To speak is only human, so we all have our problems with Right Speech.
For some, the challenge is resisting the urge to gossip. Other people shade the truth all day long, dramatizing every memory in the retelling, or padding every anecdote of accomplishment. Some people use words to harm their enemies, while others use them to win praise and love. Some people, for the life of them, just can’t stop talking.
My big issue with Right Speech is writer’s block. A few years ago, I formed the disquieting intuition that all of my thoughts were the result of unconscious conditioning. They seemed to me to be worthless, like dumb secretions or excretions, pure garbage. I further noticed that every one of the Right Speech complexes described above was busily at work in my mind. I was a journalist then, a producer of words, so almost as a matter of professional pride I undertook a program to improve my speech.
My first step was to cut back on the amount of words that I produced, so that I could reflect more closely on the ones that I did write. I wrote fewer stories and blog posts, and I narrowed the scope of the social problems and issues I followed. I read books on ethics and morals. I studied the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech and I went on silent meditation retreats to take an even closer look at my intentions.
For some people, daily meditation is the backbone of their spiritual practice. I do a daily sit, but in recent years, as the result of my obsession with Right Speech, the mindful watching of the words that I speak or write has been the true core of my practice.
For a long time, and sometimes still, I judge myself harshly for this.
“How self-absorbed can you get, watching your every word like a monk! You are a journalist! Don’t get stuck in all this navel-gazing. The world needs tough, good journalism now more than ever. So stop brooding, get cracking and do your job, fool!”
But then a deeper, gentler and more dignified voice speaks back against this gale of self-reproach: “Be calm. The world will go on without you, always doing evil and doing good. Stick to your guns. Sit patiently and watch words as they arise in your mind. Crouch like a cat next to a mouse hole, watching for words to emerge. Then let them live or die, based on your best intentions. There’s no higher thing you can do than to be clear about your intentions in every moment. If you must, let your whole life pass by without writing another word. This would be honest, honorable and worthy.”
Even my scornful inner journalist bows to that voice. If nothing else it is as stoutly, stubbornly contrarian as any self-respecting journalist could hope to be.
At times, the overwhelming emphasis that is placed on formal meditation in Western dharma circles has been a second source of challenge to my Right Speech practice.
I sometimes wonder if I am a bad meditator or a “bad Buddhist” because my daily practice, on and off the cushion, is so heavily fueled by constant watchfulness and rumination on Right Speech. I’m not challenging the fundamental importance of formal meditation when I say this. My daily midday sit, and equally so the long silent retreats I attend every year, afford a tangible and direct experience of the mind. Without that, even the smallest amount of liberating insight would be impossible.
Yet formal meditation comprises only one part of the spiritual path that the Buddha expounded. Indeed, Right Mindfulness is only one of the path’s eight steps, another one of which, a full and equal step on the path, is Right Speech itself.
I’ve drawn great confidence against my worries and self-doubts from teachers who support the notion that Right Speech practice, as opposed to formal meditation, can be a primary portal to the dharma. The Buddha himself, in the Pali scriptures, often explains that all people bring their own distinct patterns of conditioning – their own unique karma – into this life. As a result, different teachings and practices work to dissolve the differently-hardened masses of conditioning that comprise each individual person. The strategy of Skillful Means, by which a teacher brings to bear precisely those teachings that best dissipate a given person’s conditioning, hinges on this insight.
The meditation teacher Gil Fronsdal acknowledges the importance of the ethical practices of the Buddha’s spiritual path, such as Right Speech, when he writes in The Issue at Hand: “I believe that a daily sitting practice is extremely beneficial. But I believe there is even more benefit in spending a few minutes each day reflecting on our deepest intentions.” That is what I’ve been doing for several years with Right Speech practice – just watching my intentions. It has one distinct advantage over formal meditation: you can do it all day long, every time you get the urge to speak.
Just as the breath is an ever-present touchstone to the present moment, so is the urge to speak exactly such a touchstone for me. I find that I almost never lack the urge to speak. At any moment, I can tune into this primitive and powerful urge which rhythmically surges and heaves with the force of the breath itself. I watch the urge to speak arise, I watch it tease and torture me for a while, and I watch it pass away. And just like watching the breath, I find that watching the intention to speak – noticing the specific words and phrases that arise, twinkle, glow and then fade from moment to moment – actually calms me down. It makes the mind spacious and free.
Of course, to notice this only confirms how ethical action and formal meditation are inextricably linked. Ultimately, ethics and meditation cannot be separated because it takes mindfulness to be ethical, just as ethical action forms the foundation of the stable, calm, meditative mind. What’s more, within formal meditation, sustained attention on practically any object – such as the breath, a candle flame, or the urge to speak — are all equally valid ways to incline the mind towards calm and equanimity.
Henepola Gunaratana, the author of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, explains in two pithy sentences why ethical practices, such as screening one’s intentions to speak, are often the best place to start the spiritual path: “Subtleties of mind are not the place to begin practice. You must start where you can see clearly, with your actual behavior.”
The Burmese meditation master Sayadaw Tejaniya, who teaches several senior vipassana instructors in the West, teaches a style of dharma that stresses ethical action, right attitude and right effort as opposed to achieving deep states of calm and concentration. A certain amount of calm is needed, he says, to set the stage for clear seeing – for insight and wisdom. But Tejaniya cites the Buddha himself who said that deep states of blissful concentration are only one possible path to nibbana.
Sayadaw Tejaniya says that adopting a rigorous Right Speech practice marked a turning point in his personal struggle to liberate the mind.
“One of the practices I did as a layman was keeping eight precepts, the usual five plus three extensions of the speech precepts,” he writes in Awareness Alone is Not Enough. “I tried not only not to lie, but also undertook to abstain from harsh speech, from slander and backbiting, and from idle talk. I soon found out that it took a lot of mindfulness, a lot of self-awareness to keep all these speech precepts and that is when my practice really started zooming.”
Words are like anything else in experience. They appear and disappear, they carry intentions and feelings, and they can be watched.
To not attach to words is skillful speech, and one path to peace.
Doug McGill recently spent nine days at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies studying Right Speech with the center’s executive director and senior scholar, Andrew Olendzki. He will offer a guided meditation and dharma talk on Right Speech at Common Ground this Sunday, May 16, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:40 a.m., and from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; and on Wednesday, May 19 from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.