness of messages that we receive and pass on to other people.

 

What did Jesus teach?

While Jesus was not afraid to tell religious leaders when they were wrong, I find no evidence that he derived any pleasure in correcting others. Jesus was a kind, compassionate person who wanted all to be brought into communion with his heavenly Father, even those commonly thought of as “enemies.”         

In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew, we read about Pharisees and scribes criticizing Jesus and his disciples for ignoring the religious ritual of hand-washing before eating. Jesus replies by drawing attention to the ways the religious leaders were using rationalizations to break commandments even more basic. He calls them hypocrites and quotes the prophet Isaiah:   

This people honors me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
     teaching human precepts as doctrines. 
 
                                 —Matthew 15:8-9, NRSV  
 

From this, we can see that what is important to Jesus is that our words are genuine and in accord with our actions. It is not acceptable to rationalize our evil deeds or merely say we believe in God. Attitudes and intentions deep within us are what matters.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus emphasizes the importance of what we say, again focusing on the motivations of the heart:

 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

                                    –Matthew 15:17-20, NRSV

 While the leaders were focused on religious purity laws, Jesus was more concerned about the ideas coming out of one’s mouth. He even says some words defile us because they arise from evil intent within our hearts. (Even if we succeed at fooling the people around us with clever phraseology, God still sees our hidden motivation.)

So how we use words is indeed important to Christ. If you are like me, you fall short of these high standards, and I will remind you that God understands our human weakness and will forgive anything we are truly sorry for having said or done. However, that does not take away our responsibility to at least strive, with the help of the Spirit, to improve the ways we communicate with one another.

There are times when it is the path of wisdom to remain silent. There are other times when the Spirit prompts us to speak, sometimes about something that others do not want to hear. At those times it is especially important to speak the truth in a compassionate manner.

 For the words that come out of our mouths—or spill onto the internet—have the power to heal others or hurt them, to bring people together or to push them towards war, to build up the kingdom of God with love or divide God’s family with hate.  Which path will you and I choose? 

 NEXT TIME:  Part Two: Insights from Buddhism about “Right Speech”

 

Spiritual Aerobics

Spiritual Aerobics

1. Reflect on this saying: “If you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all.” When is this saying true? Is there a time when it is not appropriate?

2. What does your upbringing or spiritual tradition teach about speaking the truth? Does it have teachings about gossip, slander, telling half-truths, etc.? If you don’t know, ask your religious leader, read the sacred texts, or search the web.