If you want to have a strong Buddhist practice, how important is it to study Buddhist teachings? A library consisting solely of classic Buddhist and Zen teachings and texts would still contain hundreds of volumes. It’s difficult to know where to begin studying, let alone hope to read and understand even a fraction of what’s available! Is study really necessary, and if so, how much?
I’m going to answer this question from a Zen point of view. Zen had its beginnings in China, where it was called Chan, and it quickly claimed it was a lineage tradition involving a “special transmission outside the scriptures.” An ancient Zen saying puts it this way:
A special transmission outside the teachings,
do not depend on written words,
directly point to the human mind,
see one’s nature and become Buddha.
So, that’s the good news! You don’t have to study in order to get Zen.
However… (isn’t there always a “however” in Zen?) study is a powerful, traditional, and possibly indispensable practice tool – but not in the way many of us might think. Study in Zen or Buddhism isn’t about acquiring knowledge. We study in order to challenge the ideas we already have.
This means we can engage Zen and Buddhist study in a very immediate, personal, and open-handed way. Unless we want to teach Buddhism someday, there’s no need to retain anything. We can just explore the teachings we come across, or the ones that intrigue or challenge us, let them do their work on us, and move on. Any time a teaching makes you question your views, opens your mind or heart, humbles you, or inspires you, it’s doing its job.
Also, Zen and Buddhist teachings are holographic, in that every individual teaching, at least to some extent, contains all of the other teachings. So there’s no need to gain an encyclopedic knowledge of all of them; just going deeply into a few that particularly attract you, or that your teacher recommends for you, is enough. Follow your nose through the Zen and Buddhist teachings, creating your own path.
 This is a widely quote poem but few people give any sources for it. Here’s one that discusses its origins: http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/40b.5-Transmission-outside-the-scriptures.pdf
Did you know admirable friendship is considered essential to walking the Buddhist path?
The Buddha said “With regard to external factors, I don’t envision any other single factor like admirable friendship as doing so much for a monk in training,”[i] and this certainly applies to lay practitioners as well.
What’s an admirable friend? About this the Buddha said:
“The friend who is a helpmate,
the friend in happiness and woe,
the friend who gives good counsel,
the friend who sympathizes too —
these four as friends the wise behold
and cherish them devotedly
as does a mother her own child.”[ii]
Specifically, in being a helpmate, a true friend guards you when you’re heedless, helps protect your wealth, becomes a refuge when you are in danger, and goes above and beyond when she has a commitment. In being a friend in happiness and woe, he reveals his secrets to you, keeps your secrets, doesn’t forsake you in misfortune, and even sacrifices his life for you if necessary. In giving good counsel, a friend discourages you from doing evil and encourages you to do good, educates you when necessary, and points out the path to true happiness. Finally, a true friend never rejoices in your misfortune but only in your prosperity, discourages others from speaking ill of you, and praises those who speak well of you.[iii]
Wow, how’s that for a high bar for friendship? How many friends do you have like that? To how many people are you an admirable friend?
[i] “Itivuttaka: The Group of Ones” (Iti 17), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/iti/iti.1.001-027.than.html.
[ii] “Sigalovada Sutta: The Discourse to Sigala” (DN 31), translated from the Pali by Narada Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html.
Spiritual teachings, including those found in Zen, basically assert the following: There is a sense in which everything is okay when life is viewed from a larger perspective. The key to maintaining happiness and peace in our lives is connecting with, or having faith in, the reality of this larger perspective.
All spiritual practices and traditions are essentially about how we face the profoundly unnerving difficulties of human life while maintaining some level of happiness and peace. How do we cope with illness, pain, unbearable loss, poverty, old age, death, violence, and injustice? How do we function with some measure of joy and equanimity? Even when our lives are going well, how do we relieve the underlying stress that comes from knowing our worldly happiness is fragile and ephemeral – that our fortunes can change in an instant, and pain is inevitable?
In theistic traditions, God is beneficent and brings a divine order to the universe. Although humans may lose faith in His love and His divine plan as they struggle with their challenges, this is only because they have gotten caught up in drama at the human scale, and lost the larger perspective. A person of strong theistic faith will find immense strength and relief even in the most horrible of circumstances by reminding themselves that everything is in God’s hands, and therefore fundamentally okay. Although this life may bring great suffering, it’s just a brief period of trial before everlasting life in heaven.
Zen (and Buddhism in general) is a non-theistic spiritual tradition, but we also find solace and strength by recalling a larger perspective. We suffer when we get caught up in the drama of the small self, and caught in the illusion that we’re separate from everything and everyone else. But then we try to remember that everything in the universe is part of one, seamless, luminous reality, and that this reality is lively and miraculous. This our direct, personal experience of reality when we manage to drop all of our conceptual filters – including the one that imagines our self to be separate and inherently existent. Free from any expectations of how things should or shouldn’t be, we are struck with gratitude and awe because this vast play of universal liveliness exists rather than not existing.
The larger perspective, or the spiritual sense in which everything is okay even when our life is falling apart, isn’t easy to explain, understand, attain, or maintain. Unless you’ve experience it for yourself, you may not relate to the idea of finding solace in surrendering to God’s will, or trying to directly experience non-separation from universal liveliness. It may sound like wishful thinking. But once you’ve experienced it, you know the larger perspective reflects a level of reality that in a certain sense is more true than our mundane experience, because the larger perspective includes but transcends the smaller.
What does this mean to our daily life of practice? When we’re struggling, we naturally need to take care of mundane affairs and hope things will improve. If we’re sick we need to see the doctor and work on our health. If we can’t pay our bills, we need to find ways to make money. At the same time, we can find strength and solace in the midst of our activities by recalling the sense in which everything is – and will be – okay, no matter what happens. If our conviction that this is the case isn’t so strong, we can work toward a direct, personal experience of the larger perspective.
The Buddha taught there were five things to consider before speaking.[v] Is what you’re about to say:
- Factual and true
- Helpful, or beneficial
- Spoken with kindness and good-will (that is, hoping for the best for all involved)
- Endearing (that is, spoken gently, in a way the other person can hear)
- Timely (occasionally something true, helpful, and kind will not be endearing, or easy for someone to hear, in which case we think carefully about when to say it)
Will What We Say Be Helpful?
In the last post on right speech, we already discussed the importance of our speech being factual and true. The second point to consider before speaking is whether what we’re about to say is likely to be helpful or beneficial. This doesn’t mean we should never say anything unless we’re sure it’s going to be useful or help someone. The instruction to consider whether something will be helpful or not applies more to things we want to say in the hopes of getting others to change their minds or behavior in some way. We may want to admonish someone, or complain about something they’ve done. We may feel the urge to give advice, or educate someone – overtly, or by telling them about how we think or do things.
If we practice honesty and mindfulness, we’ll discover that many times, when we want to speak in this way, our primary motivation is to build up our own sense of being right, capable, moral, noble, victimized, etc. It seems to be human nature to try get as many people on our side as possible, as if the more people who agree with or admire us, the more legitimate our behavior or positions. Speaking primarily in order to show we’re right doesn’t qualify as “helpful” or “beneficial” speech from the Buddhist point of view.
At other times, of course, we sincerely want to help, or feel the need to point something out. Then the question of whether our speech will actually be helpful becomes critical. Even if we’re right, even if someone would be better off if they took our advice, is it going to be helpful to speak up at this time? Are we instead likely to make someone angry or defensive, and perhaps even less likely to accept or act on what we have to say? Is our speech going to reinforce someone’s sense of inadequacy, perhaps, and encourage them to rely on us for guidance? Is someone ready to hear and accept what we have to say?
Basically, if it seems very unlikely our speech will be helpful or beneficial, no matter our intentions, the Buddha suggests we remain silent. Kind of makes you think about how much less we’d end up saying if we followed the Buddha’s guidelines on speech, doesn’t it?
Are We Speaking with Kindness and Good-Will?
Chances are, if we speak with good-will, it’s more likely someone will be able to hear and accept what we have to say, and will benefit from it. If we maintain a sense of good-will, we’re more likely to be motivated to speak what will be helpful (as opposed to what’s idle or self-serving).
Considering our own attitude while speaking is another useful approach to evaluating our speech. What are we thinking and feeling as we contemplate saying something? Do we have judgments in our mind about the person we’re speaking to – that they’re stupid, weak, pathetic, inferior, deluded, stubborn, etc.? If so, chances are we’re feeling superior to them and our motivation to speak isn’t sincerely about their best interests. If someone has hurt or offended us and we’re speaking up about it, have we already categorized the other person as unreasonable, cruel, selfish, or irredeemable? If so, chances are our speech will be tinged with anger and a desire to hurt the person in return. Sometimes we can remind ourselves of the importance of speaking with good-will, and we’ll be able to extend some warmth, patience, and benefit-of-the-doubt to those we’re speaking to or about.
However, what about when we find our attitude toward others is still less than kind, affectionate, or based in good-will? Sometimes we may still decide it’s important to speak. But at least we can be aware that we’re coming from a biased place, and perhaps speak in a way that minimizes expression of that bias. In addition, it may help to consider the Buddhist premise that each person is doing the best they can and just trying to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Sure, sometimes, due to ignorance, people go about seeking happiness in deluded and harmful ways. But in general, people don’t set out to be evil. They see themselves as good, or at least as trying to be good. Your message will be more likely to get across if your speech in some way appeals to the other person’s better nature.
Will What We Say Be Endearing? If Not, at Least Timely?
As for whether our speech is endearing (that is, pleasant, polite, agreeable, and appealing to people), the Buddha says it’s not right speech if what we say is endearing but fails any one of the other tests. “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.”[x] This is a whole realm of wrong speech we haven’t even covered yet – speech that curries favor while divorced from sincere good-will or truth. This includes flattery, political machinations, divisive tale-bearing, etc.
Apart from manipulative speech, however, it’s interesting to me that the Buddha would ask us to consider whether what we’re going to say is endearing or not. Most of us feel that it’s more important to speak the truth, or speak up when something’s wrong, than it is to be endearing. Still, the Buddha explains his considerations about speaking by saying he “has sympathy for living beings.” He pays attention to how they are going to feel as a result of his words. Frankly, even if we’re convinced we should speak, failing to consider how our words are going to make someone feel shows either self-centeredness or folly. After all, why are we speaking? Do we just want make a point that we’re right, or do we actually want to communicate something to others? If we actually want to communicate, then we’d better think about how our words are likely to be received.
Of course, the Buddha makes it clear right speech may sometimes not be endearing. We can easily think of examples where this is the case – when we need to say “no,” or set a boundary with someone, or we need to point out harmful behavior, or say something that’s likely to make someone feel defensive or ashamed no matter how we put it. If we’re motivated by good-will, what we say is factual and true, and we think saying it will be beneficial, then we can say it.
But – and this always warms my heart as a prime example of the Buddha’s wisdom and sympathy for all beings – we should have “a sense of the proper time for saying” what we want to say. Maybe we should bite our tongue and speak to someone in private instead of blurting our message out at the dining room table, surrounded by guests? Maybe we should let our teenage son or daughter cool down after an argument before explaining to them why they need to change their behavior?
All of the different aspects of right speech are, of course, interdependent. Finding the proper time for saying something may determine whether or not it will end up being beneficial. (In fact, the Prince Abhaya sutta says the Buddha looks for the proper time to speak even when what he says is true, beneficial, and endearing![xi]) If we try speak with kindness and good-will, we’ll look for a time to say something that will minimize another person’s potential embarrassment or discomfort. If we limit our speech to what’s really factual and true, it will be more likely to be endearing.
[v] “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html.
[vi] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
[viii] “Vaca Sutta: A Statement” (AN 5.198), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.198.than.html.
[ix] AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.); “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html.
[x] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
The Buddha gave quite a number of teachings on right speech over the course of his 45-year teaching career. Clearly, he taught that paying attention to how you express yourself verbally was considered an essential part of practice. Obviously, our speech has an effect on other people, and unless we’re selfish or deluded, we care about that. On the positive side, our speech can convey love, and it can support or guide others in their own spiritual journey. Alternatively, our speech may trigger defensiveness or anger in others, or demoralize or confuse them. And that’s just the external effects of our speech! What we say aloud has a powerful influence on our own thinking, and can reinforce positive or negative patterns of behavior in us.
Right speech is on of the elements of the Eightfold Path, all of which are typically translated as starting with the word, “right.” The use of this word shouldn’t be taken as a judgmental moral injunction, or a suggestion that if you do something “wrong” in Buddhism you’ll be kicked out or disqualified from Buddhist practice. Instead, “right” has more of an objective meaning here: Basically, what actually works, in the sense of bringing about a positive result? As in, this is the “right” key to open the door. It’s very useful to keep this definition of “right” in mind when practicing right speech, because it points to how it isn’t just about acting in a way that makes you a “good” person, it’s about the most effective, compassionate, and authentic way to communicate and interact with other people.
The four kinds of speech the Buddha said you need to abstain from if you want to practice right speech, namely, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter.
Abstaining from Lying
It’s probably not surprising that right speech is incompatible with lying. In the Pali Canon sutta called “To Cunda the Silversmith,” the Buddha explains in detail how someone abstains from false speech. “If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward… He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”[ii]
Notably, a number of the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon tend to describe right speech as both “factual” and “true.”[iii] I’d have to know the corresponding Pali terms in order to understand why the Buddha might have used two words to describe speech that isn’t false, but it occurs to me that in our own practice it’s extremely useful to examine whether our speech is both true and factual. For example, it may seem “true” to us at a given moment that someone we’re dealing with is rude and disrespectful. “You’re rude and disrespectful!” we might say. However, this kind of statement strengthens our sense of self-righteousness, triggers negative reactions in others, and isn’t factual. The facts are that someone did something, we didn’t like it, and we’re thinking that the other person’s actions were rude and disrespectful. Our expression will end up being more honest, accurate – and probably easier for people to listen to – if we stick to the facts. The facts can include what we’re thinking and feeling, as long as we report them as our thoughts and feelings and not as some kind of objective truth.
Abstaining from Divisive Speech
Abstaining from divisive speech is also described in “To Cunda the Silversmith.” The Buddha essentially says someone practicing right speech will not use speech to turn people against one another. Many of us commit this transgression of speech with regularity when we want to get people on our side against others. As the Buddhaexplains, it’s tempting to “tell here” something we learned “over there,” in order to affect the attitudes of our listeners. Later, we may “tell there,” what we heard here, and further stoke resentments, judgments, or righteous indignation.
Of course, at times we may need to tell people what’s going on, or verbally process our feelings and responses with others. At times it may be helpful to share our opinions or point out something we think is wrong or harmful. The best way to evaluate whether we are indulging in divisive speech is to be honest with ourselves about our underlying intention. If we try to keep our speech true and factual, and if we’re sincerely keeping in mind what’s best for all involved, maybe it’s okay to venture into potentially divisive speech. At times, however, we just want the gratification of others agreeing with us against some party we resent, look down on, or fear. If we leave a conversation feeling pleased that we’ve just managed to further divide people, we’re probably not practicing right speech according to the Buddha’s teachings.
The Buddha gives Cunda the Silversmith an even higher ideal regarding someone who abstains from divisive speech. He says, “Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.” So not only are we asked not to gossip, we’re asked to take delight in harmony and friendship between people – even people we don’t agree with or don’t particularly like. Quite a challenge.
Abstaining from Abusive Speech and Idle Chatter
Abusive speech is another thing the Buddha said we needed to avoid. While strong language may be necessary at certain times in order to get our point across, abusive speech is intended to make someone feel lesser, stupid, ashamed, scared, etc. Abusive speech may be aggressive and overt, but it can also be passive aggressive and more subtly cruel or unkind. The tricky thing is that when we lapse into abusive speech, it’s often because we’re angry or defensive, so at the moment of speaking we usually aren’t so aware of our intentions to hurt others (or we feel justified in doing so). Words that aren’t abusive, the Buddha explains to Cunda, are those that are “soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.”
The Buddha also says we should also avoid idle chatter. What does this mean? In the strictest sense, it meant for Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from any speech or conversations that weren’t directly connected with the goal of enlightenment. The idea was that life was short, and aimless conversations – described elsewhere in the Pali Canon as being about politics, gossip, relatives, vehicles, entertainments, even philosophical discussions[iv] – were distractions and a waste of time.
Of course, for those of us who aren’t engaged 24-7 in strict monastic training, conversation can a harmless pleasure and a way to connect with other people – even when, in a certain sense, a particular conversation can’t be said to be literally “useful.” Personally, I think we can examine the nature of our speech in order to know whether or not it’s idle in a negative sense. Are we sincerely enjoying conversation, or social connection, or are we letting our mouths flap without paying any attention to the topics we’re covering, the effects our speech is having on others, how long we’ve been going on, or whether our speech is appropriate to the circumstances?
We could call idle chatter “unmindful” speech – for example, speaking while oblivious, often just to fill the silence, fend off nervousness, impress people, or keep the subject focused on ourselves. When we find ourselves doing this, it helps to shut up for a while, practice mindfulness, and pay more attention to the people we’re talking to. Do they seem bored or uncomfortable? Do they speak up if you leave some space for them to talk? Do you actually have any curiosity about what the other person is thinking or feeling, or do you just want to be heard?
In next week’s post, I’ll cover the Buddha’s teachings on the five things to consider before speaking.
[i] “Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” (MN 61), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.061.than.html.
[ii] “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith” (AN 10.176), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.176.than.html.
[iii] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
[iv] “Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” (DN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html.