When Right Speech is Silence

empty(Image) We had quite a big snowstorm here in New York last week. You may have heard about it, or at least about the Onion’s brilliant satire of Mayor De Blasio’s portents of abject doom. Great stuff, and far more cataclysmic than what actually happened, at least here. (Sorry to our sangha mates at Boston; Aryaloka, NH; Portsmouth, NH; and Nagaloka, ME; who were hit for real.)

In New York, the greatest challenges came not from the storm, but rather from the panicked runs on delis, bodegas, and markets throughout the city before the storm. People were frightened by the hype, or at least playing it safe. If there was going to be nary a carton of milk or a loaf of bread in the Five Boroughs, most of us had little choice but to be swept up into the throngs packing every aisle, raiding every refrigerator case, and emptying every shelf.

So I gave in. My local market is called Westside Market. It’s got great food from around the world. Wonderful cheeses and breads and middle eastern spreads, great produce, rice and pasta, vegan and vegetarian meals. All gone, disappeared into the many bags and baskets making their way from aisle to aisle.

The really bad thing about Westside, though, is that it’s got narrow aisles. Not normal this-is-Manhattan narrow aisles, but crazy narrow aisles that barely one cart can fit down. And that night there were hoards of people pushing carts in different directions, each shopper moving to some secret choreography in their minds.

It was bedlam.

Which brings me to my dharma lesson of the night. When I arrived, I resolved to remain calm. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that only deluded expectations and (really) unrealistic demands I might make on my surroundings could shake me, not the surroundings themselves. So I was entirely in the driver’s seat, right?

Yes, I was, but I had a moment where I just simply forgot how to drive. I’d pushed through a knot of Columbia undergrads agonizing over brands of Greek yoghurt. I squeezed past the people ferreting out the French lentils; regular lentils would not do. I ran the gauntlet successfully, only to come up behind a woman, seemingly lost, parked right in the middle of an intersection thumbing through a shopping list, utterly unaware that she was blocking people in four different directions.

I stood there quietly for a moment, hoping she’d notice. She didn’t.

I cleared my throat a bit theatrically, hoping she’d hear. She didn’t.

“Ma’am? Would you mind moving a bit to the side so we can get by?” She stood there.

And that’s when I lost it, just for a moment. All of the anxiety I’d held bottled up, all of the annoyance at every single person I’d bumped into or been bumped into by, all of the buzzing electricity that everyone in that store and in the whole city felt… it all came bubbling up from inside me. I said something to her, not hideously awful or terribly vulgar, but certainly unskillful.

And absolutely no good came of it. She heard, but she didn’t move. I didn’t feel better about myself or my surroundings. The people around me weren’t given an easier path through the market. If anything, we were all dug in deeper. It was unskillful.

Setting aside the question of whether or not it was ever my place to “correct” this woman, standing obliviously in the middle of a store, blocking everyone around her, what could I (or anyone) have said? Was there a polite way to invite her to check her list somewhere else, a way of speech and body language that would:

  1. have presented the message in a gentle, non-confrontational way, since that usually works better,
  2. not made her feel bad about herself, since I had no way of knowing what was going on in her head and life,
  3. not given into my annoyance or made me look like a nasty, impatient jerk, since that’s always a good goal, and
  4. made things easier for her, me, and everyone else, since that should have been the whole point?

Probably, sure. If I’d been in a better frame of mind, less annoyed and anxious, more kind and charitable, and really creative about finding a way to communicate to precisely that person in precisely that situation, I might have been able to pull it off.

Again, setting aside the very important question of whether it was my place to do so at all. That’s a bigger knot to untie.

But I wasn’t in a better frame of mind, I was annoyed, anxious, and any kindness I might have had was a thin veneer stretched over a deep well of impatience and agitation. So the skillful thing to do would have been to keep my mouth shut, realizing that no good could have come out of my saying anything. Right speech would most certainly have been silence in this case.

I blew it, but I like to think I learned a lesson. Or at least been given yet another chance to learn an old, familiar lesson that’s expressed in the Serenity Prayer as well as the simple advice that sometimes it’s better to shut the heck up! Thankfully, I haven’t been in a similar situation since, where I could test myself to see if the lesson has stuck. But I’m sure it will happen, sooner rather than later.

After all, it’s supposed to snow again tomorrow.


The Five Precepts

handleaf[Image Source] If you’re not familiar with Buddhism, you may never have heard of the Five Precepts. They’re the ethical base of Buddhist practice, a sort of code that practicing Buddhists live by. They’re very closely tied to the Right Action spoke of the Eightfold Path, which, along with Right Livelihood and Right Speech, is part of the Ethical Conduct path of Buddhism. The Five Precepts are, in a word, central to Buddhist thought and practice.

In the West we’re quite used to commandments, and it’s easy to confuse the Five Precepts with some sort of list of commandments. They’re not. Nowhere in the precepts will you see a “thou shalt” or a “thou shalt not.” Instead, they’re formulated as choices, as voluntary undertakings, as decisions made by the individual because they make sense to the individual through practice and reflection, not because some cosmic (and potentially vengeful) being commanded them. Buddhists chant or recite them as reminders, as a kind of affirmation of the choice to practice.

The precepts have both negative and positive formulations, and in both, you can see how the practicing Buddhist enters into a kind of equal partnership with them. Take a look at the negative formulations first.

1. I undertake to abstain from taking or harming life.
2. I undertake to abstain from taking what is not freely given.
3. I undertake to abstain from causing harm through sexuality.

4. I undertake to abstain from false speech.
5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

Notice that they all begin with “I undertake to abstain from…” Not “I vow not to…” or even “I will not...” For many Buddhists, in intention and in actual behavior, they do amount to vows, but they come from a humbler place, a place that recognizes that we don’t always get it right, even with the best of intentions. That doesn’t imply a lax attitude toward the precepts, but rather a compassionate attitude to ourselves.

We’ll look more closely at each of the precepts in later posts, but here’s a quick summary of how they’re usually understood:

1. The first precept is related to the practice of avihimsā, which is nonviolence, harmlessness, the absence of cruelty. For many Buddhists, but not all, this means vegetarianism, or even veganism. The central aim is to abstain from causing suffering to other sentient beings, human and non-human alike.

2. The second precept is obviously about not stealing, but it’s also a little more subtle. It’s about not manipulating people into giving, doing or saying things that they don’t give, do or say freely and voluntarily.

3. The third precept does not take the kind of moralistic attitude toward sex that we often see in the West. There’s no sense that sex itself is bad or sinful, but rather that since it’s such a basic human urge, it’s very susceptible to being misused, to being the source of harm. Obviously this covers issues like rape or sexual abuse, but it also covers sex that causes harm or pain to another married or partnered couple, or compulsive sex that causes harm to ourselves.

4. The fourth precept is about telling the truth, but not just in the sense of not lying. Buddhists are very concerned with attaining a vision of reality as it really is, and speech is one way that we can (further) distort reality for one another, not just through lying, but also through exaggerating, gossiping, and speaking ill of people.

5. The fifth precept is about drinking and taking drugs. Again, it’s not so much that these things are sinful in themselves, but rather that they interfere with mindfulness, the truthful and direct experience of the here-and-now. Some people take the fifth precept as a call to complete abstention, while others (usually the ones with more self-control!) take it as a reminder to stop after one or two.

We’ll end with the positive formulations of the five precepts, the flip side of the same coin in each case.

1. With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.
2. With open-handed generosity, I purify my body.
3. With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.
4. With truthful communication, I purify my speech.
5. With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

If the negative formulations are the stick, at least of a sort, the positive formulations are the carrot. They are the benefits that one may gain, “purified” body, speech, and mind that are not as vulnerable to the urges, the whims, the moods, the dissatisfaction, and the general uncertainty – the suffering – that we live with.


Right Tweets, Right Posts, Right Comments

Speak only the speechThe concept of Right Speech comes up a lot in the Dharma. One of the Eightfold Path steps or spokes is dedicated to it, it’s one of the Five Precepts, and it’s a part of various suttas, for example the Subhasita Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. That makes perfect sense. Today, as in the Buddha’s time one imagines, most of us do more day-to-day harm with our speech than with any weapon. We lie, we insult, we belittle, we speak without thinking, we say things that bring others to anger or indignation.

Truthful speech is a major part of Right Speech, but for most of us telling the truth is not terribly difficult. It might be uncomfortable at times, but we don’t (usually) outright lie out of habit, and we don’t (usually) have to make a special effort to tell the truth.

It’s all those other kinds of Unskillful Speech that are the real challenges! Thoughtless speech, provocative speech, insulting speech, belittling speech, gossip… And it seems that there’s no easier place to engage in all of that unskillfulness than on the internet.

Go to the comments of just about any article of an online newspaper, and you’re likely to find an insane amount of vitriol being flung back and forth between anonymous strangers. The article can be about anything; some people seem bent on turning even the most innocuous topic into a chance to vent their anger, their prejudices, their political tribalism, their sense of religious supremacy, their hatred for anyone who thinks differently than they do.

It’s entirely possible that some of these comments are nothing more than sport. People are engaging in a virtual conversation, not with other people, but with strange screen names that aren’t attached to real human beings. And maybe everyone knows the rules of the game, so no pain or mental suffering is actually caused.

I don’t really buy that. I’m sure it’s true for some, but for those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in comments sections, reading some of that is just depressing. And it’s hard to imagine that none of the anger that one sees is genuine, that the cycle of insult and counter-insult doesn’t heap on more and more anger, hatred, and ill will.

I used to be guilty of this on Facebook. If I found a gem of a gotcha article or meme that insulted people of a different political leaning than my own, I was all too happy to share it. This obviously wasn’t anonymous. I was sharing these things with people I knew, real human beings I’d gone to school with, or worked with, or friended for whatever reason. I suppose I told myself that I was in the right, and by sharing these things, I was making a case for that ‘enlightened’ position.

But that’s just wrong. How often do snarky Facebook exchanges turn anyone’s political opinions? And, in the un-virtual world, if we set out to explain our thinking on an issue, how often would we start with an insult? And hey, maybe, just maybe, my opinion isn’t the best!

So the first manifestation of Right Speech that I recognized I needed to work on was Right Online Speech. I’ve never been one for leaving anonymous comments, but I admit that I enjoyed a bit of snark in my Facebook updates. I’ve made an effort to put an end to that, and I’ve vowed not to read comments on online articles. Mostly I’ve been successful, but Practice will make (at least something closer to) Perfect.