by Wayne Ren-Cheng
You have a superpower. You can’t fly like Superman or snikt out adamantium claws like Wolverine. You aren’t bulletproof like Luke Cage or as fast as the Flash . . . your superpower is much greater. It is so much greater that it must always be used with compassion, wisdom and appropriate intent. In fact all human beings have this amazing superpower yet yours is unique to you.
Siddhartha, the historical Buddha realized that all human beings have this power. He offered his own superpower skillfully so as not to misuse it. It was like he had his own Uncle Ben whispering in his ear that with great power comes great responsibility.
This is a superpower that can illuminate the minds of men, or lay over them a cloud of delusion. It can be the cause of peace or of conflict. It can connect or it can divide. The Buddha realized the complexity of this power; its ability to shift the moral and ethical equanimity of human beings.
Each of you have the responsibility to use your unique superpower wisely. Every moment you engage it there is the potential for wholesome or unwholesome effects. The causal strength of this ability goes far beyond any other superpower.
The Buddha realized that this superpower is interconnected and interdependent with all other thought and action in the alleviation of unsatisfactoriness, discontent and anguish, suffering, and he offered it as a moral and ethical component of the Eightfold Path. Later, all Buddhist traditions made it an important factor in the precept vows taken by laypeople and monastics.
The contemporary author Thomas Wolfe says this superpower is not just one of man’s several unique attributes, it is the attribute of all attributes!
This superpower is speech. It is the unique ability that human beings have to create, define and engage each with words. These combinations of words that express how you are, this is your superpower.
So, how best can you engage this superpower known as speech? You do so appropriately.
Siddhartha realized the power of the spoken and written word, speech, as means of communication that can equally improve a situation or create a dispute. Diplomats would not be needed, lawyers would be unnecessary, and all radio disc jockeys would do is spin records if words didn’t have such profound effects on the human psyche. The Buddha knew the value of skillful speech and so made Right Speech an ideal of the moral and ethical component of the Eightfold Path. From his talk with Sigala chronicled in the Sigalovada Sutra, to his conversation with King Pasenadi and Anguilimala , Siddhartha realized that speech should be used wisely in the offering of the dharma, given whatever appropriate form was needed. In the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw the Buddha offers a guide to appropriate speech.
Thus I have heard
There are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or un-beneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They address you in a beneficial way or an un-beneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate.
In any event, you should train yourselves: Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. we will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. we will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will. That’s how you should train yourselves.
In the Buddha’s culture and time speech came in the forms of voice, body language, or through the iconography of Hindu faiths and the arising philosophy we now call Buddhism. Today we have the same three forms of speech: voice, writing and body language coming at us in-person and through a vast landscape of electronic media. Along with religious iconography we recognize the ‘voices’ of other modes of artistic expression such as secular paintings, sculpture and drawing. The modes of speech may have undergone additions and changes but the aspects of speech the Buddha teaches of still apply. He went into some detail of the various intents behind human communication. What he didn’t do was divide speech into “good” and “bad” categories thus revealing that there is no dualism because the mirror of beneficial speech is un-beneficial speech, and each aspect has its own reflection.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Well, experience proves that speech can hurt. An awareness of your own experiences will reveal the harm that words can do. Siddhartha’s experiences revealed the discontent and anguish endured by human beings that arises from using speech as a weapon, from speaking a lot but not saying anything, from using speech to create truth, and from speaking when silence is more appropriate. The way we communicate with ourselves and others has a great impact on how the world is as a whole. Threaded throughout the sutras there is evidence of the importance of speech in Buddhist practice. Call it Right Speech, Encompassing and Corrective Speech, Skillful Speech or Appropriate Speech it is action and thought that grounds ethical ideals and moral character. Speech is a tool of communication and of connection; a tool that must be used to promote human flourishing, not weaken it.
The Precept Vows taken in Engaged Dharma mirror the importance of speech in our contemporary, richly interconnected world.
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.
Speech takes many forms, some wholesome, some not. Kind, meaningful and harmonious speech have the power to create compassion, altruism, wisdom, loving-kindness and generosity of spirit. Harsh, frivolous and slanderous speech have the power to create hatred, envy, ignorance and fear. For a Buddhist there is clearly the more appropriate choice. Speech is a superpower possessed and engaged by human beings. You must verbally empower yourself with speech that promotes happiness, health and harmony.