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Dharma Talk with Seiu Hannah Sullivan: Right Speech

  • Thursday, August 31, 2023
  • 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM
  • Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Seiu Hannah Sullivan explores Right Speech as part of our 2023 exploration of the Eightfold Noble Path of early Buddhism.

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Talk Notes

Right speech

Samma vaca

Dharma talk for RCZC

AUG 31, 2023

Hi everyone here, and welcome Zoomers.  

I’m honored to be able to share a few thoughts on this, the final night of our summer series on the Noble Eightfold Path. The talks have been recorded and are easily sourced on our website.  Thanks to Tim, who invited the practice leaders to speak, and to everyone who prepared and spoke.  

 Just to review:  

Right View, Right Resolve (wisdom or development of insight into the nature of reality)

 Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, (ethics)

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.(concentration or control of the mind)

These topics were so beautifully shared by Desiree in her shuso class in this winter’s Practice Period.  We were invited to choose one element to focus on during the period.  Having just gotten into a little bit of hot water for sharing something that I hadn’t realized was not yet public information, I chose Right Speech.   And what is Right Speech? 

Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.

-Pali Canon

Silence as a method:

from Gautama/Shakyamuni Buddha:  

“Do not speak - unless it improves on silence”

The Buddha thus explains right speech in the Pali Canon, as can be stated in the form of five questions:

  1. Is it timely?

  2. Is it truthful?

  3. Is it pleasant?

  4. Is it beneficial?

  5. Is it kind?

As Bob Rose mentioned last week, a group of us have been studying the precepts, and it just happened that our topics this week were the Interface of this topic, with precepts 6&7 spelling out how we can work with the notion of right speech, primarily by  (referencing Bob once again) the three pure precepts: do good, avoid evil, and benefit all beings.

It is only with humility that we can approach this topic.  Humility is not an abundant quality in adolescence!  Much of my humor in childhood and youth was formed around satire, irony, and (let’s face it) making fun of others.  Here was a rich vein:  hierarchy, with the speaker being on top.  A keen eye for anything outside a fairly narrow norm, meaning for me white middle class America.  I was privileged to live in a community that was primarily Jewish, so was able to at least partially escape the WASP(white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) mode that prevailed in the midwest.  Also there was a distinct absence of poverty.  Therefore the expectation that people would be well-dressed, clean,educated and well-mannered prevailed.  How one dressed, looked and presented was key to one’s status and placement in the social order of adolescent community.

Which brings to mind Gossip!  What school child escapes that body of whispered assessment that comes from inclusion & exclusion (you’re either the victim, the perpetrator, or the chuckling audience).  It’s a comfortable ground of being when you’re immersed in it, though often I’ve wondered when someone gave me an acerbic assessment of someone’s behavior, “What are they saying about me when I’m not here?”

I have found a great help in the suggestion of not speaking of another who is not in the room

Of course this is not possible all the time: we have to choose who’s on the team, who gets the job, and sometimes what to do about a disruptive member of a group for the sake of greater good.  But “idle moment chatter” does not need to include an assessment of others.

In the Twelve Steps, it’s called “taking inventory”.  I love this idea…we are asked to make a “fearless and searching moral inventory” of ourselves as we work through the steps, which weave so well into our buddhist ethic.  And, in a little twist of the hallowed steps language, we are cautioned that to take another’s inventory is just not a good idea.  At all.This fits with the study of the precepts, if I might again mention that study. We always try to remember that the precepts are for oneself. I have no right to assess, or take inventory, on whether someone else is breaking a precept or upholding the code of ethics. 

Don’t we have enough to think about with our own behavior?

With what often feels like great pain, and the effort of experience, we pass from adolescence to a more mature point of view.

Choosing what we talk about; “level” of conversation.  We can teach ourselves to develop how and what we talk about with one another.  A reference to another person can be clean: “has had trouble with interaction with others”is quite different from “brain damaged”.  Recently my husband Gerry and I have become hooked on yet another foreign mystery series, this one featuring a woman named Astrid who has Asburger’s syndrome.  Of course to make the series gripping there are all kinds of liberties taken, but a fascinating element is that Astrid is part of an autism support group.  Part of their exploration is attempting to understand how “neurotypicals” behave.  I find it fascinating, and  I have actually become more understanding of human behavior as a wide range rather than wanting any individual I might encounter to exist within a norm of what I have considered to be acceptable human behavior.

Kind speech is part of a process that begins in our mind.  We have to think kind thoughts before we can speak them.  So we have great guideposts in the Noble Eightfold path: right view being one of the most helpful.  If I view the person I’m thinking about as part of myself, or me of them, I cannot have a judgemental view, followed by judgemental speech, about them without blaspheming myself, because I’m talking about all of us. Yes, I may have a decades old habit of seeing differences and judging them.  I may have an old habit of seeing my view as Best View.  This gets really hard.  I have a knee jerk reaction to someone waving a confederate flag.  I live in a community known as “upriver” in the Skagit valley.  Whenever I hear that rural North Carolina accent, both original and adopted, I assume a belief system that I do not share, and start to withdraw.  

The other day I went to the post office to mail my rakusu off to California so my teacher Kathie could write on it.  I had to wait for some minutes before the postal clerk could notice someone was there, then laboriously rise from his chair and lumber into the customer area.  My thoughts (why is he taking so long, he’s so fat, I don’t like him, why does he have to be here, and more!) were interrupted when I asked him for some advice on how to mail my precious item.  I slid it onto the counter and he lit up, commenting on the tiny stitches and careful handiwork.  He said, “I do a lot of sewing!  My first effort was to make gators for hiking, as I couldn’t find  anything to fit me.  I then went on to make all kinds of outdoor gear.  So I can really appreciate your effort”.  He then went on to guide my packing process (identical to the one Shudo Chris had recommended!), and at the end of the mailing we each had a new friend.

Kind, or right speech had to follow a change of mind.

Most of us have done a fair amount of Zooming over the past few years.  A nice tool that was initially offered by SFZC(?) is the concept of “step forward/step back”.  Each of us has a conventional action during group conversation.  We tend to either jump at the chance to speak, hug the wings hoping perhaps not to have to, or somewhere in between.  For the sake of good group interaction, the Zoom participants are asked to consider what their habitual tendency is, and to choose away from that.  Try being the first to speak.  Try waiting til most others have had a chance.  

As I prepared for this talk I came across a website called “Deep Dharma” authored by two practitioners: Andrew Cohen (who is especially focused on Nagarguna and the Middle Way, & Vasubandhu among others) and Carl Jerome.  Carl was a student of Philip Whalen, and the two of them have a center called North Shore Meditation and Dharma Center in Chicago.

6 elements of right speech

  1. Only speak when conditions suggest you should speak

  2. Only speak truthfully

  3. Only speak when you have something to say that will be of benefit

  4.  Always speak in ways that can be understood

  5. Only say it once (if you said it truthfully, when conditions suggest it’s appropriate, and if it is beneficial, then saying it more than once is argumentative)

  6. Never go on the battlefield (arguing is not right speech); being of benefit isn’t about winning.

4 elements of Wrong Speech

1 Harsh, mean-spirited, threatening or angry words.

2 Falsehoods and slander

3 Gossip and small talk

4 Belittling others and especially belittling others to raise your own status.(here we see the 7th precept: not praising self at the expense of others)

5 qualities of wrong speech

1 Flattery

2 Hinting (at things you want to receive)

3 Being verbally passive aggressive or bullying

4 Using words to exert pressure (in order to get something from someone)

5 Being on “one’s best” verbal behavior to deceive another (inauthentic speech)

5 points to be borne in mind when wishing to rebuke another (employing the five elements of right speech)

1 I will speak at the proper time, internally and externally

2 I will state the truth(as I know it)

3 I will speak gently, from the heart(Wickman, Tone!”)

4 I will speak for the other’s good; beneficially for everyone 

5 I will speak from patience and compassion, not with enmity

Up to now I have focused on being the first to speak.  But I think we get into a lot of trouble in conversation when we react and then reply before we’ve been able to utilize all these helpful suggestions.  Who here has not blurted out a caustic rejoinder to a loved one in the heat of the moment?  I learned this at home, as many of us did.  Here we have causality in action.  You say something, it hurts me, so I say something that hurts you, and let the argument begin!  It took me many years to come to the life changing  moment where my Dad was drilling down bigtime on some hot topic (probably something anti- communism and socialism) and for once I did not take the bait, instead taking a breath and saying, “Dad, we have such limited time with each other, and we won’t have forever to talk together, so let’s change the nature of this conversation”.  Amazingly, that was the last time we really argued.  Of course this required some noble silence on each of our parts!

The whole Samish zendo laughed when Norman Fischer suggested that we get along GREAT when we’re on silent sesshin…it’s when we start talking that we enter the snarls and knots of conflict with one another.

More From Norman 

(This one!)In his discussion of right speech, the Buddha similarly evidenced the subtle and nuanced understanding that words do not have fixed meanings and ought never to be taken at face value.  The meaning of words depends on context: who is speaking and listening, the tone of voice employed, the underlying attitude evidenced, and the situation in which the words are spoken.  The very fact that the Buddha did not recommend that his words be written down, that he allowed others to explain the teadhings in their own words, and did not designate a special holy language for religious discourse, but insisted that ordinary common language be used, shows that he understood language to be a process, essentially a dialog, a dynamic experience, rather than a tool of exact description or explanation.  Far from being a neutral conduit for the conveying of pre-existing meanings, the Buddha saw that language is an ever-shifting vehicle for the self, and that the way to clarify the self, and the world, is to hold language in an accurate and sensitive way.

TNH: 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.

Small groups: prompt is how has right speech been present (or absent) in my life?

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