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The 10 non-virtues: Harsh speech

The 10 non-virtues: Harsh speech

Part of a series of Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks on the Stages of the Path (or lamrim) as described in the Guru Puja text by Panchen Lama I Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen.

  • Harsh speech can come out either angry or in a pleasant sounding way
  • Being mindful of what we say to children
  • Harsh communication through email also falls under harsh speech

So we talked about lying and divisive words. So now we’re on our favorite one: harsh words. Harsh speech.

Harsh speech is when you say things that are hurtful to other people. So of course it includes when we’re angry and we yell and scream and stuff like that. But you can also use harsh speech in a very pleasant tone of voice, the way often happens in families when you know somebody’s sensitive thing and you say something ever so sweetly that you know [is going to get them].

It can be things that things that put people down, that ridicule them. I think we also have to be careful what we say to kids. Because I notice sometimes adults really don’t speak so well to kids, in the sense of putting them down, criticizing them, telling them they’re stupid. Or playing on their gullibility, making them afraid by telling them there’s a boogeyman who’s going to come get them. These kinds of things. And so kids get very afraid, and I consider that harsh speech as well.

It’s something we really have to look out for because—especially when we get angry—harsh speech just kind of comes out of our mouths before we even know what’s going on. Doesn’t it? Just like, blah. And sometimes we say the worst things to the people we care the most about. So it’s really something to try and be careful of.

It, too, like all the others, has four parts to be complete—complete action having the power to throw a rebirth.

The object—who you’re speaking to. Then the motivation—which includes recognizing that object, having the intention to speak those words, having an afflicted state of mind. And sometimes we can speak harsh words out of attachment. We can speak them out of anger. We can speak them out of ignorance. Mostly it’s out of anger. But it could be out of other motivations as well. Then the action of speaking. And then the conclusion of the action—which is that the other person understands.

It often comes up: Well, what about writing email? Is that an action of body or speech? Because it’s your body that’s typing. But it’s also communication. So actually, it’s considered under speech, because it is communication. And some people, really, a lot of harsh speech coming out through email. Because that gives you some distance between you and the other person, you can just type it out, spell out all your rubbish, press “send,” and you don’t have to be there when they read it. Yes? And of course you have to read the response. Or you just delete their response because you don’t care. But it gives you more freedom to say harsher, meaner, crueler things. So it’s something to very much be attentive to.

And what I’ve noticed…. Sometimes when you get a certain email, you feel so inspired to write back some harsh speech. You know? It’s like, this inspiration comes up of exactly what I know I’m going to say as soon as possible. We should only have so much inspiration for our Dharma practice as we do for writing harsh speech. But you know, you sit down and you write it, you press “send,” and then you go, “Oh. Did I really write that? Ugh.” And you realize the other person’s not going to be happy, that they’re going to write something back, that you’re actually going to have a bigger problem on your hands than you had before. So what I’ve learned is: try not to respond to those kinds of emails. Let them sit for a day, or at least a few hours. And if I do respond, put them in the “draft” box instead of pressing “send.” Because I inevitably come back when my mind is calmer and rewrite it. Or delete it and start over again. But it’s a good thing to do. Don’t send those emails right away, because it can be quite hurtful to other people.

Then like I said, there’s the action, there’s the other person understanding it. And the harsh speech not only harms others, but we have to remember every time we hurt somebody else’s feelings we’re putting negative karma on our own minds. Or, I should qualify that, whenever we hurt somebody else’s feelings with a bad intention. Because sometimes we don’t have a bad intention, but they’re super sensitive. In that case that’s not our responsibility, we don’t create the bad karma. But when we have a bad intention and then we say that, it does.

Audience: [Inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron: Okay, so somebody who developed a breathalyzer for the computer so that you can’t write emails if you’re drunk. Because if your alcohol [content] is more than a certain percentage, the computer won’t do “send.”

Can they do something for your anger level as well? [Laughter] And if it’s beyond a certain point, you can press “send” all you want and the email won’t go out. [Laughter]

That would prevent a lot of problems, wouldn’t it?

Or a mouthalyzer [that presses your mouth shut]. Closes our mouth when our heart rate gets to a certain point. You can’t open your mouth.

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.