Right Speech As a Gauge

It is easy to see the impact our speech has on others. What we say at the breakfast table can make or break the day for our children. It affects the bus driver who picks us up each morning. It enhances or destroys the spirits of those who work with us. The impact of our speech grows geometrically. The way we treat one person affects the way he or she deals with the next person they encounter. We see many examples of this "chain reaction" in the small encounters of our daily lives, and it is also true over the long haul. If a mother and father constantly criticize each other, how can we be surprised when their children's marriages develop poorly and their grandchildren are tormented by insecure parents? Imagine for a moment the beneficial effect that thoughtful speech could have had on the same people over time. But if the fruits of Right Speech are so easy to see, why are they so hard to cultivate? Why do we allow discussions of office politics, remote family members, or other racial or ethnic groups to become venomous? The most difficult practice is staying in touch with the roots, or causes, before we have to eat the fruits, or effects. We seem to be more prone to engage in "wrong speech" when we are tired, under stress, or suffering from delusion. So, broadly put, the antidote to "wrong speech" and the best prescription for Right Speech is the cultivation of a mindful way of living. At a very basic level, we might begin by employing some age old platitudes like, "If you can't say something nice, or constructive, about someone, don't say anything at all." A more characteristically Buddhist practice would be to develop the awareness of the cruel thoughts, confusion, or frustration which give rise to inappropriate speech, and to watch them take shape. This awareness enables us to "stop, look and listen" before harming others or inflaming the situation with our speech. It is often said that in order to practice Right Speech, you have to be a good listener. That is certainly true, but we need to recognize how quickly the essence of another person's comments, explanations, and body language can elude us entirely if we are not observant.

When engaging in seated meditation, we may begin by concentrating on our breath, achieving a unity of body and mind. But we also have the opportunity to recognize our unobserved thoughts and impulses and the stimuli that knock us about on a typical day. Once stability is achieved through concentration on the breathing, we can gain insight into the nature of these thoughts and come into real contact with what is happening.

The first two precepts of the Order of Interbeing provide useful antidotes to fanaticism and pride. Many of us are at our absolute worst when we are convinced that we're right about something. When we detect a surge of pride in our opinion, the advice contained in the second precept of the Order of Interbeing can be of help: Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints. Truth is found in life and not merely in conceptual knowledge. Be ready to learn throughout your entire life and to observe reality in yourself and in the world at all times.

For me, the best way to minimize indulgence in "wrong speech" and to progress on the path of Right Speech is to practice the sixth and seventh precepts of the Order of Interbeing. The seventh precept states: Do not lose yourself in dispersion and in your surroundings. Practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. Be in touch with what is wondrous, refreshing, and healing both inside and around you. Plant seeds of joy, peace, and understanding in yourself in order to facilitate the work of transformation in the depths of your consciousness. This has helped me a lot. When lost in dispersion or overtired, it is so easy to launch upon inappropriate comments that have a way of multiplying like Hydra-headed snakes. With practice, we can slowly start to recognize the circumstances in which "wrong speech" is likely to breed, and respond with mindfulness as the need arises.

While the seventh precept addresses a characteristically modern malaise—dispersion in our rather frantic, electronic surroundings, the sixth precept addresses an age-old root of inappropriate speech and conduct: Do not maintain anger or hatred. Learn to penetrate and transform them when they are still seeds in your consciousness. As soon as they arise, turn your attention to your breath in order to see and understand the nature of the persons who have caused your anger and hatred.

We should cultivate mindfulness in order to illuminate and transform anger, improve our speech, and benefit our entire society. In my practice, I have also observed how the mind easily bathes itself not only in anger, but also in snap judgments. Our minds form so many unnecessary opinions! I sometimes surprise myself simply observing the coming and going of these judgments as I walk down crowded streets in Chicago's Loop. Left unobserved, these judgments can serve as the root of inappropriate speech which not only hurts other people, but also carves our world into senseless we/they, yours/mine dualities that increase our sense of isolation, rather than provide insight into the interdependent nature of existence.

In short, the fruits of right speech can help many people, since we encounter so many practice opportunities every day. For me, there has been no more important or more accurate gauge for my practice than my ability or inability to practice Right Speech at a given moment. Utilizing Right Speech, we can say: I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon.

Jack Lawlor Evanston, Illinois

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