Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Right speech

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." - Oscar Wilde

"Be careful of the words you say, keep them short and sweet. You never know from day to day which ones you'll have to eat." - Anonymous

I remember, when I was about 13 or 14, spending a lot of time wondering and speculating about what my schoolmates thought of me. Perhaps it was just the average self-consciousness of being a teenager. Perhaps I was more self-absorbed than most. The flip side was that I also spent ages scrawling into my diary long, convoluted analyses of what I thought about everyone else. Judgement. If there's anything that defines adolescence, it's an obsession with personal judgement.

Thankfully, although the nasty corridor of adolescence seems endless at the time, we do eventually leave it behind us. Well, one hopes. And hopefully, along the way, someone teaches us some more fruitful ways of handling personal judgement. I developed a personal checklist to use as armour against the fruitless urge to submit myself to others for judgement, or to stand in judgement over them.

1. Screw what other people think. Stay true to yourself and let the rest follow. Whatever you are, whatever you do, you'll always elicit someone's disapproval. Trying to defend yourself is a pointless pursuit; smile at their disapproval. They can keep it if they wish.
2. There are only two kinds of criticism. The criticism you can learn from and the criticism that doesn't help. There's no point fighting criticism. Listen to it. If it's the first kind, you can be grateful for it for teaching you something. If it's the second kind, you can be grateful for the opportunity to smile and practice your personal strength.
3. As for your own judgements of others, there is a fine calm to be reached in recognising them clearly before reacting to the impulse to share them. The more carefully you recognise and listen to your judgements, the more you will realise how fleeting they are, how little there is to be gained by sharing them.

Of course, then I knew nothing of the Buddha. Now I wouldn't call myself a practising Buddhist, but I do draw inspiration and instruction from several teachings of Buddhism, simply because they make sense to me. Between these and the principles I have learned from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living course, I have repeatedly found a rich reserve of wise teachings that have helped me weather many personal storms.

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. Right speech is defined in Buddhist texts as: "abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech." The Buddhists are not the only ones that define right speech negatively, or according to the kind of speech that should be avoided. Similar doctrines are echoed in Jewish teaching, which forbids "Lashon hara" (literally, "evil tongue" or "evil language"). Islam likens talking about others ("backbiting") to eating the flesh of the dead, who cannot defend themselves. Buddhist teaching does, however, go into detail about what right speech is, not just what it isn't.

Right speech is spoken:
- at the right time
- in truth
- affectionately
- beneficially
- with a mind of good will.

"One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken.

"One should speak only pleasant words, words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant."

It's worth noting that Buddhist teachers define "pleasant" as "not bringing evils to others", not as simply charming or easy. The teaching is not, therefore inviting us to speak euphemistically or in flattery. Rather it is only worth speaking when the words are not going to bring damage, torment or harm.

Whilst the dark days of adolescence are long gone, the daily challenge to approach right speech is never far away. It is a constant practice, only ever to be approached.