Photo of Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan

Right Speech

by Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan

In my last talk, I mentioned the Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance which are taught in the Avatamsaka Sutra, and Dogen wrote about these in a fascicle which is in Moon in a Dewdrop. The Bodhisattva’s Four Methods of Guidance giving, kind speech, beneficial action and identity action. These are methods for living in harmony with others. In his commentary on kind speech, Dogen wrote, "‘Kind speech’ means that when you see sentient beings you arouse the mind of compassion and offer words of loving care. It is contrary to cruel or violent speech.... You should be willing to practice it for this entire present life; do not give up, world after world, life after life. Kind speech is the basis for reconciling rulers and subduing enemies. ...You should know that kind speech arises from kind mind, and kind mind from the seed of compassionate mind.... kind speech is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of the nation."
In Returning to Silence Katagiri Roshi discusses Dogen’s teaching on this saying, "Kind speech is not merely speaking with an ingratiating voice, like a cat purring...[this] very naturally, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to get a favor by fawning or flattering. This is not kind speech. Kind speech is not the usual sense of kindness. It can appear in various ways, but ...we should remember that it must constantly be based on compassion.... Under all circumstances that compassion is always giving somebody support or help or a chance to grow." Here he expands the scope of kind speech to include that which gives a person a "chance to grow". He referred to his own teacher who he said always looked down on him, used rough language and belittled whatever he did. But Katagiri Roshi said when he was older, he appreciated his teacher’s attitude because it was based on compassion. He said "sometimes rough language is a great help, but don’t use rough language recklessly, be careful." (p. 163) In the Zen tradition, there are many examples of monks who when they were training felt like their teachers were very difficult or critical, but later they appreciated the kind intention behind their teachers’ strictness.

Katagiri went on to say, "Compassion is a little difficult to understand. Kindness is part of compassion, friendliness is also part of compassion, but as a whole, compassion is rooted more deeply in the human mind. Everyone has this compassion. Buddhism always focuses on the ultimate nature of existence, which is manifested as compassion." This kind of compassion may be different from what we ordinarily think of as compassion. It doesn’t always look like compassion. In working with the precepts, Mahayana Buddhism tends to emphasize this spirit of compassion rather than adhering to the literal meaning of the precept.

I would like to focus on speech as practice and its relationship to concentration. Three of the ten major precepts address speech, not to speak falsely; not to slander; and not to praise self while putting others down. The Pali word that is translated as slander has the literal meaning of "breaking up fellowship." Causing disharmony in the Sangha is considered one of the most serious offenses in Buddhist monasticism, and it's one of the few offenses for which someone can be expelled from the Sangha.

Right Speech or speech as practice is also one of the aspects of the Eight-Fold Path. In addition to not lying, not slandering and not praising self, Right Speech includes avoiding idle chatter and gossip and not speaking harshly or using abusive speech. The "Right" of Right Speech has the meaning of completed or perfected. Through Right Speech, by not indulging in or listening to such things as lying, back-biting, harsh speech or gossip, we can establish a link between our mental activity and our conduct or between Right Thought and Right Action, two other aspects of the Eight-Fold Path.

When Buddhism was established, communication was almost exclusively through the spoken word. But, in our culture Right Speech really means "Right Communication" and it includes all forms of communication such as television, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertising and, of course, the internet. So, Right Speech means using communication as a way to further our understanding of ourselves and others and as a way to develop insight.

In Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Jack Kornfield suggests practicing with Right Speech by trying to speak from the heart, and by avoiding gossip both negative and positive. This means not talking about people or talking behind their backs, but speaking directly to them. Sometimes this is called as no third party information. If you are irritated or having a problem with someone or even when you have something positive to express, the practice is to speak directly with the person involved, not to talk about it to someone else.

I think one of the characteristics of speech is that by talking to others about someone else, we have a tendency to reduce the fullness of that person to a category. So, the person becomes "that" kind of person. You know, "what would you expect from someone like that?" It is sort of like taking one frame from a movie and using the picture of that instant to be the whole person, freezing both our opinion of them as well as the way we respond to them. I think the more we talk about someone with a third party, the more our opinion becomes solidified, and we mistake this solidity for reality. So, speech can be a conditioning agent whereby we lose our freedom of both perception and response. We, ourselves, become fixed and unable to grow out of a particular opinion of and response to another person. I think this is how our long-term relationships become so conditioned and predictable.

Of course, speech takes place in the field of relationships. Another way to work with speech is to try to express your feelings or experience in such a way that doesn't assign blame or judgement. For example, instead of saying something like, "you made me angry" or "you made me angry" or "that makes me angry or sad or depressed or whatever" which almost carries the assumption that whatever was done, was done with the intention of making you feel a certain way; instead this can be expressed as, "when you do such and such or when such and such happens, I feel hurt or angry" which communicates how you are feeling. This way you can express what you are experiencing without holding others responsible for your state of mind. When we are able to do this, something shifts–there is a kind of independence from our emotional states. They are still there but not so dominating because their source no longer seems like something external or outside our control.

Another meaning of right speech is speech which is free of dogmatic assertions or hypnotic suggestions (which actually sounds like a good description of advertising). Suzuki Roshi spoke about this in reference to the fifth precept dealing with intoxication. He said, "Do not sell liquor means not to boast or emphasize the advantages of things....If you boast about the profundity of Buddhist teaching, you are selling a kind of liquor to the people. Any spiritual teaching by which we are intoxicated is liquor. Do not sell alcohol means absolute freedom from all teachings. We should keep the precepts and yet not be bound by them." (6/12/67)

During my first year in Chapel Hill, we had our first Lay Ordination led by Sojun Roshi, and eight people in the group sewed rakusus in preparation. The rakusu is a patched together cloth that is worn around the neck and it is a small version of Buddha's robe. At that time, the zendo was in the house where my family and I lived, and we met for rakusu sewing a couple of times a week. My daughter was nine and, I think, wanted to be included in the adult activity and she decided she wanted to sew a rakusu too. I tried to explain that sewing a rakusu was a way to prepare for receiving the precepts, but she still wanted to sew a rakusu and Sojun gave her permission. So we went through the precepts together, one by one. I read the first precept, "A disciple of Buddha does not kill." She immediately responded, "Oh I know what that means–no problem." And after each precept, she had the same response. Until we came to "A disciple of the Buddha does not slander." She hesitated and said, "wait a minute, does that mean if someone is being mean to me or hurting my feelings, and if I go and tell my friends how mean that person is, that's slander? I don't think I can keep that one."

I mentioned this to a friend, and she said that she thought that the precepts dealing with speech were the most difficult and I agree. Although, I don't know if it is actually harder to maintain Right Speech, or if I make less effort in that area. So much of speech is unconscious or a continuation of our stream of thought. I find that I use speech more than anything else to justify my actions and elicit support for my point of view.

The Lankavatara Sutra was a popular text in 6th century China at the time of Bodhidharma when Zen was first taking form. According to the Lankavatara Sutra, words rise with discrimination as their cause. I'd like to emphasize this, words come into being with discrimination as their basis. Language or words arise with conceptualization or discrimination. This means that anytime we are engaged in language whether thinking, speaking, reading, writing or hearing others talk, our discriminative consciousness is automatically engaged. And language can never be separated from discrimination. I think this is one of the reasons we have the guideline during sesshin of no reading, no writing, and no unnecessary talking. During sesshin when we sit period after period of zazen, we have a greater opportunity to disengage from discursive thinking; and thinking, reading, speaking, or hearing others talk immediately brings us back to discrimination. This is why it is so important to maintain silence during sesshin both for ourselves and for others.

Several years ago, my mother-in-law died at her home in Virginia. Although she had been deteriorating both mentally and physically for more than two years, it seemed that she suddenly got worse. When we heard that she was dying, we went to be with her. At that point, she was already "out of her senses," by that I mean that I had no idea what she was seeing and hearing and feeling except it was clear to me that it wasn't what I was seeing and hearing. I sat with her on her last afternoon through the night until she died the next morning.

During the time I practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center several people came there to die. The custom was for students to take turns doing zazen or sitting calmly, attending to the dying person until they died, and then continue sitting zazen in the room with the deceased for 24 to 72 hours after their death, ideally for three days. The idea being that by calling up our own clarity of mind and calmness, that this supports clarity and calmness in the being making the transition from this life.

In this life and death situation, there is an intensity that displaces the usual trivia and comparative thinking that I find in my ordinary mental landscape. The intensity is the fullness and completeness of each breath and each moment that replaces the gaps of inattentiveness where the mind races for something interesting or stimulating to catch hold of. To be able to engage in the present hinges on an unconditional acceptance of just this person, just the situation as it is. As a witness or support to someone's death, there is a feeling of how little can really be done to help or adjust the situation. The help to be given is to accept the situation with as little squirming and avoidance as possible. To be able to open to our own pain and the pain around us, makes it easier for the dying person to deal with his pain.

This whole-hearted acceptance of the full condition we find ourselves in reminds me of sesshin. In daily zazen, there is too much room to squirm physically and emotionally, to continue comparing and to continue filling the gaps with whatever the mind can find to grab onto. My mental habits are too fixed to be able to set them aside for 40 minutes once a day. For me it takes 40 minutes repeated 10 or 12 times a day for a couple of days to really change the momentum of my mental activity. To accept the fullness of each breath, of each moment even when it is characterized with failing patience and discomfort takes a lot of practice and reinforcement, just like anything else. To be present with a another’s death takes the same unconditional acceptance needed to be fully present in zazen. Unconditional acceptance is outside the capacity of our usual thinking, outside our judgment and comparing mind, and outside verbal consciousness.

The concentration I felt while I sat with my mother-in-law lasted an hour and a half after she took her last breath, until the Funeral Director arrived and the family began discussing the funeral arrangements and all the details and finances which that involves. I found as soon as we began talking, all at once, everything was back to normal with all of the usual distractions and conditioned interactions.

In addition to speech being linked to discriminative consciousness, speech is also an outflow. The Sanskrit word is ásrava, and Thich Nhat Hanh translates it as energy leak. When we begin to develop concentration during a longer sitting, our concentrative energy will leak through speech. Not that we should be clinging to our concentration, but you can watch it and feel it dissipate with chatter. This is also true in our daily activity. Speech requires energy.

Conscious speech is a rich practice, where we not only practice awareness of what we say and how we say it; but at a deeper level we can begin to notice the impulse, the driving force that propels us into speech and how our state of mind and our energy are affected before, during, and after speaking. This practice shifts the precepts from being a standard used to modify our behavior to a way of working with our state of mind, the source of all speech.

© Copyright Taitaku Patricia Phelan, 2003

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