Home : Literature : The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
 » Right Speech [Chapter 13, Page 1 of 2]
Back   Index  Forward to Chapter 13, Page 2  
Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Speech

Third Step on the Path

    A word is dead when it is said, some say.
    I say it just begins to live that day.

       - Emily Dickinson

Speech does our dirty work for us. In our quest for status, we are all confidence men. We lie, make promises, flatter, exaggerate, gossip, insult, twist truth or omit it, and employ speech in whatever way we can to further our ego's ambitions. No one should find it surprising that all religions prescribe silence in rather large doses when treating the maladies of speech.

Silence, however, is not an antidote to poisonous speech. Just as we don't control anger by counting to ten when we feel anger rise, but merely use this 10count demilitarized time-zone as an opportunity to reconsider the situation, thereby destroying anger at its roots, so we don't use silence to control the problems of speech. Silence merely gives our tongue a sabbatical which our brain can put to good use. Analyzing the reasons we feel so compelled to contribute our thoughts, vocally or in script, privately or to the world at large, is the way we use Right Speech to achieve non-attachment. Usually, when we examine our desire to speak, we discover our ego's intention to gain status for itself.

Some speech transgressions are easy to spot.

In the January 1981 edition of Ten Directions, a publication of the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the Institute for Transcultural Studies, an unsigned cartoon strip titled 'Zen Living' appears.

Four figures are in each frame: Two young, black-robed Buddhist priests who are speaking to a longhaired layman, and a man who is sitting nearby reading a newspaper.

One priest says to the layman, "I've really been seeing how my ideas and preconceptions are just the attempts of the ego to assert itself... I mean, the ego is just SO insignificant!"

The second priest continues, "Yeah, I know what you mean! And what gets me is that I spend so much energy on these trivial concerns that are all based on this false sense that the ego is so important." The layman, looking at his watch, responds, "Yea, same here! I've been seeing that the ego's concerns are so petty, in fact the ego, itself, is so petty... Hey! Gotta go - I'm late for the New Trainee meeting."

As he departs, one priest says to the other, "Would ya getta load of that! He hasn't been here two months and he thinks he understands how petty the ego is already."

And the man reading the newspaper chimes in, "The nerve..."

The cartoon strip illustrates some of the Right Speech problems people on the Path should avoid. That the priests are gossipy and snipe at the layman is an obvious error. That they are casually discussing their intellectual insights into Buddhism is another. And that they are engaged in a kind of one-up competition with each other is a third. That they are trying to impress the layman is a fourth. And the eavesdropping bystander commits yet a fifth error in Right Speech.

There are many other ways to err.

Many people think that Right Speech has something to do with Free Speech and its related Constitutional rights and responsibilities. This confusion frequently allows political activism to contaminate religious life; and, unfortunately for the heroic crusaders who dwell within our breast, few things are as harmful to a person's spiritual practice than political activism.

When government is immoral, society looks to its religious leaders to promote change. Sometimes, as is often the case in undeveloped countries, a religion is the only organization available to form an opposition. Sometimes, ironically, it was the unwarranted intrusion into secular matters by the religion, itself, which engendered the poverty, oppression and corruption which the people are engaged in opposing. But no matter, whether trying to change conditions for which they are largely responsible or whether trying to change conditions for which they are entirely blameless, religions seem always to get involved in politics.

Unripened religious professionals, believing it incumbent upon themselves to set society straight on moral issues, frequently can be found marching in protest lines or parades. They do not realize that by publicly protesting injustices of one sort or another they are practicing Six-Worlds' Chan. Don't warn them that if they expend all their energy correcting the misconduct of others, they'll have no strength left to root lust or greed out of their own hearts. They are prepared to make the sacrifice.

Charge that their devotion to the issue far exceeds their understanding of the issue and they will rebuke you, gnashing their teeth in vehement denial. They are authorities on Good and Evil. They have studied the issue (nuclear energy, alien rights, ozone depletion, military draft, toxic waste, abortion, endangered species, organized labor strikes, offshore drilling, etc.) and they know that they are on the side of Good.

How do religious organizations really determine which side of an issue is the good one? Do they automatically assume that the good side is the side the government is not on? No. They do not study issues that carefully. If we interview the protesters, we usually learn that they determined the good side by having it described to them by the administrators of their temples at whose instigation they also picked up their placards. And how did those astute beings arrive on the side of Good? Either they found in the 'evil' side a fit receptacle for their congregation's collective hate (common enemies being the nutritive umbilical cord of fellowship) or, what is more frequently the case, they simply differentiated good from evil according to the quid pro quo, "I'll march in your protest if you'll march in mine" accommodations which religious groups make with each other.

According to this arrangement, one religious group calls another to solicit help in protesting the deployment of Multiple Warhead Intercontinental Nuclear Missiles (their Roshi's pet peeve). The solicited organization complies and contributes a few dozen bodies to the march. Then, a month later when this organization wants to protest Offshore Drilling (the bane of their Guru's existence), they call upon the first which reciprocates. Often, the people on the line don't know anything at all about the issue except what they have been told by their religious leaders. Not exactly a think-tank operation.

People who have spent some time in the Swamp are usually appalled by this unseemly interest in society's problems. They believe that they have earned the right to simplify their lives, to discard all their Six-Worlds' junk which includes flaunting half-baked political opinions. They know that salvation has nothing to do with ozone depletion and that however urgent the ozone problem is, they must allow others the privilege of dealing with it. (That is why God made a younger generation.) When a man is standing amid the smoking ruins of his life he does not particularly care how big the hole in the ozone layer gets. In fact, if he cares at all, it is to wish that the hole gets big enough for the earth to fall through it. In his wretched way, he cheers the hole on. Once saved, the man calmly supports with his vote or his money, or his choice of refrigerants, efforts to remedy the ozone loss. But he does not worry about the hole because he understands that ultimately the hole does not matter. Nothing except knowing God matters. He takes refuge in the Buddha. And it is the Buddha's name that is on his lips... not the name of the Secretary of the Interior.

Further, people on the path should know that unless they are prepared quietly to offer an alternative 'something of value' to replace that which is being decried, they should not protest society's solution to any problem.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 13: Right Speech, Page 1 of 2