What Are We Saying?
Dr. Stephen Fulder
You are reading words, which are probably located on a sit in the web, a vast ocean of information. Our mind largely packages its thoughts into the form of words, so in the intimacy of our own being there is also a vast stream of words. So we do need to ask: How do we speak? What can we say? What is worth saying? How do we purify our words so that they bring blessings to ourselves and others and not pain?
It is worth first of all understanding both the power and the emptiness of words. The power is obvious. Think of the power of the words of a politician to whip up emotion in millions of people, creating insecurity and fear of an enemy, imagined or real, and inviting violence. Think of an insult suffered that stays with us and revolves around our mind for years. Think of the climate of criticism and putting down that is so prevalent in Israeli daily life, often stealing the joy of life from everyone within earshot. But at the same time words are empty. They signify things but are not themselves things. They are the map but not the territory. In that sense they are never completely satisfying. And if we want to express anything more subtle or deep we are mostly lost for words. T.S. Elliot, one of the greatest poets in the English language, had to admit ‘twenty years largely wasted…..trying to learn to use words, and every attempt is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure…..a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating…..’ No wonder many spiritual teachers teach in silence and communicate their teaching as a stream of non-verbal contact. You either get it or you don’t. Chuang tzu, the ancient Taoist sage, said that words never communicate reality. ‘So show me the man who has given up words. I want a word with him’. In other words, we have no choice but to use these imperfect tools of language.
So what is right speech? The Buddha defined right speech as one of the eight primary paths leading to awakening. So we do have to take it very seriously, and cannot put it aside and assume that spiritual practice or religious life is all about meditation or worship, after which we can scream at our partner, or lie to the income tax, or cause people to hate each other, or make untrue promises to customers in order to sell things, and it is alright because we are practitioners. The Buddha defined right speech as follows:
If it is not true and not helpful, don’t say it.
If it is true but not helpful don’t say it,
If it is not true but helpful, don’t say it,
If it is both true and helpful. Find the right time.
Wow! This is a very demanding definition. It may seem that only angels can speak like that. Do we have to be monks in order to keep such high standards for our speech? I don’t think so. And here is how. The first and primary intention is to bring our speech into awareness. To be more mindful of what we are saying. This itself turns speaking into spiritual practice. What does this actually mean? It means being more awake as to the source of the words within us, and to the effect of the words we are saying both on ourselves and on others. Words are the result of thought, which is heavily influenced by emotion and feeling. Thoughts themselves arise out of consciousness or mind, much as waves arise out of the ocean but are made of the same stuff. Consciousness is pure, it is our Buddha nature, our pure being. But as it is expressed in forms such as thoughts and then words, it takes on the shape of our memory, our conditioning, our personality, our habits and patterns. In order to purify speech, our awareness needs to extend in both directions – to the source of words and to the results.
Here are some examples to illustrate this. All these examples come from people I met within the space of a few hours. In one case a young man I met began to talk to me very fast and very intelligently. I felt that I could not get a word in edgeways, as the expression goes. As he rapidly talked and talked, I felt almost physically that he was pushing me away with his torrent of words. I felt compassion for him, sensing how he had created a wall around himself, protecting a wounded self, not letting others touch him, and how lonely and unloved it felt inside the wall. His practice would be just to watch, without judgement, sympathetically, how his speech distanced others from him, and at the same time to meet and know the vulnerability behind the wall of words. I met a woman who was talking about her work, and her language was peppered with criticism and blame of others, of almost everyone, from the Prime Minister to the office cleaner. It felt like a cloud of negativity. Her practice would be to notice how her criticisms backfired and caused relationships to be painful and disappointing, and to know the pain inside that projects out onto others. Mindfulness of speech would also show her those of her words that created positive conditions around her, and how that felt.
The practice of awareness of speech is able to bring us into a present moment which is wonderful, always surprising and even sacred. A word of the Bible can be holy to Jews as the word created by a spontaneous brush stroke can be holy to a Zen monk. It is the deep attention that makes it so. If we are genuinely aware, a lie can feel really crude, rough and painful. A word spoken right, that encourages others and creates healing can be felt directly as a moment of joy and ease. It creates an atmosphere which spreads in all directions. It spreads out to help others. It spreads back to lighten our own inner life, and it spreads into the future to sow seeds that benefit all, that is to shift our karma towards wholeness.
Dr. Stephen Fulder has been practicing meditation for 30 years, is founder of Amutat Tovana, the Israel Insight Society, and teaches meditation and Buddhist teachings and practices throughout Israel. He is also co-founder of Amutat Shvil Zahav and Akoda. He has written 14 books.