Hurtful words, healing words
A talk given at Kurukulla Center in Medford, Massachusetts in April 2005.
- How we can harm others with our speech
- The four types of incorrect speech
- Short- and long-term consequences of our speech
- Questions and answers
- Idle talk and what to do when others use it
- Complaining as wrong speech
- Dealing with reputation and anger
- Reconciling right speech and politics
Hurtful words, healing words (download)
Let’s take a moment and generate our motivation. First of all rejoice simply because we are alive, we’ve met the Buddha’s teachings, and have the opportunity to practice them. Initially we may not see this as a great fortune. But when we really contemplate the nature of cyclic existence, and what it means to be trapped by our own ignorance, anger, and attachment, then we really see the preciousness of this life more clearly. It provides us with the opportunity to counteract our situation, to free ourselves from this round of never ending difficulties.
All other living beings are similarly trapped like we are by their own ignorance, anger, and attachment. They want happiness and to avoid suffering just like we do—and they’ve been extremely kind to us. So as an expression of an awareness of this, we stretch our motivation for happiness to include their happiness; and seek to become a fully enlightened Buddha so that we can be of the greatest possible benefit. So generate this motivation for what we’re doing this evening. Then slowly open your eyes and come out of your meditation.
We’re going to talk about right speech this weekend. What is right speech? I think some of you have received teachings before so I’m going to start out asking you some questions. In the three levels of spiritual practitioner, where does practicing right speech come in? In what meditation? Hello out there. Where does right speech come in the lamrim? Ethical conduct, it falls under ethical conduct. And where, in the three levels of practitioner—the initial, the intermediate, and the advanced—where does that discussion of right speech in terms of ethical conduct first come in? It comes in the initial level, right. And in what particular meditation? Wait until I tell Geshe-la. [laughter] Come on, what meditation? Yes, so it comes in the first discussion of karma with the ten destructive actions.
This is one of the first practices that we start to adopt when we start practicing the Dharma—to be aware of our speech. It’s also one of the first practices we adopt when trying to be a nice person. It’s also one of the first practices we mess up that gets us in a lot of trouble. You think? What’s your life experience?
Right speech also comes in terms of the Eightfold Noble Path. It’s one of the eight in the Eightfold Noble Path. It’s quite an important thing. There are many different aspects to right speech. They also talk about it in terms of the four ways of gathering disciples. So there are many different places it comes up in the teachings.
Remember when we were kids there was this little thing, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt me?” Is that true? No. That’s one of the big lies we learned as kids, isn’t it? It’s, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words will hurt even more.” I say this because sometimes words do hurt very much, don’t they? Much more than getting hit. My parents tell the story—because my family, when the kids got in trouble, we got screamed at. I mean, really screamed at. Apparently one time I said to my parents, “Just spank me and stop screaming.” They never hit me but it was just, “Spank me and stop screaming,” because the screaming was so terrible.
Right speech and karma
Sometimes we think we’re pretty nice people because we don’t drop bombs like George Bush does, or we don’t do terrorist attacks like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden do. But we have our own little arsenal of nuclear weapons, don’t we? And they come out of our mouth. Somebody did something we don’t like and we saunter over to them and take out one of our dirty bombs and throw it, insult them, and when they look hurt we go, “What are you reacting to? I didn’t say anything.” Don’t we? I mean, especially with people who we’re very close to, we know what their buttons are. We know what their Pentagon is, what their White House is, what their Twin Towers are. We throw one of our nuclear bombs right on the people that we care about the most very often. I think we often say things to the people we love that we would never ever ever say to strangers. True? Not true?
Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): True, isn’t it? You’d never, ever say to a stranger what we say to our family members and to the people we love.
Audience: And to ourselves as well.
VTC: And to ourselves as well. And yet, so often when we do it and the other person reacts we go, “What’s wrong with you?” Little Miss Innocent here, “Oh really, did I say something that hurt you? You’re just being sensitive today.” Take out another little dirty bomb.
We create the conditions for what we experience
So speech really gets us. It can be an instrument for tremendous good and an instrument for tremendous pain. The benefit and horror from our speech doesn’t just stop with the words and the immediate reaction. We create karma—this energy trace that is left with our mindstream that then ripens into where are reborn and what we experience. And we’re often surprised when karma works.
There’s one text called The Wheel of Sharp Weapons. It teaches about karma. It’s very much based on the boomerang effect: you throw something out and it comes back at you. It’s the New Age thing, “what goes around comes around.” And it’s what Jesus said, “You reap what you sow.” This is the basic teaching of karma. What you give out comes back. We tend to make a lot of lip service about karma. But when we get the negative result of our bad speech, we don’t think about karma at that moment. When we get the positive results of our positive speech, we take it for granted that everybody talks nicely to us because we’re such wonderful people. When they talk mean to us we never think, “Oh, maybe my energy got me in this situation.” Or, “Maybe I had something to do with it.” We always stand there and, again, little innocent me, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?” You know that mantra? “Oh, what did I do to deserve this,” mantra? The one that your parents said to you—that you vowed never to say? Remember that one? “What did I do to deserve a kid like you?” And then you say it to your own kids.
We always say when something bad happens to us, “What did I do to deserve this?” When something good happens to us we never say, “What did I do to deserve this?” We always say, “Give me more.” But karma functions in all these situations. I mean, if we’re hearing unpleasant words it’s because that’s what we put out to other people—either earlier this life or in previous lives. If we’re hearing sweet words then it’s because that’s what we shared with others—either earlier in this life or in a previous life. We create the conditions for what we experience.
It’s very important to remember this, especially before we open our mouth. This is because, for example, when anger comes—you know when that rush of anger comes and there’s this intention of, “I’m going to say this and smash that person because who do they think they are, treating me this way?” You know that mind? Oh, some of you look so innocent. [laughter] Maybe you think, “I’m the only one that does that?” Oh, you know that mind that comes out like, “I’m going to get my revenge, now.” We need at that point to think, “What’s the result of this?” I say this because at that moment when we’re thinking, “I’m going to get my revenge,” our thought is, “Oh, revenge is so sweet. I’m going to feel happy. I’m going to hurt this person’s feelings really well and then [Venerable makes a clapping sound] I’m going to rejoice.” But let’s think a little bit about what the consequences are. First of all, what are the short term consequences when we get our verbal revenge on somebody? How do they react to us?
Audience: It escalates.
VTC: Yes. It escalates it, doesn’t it? They don’t run up and throw their arms around us and hug us, do they? It escalates it. It gives us more of the situation that we’re upset about. How do we feel about ourself when we say something to get revenge? Do you feel good about yourself afterwards? Do you respect yourself at all? No, we feel pretty crummy. What kind of karmic result comes from speaking like that to other people?
Audience: We feel powerful.
VTC: Yes, initially you feel powerful, don’t you? But what’s the long term result? Initially we feel powerful, “Oh boy, I spilled all that on the person.” But then that leaves the karmic imprint in our mind. And so what comes around to us later? How do people treat us in future lives or later on this life? The same way we treated them. Then they might feel quite powerful over us, saying similar kinds of words to us. If we think about the results of our actions before we do them, then we can stop and make some judgments about: “Do I really want to do this action or not? Is this action really going to be the cause of happiness, as it seems to me initially when I’m confused by my anger? Or is this action going to bring me more suffering in the short term as well as the long term? And if so, because I wish myself well—well, maybe it’s time for me to keep my mouth closed.”
Have you ever been in the middle of saying something and one part of your mind goes, “Why am I talking like this, why can’t I just be quiet?” Have you ever had that?
Audience: Usually it says, “Wendy, shut up!”
VTC: Right, the thought comes, “Wendy, shut up,” and the mouth keeps talking, doesn’t it? You know, “Let me just finish this sentence!” Sometimes it’s like one part of our mind realizes what we’re doing and yet we have such a habit of speaking like this that the mouth just keeps going. Then afterwards we get all these results. We feel really crummy; and we have to do more purification; and the other person’s madder at us than they were before. We need to step back and really start being aware of our intentions to speak before we speak. That’s why when we do retreats or sometimes serious courses in a Dharma center—that’s why we keep silence.
Silence isn’t a sign of unfriendliness. But rather, it’s the chance for all of us to observe the impulse to speak and not to speak—but to observe when that impulse comes. And then to evaluate, “What was I about to say and why in the world was I going to say it? And what would the results be if I’d have said it?” We have that space in our lives when we’re keeping silence with a group of people to become aware of these intentions. That’s very helpful to us in our daily practice because if we can become aware when we’re in silence, then when we return to our normal activities we’re in that habit of becoming aware of, “What am I going to say and do I really need to say it?”
Lying and deceptive words
Let’s go into a little bit more depth about what actually constitutes incorrect speech and what constitutes right speech. The Buddha talked about certain things as correct or incorrect speech based on the long term result that these actions bring—not the short term result, but the long term result. But I think we can often see the short term result in this life as well. So let’s talk about the most obvious form of incorrect speech which is lying or deceptive words. Sometimes we don’t like to think of ourselves as a liar. That’s not a very nice word. It’s more palpable to us to think that we sometimes deceive people by our speech. It’s kind of more polite, isn’t it? It’s a way of circumventing how awful sometimes we speak because we do lie, don’t we?
It’s very interesting. Do a little review when you have some kind of situations in which you have lied. If you find the word ‘lying’ difficult say, “In what situations have I stretched the truth?” Or, “In what situations have I fudged a little bit, or a lot.” Look at how you’ve used your speech in your life—and when we lie, why? What has been the motivation? Try to be very honest. I say this because there’s one part of our mind that when we lie says, “But I’m doing it for the benefit of the other person.” You know that one? “Oh, it’s just a little white lie for the benefit of the other person because they really can’t bear the truth. It would just stir up too much. So it’s better. It’s not a big deal.” “I had an affair with somebody else; my husband doesn’t really want to know.” “My wife doesn’t really want to know about it.” Or, “I cheated on the taxes and IRS doesn’t really need to know about it. They have so much money anyway and it all goes to the war so I don’t need to pay taxes.” We have all these reasons, don’t we, to justify our lying—and we believe the reasons. We tell them to ourselves, we tell them to others, and that’s why we don’t call it lying. We call it something else and it’s why we don’t like to give the label ‘liar’ to ourselves.
I think we need to look at not only why are we lying but why are we doing the activities that we need to lie about. There’re two things there: Why are we doing whatever we’re doing in the first place that we feel we need to lie about? And then, why are we lying to cover it up? I mean, the one scandal the American people could all understand—the Monica scandal. I think that’s why it’s so popular. It was the only one that we could all understand. But why are you messing around in the White House to start with? And then why are you lying about it? Or in our government: What’s really going on in Iraq? And then, why are we lying to have an excuse to start a war about it?
Now it’s very easy to look at the politicians and search out their lies and call them immoral and blah blah blah. Somehow we feel very righteous in doing so. And they should not lie to us. But when we lie? It’s okay, isn’t it? It’s okay. This is one of the reasons that actually prompted me to ordain. I realized I had this double standard: That it was awful when CEOs and politicians and religious leaders lied. But when I lied it was okay—because I was lying for a good reason, they weren’t. Or at least I thought I was lying for a good reason. Of course the people I was lying to didn’t think I was lying for a good reason. When I started cleaning up my double standard kind of things, I realized I wasn’t lying for a good reason. I was just making up excuses.
So there are those two elements to look at: Why are we telling the lie? And why are we doing the activity that we need to lie about? What are the short term consequences of lying? Well, it destroys trust doesn’t it? Especially somebody that we’re very close to; we think if we lie to cover up another mistake we made that we’re going to be close to them. But actually when they find out that we’ve lied, then it destroys the trust between us. Often people do find out when we’ve lied, don’t they? Then we’re really stuck. It’s like, “Oh, how do I get out of this one?” So in the short term it creates many problems in relationships. It can also create a lot of legal problems, can’t it? I mean, I do prison work and guys tell me the results of lying.
Then in the long term it brings the results of having a difficult rebirth or hearing a lot of other people lying to us. We hear a lot of lies. It also brings the result of other people not believing us even when we’re telling the truth. Have you had that situation when you’ve been telling the truth, and somebody doesn’t believe you and thinks you’re lying? Well, this is the karmic result of having lied in a previous life because even when we’re telling the truth, people don’t believe us. It’s like the crying wolf thing.
Does correct speech mean that you tell everybody everything? No. The opposite of lying isn’t telling everybody everything. We do have to use judgment in our speech. We have to explain things to people in words and terms that they can understand. But we don’t have to lie to do that. The whole thing of little white lies, I often puzzle about that. For example, you’re busy doing something and the phone rings and so you tell your kid, “Oh, tell them I’m not at home.” So you’re teaching your child to lie; and at the same time you’re telling your child, “Don’t you dare lie to me.” So if kids are confused it’s clear why. It’s because the parents say, “Do as I say, not as I do,”—very confusing thing for kids. And we say, “Well, that kind of lie is okay. Tell them I’m not home.” Well, first of all, why get your kid involved with lying? Second of all, why are we afraid just to say, “Tell them I’m busy and I’ll call them back.” What’s wrong with saying, “I’m busy,” when you’re busy? There are so many things that we lie about that I don’t think we need to lie about at all. I think we can really trust that other people will understand.
Then the question always comes, well what happens when Aunt Ethel invites you over to dinner and she cooks your most unfavorite food. It tastes terrible and then she says, “How do you like it?” Does that mean you say, “Aunt Ethel, this stinks!” No, it doesn’t mean that you say that. What is she really asking when she says, “Do you like the food?” What’s her real question?
Audience: Did she make you happy.
VTC: Yes, “Did I make you happy?” That’s what she’s asking. She’s saying, “I’m giving you a gift of my love. Do you understand that I’m showing you my love?” That’s her real question. You don’t have to answer the question about how the food tastes. You can say, “Aunt Ethel, you spent all day cooking this to show that you care about me and I really appreciate it. I love coming over here and spending time with you.” So you can answer the question that she’s really asking. In many of these situations where we feel we have to tell little white lies, I think we need to step back and and really ask ourselves, “Do we need to?” And in many situations ask ourselves, “What is the person really asking us? What’s their real question?” And then reply to their real question.
Correct speech in terms of the negative speech of lying—correct speech can be of two types. One is just not lying in situations where you could; and the second one is speaking truthfully. Either of those two actions constitutes right speech. Just stopping ourselves from the lying is good speech and then in other situations being truthful is an aspect of good speech.
The next thing about correct speech, or let’s say incorrect speech, is using our speech to create disharmony. I don’t know about you but this one is much sneakier than I thought. Sometimes it’s translated as slander and I always think, “I never slander anybody. Nobody arrests me for slandering.” But if I don’t use that word “slander” and I ask myself, “Do I use my speech to create disharmony?” You bet. Let’s say there’s somebody else who did something I don’t like, so I don’t want other people to like that person. What do I do? I tell them what this person did. I don’t even have to lie; I can just tell them. Sometimes I might embellish it but that’s not lying, is it? [joking] Sometimes we lie, we make up lies about people we don’t like. But sometimes we just say what they actually did do but we have the intention to make the person we talk to not like that third person.
We talk behind peoples’ backs. This goes on at work all the time, doesn’t it? Somebody else got the promotion that you didn’t get and you’re jealous so what do you do? You talk badly about that person to everybody else in the office. Or one of your siblings got something that you didn’t and you’re jealous or you dislike them, so you bad mouth them to other relatives. We use our speech a lot to create disharmony—and sometimes we just don’t even realize it because sometimes we explain it to ourselves as, “Well, I’m just talking to my friend about how I really feel.” Like, somebody said something to me, I’m really upset, I go talk to my friend. And I go, “Blah blah blah blah. This person said this and they said this, and they said this, and I’m so angry and blah blah blah blah.” And I say to myself, “I’m just venting to get it out.” But my other agenda is that I want my friend to side with me because that’s how I define my friends. Friends are people who side with me. If you side with the other person you’re not my friend anymore. So I’m using my speech to divide my friend from this other person who did something I don’t like.
Now, does that mean that when we’re angry or upset we never go talk to our friends? No, it doesn’t mean that. If you’re angry and upset you can go talk to your friend. But you preface it by, “I’m angry and upset. I’m telling you this so that you can help me work though my anger, not so that you will dislike this other person.” In other words, you completely own that your reaction is your own reaction. You don’t blame it on the other person. You’re going to your friend saying, “I need help working with my anger.” You’re not going to your friends saying, “Come side with me and figure out how to get even with that person.” So we can talk to our friends and confide in them. We should be clear around our own intention and make it clear to them when we speak.
This thing about using our speech to divide people, wow! I mean, it happens in personal life, it happens between groups, doesn’t it? We form little groups in the work place, we form political groups, we tell lies and we tell truths about each other—but to divide people. It happens in international affairs a lot where it can create so much disharmony and unhappiness. It creates unhappiness now between all the people involved. Then, in the future, we reap the karmic result which is often that then we become the person that gets talked about behind our back.
I remember in sixth grade, I don’t know if any of you were as horrible as I was in sixth grade, but in sixth grade we had our own little cliques of girls. Some of you must have been sixth grade girls. But I remember we had our own little clique. There was one girl in the clique who, I have no idea why, but I wanted her out of the clique. It might have been just to exert my power. I have no idea. But anyway, I navigated things so that she got kicked out of our clique. And so I thought, “Oh good, we got rid of her.” But my other friends in the clique decided that they didn’t want me. Actually, they decided I needed to learn what it felt like to be talked about and kicked out. So they all kicked me out of the clique and, of course, I was devastated. Then they told me they did it just so that I would know how Rosie Knox felt. Then Rosie and I both came back. I’m waiting for Rosie Knox to show up at one of the teachings. Just imagine telling the story, “Oh, I remember you. You’re the one who did that!” I’ve always wanted to apologize to her. In looking back in my own life I see right away, “Now here I had disharmonious speech.” Right away it came back to me. By speaking that way about other people, then other people lost faith in me. It comes back right away. Of course the karmic result—that comes back later on. So it’s something really to be attentive to.
The opposite of disharmonious speech
Then what’s the opposite of of disharmonious speech? Well, first of all it’s just not doing it. When we’re sitting there, the mouth is opening, and you’re hearing [yourself say to yourself], “Wendy shut up!” You listen and the mouth closes. So just not doing it is already correct speech. Then furthermore, if we can use our speech to create harmony, then how wonderful that would be. We can use our speech to create harmony. I think this is the whole thought behind communication skills, conflict resolution, and mediation. In other words, we use our speech to create harmony among people instead of dividing people. We help people to figure out their own problems so that they can be harmonious again.
If you have two friends who aren’t getting along, it means helping bring them together again. If you have two children who are quarreling, help them. Give them tools to work out their differences. If you’re working with groups that aren’t getting along, it’s having some mediation sessions so that they can listen to each other. So any kind of speech that works to create harmony.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful if all of our speech could be harmonious speech? I mean, just think, if you had one day where all of your speech was harmonious. What a difference that would make in the world just in the world around you; and then how it would influence those people who would influence other people who would influence other people.
Then, the third one is harsh speech. This is harsh speech: when we really lose our temper and we’re yelling and screaming, accusing people of things. It can also be done with a nice voice when we tease people, or there’s something that we know they’re sensitive about. I’m not talking about joking-teasing and innocent teasing. Rather when we know somebody’s sensitive about something and we tease them or when we ridicule them. It’s also when we say things because we get a kick out of making people afraid. I see adults do this with kids a lot, “The boogie man is going to come and get you.” Or, “If you do this, da da da da is going to happen” Adults just get this wild kick out of watching the child get afraid. That’s a form of harsh speech. It’s very damaging for kids. So it’s any kind of speech that’s used with the intention to hurt other people becomes harsh speech—even if it’s said in a very nice tone of voice.
Now does that mean that whenever somebody is hurt by what we’ve said that we’ve had harsh speech? No. Sometimes we may speak with a good intention but somebody else may misinterpret what we say. Also they may be especially sensitive about something, and we don’t know them well enough to know that they are sensitive about something. You might be giving them some kind of advice that initially they don’t take very well to and they feel hurt or angry. But in your mind you were giving the advice because you really care about them. So every time somebody doesn’t like what we’ve said, it doesn’t mean that we’ve had harsh speech. We need to really check what our motivation is and to make sure that we’re not rationalizing our real underlying intention to hurt them by doing this thing of, “Well, it’s for their own benefit; and it hurts me more than it hurts them; and blah blah.” So to really look at our intention behind what we said and why we said it.
The opposite of harsh speech
Then the opposite of harsh speech is, first of all, keep your mouth closed. Not doing it. Just the abandonment of a negative action is a positive action. Then furthermore, if we use our speech in a kind way—to speak kindly—in ways that encourage other people. This is the whole practice of praising people. It’s interesting to ask ourselves, “Is it easier for us to speak critical blaming words to others, or is it easier for us to speak praise and kind words to others?” Or, when I said easier, I mean: What are we more habituated with? When your kids do something that you really like do you always point it out? When your kids do something you don’t like do you generally point it out? And even with colleagues, even with friends, do we make it a point of giving them positive feedback? When I say ‘praising’ people I’m not talking about flattering. Flattering is often done with a negative intention because we want to manipulate and get something out of them. Flattering is an incorrect form of speech.
Giving people positive feedback about something they did well, or something they did that you appreciate, a quality they have that you admire—that’s quite wonderful. Most people feel good when they hear it. I think especially with kids it’s important to do this. When we give people either negative feedback or positive feedback…. Because remember, negative feedback doesn’t have to be harsh words. It depends on our intention. But when we give either negative or positive feedback, meaning that we have a positive intention for speaking, we have to ask ourselves, “Am I saying words that really communicate what I mean?”
If you have a kid and your kid…. I don’t know what they did. Let’s say they spilled shampoo all over the the sofa because they were messing around and not looking at what they were doing. If all you do is scream, “You’re a horrible kid, go to your room,” the kid has no information. They don’t necessarily understand what they did that’s causing you, in terms of harsh speech, to yell at them. Or even in terms of negative speech, in terms of feedback, saying, “You’re a bad person.” And actually, I think saying, “You’re a bad person,” is a form of harsh speech because it’s really not giving the child any information except that you’re unhappy. Whereas if you said, “When you’re playing around and you’re not looking at the things around you and something spills, it’s a big inconvenience for me,” then the child goes, “Oh, that’s why mom or dad is upset!”
When you give feedback like that you’re talking about the behavior, the action they did. You’re not talking about the person. So saying, “You’re bad” and saying, “You did this action I don’t like,” gives the kid two completely different messages. Similarly, when you’re trying to point out something to your kid that you like, if you just go, “Oh, you’re a good boy. You’re a good girl.” Again, it doesn’t give the child any information except that you’re in a good mood. Whereas, if you say, “Oh, I really appreciate that you picked your clothes up,” or, “I really appreciate that you took out the garbage,” that gives the kid some concrete information about what it is.
The same thing applies not only when we speak to kids, but when we speak to adults. I say this because lots of times, remember, we were talking about how we speak to the people we’re closest to. And how the people that we’re closest to, when we’re upset, those are the people that we call every name in the book and we swear and we call them names. But does that give them any information about what we’re upset about? No. It doesn’t give any information. It’s attacking them as a human being. This is really unfair because every person has the Buddha nature so we can’t say any human being is a bad human being. So we have to make sure: Let’s talk about the behavior that that person did and give them feedback on the behavior. Keep the action separate from the person—so that you are not insulting the person. We’re just talking about how we feel about an action. If you can keep the discussion focused on that it can prevent a lot of hurt feelings and it can prevent the discussion from escalating.
Similarly, when we’re giving somebody positive feedback: Try to point out exactly what they did. If we just say, “Oh I appreciate you so much,” or, “I love you so much,” I mean of course people like to hear that. But it’s often very effective to really say what it is that you admire about the person, or what it is you appreciate about them. In this way they get more information. And it really makes the bond much much closer when we do that. All this sounds very simple, it sounds kind of obvious. But if we start being aware of how we speak to people, we’ll realize that we forget these very simple obvious things. Or at least I do, maybe you don’t.
Appropriate and inappropriate speech: What is idle talk?
Then the next aspect of speech is appropriate or inappropriate speech. So inappropriate speech is just idle talk: blah blah blah. It could be about topics that we consider incredibly important like the latest sale at the department store, but maybe the other person isn’t interested. Or it could be another thing that we think is incredibly important which is the football game or the baseball game, but maybe the other person isn’t interested. So we can spend a lot of time just talking, “Blah blah blah. You know how sometimes if somebody calls you on the phone and they just keep going and going? Do we ever ask ourselves, “Am I ever that person?” Sometimes people give us the clue when they need to go or when they need to do something and we just want to talk. We ignore that and we just keep going, “Blah blah blah.” That’s inappropriate speech. It’s idle talk. It’s useless. Just talking when the other person doesn’t want to listen, talking about things that aren’t important, gossiping about what the neighbor on the right does and what the neighbor on the left does, and what the neighbor on the other block does.
Like I said, just to be mindful about what we’re talking about, to whom and when, and if it’s something that is really necessary to be said. Are we talking because we just want to hear ourselves talk? Are we talking because we want to make ourselves look good? Sometimes we like being the center stage, don’t we? Especially—give me the teacher’s seat and I talk for an hour and a half and you guys have to listen. We just like to hear ourselves talk, we like the attention, or whatever. So just try to be aware of that. Really think, “Oh, do I really need to say this?” This is another advantage of having silence sometimes when we do retreats. At the Abbey where I live, we keep silence from 7:00 or 7:30 in the evening until breakfast the next day and it’s beautiful. It’s wonderful just to know that we have that silent time.
I think the idle speech is sometimes the hardest one. I shouldn’t say the hardest. It’s a difficult one for us because we’re so used to talking, just talking, “Blah blah blah.” Now does that mean that we only talk with people about deep, meaningful topics every conversation? Or when you go to work you can’t say hello to your coworker without saying, “And what do you think is the meaning of life?” No. I mean there are times and there are situations where simply in order to make contact with people or to create a friendly attitude you chit chat with people. But the idea is that when we’re chit chatting we are aware that we are chit chatting—and we’re aware of what our motivation is. When we’ve chit chatted enough to create that kind of warm feeling then we stop.
This is really a mindfulness practice—to train ourselves in the motivation, to train ourselves to know when to stop, really learning to speak at appropriate times without interrupting other people. I love to interrupt people because when they say something that isn’t right, the world can collapse if I don’t correct them instantly. So you see, I’m really doing them a favor by interrupting and telling them what they said was all wrong, right? Right? Don’t you agree?
Just to watch, are we interrupting anybody? Are we giving the person a chance to finish their idea? Are we speaking unnecessarily? Are we talking about something that’s important? Are we talking about something that the other person wants to hear about? Sometimes if you’re not sure if the other person wants to hear about something you can ask them. I say this because sometimes we may be working on an issue within ourselves; and we’re unsure about, “Well, I want to talk to a friend about it but I’m not sure if I should or not.” Ask them. Say, “I’m working something out. Are you interested in being the person I can bounce this off of? Can you give me some feedback?” Or ask somebody, “Is this a good time to talk?” Let them say yes or no. Lots of times we can just ask the person.
Audience: Is this a good time to ask a question? [inaudible]
VTC: See, good example.
The opposite was refraining from idle talk; and then talking at appropriate times, and about appropriate topics, and for an appropriate length of time. These things are really hands-on Dharma practice aren’t they? I mean, very practical things that we can apply instantly and continuously in our life—and when we do they really improve the quality of our relationships with other people. They make our own heart feel much freer because we no longer get involved in speech that we regret. They lighten the load of our negative karma because we stop creating so much negative karma of speech. So it facilitates attaining realizations and it also creates the cause for happiness in the future.
Now your question.
Audience: I think it’s probably easiest to remind somebody that they are talking just idle chitchat—and maybe it’s an older person that…. I think that we have to look at the times that people need to talk to us. Because they are often people that we are close to. Even with my parents, sometimes the best gift I can give to them is to listen to that story for the 50th time.
VTC: Yes. So you’re commenting about when other people are idle talking. The foremost thing is for us to watch our idle talk. Then the secondary question is what do we do when other people are idle talking? And like you’re saying with your parents, you may have heard the story 49 times already and you’re hearing it once again; or sometimes people who are lonely, people who are ill, or who are aged and they’re lonely and they need some company. They just need to talk and know somebody is listening. At those times, it’s not our business to tell somebody that they’re doing idle talk. It’s our business at that time to suss out the situation and see what’s the most beneficial. If it’s somebody whose lonely, or somebody whose sick, or somebody who you can tell they’re trying to get around to talking about the thing that’s really troubling them (that they’re having to warm up to it), then we sit and listen. Or if it’s people who we care about—like you were talking about your parents—then yes, of course we sit and listen.
But the basic thing is for us to watch our speech. Somebody maybe talking idly to us, like often you go—I don’t know about your family—but you go visit the family and they’re talking about the other relatives. So you can listen for a while. But it doesn’t mean that you have to join in the conversation and start gossiping about the other relatives. Or you’re at work and one person is bad mouthing another person, it doesn’t mean you need to stand there and listen to it—because in that situation maybe it’s not so beneficial.
If you have the kind of relationship with the person where you can say to them, “Oh, it sounds like you’re really upset,” and they’re receptive and reply, “Uh huh, yes I am.” In that kind of scenario where you can open a conversation and help them work out their anger, then staying and listening and commenting can very beneficial. But when it’s just a group of coworkers together talking about one other person—I think it’s perfectly legit to excuse ourselves from the conversation. Or even to say, “I feel really uncomfortable talking with the way were talking about somebody who is not here.”
Audience: What if you’ve already been engaging is this kind of activity of talking about people at work, and then now, say you want to do a little leap in life. How do you extract yourself from that? So you’re already in the clique…[laughter]
VTC: Yes, I think people understand what you’re saying. So you’re already in the clique and the clique functions around scapegoating somebody. How do you extract yourself from a group of people who join together because they have a common scapegoat? Sometimes you just are busy and do other things. Sometimes, depending on the situation, you can say, “I’ve been really thinking about what we’ve been talking about and I feel really kind of uncomfortable about it. It’s seems like we’re all ganging up against this person and I’m wondering if maybe another strategy for working with the difficulty might be better. Maybe we should try and bring this person into the group in some kind of way.” I say this because sometimes, especially at work, if you ostracize somebody and talk bad about them, then they’re going to be exactly the way you’re talking because they pick up on the vibes. Whereas if you go and try to be nice to that person, then they act differently because now they feel welcome. So depending upon the situation with the group, sometimes what can really be a kind thing to do is to say, “I’ve just been thinking about how we talk about this person and it just doesn’t feel right to me.” Or if you can’t do that, then just stepping aside and not joining in. Or just saying, “You know, I feel uncomfortable with this,” and “Excuse me.” Something like that. I know sometimes when I’ve been in situations and somebody else in the group has said, “I feel really uncomfortable with the way we’re talking,” and I’ve been one of the people talking in that way, it’s a shock to me and I have to look and I go, “Ah, yes.” And I’m usually grateful to the person for stopping it.
Audience: What about complaining when you’re not complaining about a person—you’re like, “Oh, I’m so tired” or “I have so much work to do.” I mean it’s clearly putting negativity and self-centeredness into a dynamic but it’s not really quite falling into that category.
VTC: Okay, so complaining. I have a whole chapter on complaining in Taming the Mind because it’s one of my favorite things. Oh complaining—doesn’t it just give you the nicest sense of: “I’m so tired. I have so much work to do. My little toe hurts. Nobody appreciates me. I work so hard for them and do so much and they never appreciate and they don’t say thank you. Why can’t I go away on vacation? All these other people get to and it’s just not fair”—on and on.
So you were asking about complaining?
I think complaining is a form of idle talk because it’s a lot of stuff that isn’t really important and doesn’t need to be said. Actually, very often, the more we complain the worse we feel. This is because we dig ourselves into this little pit of ‘poor me.’ Which is, I don’t know about you, but that’s one of my favorite things—poor me. How many of you are poor me people? Oh, I have some comrades. The rest of you who haven’t raised your hand—watch, just in case once in a while you do it. Complaining can make us very unhappy. I think the basic thing is if it’s a situation we can do something about, do it. If we can’t do anything about it, then just leave it. Complaining doesn’t do much—except give us this wonderful feeling of being so important because we have all these problems.
Audience: Venerable, sometimes complaining seems to me to arise with certain people repeatedly. Then when I encounter certain people, when they ask me how I am, I always complain to them. What I’ve become aware of, but I don’t know quite how to change it—is that it’s some kind of barrier. There’s a discomfort about what that person is either going to expect from me or the way that they always approach me in how I feel about that. The complaining seems to create a kind of fence that gives me some kind of distance that I need. But I’m not exactly sure why. Sometimes I know why, but not always.
VTC: You’re saying that sometimes you find that with certain people you complain; and that one part of your mind is maybe afraid of….
VTC: Afraid of something—that they might expect something from you or want something from you; and if you take over the conversation and start complaining, then they can’t do that.
Audience: Yes. It’s very interesting how it pops out.
VTC: Yes, it is. I would say just be aware of what that situation is—what your anxiety in the situation is. Try to be aware of what you’re afraid that they might say or do that you’re trying to protect yourself from? And see, are they really going to say or do that? Or what are other ways you can deal with the situation.
Sometimes we encounter people that constantly complain to us. So then the question becomes what to do about them? It’s always their fault, right? We label, “They’re the complainers.” I find that sometimes people really want to talk about something that’s bothering them. And so then, yes, let’s have a good conversation about it. We’ll talk about how you’re feeling and some Dharma antidotes to help you work with your mind or whatever.
But some people ask you for advice and when you give it, their favorite answer is, “Yes, but…” In those situations after they say, “Yes, but” maybe two or three times, I finally get it. I realize that they’ve usually said that same story to a number of people, and their stuck in their story, and they don’t really want advice. They’re just stuck in their story and they want to listen to themselves. What I usually do in that situation is when they complain, I’ll say, “What ideas do you have for how to remedy your situation?” They usually try to not answer that question, but I’ll come back to it and repeat it, “What ideas do you have for how to remedy it?” Often that throws the person back on themselves and makes them stop and think, “What ideas do I have? Or do I even want a remedy?”
Audience: As you were speaking I was just thinking about duḥkha. And I was just thinking about how it’s so present that almost we’re oblivious to it. Here’s all this suffering. And as you’re speaking I’m thinking, “Gosh, the Dharma is so strong in this situation of complaining.” And part of me wants to connect with the other person and see them as someone who is suffering. So that I can, not just…I think it’s important to recognize the suffering that the person is having. And yet in the same sense, it’s that skillfulness of: How do we not get trapped in? And then there’s that next level, which I think you just verbalized so beautifully, which is how do we help them out of it? So it’s almost kind of like a three part path. And I think, again, it’s just very interesting how there’s just so much suffering, and it’s so cyclic, and it’s there—and yet we can look at it and just recognize it, and then feel connecting, and helping the person out in those three steps. It’s just really nice to think about it in that way.
VTC: I think you hit on something important than when somebody is complaining, instead of labeling “Oh, this awful, boring, obnoxious person. Why don’t they shut up?”—to be able to look and say, “Oh, this person who’s miserable, who doesn’t know how to be happy, and who isn’t seeing that their own mind is making them unhappy.” Instead of blaming the person who is complaining, we control our irritation and recognize that this is somebody who is really unhappy, who is stuck, and have some compassion for them. But compassion doesn’t mean that we stay there stuck with them—listening to them say the same thing for the fourth hour. We can end the conversation, we can steer the conversation in another way, or we can do something that can benefit them like say, “What ideas do you have?” Or, “How do you think the other person looks at the situation?” Do something to kind of pull the person out of it. But to do that without viewing them as an obnoxious person; rather, to view them as somebody who wants to be happy and who’s stuck and unhappy at that moment.
Audience: I have a question about something I read in a book that said sometimes someone should approach speech like a stone or wood or something. I think it was in Śāntideva. When you’re about to say something stupid, or even something mean, or something that isn’t encouraging. I thought it was really very good, but how do you do that? Or, if you do that and somebody anticipates you being aggressive. Like, “You’re going to be like a stone or wood and you’re not going to respond,” and then they’re going to get mad at you. They’re thinking, “What’s wrong with you?” And then they want to fight or whatever. I was wondering if you could you comment on that?
VTC: I know the line you’re talking about where Śāntideva is talking about if somebody is being aggressive toward you, he says “Remain like a piece of wood—remain like a log.” So your question is, “If you just sit there and you’re quiet and you don’t do something, sometimes that can really inflame the situation more.” What Śāntideva is meaning there when he says, “Remain like a log,” he’s referring to our own internal reaction—in other words, if somebody is being aggressive to us. Let’s say that somebody is aggressive to a log, does the log get angry? Does the log get upset? No, the log is just a log. In the same way, if somebody is being aggressive towards us—internally, our own emotions, we don’t need to get angry and upset and want to retaliate. We can just remain there—just like a log remains there.
Then within that space of not flaring up into our own emotional reaction, we can look at the situation. We try to see what’s the most skillful behavior for me to do at this time to try and help the situation. So sometimes it might be speaking to the other person, sometimes it may not be speaking to the other person. It’s hard to tell. This is because sometimes if somebody is really inflamed, if you try and speak to them, anything you say is wrong. It’s better to just let them vent and listen and don’t react and don’t take it in. Let their words be ‘water off a ducks back.’ Just let it roll off. Then when they’re done and they can finally listen, then maybe say something. Or other situations, you need to walk away from it. Or other situations, you can tell that actually the person can hear you, and so then maybe you need to say something. But the basic thing of ‘remain like a log’ means emotionally we don’t need to get caught up in the flurry of the moment.
Audience: How do you do that, though?
VTC: It sure would be nice if they had an anger pill, don’t you think? This is what the book Working with Anger is all about. It’s a plagiarized version of Śāntideva and all of these methods. Śāntideva really talked about all these different methods for how to work with our anger. But the real key is to practice it at home when were not in the situation: Take out things that happened in our life before and rerun them, but imagine ourselves responding emotionally in a different way. Practice and practice like that; and when we’re well trained in that, then it’s easier to do it in the heat of the moment. But there are many different ways to work with anger.
Some of the ways, just briefly, that I find very helpful are: One, to think about how the situation looks from the other person’s point of view. In other words, pull myself out of my little periscopical view (my little periscope and how it’s seeing the view), and take a big picture. How does this look in the other person’s eyes—from their needs, and their concerns, and their value system?
A second way that I find really helpful is to say to myself, “Whatever this person is doing, I’m experiencing it—I’m the object of it—because of my own negative actions in the past. This is just a ripening of my own negative karma.” Personally speaking, I find that very helpful because it totally cuts the anger. It’s like, “Why is this person doing this to me? It’s the result of my own negative actions I did.” It doesn’t mean I deserved to be harmed. It’s not blaming the victim. But it’s just owning my share in it, and realizing I don’t need to get mad at the other person, and then saying, “Okay, their doing this and this—it’s unpleasant, but actually it’s using up all that negative karma. It’s burning it off.”
The things that I tend to get most upset about—one, if somebody is saying harsh words to me; and two is if they’re talking behind my back and ruining my reputation. Those tend for me to be the two things that I go, “How can anybody do that?” If I just sit there and go, “Oh, okay, somebody is talking behind my back, ruining my reputation. That’s okay. That’s okay, somebody can ruin my reputation.” I say this because reputation isn’t worth much anyway, is it? Reputation is just people’s ideas. It’s just people’s words. It doesn’t get you a higher rebirth. It doesn’t get you liberation. It doesn’t get you enlightenment. What is reputation?
I find that when I think somebody is ruining my reputation, my instant action is, “This is national disaster. I can’t let this happen. I’m going to die if somebody ruins my reputation.” To be able to step back and say, “It’s okay, somebody can ruin my reputation,”—because nobody ever ruins our reputation that bad. But I find that just saying to myself, “Yep, this is a result of my own negative actions. It’s okay. It’s good practice for me. It’s good Dharma practice if somebody ruins my reputation. It’ll make me humbler. I won’t be quite so arrogant.” So just by thinking differently in those situations, then my mind quiets down and I realize that it’s actually not such a big deal.
Audience: My reputation means a lot, not from a sense of arrogance—but I would think that for you even a million times more. If someone was saying something to you or about you that was in reality untrue; and it’s not just saying that your spoken word, or your word is who you are, is untrue—and that affects your ability to help others and to help bring others towards enlightenment. Is it so wrong to try to maybe defend or maybe help [inaudible word] that person past you?
VTC: You’re saying that if somebody ruins our reputation, it impedes our ability on the bodhisattva path to be of benefit to that person. Well, there is one bodhisattva vow that if somebody is angry and upset with us, part of the bodhisattva practice is to go and explain to the other person. So it’s not like somebody is ruining my reputation and…You know, I don’t have to get defensive and say, “But he did this and this and this, and I’m actually I’m blah, blah, blah,”—and do this big defensive thing. Also I don’t need to slink into a little corner and say, “I’m just going to sit here and it doesn’t matter,”—because the other person is also hurting. So in some situations, we have to go to the person who is saying nasty things about us and fill them out on the details of the story. We do this not as a way of defending our own reputation, but as an act of kindness to them—so that they don’t remain stuck in that negative attitude towards us. If somebody gossips about me and ruins my whole reputation and no Dharma centers invite me to come and teach—that okay, then I have more time to do retreat. Yes? You know, you can see a good side to everything. The people that do have faith in you, they’re going to continue. The people who really know you well aren’t going to listen to the kind of rubbish that somebody else is saying.
At one time or another everybody gets gossiped about behind their back. Have any of us never been gossiped about behind our back? Have any of us not gossiped about somebody else behind their back? I mean, this happens all the time. So the people who really know us, they aren’t going to listen to this kind of stuff. It’s not going to affect the relationship. Or if they start having doubts, if we just explain the situation they will understand it. The other people who don’t know us so well, who want to get revved up about something—well, what can we do? And if we did make a mistake and they’re talking about us behind our back, about something that we did do, we have to own it and we have to publicly acknowledge it. It’s not that people are always lying when they talk behind our back—we do make mistakes. Is that making some sense?
Audience: A person in my neighborhood did something very bad to some child. Isn’t it their karma that I’m participating in by warning other people that they should be careful around this person? If it’s good or bad, it seems to me that it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad for me to say something bad about someone.
VTC: Right, but see what you’re doing—you have to look at your intention. If there is somebody who is harming children in the neighborhood, and you know that for sure, it’s kind of a responsibility to warn other people. But that doesn’t mean that you trash the person who’s harming, and say everything bad about them, and call them all these names. You just need to say, “This has happened and people need to be aware of it so that there’s not a repeat event.”
Audience: Venerable, the other night when you were talking about anger and we talked about response, retreat is one of the ways we deal with it. In my experience going back to my childhood and my current life, there are people in my life who retreat out of anger and they don’t talk. To me that brings up issues of right and wrong speech, too—there’s no speech. So there are all of these emotions building that are fairly negative that come out in different ways. But what it does for me—I know it happened when I was young with one of the parents and somebody else was that—I want communication. I want to know what’s going on. It brings up incredible states of agitation that go way back. It’s a really old pattern of trying to draw someone out so that you can have right speech and communication.
VTC: So somebody is angry. Somebody is upset. And the way they show it is they totally withdraw from the situation. Then you get anxious about that and you try to draw them out—and probably they retreat even more. How many of you are ‘clammer-uppers?’ Who clams up when they’re angry? You clam up when you’re angry? Does he clam up when he’s angry?
Audience: I don’t get angry!
Audience: He just gets even. [laughter]
VTC: So I think this thing of clamming up is quite a prevalent state. A lot of people do it. I know I do it. And then some people are explosive people.
Audience: They go together.
VTC: Right. I was going to say they often wind up in a coupled relationship. One explodes, the other retreats—and then they’re both unhappy afterwards. So what to do in this kind of thing—you’ve got me. [laughter] When I’m upset, I clam up. When the other person’s upset, I want to communicate. Interesting, isn’t it? When I’m upset it’s, “Leave me alone and don’t talk to me, but please come and ask me what’s wrong.” Yes? Is anybody else like that? “Just please come and ask me what’s wrong,” but you know, let me sulk for a little while. “But make sure you ask me what’s wrong enough, so that eventually I start talking. But you have to ask me what wrong in a certain tone of voice. Because if you don’t, then I feel really unsafe and I withdraw even more.” Because if you say, “What’s wrong with you?” then boy, I’m way gone. But if you go, “Oh, poor you,” and give me a little self-pity, then maybe I’ll soften after a while. You see, I didn’t get married for the benefit of sentient beings. [laughter] Can you imagine some poor guy having to deal with me?
Audience: He did.
Audience: He did.
VTC: He did? Well that’s passed. [laughter] I think it’s just people—especially in couple relationships—not necessarily couples, but people you’re close to—just to sometimes open up a conversation about patterns you fall into together, and how you feed off of each other, and what kind of signals can we give each other when we see we’re falling into the same old pattern.
Audience: Providing you both agree there’s a pattern.
VTC: Yes—providing you agree. And if you don’t agree there’s a pattern—I don’t know.
Audience: How can you reconcile keeping right speech in politics?
VTC: How do you reconcile keeping right speech in politics? I think if the political leaders used right speech, it would be marvelous for this country because they could finally trust somebody. They may not like what that person said, but they might actually begin to gain some faith in politicians again.
Audience: I guess what I’m trying to say—if you have one side of a political issue, you’re not trying to undermine the other side.
VTC: Okay—I mean politics a lot of time is about undermining the other guy. It shouldn’t be. Politics is about serving the people. So I think you need to refocus on what actually it is and it’s not thing of undermining the other party. It’s a thing of how do we work for the people.
Okay, let’s sit quietly. Do a little reflection on what we discussed this evening and relate it to your own life.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.