October 26, 2010

Freedom of Speech

A woman holding a placard in opposition to a candidate for political office, was thrown to the ground and her head stomped on although she was not badly injured.  Her attackers were refusing to allow her to hold her view in the public arena because it didn't agree with theirs.  Naturally, both candidates have spoken out against violence at any political gathering.  It is clear though, that the election is heating up and people are feeling passionate about their positions on issues and candidates for office.

Last week I gave a Dharma talk about the use of speech and our practice to understand the nature of motivation and intention.  Motivation we said was related to reason (a reason to make a point in speech) while intention is related to action (wanting something to happen as a result of our speech).  We were also enjoined to consider in what ways our speech was a manifestation of greed, anger and ignorance, the three poisons that Shakyamuni Buddha teaches are at the heart of suffering.  Right speech is one of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha's prescription for getting beyond suffering.  Right speech is also connected to several of the Precepts:  to refrain from false speech; not to slander; to not praise self at the expense of others.  The Buddha's teachings essentially say that if we don't do these things, we'll be much better off, much happier.

Of all the Precepts, perhaps right speech is the most difficult because there is such a short distance between the reasoning brain and the acting mouth.  Speech is a creative activity.  We invent language all day long in all our interactions.  That is, we don't sit and think up every word.  We simply speak and "words come spilling out of our mouths when our lips move."  If we have been harboring ill will toward someone, if we have unacknowledged anger or resentment, speech is the most immediate way to let loose and inflict harm in retaliation.  If we have a handy listener, it's an obvious way to attempt to get others on our side.

False speech can also make us appear to be something we are not, something we want to be but haven't achieved.  The precept, not praising self at the expense of others includes not painting ourselves to others in a way that makes us look good in order to achieve some kind of gain, inferring that we have a competence in something when we do not.  This is obviously related to greed.

We can see these shortfalls in the campaigns of the people running for office slinging hurtful, outright lies, and dispensing meanness all in pursuit of gaining a place in public office.  It really makes us wary.  If this is how one would be in the campaign, how will the person be in office?  It's not a happy situation that causes us to trust our candidates.  It behooves us, nevertheless, to understand our own use of right speech and to examine the ways in which we use speech to our own ends.

Ryokan san had a very strong practice around right speech and he articulated his own understanding of the precept.  Just as the Buddha taught, Ryokan san listed these as cautions and prohibitions that if we refrained from these activities, we could find a greater happiness within ourselves and in our relations.  Almost anyone, of any tradition could find these helpful, but not at all easy.  They have to be practiced with mindfulness of the wagging tongue and awareness of all around us.  If we take on a strong practice of this, then what we hear via the heated election, will not upset us, it will instead, teach us what not to do.  We will express even greater gratitude for the environment of the Dharma.  We will come to truly understand Freedom of Speech.

And, in view of Ryokan san's cautions about not being long-winded, I cut to the chase.  Be well out there.

Ryokan’s Precepts of Right Speech

Talk too much
Talk too fast
Talk without being asked to
Talk gratuitously
Talk with your hands
Talk about worldly affairs
Talk back rudely
Smile condescendingly at others’ words
Use elegant expressions
Avoid speaking directly
Speak with a knowing air
Jump from topic to topic
Use fancy words
Speak of past events that cannot be changed
Speak like a pedant
Avoid direct questions
Speak ill of others
Speak grandly of enlightenment
Carry on while drunk
Speak in an obnoxious manner
Yell at children
Make up fantastic stories
Speak while angry
Ignore the people to whom you are speaking
Speak sanctimoniously of gods and buddhas
Use sugary speech
Use flattering speech
Speak of things of which you have no knowledge
Monopolize conversations
Talk about others behind their backs
Speak with conceit
Bad-mouth others
Chant prayers ostentatiously
Complain about the amount of alms
Give long-winded sermons
Speak affectedly like a tea master