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Speaking at appropriate times

Stages of the Path #75: Karma, Part 12

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.

  • What it means to practice speaking at appropriate times
  • Considering the time, the place, the tone, and the content of our speech
  • Examining our motivation before speaking

The ten virtues. We finished the ones of speech: speaking truthfully, using our speech to create harmony, speaking with kindness. Then the opposite of idle talk is speaking at appropriate times. This really requires some finesse, and quite a bit of mindfulness. We tend to get a thought in our mind and it comes out the mouth immediately, without assessing the situation: whether it’s a convenient time for the other person, whether it’s an appropriate place, whether we have thought about what we want to say and are speaking meaningfully. So often we’re just impulsive and the thought comes and there it goes (out the mouth). A lot of the time that becomes idle talk. And in bad situations it becomes harsh speech, and lying, and creating disharmony.

Really learning when to speak, and at appropriate times. And how much to speak. And how loudly (or softly) to speak. In what tone of voice to speak. All these things are very important. That’s the difference between idle talk and speaking at appropriate times. The content, the timing, the tone, the motivation…. So many things are there. Speaking at appropriate times (places, and so on), all these things of speech require that we really slow down and think a bit.

It’s really a big practice for all of us. So let’s kind of put that maybe at the top of our list, and think about, as we’re walking around through the day, what is appropriate to say, when is it appropriate to say that, how is it appropriate to say it?

This also includes not making assumptions, and really explaining things well enough to somebody. Sometimes we get the idea that to avoid idle speech I just won’t talk much at all. But then we don’t communicate well. Sometimes we’re working on a project with somebody, we have to communicate about it. Or we’re giving instructions, we have to give the complete instructions, and not just make assumptions that other people know what we talk about. Avoiding idle talk, in an effort to do that, we shouldn’t under-communicate either, because that creates a lot of misunderstandings. We need to know how to communicate, and sometimes repeat things.

I’ve really learned that people very often don’t hear it the first time. Forget the Dharma, just even simple things. We don’t hear it the first time. So sometimes it’s better to repeat it. Of course, some people may get mad at you because you repeat it, but what to do? It’s also good to check with people and make sure that they understand what they’re supposed to be doing, or what you actually mean when you say something, instead of saying one sentence and then making assumptions.

[In response to audience] It’s very hard to restrain, when we have something to say but it’s not the appropriate time. It’s hard to restrain because we’re very focused on our need to say it. We’re not focused on communicating with the other person. We just want to relieve the stress of having this inside. So we say it, and then we don’t care whether they heard it or not, because we just wanted to say it. But then, of course, they don’t often hear it. Or they hear it but the misunderstand it because it wasn’t the right time to say it, and they’re busy doing something else, or they’re preoccupied with something else. So then instead of our saying it producing the result we want, we get the result we don’t want.

But you’re right, it’s very hard, because we can feel that energy inside of us sometimes, can’t we? I know, like in a discussion, if somebody says an opinion that I think is really bad, it’s like I feel I have to immediately say something, otherwise the whole world’s going to get destroyed. That’s a little bit unrealistic. So a lot of times it’s possible, people can say all sorts of things in a meeting, but it doesn’t mean other people are going to pick it up and run with it. So sometimes let them say it, I don’t need to say anything, other people don’t react to it, then it’s gone. Whereas often if I jump in immediately, then it starts a conflict with the other person because they don’t feel like their opinion was respected.

Of course, if other people take it up and run with it, and the world really is going to get destroyed, then maybe I should say something. [laughter] But I can wait a few minutes.

It’s very interesting when that happens, when you feel that strong impulse to speak, to just sit and watch that impulse. What does this impulse feel like in my body? It’s quite uncomfortable, isn’t it? Just watch. What does that feel like in my body? And what is the motivation in my mind? Am I actually wanting to communicate?

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.