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Right Speech

"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.

Knowing that words can create happiness or

suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully,

with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and

hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to

be certain and will not criticize or condemn things

of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering

words that can cause division or discord, or that

can cause the family or the community to break. I

am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and

resolve all conflicts, however small." This is the

Fourth Mindfulness Training and it offers a very

good description of Right Speech (samyag vac).

 

In our time, communication techniques have

become very sophisticated. It takes no time at all

to send news to the other side of the planet. But at

the same time, communication between individuals

has become very difficult. Fathers cannot talk to

sons and daughters. Husbands cannot talk to

wives, nor partners to partners. Communication is

blocked. We are in a very difficult situation, not

only between countries but person to person.

Practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is very

important.

 

The classical explanation of Right Speech is:

(1) Speaking truthfully. When something is green,

we say it is green, and not purple. (2) Not

speaking with a forked tongue. We don't say one

thing to one person and something else to another.

Of course, we can describe the truth in different

ways to help different listeners understand our

meaning, but we must always be loyal to the truth.

(3) Not speaking cruelly. We don't shout, slander,

curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even

those who have a good heart and don't want to hurt

others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from

their lips. In our mind are seeds of Buddha and also

many fetters or internal formations (samyojana).

When we say something poisonous, it is usually

because of our habit energies. Our words are very

powerful. They can give someone a complex, take

away their purpose in life, or even drive them to

suicide. We must not forget this. (4) Not

exaggerating or embellishing. 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.

The practice of Right Speech is to try to change

our habits so that our speech arises from the seed

of Buddha that is in us, and not from our

unresolved, unwholesome seeds.

 

Right Speech is based on Right Thinking.

Speech is the way for our thinking to express itself

aloud. Our thoughts are no longer our private

possessions. We give earphones to others and

allow them to hear the audiotape that is playing in

our mind. Of course, there are things we think but

do not want to say, and one part of our

consciousness has to play the role of editor. If

there is something we think we will be criticized

for saying, the editor will censor it. Sometimes

when a friend or a therapist asks us an unexpected

question, we are provoked into telling the truth we

wanted to hide.

 

Sometimes, when there are blocks of suffering

in us, they may manifest as speech (or actions)

without going through the medium of thought. Our

suffering has built up and can no longer be

repressed, especially when we have not been

practicing Right Mindfulness. Expressing our

suffering can harm us and other people as well, but

when we don't practice Right Mindfulness, we

may not know what is building up inside us. Then

we say or write things we did not want to say, and

we don't know where our words came from. We

had no intention of saying something that could

hurt others, yet we say such words. We have

every intention of saying only words that bring

about reconciliation and forgiveness, but then we

say something very unkind. To water seeds of

peace in ourselves, we have to practice Right

Mindfulness while walking, sitting, standing, and

so on. With Right Mindfulness, we see clearly all

of our thoughts and feelings and know whether this

or that thought is harming or helping us. When our

thoughts leave our mind in the form of speech, if

Right Mindfulness continues to accompany them,

we know what we are saying and whether it is

useful or creating problems.

 

Deep listening is at the foundation of Right

Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot

practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it

will not be mindful, because we'll be speaking only

our own ideas and not in response to the other

person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look

and listen with the eyes of compassion.

Compassionate listening brings about healing.

When someone listens to us this way, we feel

some relief right away. A good therapist always

practices deep, compassionate listening. We have

to learn to do the same in order to heal the people

we love and restore communication with them.

When communication is cut off, we all suffer.

When no one listens to us or understands us, we

become like a bomb ready to explode. Restoring

communication is an urgent task. Sometimes only

ten minutes of deep listening can transform us and

bring a smile back to our lips. The Bodhisattva

Kwan Yin is the one who hears the cries of the

world. She has the quality of listening deeply,

without judging or reacting. When we listen with

our whole being, we can defuse a lot of bombs. If

the other person feels that we are critical of what

they are saying, their suffering will not be relieved.

When psychotherapists practice Right Listening,

their patients have the courage to say things they

have never been able to tell anyone before. Deep

listening nourishes both speaker and listener.

Many of us have lost our capacity for listening

and using loving speech in our families. It may be

that no one is capable of listening to anyone else.

So we feel very lonely even within our own

families. That is why we have to go to a therapist,

hoping that she is able to listen to us. But many

therapists also have deep suffering within.

Sometimes they cannot listen as deeply as they

would like. So if you really love someone, train

yourself to be a listener. Be a therapist. You may

be the best therapist for the person you love if you

know how to train yourself in the art of deep,

compassionate listening. You must also use loving

speech. We have lost our capacity to say things

calmly. We get irritated too easily. Every time we

open our mouths, our speech becomes sour or

bitter. We know it's true. We have lost our

capacity for speaking with kindness. This is the

Fourth Mindfulness Training. This is so crucial to

restoring peaceful and loving relationships. If you

fail in this training, you cannot succeed in restoring

harmony, love, and happiness. That is why

practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is a

great gift.

 

So many families, couples, and relationships

have been broken because we have lost the

capacity of listening to each other with calmness

and compassion. We have lost the capacity of

using calm and loving speech. The Fourth

Mindfulness Training is very important to restore

communication between us. Practicing the Fourth

Training on the art of listening and the art of loving

speech is a great gift. For example, a family

member may suffer very much. No one in the

family has been able to sit quietly and listen to him

or her. If there is someone capable of sitting calmly

and listening with his or her heart for one hour, the

other person will feel a great relief from his

suffering. If you suffer so much and no one has

been able to listen to your suffering, your suffering

will remain there. But if someone is able to listen

to you and understand you, you will feel relief

after one hour of being together.

 

In Buddhism, we speak of the Bodhisattva

Avalokiteshvara, Kwan Yin , a person who has a

great capacity of listening with compassion and

true presence. "Kwan Yin" means the one who can

listen and understand the sound of the world, the

cries of suffering. Psychotherapists try to practice

the same. They sit very quietly with a lot of

compassion and listen to you. Listening like that is

not to judge, criticize, condemn, or evaluate, but to

listen with the single purpose of helping the other

person suffer less. If they are able to listen like

that to you for one hour, you feel much better. But

psychotherapists have to practice so that they can

always maintain compassion, concentration, and

deep listening. Otherwise, their quality of listening

will be very poor, and you will not feel better after

one hour of listening.

 

You have to practice breathing mindfully in and

out so that compassion always stays with you. "I

am listening to him not only because I want to

know what is inside him or to give him advice. I am

listening to him just because I want to relieve his

suffering." That is called compassionate listening.

You have to listen in such a way that compassion

remains with you the whole time you are listening.

That is the art. If halfway through listening

irritation or anger comes up, then you cannot

continue to listen. You have to practice in such a

way that every time the energy of irritation and

anger comes up, you can breathe in and out

mindfully and continue to hold compassion within

you. It is with compassion that you can listen to

another. No matter what he says, even if there is a

lot of wrong information and injustice in his way

of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames

you, continue to sit very quietly breathing in and

out. Maintain your compassion within you for one

hour. That is called compassionate listening. If you

can listen like that for one hour, the other person

will feel much better.

 

If you don't feel that you can continue to listen

in this way, ask your friend, "Dear one, can we

continue in a few days? I need to renew myself. I

need to practice so I can listen to you in the best

way I can." If you are not in good shape, you are

not going to listen the best way you can. You need

to practice more walking meditation, more mindful

breathing, more sitting meditation in order to

restore your capacity for compassionate listening.

That is the practice of the Fourth Mindfulness

Training — training oneself to listen with

compassion. That is very important, a great gift.

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create

internal knots in others. Then we say, "I was just

telling the truth." It may be the truth, but if our

way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is

not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in

ways that others can accept. Words that damage or

destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak,

understand the person you are speaking to.

 

Consider each word carefully before you say

anything, so that your speech is "Right" in both

form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness

Training also has to do with loving speech. You

have the right to tell another everything in your

heart with the condition that you use only loving

speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then

don't speak that day. "Sorry, my dear, allow me to

tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my

best today. I'm afraid I'll say things that are

unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another

day." Open your mouth and speak only when you

are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You

have to train yourself to be able to do so.

 

In the Lotus Sutra, a bodhisattva named

Wondrous Sound was able to speak to each person

in his or her own language. For someone who

needed the language of music, he used music. For

those who understood the language of drugs, he

spoke in terms of drugs. Every word the

Bodhisattva Wondrous Sound said opened up

communication and helped others transform. We

can do the same, but it takes determination and

skillfulness.

 

When two people are not getting along, we can

go to one and speak in a positive way about the

other, and then go to the other and speak

constructively about the first. When person "A"

knows that person "B" is suffering, A has a much

better chance of understanding and appreciating B.

The art of Right Speech needs Right View, Right

Thought, and also correct practice.

 

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. As you read your words, you can

visualize the other person receiving your letter and

decide if what you have written is skillful and

appropriate. Your letter has to water the seeds of

transformation in the other person and stir

something in his heart if it is to be called Right

Speech. If any phrase can be misunderstood or

upsetting, rewrite it. Right Mindfulness tells you

whether you are expressing the truth in the most

skillful way. Once you have mailed your letter,

you cannot get it back. So read it over carefully

several times before sending it. Such a letter will

benefit both of you.

 

Of course you have suffered, but the other

person has suffered also. That is why writing is a

very good practice. Writing is a practice of looking

deeply. You send the letter only when you are sure

that you have looked deeply. You don't need to

blame anymore. You need to show that you have a

deeper understanding. It is true that the other

person suffers, and that alone is worth your

compassion. When you begin to understand the

suffering of the other person, compassion will arise

in you, and the language you use will have the

power of healing. Compassion is the only energy

that can help us connect with another person. The

person who has no compassion in him can never be

happy. When you practice looking at the person to

whom you are going to write a letter, if you can

begin to see his suffering, compassion will be born.

The moment compassion is born in you, you feel

better already, even before you finish the letter.

After sending the letter, you feel even better,

because you know the other person will also feel

better after reading your letter. Everyone needs

understanding and acceptance. And now you have

understanding to offer. By writing a letter like this,

you restore communication.

 

Writing a book or an article can be done in the

same way. Writing is a deep practice. Even before

we begin writing, during whatever we are doing —

gardening or sweeping the floor — our book or

essay is being written deep in our consciousness.

To write a book, we must write with our whole

life, not just during the moments we are sitting at

our desk. When writing a book or an article, we

know that our words will affect many other

people. We do not have the right just to express

our own suffering if it brings suffering to others.

Many books, poems, and songs take away our

faith in life. Young people today curl up in bed

with their walkmen and listen to unwholesome

music, songs that water seeds of great sadness and

agitation in them. When we practice Right View

and Right Thinking, we will put all of our tapes

and CDs that water only seeds of anguish into a

box and not listen to them anymore. Filmmakers,

musicians, and writers need to practice Right

Speech to help our society move again in the

direction of peace, joy, and faith in the future.

Telephone meditation is another practice that

can help us cultivate Right Speech:

 

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.

 

You may like to write this gatha on a piece of

paper and tape it near your telephone. Then, every

time you are about to make a phone call, place

your hand on the phone and recite these words.

This gatha expresses the determination to practice

Right Speech. Even as you say the words, your

mind already becomes more peaceful and your

insight more clear. The person you are calling will

hear the freshness in your voice, and your words

will bring her great happiness and not cause

suffering.

 

As our meditation practice deepens, we are

much less caught in words. Capable of practicing

silence, we are free as a bird, in touch with the

essence of things. The founder of one of the

schools of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism wrote,

"Don't ask me anything else. My essence is

wordless."4 To practice mindfulness of speech,

sometimes we have to practice silence. Then we

can look deeply to see what our views are and

what internal knots give rise to our thinking.

Silence is a time for looking deeply. There are

times when silence is truth, and that is called

"thundering silence." Confucius said, "The heavens

do not say anything." That also means, the

heavens tell us so much, but we don't know how to

listen to them. If we listen out of the silence of our

mind, every bird's song and every whistling of the

pine trees in the wind will speak to us. In the

Sukhavati Sutra, it is said that every time the wind

blows through the jeweled trees, a miracle is

produced. If we listen carefully to that sound, we

will hear the Buddha teaching the Four Noble

Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Right

Mindfulness helps us slow down and listen to each

word from the birds, the trees, and our own mind

and speech. Whether we say something kind or

respond too hastily, we hear what we are saying.

 

Words and thoughts can kill. We cannot

support acts of killing in our thinking or in our

speech. If you have a job in which telling the truth

is impossible, you may have to change jobs. If you

have a job that allows you to speak the truth,

please be grateful. To practice social justice and

non-exploitation, we have to use Right Speech.


From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
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