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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: Buddhist “Right Speech” as a practical virtue

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Buddhist “Right Speech” as a practical virtue

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters


Buddhist “Right Speech” as a practical virtue


You may know that I am writing a book about virtues. I added the Buddhist “Noble Eightfold Path” to my listing of virtues after an unproductive search for a virtue that fully embodied “delicacy of speech.” That is, the deliberate choice of words that carefully avoids damaging the fragile stem of newly-sprouted expression in others. It was gentler than tact. It was more specific than thoughtfulness. It was more loving than kindness or even loving-kindness. It was a gentler movement of a whispered expression than love. I could think of nothing more apt then the first Eightfold path virtue of “Right Speech.”

The Buddhist concept of Right Speech, of course, covers the courser commissions of lying, malicious slander, harsh anger, and idle gossip. However, to me, in this moment, it also needed to go past “do no harm,” and past pure and absolute gentleness–all the way to nurturing delicacy without hint of harm; speech that was fully, aptly, right.

I have been in the writing practice of completing a fully-formed suite of ideas, usually about a single-spaced page, and taking it downstairs to read aloud to my wife. She is usually quite tolerant and will pause in whatever she is doing to receive it. She rarely responds with anything but mild acceptance or a simple, thoughtful word of approval. Sometimes she notices one of my characteristic shifts in verb tense or a typo and I am grateful to her for noticing that.

Last night, she called up the stairs to say that I she had sent me an e-mail and asked if I had read it. No, I wasn’t aware of it yet, but I would check it out. I discovered that she had written the first chapter of a children’s book, based on her childhood experiences. At the end, she had written,
“What do you think?” Being the nurturing sort of fellow that I like to think I am, I went downstairs, found her busy cooking, said, “Ah, I just read your e-mail. You’ve been busy. Of course, you’ll need to rewrite it in the third-person voice. She allowed as how I was probably right but that it was difficult for her to write in the third person. Having promptly done exactly what she had asked for, I laid a little kiss on her check and returned to my office.

Something wasn’t right. It’s like when stuff in your drawer are folded differently. I sat there for a while re-reading her work and trying to figure out my sense of unease. In a bolt of Inspiration, I knew what it was. Rushing downstairs, I beamed at her and said, “It just occurred to me that, instead of rewriting for third-person you could just drop the introductory comment, “My first memory of being different was when I was about seven,” and write directly as that seven-year old girl. Beaming in triumph of reason, I went back to my office.

Something wasn’t right. This was really starting to bother me. It’s like when you stepped in the new bed of petunias. You got down on your hands and knees, bent low and tried to adjust the tiny plants to stand upright again so that nobody will notice. I had screwed up. Stepping hesitantly down the stairs, I discovered her watching her favorite comfort program on TV, I could see that the candle flame that usually flickers vigorously in her heart was reduced to a steady, quiet flame.

“I did it wrong, didn’t I?” She looked at me steadily, but without anger. “You could have said it like a tomato sandwich.” She teaches children that, if you put buttered slices of bread around a slice of tomato, it makes it easier to eat. I should have been more attuned to “right speech.” If it was necessary to make even a well-intentioned constructive criticism, I should have started and ended it with positive statements. I had stepped in her fresh bed of petunias.

We had recently finished viewing How to Cook Your Life, featuring Edward Espe Brown teaching about Zen and cooking as a path of meditation. He described his initial judgment of waste and futility at the kitchen’s practice of preparing food to be placed reverently before a nearby Buddha shrine. Later, it occurred to him that this was the perfect metaphor for a cook. Knowing that even the best meal will not please everyone, the cook makes his best effort, places the food in front of his customer like an offering, and then quietly walks away. He should not be anxious about having it criticized; it was his best effort and worthy of being offered to the Buddha.

I had been caught crushing petunias and she had been caught being dependent on the judgment of others. Springing to self-defense with the first handy offense I could find, I reminded her that she had asked me what I thought and that I had provided exactly that with clear and precise masculine rationality. Further, that she had suckered me into an inappropriate response when what she had evidently wanted instead was for a girlfriend to tell her how she felt. I waited for someone to acknowledge my triumph of logic. A contemplative, but cold, hesitation told me that I was now madly dancing in the petunias. Not good.

Retreating to my best profound apology, I sat, held her hand, and offered several over-careful positive comments. She let me off the hook. We sat quietly for a while. I gave her a weak smile and a weak kiss on the cheek before retreating to lick my wounds. I couldn’t do much more at the moment about her wounds.

Supper was beyond wonderful. She had gone out of her way to accommodate my delicate sensibilities about larger pieces of meat. I gave voice to appropriate, sincere, and unhesitating appreciations. But, here I am now, in the middle of the night, hacking away desperately on my keyboard, dreading that, like the petunias, her new story may never recover and grow.

So, there you have “Right Speech.”