by Wayne Ren-Cheng
Growing up with a Canadian mother and a father born and raised in America’s deep south, and who was in the U.S. Air Force, I learned early the power of the magic words . . . please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry. My parents came from different countries and different cultures but had the same worldview when it came to showing respect to other people by being polite. You say “please” when asking for something. You say “thank you” when given something or when something is done for you. You say “excuse me” or “sorry” when appropriate. For a child these words do have a sense of magic about them. “Please” was more likely to lead to getting what you wanted and “thank you”, while meant to convey appreciation was sometimes viewed as a way to get more later. You said “excuse me” when you wanted attention or bumped into someone. After a burp or fart “excuse me” was usually followed by a smile and a giggle. “Sorry” was meant to convey regret or repentance whenever you did something wrong. For me these words did seem magical, did seem to have power when they defused anger in adults or gave me access to something I wasn’t sure I’d get.
These words don’t hold their magical power for long though. Most children quickly learn that just because they say “please, please, please” it doesn’t always lead to satisfaction of desires and wants. “Thank you” becomes a rote phrase that is a cultural expectation after receiving something and so may become insincere. Saying “excuse me” wasn’t a license to interrupt other people’s conversations or to fart in a room full of people. Of them all the word “sorry”, which for many kids held the most magical power, no longer absolved them of responsibility.
Mother: “Did you hit your sister?”
Kid: “I’m sorry.”
“You really hurt her.”
“But I said I’m sorry.”
“Okay. Don’t let it happen again.”
Time, short or long passed . . .
“Did you hit your sister?”
“Yes, but I said I’m sorry.”
The phrase “I’m sorry” was wrongly thought to magically make both accidents and purposeful wrongdoing disappear in the experience of children. Then you could engage in the same action and say “I’m sorry” again and again, seeming to avoid any negative consequences for yourself. Some people never seem to outgrow this view of sorry. A magic word meant to be a sincere apology becomes an insincere way to try to escape karmic consequences.
Let’s creatively re-describe “say the magic word” to “say the intentional word”. To give appreciation or regret form there must be appropriate intent inherent in each of the words and phrases when you use them, otherwise they are truly empty. Emptiness in speech is highlighted in the phrase, “You speak with empty sentiment.” Speaking these words and phrases with a compassionate voice assures that intent is positive and meant to promote harmony and contentment. Our words must be spoken with good intention or they are meaningless.
In the book Dharma Drum by Chan Master Sheng Yen he writes of two of the magic words and how they can enhance Buddhist practice and help us to develop and be examples of a compassionate bodymind.
“To say ‘thank you’ is gratitude and to say ‘I’m sorry’ is repentance. If people can truly hold these two attitudes in their minds and act on them, then they will experience few vexations. If you can do this with genuine concern for sentient beings, then compassion will arise.
To summarize: Be mindful of the welfare of sentient beings. Remind yourself not to be self-centered; repent wrong actions; and feel grateful to others. What I have described, is, in fact, daily practice. If you consistently strive to hold these ideas in you and incorporate them into daily life, you are doing daily practice.”
Using the “intentional words” (please, thank you, excuse me, and sorry) with a sincere bodymind is practicing compassion. Master Sheng Yen does omit a critical aspect of this compassionate practice as it needs to apply to “sorry”. The intent cannot end with an acknowledgement of repent and regret. It is not enough to feel sorry. The word must lead to actions taken to fix the issue, and actions taken to not repeat the same issue. Compassionate thoughts and words must foreshadow the intent to take compassionate action. Once there is realization of interconnectedness then being sorry is not enough. Unlike the Judeo/Christian concept of repentance that leads to forgiveness, the Buddhist concept of repentance is recognition of negative consequences and the realization of action meant to engender positive consequences then and in future actions.
A sincere “thank you” given to you or spoken by you is proof of the karmic causal process. Someone did something nice for you and your sincere “thank you” is the effect that arises from their cause. You did something nice and became the recipient of positive karmic consequence. Giving is clearly an aspect of the practice of generosity. A bodhisattva-in-training also realizes that appreciation is equally an aspect of generosity of spirit.
Please, thank you, excuse me and sorry are the “magic words” we learn when we are new to being human beings. With growth, maturity and practice those words become part of HOW we are as Buddhist social selves, social selves engaged in the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony)”.
Today I leave you with these words from Chan Master Sheng Yen:
A mind of compassion and wisdom does not discriminate between races, friends, and foes. True compassion is vast and limitless. Wisdom reflects the selfless nature of emptiness. Both are like vast, empty space – inexhaustible, without boundaries. In daily affairs, practitioners use wisdom to solve their own problems and compassion to help others.