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Once the holy Hasidic master Baal Shem sent Yacov Yosef, his second-greatest pupil, an outstanding scholar and Kabbalist, to test the learning of Yechiel, a prospective son-in-law for Baal Shem's daughter, Udel. Yechiel, like the holy master, came from a simple German Jewish family.
When Yacov Yosef returned from his mission, he reported back to the Baal Shem Tov:
"Yechiel answered, 'I don't know' to everything I asked him. I wonder about this guy..."
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "Oh God, I'd love to have such a man as my son-in-law."
The young man told the simple truth, which is sometimes easier said than done, and the old rabbi recognized his wisdom. Words can be gifts, words can be weapons, words can be magic; words can be prayer, poetry, or song. What is traditionally known as Right Speech is the third touchstone on the Eight-Fold Path. So speak your truth. Tell it like it is. There is no reason to do otherwise.
Everything You Say Can Express Your Buddha-Nature
In a world of exaggerated advertising campaigns, exploitative talk shows, hate radio, and political spin doctors, Right Speech and impeccable expression may seem to be a rather tall order. Yet if we are sincere about embodying the Dharma, our words ideally will become a reflection of our desire to help others. Think kindly; speak gently and clearly. The wisdom of cause and effect--or karma--teaches us that everything matters--every breath, every syllable, every sentence. As we walk the path to enlightenment, nothing is meaningless, and it all counts. Imagine that all the thoughts and fragmented sentences that are just now swirling through your head were printed out on a giant chalkboard--like the daily menu in some restaurants. Which thoughts do you sincerely want to express? It's a choice we make--sometimes hundreds of times every day. With your words you confirm to the world, and yourself, what you think is important. Words help concretize our thoughts and concepts; they define our priorities, reify our ideas and opinions, and express our worldview and intentions. Words have power; to be specific, your words have power. We can use speech patterns to help us communicate with others in a more considered, conscious way, or we can be careless and create trouble with our words--trouble for ourselves as well as others.
In the context of Dharma, speech is a particularly compelling issue because to reflect upon speech is to think about self, non-self, and others. Don't most of us use speech as an expression of ego and the need to hang on to and confirm our illusory self? Don't we use speech to communicate that we exist? "I'm here," we say, confirming and marking out our territorial space. To some extent, we all habitually use words to express ego and a false self. By putting forth our views, we use speech to shore up the concrete citadel of ego and the notion of "me" and "mine." We tell ourselves and others stories about ourselves and our lives. We speak to others; we speak to ourselves. What do we say? And why do we say it?
When the Buddha talked about Right Speech or impeccable speech, what he meant was excellent speech that reflected inner wisdom, clear vision, and Buddha-nature. The instructions that come down to us from the Buddha concerning everyday speech are simple yet profound. On a mundane level, we are instructed as follows:
Speak the Truth, Tell No Lies
On this point, the Buddha's advice was remarkably straightforward. He said: "If he is called to tell what he knows, he answers if he knows nothing: 'I know nothing.' And if he knows, he answers, 'I know.' If he has seen nothing, he answers: 'I have seen nothing.' And if he has seen, he answers: 'I have seen.' Thus, he never knowingly speaks a lie, neither for the sake of his own advantage, nor for the sake of another person's advantage, nor for the sake of any advantage whatsoever."
Words articulated without guile, masked ego needs, conflict, or hidden agendas--wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to speak with such clarity and simplicity, all the time? Haven't there been times in your life when you are so centered and clear that your words, like the Buddha's, ring with truth and sanity? Don't we all sometimes have these breakthrough moments, times when we are in touch with who we are and what we know? These are precious moments, minutes, or hours when each of us is able to speak his or her own truth, honestly and fearlessly. But these breakthroughs are difficult to sustain.
As a seeker, you have probably already wrestled with the problems connected to outright lying; in all likelihood, you've made an appropriate decision not to be evasive or indulge in direct falsehoods or deceitful, manipulative statements. We all agree that outright lying is counterproductive. But as we walk further along the spiritual path, chances are we will each arrive at checkpoints where the subtleties of truth come into play. We may discover time after time that it's difficult to be clear and forthright in everything we say, and we may find ourselves compromising and shading the truth. Instead of saying what we know is true, for example, we say things that others want to hear. Or we say things that we want to hear--and believe.
When we don't want to appear weak or vulnerable, we say things that make us look strong and powerful. When we don't want others to think we are out of control, we use words to control what others do. It's very easy to spot the manipulations of the spin doctors from Madison Avenue or Washington, D.C.; it's more complex when we create our own egotistical advertising campaigns. Yet this is what we do all the time by presenting ourselves as we would like to appear and hiding behind the stories we tell ourselves and others to get what we think we want. All this only serves to create false personas that leave us feeling incomplete and alienated from our authentic selves.
Don't you sometimes use words to distance others and protect your true feelings? Haven't you ever told people that you were feeling "fine" even when you were depressed and sad? We don't always use words to communicate from our hearts and then we expect others to be mind readers. Sometimes we even tell ourselves stories. "I don't eat so many sweets," we say to ourselves as we reach again into the bag of cookies. "I'm not really lying to Miranda," we think as we make up a plausible excuse to break an appointment. "It doesn't really matter," we reassure ourselves, even when we know it matters a great deal.
Everyone says that communication and mutual understanding is the essence of good relationships. And nowhere are the subtleties of honest speech more apparent than in our personal relationships. However, as much as we may want to express ourselves authentically with words that reflect love, warmth, and openness, we don't always manage to do it. Our expectations get in the way and distort the picture; so do our desires, fears, illusions, and projections. That's why we all regularly need to stop and ask ourselves if we are moving in the direction of more honesty, or not.
I often speak to people who tell me they are unhappy because their loved ones don't seem to be listening to what they have to say. They feel invalidated and as though their opinions are being disregarded. But when these people delve a little bit deeper below the surface of their complaints, they often realize they are failing to express their feelings and wishes in a clear and direct manner. When we withhold our true feelings, protect our emotions, and construct false personas to present to the world, we become part of the problem.
Reality--seeing things just as they are--is a central issue of Buddhist practice. Pure attention, unclouded by distortion or delusion, knows things exactly as they are, in the present moment. We bring Right Speech into our relationships by trying always to be honest and forthright and by letting go of our intricate defense systems and being truthful and open about who we are and how we feel.
As part of awareness practice involving Right Speech, try listening to yourself so you can hear how you sound from a different perspective, as if being outside of yourself as an objective listener. Speaking the truth is a very present-moment activity; truth-telling begins by becoming aware of what you tell yourself. Then try listening to the way you sound to others. Do you sound tentative, confused, angry, rattled, tense? Are you using speech to manipulate feelings or emotions, yours or someone else's? Do you use speech, or even silence, as a way of hiding who you are? Are you communicating what you think you're communicating? Are you able to recognize and acknowledge reality? Are you able to speak your truth in your own authentic voice, unflinchingly and without hesitation?
Use Words to Help, Not Harm
Right Speech Reminds Us To Refrain From Causing Trouble With Speech That Is Hurtful Or Unnecessarily Disruptive Have you ever had the experience of saying something and regretting it later? Perhaps something sarcastic that you thought was funny? Of course. We all have. When I began teaching, I quickly realized that if I made what I thought was a little ironic or facetious joke, some sensitive soul might end up feeling hurt, ridiculed, exposed, or betrayed.
One of Atisha's mind-training Lo-jong Slogans is Don't Talk About Injured Limbs It's a good slogan to remember because what we describe as a joke may in reality be pointing out another being's defects and weaknesses--not unlike staring or pointing a finger. It can be hurtful even though we are backing into it through a joke. And yet how hard it is to walk this talk. What a temptation it sometimes is to poke fun or show how funny and clever we can be with our quick tongues and caustic wit. Hurtful words reinforce personal alienation and a dualistic view. Slander sows discord; sensitive gentle speech can bring about peace and reconciliation.
The Dharma also reminds us that a judgmental point of view will obscure our higher view and distort our direct appreciation of how things are. In the New Testament, Jesus points out that we tend to notice the small imperfection in someone else's eye while overlooking the log sticking out of our own. A Tibetan proverb says: "Don't notice the tiny flea in the other person's hair and overlook the lumbering yak on your own nose." Judgmental words and self-righteous tones fail to help any situation.
Some people seem to be particularly gifted at using words to help others. They are so constructive, positive, and empathetic that they make you feel good whenever you talk to them. "How great for you," they say. "Tell me about it; I want to hear what you have to say." You can feel their intention to give support and encouragement. These communicative geniuses seem to have a special gift--they are able to truly see and hear others. Open and sensitive to what others are experiencing, these gifted listeners are real healers. Listening with a nonjudgmental and open heart is a way to bring bodhicitta and loving-kindness into your communication with others. The Dharma tells us that if we listen carefully, we will be able to hear the natural Buddha in everyone.