Saturday, February 13, 2010

Right Speech

I wanted to share something about "right speech" which is the third precept of the Eightfold Path. My wish to share about this is for several reasons. One is that I would like this blog to have dialogues within the spirit of right speech and have set up moderation for this purpose. The reason why is that I have noticed that many blog sites sometimes degenerate quickly into exchanges that have intense name calling, sweeping judgments, wishing people to burn in eternal hell forever, and the use of words that I am not going to repeat here. I find it interesting that I have seen government ads about a new kind of verbal abuse that is now common on the internet and a wish to encourage parents to teach their children not to engage in it. Many sites are taking steps to minimize this abuse. It seems that being anonymous makes some people feel free to share more harsh speech with others. It seems, too, that talking about religion stirs up some very strong emotions in people and inspires some people to viciously condemn others. Some of these ventings may even have some therapeutic value, in the sense that sometimes feeling intensely angry at an oppressive authority that once made one feel unnecessarily guilty can be a useful transitional emotion. But I would say that if one stays stuck in that anger, then the healing has not been full and complete.

Two is that right speech dovetails with the intention to live forever in a healthy physical body and is part of the buddhadharma. The Buddha must have felt it was very important, because he is rarely redundant about his essential teachings. Yet the fourth precept about right behavior has "not to lie, but to speak kind and truthful words". So right speech is one of the eight basic precepts of the Buddhist path and then it is also one of the five subprecepts of right behavior. The goal of the "path with eight branches" (another way to translate the essential buddhadharma) is to end sorrow. The third, fourth, and fifth precepts are about not creating any more karma to have to neutralize. Behind all three of them is this thought, "Because I am choosing to completely end all sorrow in my own life, I vow not to inflict unnecessary sorrow upon others." The word "unnecessary" is added, because sometimes no matter what we do people will sometimes suffer. It is either because they have set up an expectation around us that we cannot fulfill and/or because we represent something to them that brings up an issue no matter what we do. But if we have choice, then we have responsibility to use this choice to minimize sorrow in the lives of others. I spent much of my early dharma training in this lifetime learning to not be a cause of harm towards other, to learn how to be completely harmless, and to be not part of the problems that plague this planet. It is actually a harder mission than it first appears and it took me a long time to feel I became "mostly harmless", barring some of the karmaic lessons that naturally arise between friends, family, strangers, and lovers that it seems that we must move through.

The word translated as "right" in right speech is "samyak" which has the energy feeling of "wholesome, balanced, and aligned with truth". This is the natural speech of our Buddha nature when we are liberated. It can be kind, truthful, and respectful. Shingon Buddhism later expanded the five precepts into ten precepts. The two lists are really the same, but the ten precept list merely elaborated the five precepts into more detail so that it could be more easily and completely understood. The expanded list talks about the need to not exaggerate or put spin on something to bend the truth out of shape, the need to not use harsh, slanderous, or extreme language to add sting to what is said, the need to speak only what we know from personal experience and to not claim anything with our words that we have not really known from our experience, and the need to not gossip or to not use words that promote division and conflict among people. In a sense, harsh words violate the sense of the subprecept that goes, "Not to kill, but to cherish all life". We can kill with our words. If a person is choosing to grow, help himself or herself, and has cultivated a small measure of compassionate motivation to be a better person and to be kinder to others, if we speak in a way that kills this motivation in them, then we have violated the precept about not killing. There is literal killing and there is subtle killing. If we talk in such a way that a person wants to commit suicide, then we have killed his or her life motivation. Although there are a lot of seeming rules to right speech, there is an intuitive feeling behind the rules that has a unified felt sense about what it means. Nor is this teaching alien from other religions, many wise spiritual teachers have taught right speech, some even with the same level of detail that the Buddha delved into. The Sufis add two other practices, one to never defend our selves with our words and two to only answer any question a person has with just enough words to give a good answer and no more. The idea is to let people draw what they need by their own questions. In the Epistle of Saint James, chapter 3, there is a discourse on the power of the tongue to totally ruin our spiritual life, cause our bodies to be ill, and even burn with the fires of hell. In another passage, Saint James talks about how we can praise god with the tongue and yet condemn other humans who are made in the image of god. I find it interesting that Saint James talks about not condemning people who are not Christians, because all humans have a divine nature.

In Buddhism, there is a practice called "unifying behavior, speech, and thought" where we learn to be consistently kind on all these levels. Thoughts are considered very powerful causes for karma and I think highly underestimated by lots of people. Speech is in some sense even more powerful than thought, because it is thought combined with our choice, faith, and energy. In the process of voicing our thoughts, we are choosing which thoughts to give more energy to, and therefore these thoughts are more powerful. It is curious that Jesus says, "If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you can SAY to this mountain, 'Be cast into the sea,' and it shall be done [capitalization emphasis mine]." There is a passage in a book, LIGHT ON THE PATH, that goes, "Only when your words cease to have the power to harm will they have the power to heal." In the Hadith, a Moslem collection of writings that is not part of the Koran, there is a story of Jesus going to a town where they are cursing at him. Jesus sends a blessing to those people and even does a hand mudra to focus his blessing. The apostle Peter is angry with the town for cursing his beloved teacher and says to Jesus, "Do you not want to call down fire from the heavens to smite them?" Jesus says to Peter, "I can only give what I have in my purse." In other words, Jesus only had blessing coins in his purse (subconscious mind). He did not have any cursing coins to give out.

I can testify that if you practice right speech long time, purifying the tongue, that something wonderful does happen. The words you speak then do have the power to heal, to invoke a sacred healing energy into a space, and to calm down the mind. The Buddha was known for his "golden words". He talked about only sharing words that were nourishing, uplifting, and promoting of harmony among people. Harmony among people was very important to the Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism, the five worst karmaic acts are (1) killing a father, (2) killing a mother, (3) killing a saint, (4) killing a Buddha, and (5) destroying the harmony of the sangha (Buddhist community). I find it interesting that destroying communal harmony is counted as being on par with four different kinds of murder.

What I have found interesting about the teachings of the Buddha is that they often create a lessening of sorrow and a deepening of peace just by hearing them or even just sharing them with others. I think this is because there is a loving intention behind them. It was the wish of the Buddha to find out the cause and end of sorrow for the sake of all sentient beings. There is no agenda to force one to become a Buddhist. In remember when the director of the movie, "The Little Buddha," met a Buddhist monk, and wanted to ask a question. He said, "I am not a Buddhist, but I would like to ask you a question." The monk looked a little puzzled and said, "It does not matter if you are a Buddhist, we are human beings, we suffer, lets explore how to end sorrow together." Buddha actually taught his disciples to not convert people to his religion. It is about the deeper meaning of, "Not to steal, but to take only what is freely given." To put pressure on someone and try to make someone do something he or she does not want to do is considered stealing in Buddhism. You share the dharma and if people feel an arising of faith within them and feel inspired to join the sangha, then it is their unpressured choice to do this. There was a case where several zealous monks convinced a person to leave his aging parents to join the sangha. The two parents were dependent on their son for their survival. They came to talk with the Buddha, who was actually a little horrified that these zealous monks had put so much pressure for this son to become a Buddhist. He said that if the son had given into their pressure, then the loss of the parents of their support from their son would be their karma. But if the son freely chose to join of his own accord, then the loss of the parents of his support would be his karmaic issue alone. He also did not want people to join the monastic order until such responsibilities were peacefully completed. They could instead become a lay practitioner, do their householder duties, and later join the monastic order when those duties were complete. In modern times, it seems that society takes care of the elderly in a different way with socialized medicine and social security. A lot of Buddhist lamas still feel that the young, if possible, should take care of their parents in their later years as a kind of gratitude for having been raised by them. This is not always realistic or necessary, but perhaps this should still be deeply considered.

My feeling is that it is possible to disagree and dialogue with people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, kindness, and honesty, and keep the sense of right speech alive. I have had my first instance of a submission that I feel did not conform to right speech. I have been happy that previous submissions were by people who naturally express right speech and do not need to ever worry about whether or not their submissions will be deleted. It is not a question of what religion a person belongs to, whether or not a person is a theist, atheist, agnostic, or gnostic, whether or not a person is Buddhist, Taoist, Sufi, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Bahai, or Native American in their spiritual or philosophical orientation. I think it is possible to be tolerant, respectful, and compassionate with each other when engaged in dialogue. This seems easier with some religious orientations than others. I wonder if it is possible for someone who believes that everyone who does not believe the same way as he or she does will not only burn in eternal torment forever, but also deserves such an infinite torment for an infinite duration for all the sins that they have done. Taken literally and in all cases, this seems to exaggerate and violate any sense of just proportion, especially with small children who have had barely any time to do more than fight over some toys (I question this kind of view more in another blog and look at it from different angles), especially when the belief system does not even include other lifetimes to sin in. One sensitive evangelical writer named Paul Tournier felt this dilema and decided to enter into compassionate and respectful dialogue anyway when engaged with other religious viewpoints.

To deduce and respond to some of the points made in the submission in question. I am not interested in conversion of Buddhists to Christianity or Christians to Buddhism. I feel that conversion to a religious club is a little too superficial to be relevant. I do not believe joining the "right religion" will save one. What matters is living a wise, compassionate, and creative life. I do consider myself to be a Buddhist, to have taken the triple refuge, and have committed to the Eightfold path. I have practiced meditation daily for over 25 years now. I spent time in Christianity during my college life, studied the Bible, and still feel Jesus to be a friend and guide. I do not believe that Evangelical Christianity is the only way and wonder if the overemphasis on accepting Jesus Christ as personal lord and savior may neglect other important elements of his wise teachings. When a rich man asked what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus focused on loving God with a whole heart and loving our neighbors as we would ourselves. He could have asked this man to accept him as personal lord and savior, but he focuses on love instead. He talks of loving enemies and loving unconditionally. He gives a metaphor of the love of God being like the sun that shines on both the evil and the good and like the rain that pours on the righteous and the unrighteous. He asks that people be perfect like God in this way (Matthew) or people be merciful like God in this way (Luke). The same Aramiac word can be translated as merciful or perfect and two different biblical authors chose different Greek words to translate it. There is a mature love defined in those words that Jesus wants people to emulate and live. It reminds me of the altruistic compassion of the Buddha and is a common spiritual ground worth naming. This love, too, is something that even an atheist could agree with and find valuable to live. I also feel that Jesus was an enlightened being and am concerned that many Christians do not aim to become enlightened, but settle for a born again experience or a reservation in heaven after they die. I do feel that certain Christian mystics, like Meister Eckhart, Saint Julian of Norwich, Evelyn Underhill, Nicholas of Cusa, and Saint John of the Cross were deeply enlightened. I also feel that beyond enlightenment is physical immortality and light translation, and that we should not even stop at enlightenment. I also feel that it is a higher ethical ideal to include animals within our compassion, rather than only love our own species and consider Christianity to have a moral weakness for not encouraging people to be vegetarian or vegan. I feel the strength of Buddhism is its emphasis on meditation practice, which I consider a scientific method to become fully enlightened. This emphasis on meditation practice and direct realization, rather than settling for belief, is its healthy core. The Christian mystics seem to have created a parallel practice with contemplative prayer and made this central to their process. I do not believe that the Bible is the literal divinely dictated word for word message of an anthropomorphic god and do believe that there are errors and contradictions in the Bible, as well as many passages written by fallable humans who were inspired by something sacred. I do think there is enough accurate history about Jesus to get a sense of what he taught in general and to get a sense of the level of enlightenment that he spoke from and demonstrated. I feel that the life of Jesus is understandable to a Buddhist and in light of Buddhism. And that he is an example of an enlightened being who translated what he discovered into the theistic language of his culture, even though the enlightenment he attained was ultimately nonverbal, direct, and beyond beliefs. This is roughly where I stand about certain things and most of this can be deduced from the previous blogs.

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