Appropriate Speech: It Is Right for All Worlds

by Wayne Ren-Cheng

Appropriate speech, along with action and livelihood, is a path of moral discipline (sila) on the Eightfold Path. Together they encompass the outward signs of a practice committed to the promotion of human flourishing (happiness, health and harmony). A moral voice arises in speech driven by positive intent, in speech grounded in the realities of causal conditioning. There are four divisions to speech, in one wording or another, in all Buddhist precept traditions: abstain from slanderous speech, from harsh speech, from false speech, and from meaningless speech. The adage that many schoolchildren are taught, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”, they quickly learn is far from true. Words spoken or written can hurt, words can destroy, or words can heal, words can cause the arising of emotions from hatred to compassion. Along with words there is the “speech” of body language and facial expressions, and even of how we dress that we must also be mindful of. Lips do not have to move for others to recognize fear, joy, acceptance or tension that is loudly announced by how we physically present our dispositions.

Aphorisms; phrases that distill a wise idea into few words and sometimes vivid imagery are handy tools for memorization and for teaching moral ideals and ethical behaviors. Sayings such as “love thy neighbor” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” . . . have value when engaging socially with others, though a Buddhist might practice them a little differently with different intent . . . “loving-kindness to all living beings” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto others”. Some aphorisms are clear in their intent, others are not. A well-known Buddhist aphorism is “If you meet the Buddha on the road . . . kill him” can cofound Westerners. ” In the 9th century the Zen Master Lin Chi was making a valuable point about spiritual materialism. Gathering the trappings of Buddhism . . . statues, paintings and shelves of books, speaking the language . . . bowing, saying namaste, and worrying about karma in relation to rebirth are the ‘materials’ of Buddhism . . . they are not the practice of its encompassing philosophy. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings can be overshadowed when one “collects” the Buddha rather than practice his teachings.

Technology has given us a context for speech that the Buddha could not have envisaged. It is an aspect of appropriate speech that is unique to our culture and time . . . “tech” speech. Communicating over vast distances often without ever seeing the “real” person on the other end introduces the need for a different level of mindfulness. The perception of anonymity can lead you to speech you wouldn’t participate in face-to-face unless you are aware of the effect your communications will have dependent on your intent and mindfulness. Speech transmitted via cell phone, texting, email and blogging lacks the addition of body language and facial expression. Yes, there are emoticons and abbreviated language that can appear to show the state-of-mind or actual intent of the sender but these can’t be relied upon as they have become expected social actions like shaking hands or saying “I’m sorry”. Your true intent may not come through, as with some friendly joking done via text, joking that gets perceived as insulting or degrading. Today, what in times past would have been an innocuous comment quickly forgotten can become words always available through the electronic medium, read by millions, reacted to by thousands, and forever hurtful to the person or persons named. In virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft (WoW) – an aside here: I am a fan of RPG, played D&D and others for years and truly enjoyed them. There are times when one is ‘in character’ and particular modes of speech positively advance a gaming experience. Speech in those moments may not be ‘appropriate’ in a real world sense. What will serve a Buddhist practice in a RPG environment is to make mindful character choices – and Second Life (SL) you have avatars whose body language and expressions are constructs controlled by the person behind the avatar, you and the person you are communicating with. You both may be presenting the image you prefer, rather than how you really are. This is not a reference to the “physical” image, whether you appear a troll, an exotic dancer, a Viking warrior, or a bunny rabbit wearing a tutu. It is a reference to the personality through which you engage others in virtual environments. There is fun to be had and new connections with future friends to be made in on-line environments but as Buddhists there is the responsibility to do so while maintaining commitment to the ideals of the Middle Path. Appropriate “tech” speech requires you to be mindful of each word and phrase, and to be ready to sincerely explain what you meant in the event someone gets the message incorrectly.

Take a moment and imagine what it must have been like when the Buddha drew together what has become known as the first Buddhist sangha. They were men and women from different backgrounds, different social castes, speaking different dialects, and with unique social mores and expectations. This would have meant different ways of offering and accepting the communications of others. Sound familiar? It is what you encounter each time you log into the virtual world.

It isn’t surprising then that appropriate speech was deemed important in the arising Buddhist philosophy. With that intent arose vows pertaining to speech, precept vows taken by monastic and laypeople alike. In Engaged Dharma the training of how a practitioner communicates is reflected in those Precept Vows.

I undertake the training of verbal empowerment; I will abstain from meaningless speech.

I undertake the training of kind speech; I will abstain from harsh speech.

I undertake the training of meaningful speech; I will abstain from frivolous speech.

I undertake the training of harmonious speech; I will abstain from slanderous speech.

There is a critical aspect of human speech missing from the precepts above, one that is often missing from discussions about Appropriate Speech . . . listening. Adding another vow could read: I undertake the training of listening; I will abstain from running my mouth all the time. Looking again at the precepts I’ll engage in some creative re-description. My understanding of the precepts in the words, I undertake the training . . . means to train not just me but to train others. As a Dharma teacher that is logical but how about for a layperson? A lay practitioner is meant to train others through example. The fourth precept is a vow of verbal empowerment. Certainly that relates to being mindful of intentional words and gestures, but doesn’t it also relate to listening to what is being said, to having mindful ears? Kind listening, meaningful listening, and harmonious listening are all characteristics of deep listening. Listening with loving-kindness the speaker will recognize a sincere and open ear. Meaningful listening is mindful of not only what is said. It listens to what needs to be heard. Harmonious listening is in the give and take of conversation. Are there moments when we shouldn’t listen? Always be willing to listen. Be just as willing to speak up or walk away should a conversation become inappropriate. The fourth precept then is training in the empowerment that comes with listening and talking . . . appropriately. That empowerment is strengthened when the training of the fifth, sixth and seventh precepts are equally engaged in. Practiced as Appropriate Speech the actions of talking and listening become positive aspects of transformation.

Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is also known as ‘he who hears the deepest’. Practicing deep listening puts us in good company.

The ‘give and take’ of conversation is at the core of human interaction. Appropriate speech is at the core of a mindful and compassionate Buddhist practitioner. It doesn’t mean you will always say the right thing, or that you’ll always hear what needs to be heard. It does mean that you strive to be mindful of how you present yourself and of how your view of others is dependent on how they present themselves. Whether you are speaking with a family member or friend, a consequential stranger or employer, a slavering orc or a Steampunk detective you have the responsibility of engaging appropriately.

To engage fully with ourselves and others we must speak appropriately and listen deeply. Appropriate speech requires deep inner mindfulness and encompassing outer awareness so that what we say, no matter the form it takes, has the intent to promote positive transformation. Deep listening requires a bodymind practice much like meditation. It takes focus and calm. In meditation we watch our breathing . . . in deep listening we are mindful of the breath of others.


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