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Speech like flowers, speech like honey: The discipline & art of Right Speech

We begin looking at speech — the first aspect of the 3 Limbs of ethical action, or sīla. For many of us, speech is one of the most overt ways we find the practice of the ethical precepts challenging. It’s certainly one of the places where our actions very clearly can be seen to have effects in the world and in our relationships. Especially if we have enough privilege to not usually be in situations where physical harm is tempting or seems necessary, speech can be our most prominent form of action. As such, it makes sense that it’s among the most contested fields of action in information-based societies.

“These three kinds of people are found in the world. What three? One with speech like dung, one with speech like flowers, and one with speech like honey.

And who has speech like dung? It’s someone who is summoned to a council, an assembly, a family meeting, a guild, or to the royal court, and asked to bear witness: ‘Please, mister, say what you know.’ Not knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ So they deliberately lie for the sake of themselves or another, or for some trivial worldly reason. This is called a person with speech like dung.

And who has speech like flowers? It’s someone who is summoned to a council, an assembly, a family meeting, a guild, or to the royal court, and asked to bear witness: ‘Please, mister, say what you know.’ Not knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I see.’ So they don’t deliberately lie for the sake of themselves or another, or for some trivial worldly reason. This is called a person with speech like flowers.

And who has speech like honey? It’s someone who gives up harsh speech. They speak in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to the people. This is called a person with speech like honey.

These are the three people found in the world.”

“Speech Like Dung” (AN 3.28), tr. Sujato

It’s interesting to me that the version of the stock canonical phrase on lying we see in “The People of Sālā” (quoted in the last post) and in “Speech Like Dung” (above) emphasizes a legal context for lying: when summoned to an official gathering of some kind. Perjury, in other words. It feels timely to be exploring this in the middle of impeachment season. “Trivial worldly reason[s]” also are included, but the text suggests that the primary purpose for lying is to protect oneself or another, which makes sense.

As a side note, there’s a passage in the Vinaya (the monastic code), after all the permutations of lying are discussed, where the exceptions to the rule are spelled out:

There is no offense: if he speaks playfully; if he is speaks too fast; (speaks playfully means: speaking quickly; speaks too fast means: thinking to say one thing, he says something else); if he is insane; if he is the first offender.

Bhikkhu Vibhanga, Pācittiya 1, tr. Brahmali

As to speaking playfully, there’s an interesting conversation in Buddhist circles about the ethical status of jokes. Thanissaro Bhikkhu largely abjures them, saying:

For many of us, the most difficult part of practicing right speech lies in how we express our sense of humor. Especially here in America, we’re used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness—all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse. Actually, there’s enough irony in the state of the world that we don’t need to exaggerate or be sarcastic.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Noble Strategy

First, tell the truth

The first category of harmful speech to let go of is lying.

We talk a bit about humor, but mainly exaggeration/minimization, deception in the service of what one thinks of as good, deception as ego structure protection, and of course a mention of The Elephant in the room, whose name is something like “post-truth”. Which we’re not, even though we are post-universalism, which is not the same thing.

Meditation: Whole body breath. (10.15.19)

Talk: Right Speech, part 1: On lying. (10.15.19)

**NOTE: Unfortunately, I lost battery power in the middle of this one, so the talk is truncated. Sorry!**


Not lying: not easy!

We continue our discussion of Right Speech. Last week we started with a discussion of lying, and we continue with it here, including inquiry into how we practice skillful truth telling, and some of the complications around the renunciation of speaking falsely.

Meditation: Ease. I say Nyoshul Khenpo’s classic poem, “Rest in Natural Great Peace.” (10.22.19)

Talk: Right Speech, part 2: more on renunciation of lying, and truth-telling as alignment with reality. (10.22.19)


“Fire, go back!”: how baby quail turned back a wildfire

We’ve been talking about Right Speech, and the primary discipline of renunciation of lying. Speaking in accord with the truth of our direct experience has a power and blamelessness to it, and so is one of the most beautiful relational parts of the liberation path.

There is an ancient kind of magic spell in the Buddhist tradition called a “truth statement.” When a being can assert something as true that is absolutely, unshakeably true, the power of doing so becomes the fuel for a special kind of action, often arising in the supernatural register in the early texts.

So we look at truth statements this week, and the moral power of speaking the truth. And we’ll do it by reading a story from the Jataka collection about the Buddha in a past life as a baby quail, who stops a raging wildfire by recalling The Awesome Power Of A Fully Operational Mothership! [Wait, that was P-Funk… 😉 ] I mean the awesome power of a fully awakened Buddha, of course.

This story is the source of the “Baby Quail’s Protection” (Vaṭṭaka Paritta) verses, which are traditionally chanted to stop wildfires. I was with monks at Wat Mettā in San Diego several years ago when the monastery was threatened by fires and we all evacuated. The loaded cars waited in the pre-dawn dark while monks chanted the Paritta to divert the flames. The monastery survived.

At Satsang, sending love & good winds to our neighbors in Sonoma fleeing the #KincadeFire, we chanted the Baby Quail’s protection together, and meditated on the truth of the awakening of the Buddha. We explored this ancient magic of truth statements, and how powerful calling on truth can be in our lives.

** NOTE: we did do the Baby Quail Protection at the end of the talk. I’m new to chanting it, and so the Pāli rhythm isn’t quite right. Folks who might like to learn it, don’t learn it from this recording, but go to the monastics for a proper transmission of the text. Thanks! **

Meditation: breath, air, & breathing. It’s fire season. (10.29.19)

Chant: Instead of the Lokaḥ Samastaḥ Sukhino Bhavantu chant we’ve been doing to end the meditation, we’ve started doing the mantra to the Goddess of the Perfection of Wisdom, Prajñāpāramitā instead, partly because we’re now practicing in front of an altar to her. The mantra of Prajñāpāramitā is:

gate gate paragate parasaṃgate bodhi svaha

Talk: Right Speech, part 3: “truth statements” as a magic spell, and the power of speaking the truth. (10.29.19)


Speech acts, performativity, and other ways of saying words have power

After last week’s more mystical exploration of Right Speech and the power or truth-telling to place us in alignment with the Dharma, which here also means “reality,” and to cast protection spells (we did the Baby Quail Protection to dispel wildfires), this week we’ll look at more ordinary aspects of speech practice.

In a way it’s the same theme: saying something makes it so. All the rest of the aspects of Right Speech are like this. Divisive Speech, Harsh Speech, and Idle Chatter all condition both the internal and external ecosystems. This is not the same as “manifestation,” but may be rather much the same as J.L. Austin’s “speech acts” we touched on last week. Mainly we keep exploring the power that words have to create material reality, and the responsibility that places in our mouths & hearts to speak in a way that reflects and further supports the path to liberation.

Chant: Our full refuge & precepts pūjā, with instructions. (11.5.19)

Meditation: Ease as practice, path, and fruit. (11.5.19)

Chant: Back to Lokaḥ Samastaḥ Sukhino Bhavantu this week. (11.5.19)

Talk: Right Speech, part 4. J.L. Austin’s “speech acts” and how language is performative, meaning “makes things happen.” Of course it does! (11.5.19)


The 4 speech disciplines as spectra

We finish our series on Right Speech with a practical exploration of the four guidelines: “Avoiding speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical” (SN 45.8). We look as we have been all along at this set as a difficult but ethically unimpeachable relational discipline to undertake, inseparable from letting go and the uprooting of fixation on the individual ego.

Meditation: Being a body. (11.12.19)

Talk: Right Speech, part 5. Each of the 4 abstentions of Right Speech (lying, divisive, harsh, idle) as a spectrum of wholesome-unwholesome qualities. Rage against oppression, fierce speech vs. harsh, divisive vs. uplifting difference, idle vs. relationship building. (11.12.19)


Onward! Next we’ll move into the limb of Right Action. Stay with us! Satsang is now being streamed live on the FB Group, so you can find us there Tuesdays at 7:15pm PST, and we’ll get the videos from that up onto my YouTube channel as well soon.

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