Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Purifying harsh speech and idle talk

Part of a series of teachings given at the Winter Retreat from December 2011 to March 2012 at Sravasti Abbey.

  • The characteristics of karma
  • Identifying our actions of harsh speech
  • The results of harsh speech
  • Identifying our actions of idle talk
  • The results of idle talk
  • The visualization for purifying actions of speech

Vajrasattva 22: Purification of speech, part 2 (download)

We are back with our Vajrasattva: moving right ahead. Last time, we did lying and divisive speech; and so we are going to move today to the last two of the kinds of speech that cause suffering: harsh speech and idle talk or gossip.

Words of encouragement

As usual, to get myself going and hopefully it is helpful to you, here are words of encouragement from Lama Yeshe:

Dwelling deep within our hearts and within the hearts of all beings without exception….

That is very important. Every single being, with no exception

is an inexhaustible source of love and wisdom.

It is there, we just aren’t always in touch with it, but it is inexhaustible, it is never going to wear out.

And the ultimate purpose of all spiritual practice is to uncover and make contact with this essentially pure nature.

So this is really what we are up to with Vajrasattva purification. We are trying to uncover this very pure, inexhaustible source of loving wisdom which is our true nature.

The other thing about Vajrasattva purification, I want to say, except maybe that it is harsh speech, is that we keep bumping into karma and having to think about karma because we really cannot maneuver our way through here without doing this. Since we are always working with karma, it is good to just remember these four things about it. Good news is: positive always leads to positive; if we do that, we are going to get those kind of positive results. Negative always leads to negative—not so great. Second thing is: the effects of karma are never lost; it is not like we will do it and there won’t be any effect in the future.

Again, with positive that is wonderful news; we will reap the effects of that. With negative, that is why we are going to need to purify. These will be experienced unless they are purified. And the fourth thing about it is that very small acts of speech, which we are focusing on now, or body, or mind, can lead to very large results. We can see this in any historical incident; very small changes which occur that cause huge effects. We can even see it in nature. A tiny seed makes a giant tree with these cooperative conditions; so that very small thing is more like how the karma is.

Let us focus on these two kinds of speech.

The non-virtue of harsh speech

Harsh words. Well, my mind is so habituated. One of the things I thought about today was: Mean People Suck. This is a bumper sticker for those of you who aren’t from the US. It is a bumper sticker that reads: Mean People Suck. I thought, “Yes, harsh words, I just hate harsh words. Mean people just suck. Why don’t they just stop?” And then I thought, “Whoa, what are you doing?” There it is, the habit: I am blaming someone else, those mean people, not me, and they suck. It was really a good boomerang in my mind that just went, “Wow. There you go.” Harsh speech is speech with ill-will. It is based on ignorance, aversion, or attachment—our three usual poisons—and it is completed when the person comprehends what you have said. This is so habitual.

Venerable Chodron says that it is not only habitual, but it is so illogical to use harsh speech. We get the exact opposite of what we want. Think about that. You are trying for something, you use harsh speech, and you get the exact opposite. We are studying Non-Violent Communication (NVC) now at the Abbey with Marshall Rosenberg’s materials. And that is also so clearly carried out with this: that if we cannot get in touch with our needs, our feelings, and ask for what we need, this anger will arise. When you use harsh speech, we get exactly the opposite of what we wish we were having.

Venerable Chodron also points out that people often just want to feel that others are hearing what they are saying, and that their pain is acknowledged. If harsh speech is coming at you, you do not retaliate with harsh speech. But as Marshall Rosenberg says:

Never hear what they are thinking about you. Only hear, “I need something, and I don’t have it, and I’m feeling thus and so.”

It is not what they are saying, but that it is what we strive to hear. When we stop hearing harsh speech we don’t retaliate with harsh speech. For ourselves, we can check in with our feelings and needs ahead of time. What I am finding with this NVC, and thinking about the Vajrasattva purification on this one, is that I engage a whole lot less in harsh speech in my mind. If I stop the Mean People Suck way of thinking and just think, “Wow, what do you need right now? What are you feeling right now, Zopa?” Just check in, in a kind and gentle way, and that cuts it.

Those are some methods besides our beautiful Vajrasattva purification pouring down. I will talk in a minute about how Lama Zopa Rinpoche describes that visualization. But this really cuts it and we can overcome the anger that is associated with it. So, if it is coming at us, we have to check our retaliation-type response.

The results of harsh speech: results are similar to the cause. If you have ever experienced it towards you, then you have engaged in it even if you cannot find the specific times. That is the cycle that will just keep on going on and on and on.

The other result I thought, too, was interesting. You will be reborn where there are harsh tree stumps and prickly bushes. I keep thinking about our forest before we go in and clean it up. But after we clean it up it is very nice. In some ways I was thinking, too, about having come from a Judeo-Christian background. You know how much you hate having harsh speech come at you. Don’t forget that, too. I mean, we just don’t want to do this anymore. Let us catch ourselves.

The non-virtue of idle talk

Then we move onto idle talk or gossip. This is speech with no constructive purpose. This one I have to really think about—all of those hours in coffee shops, what were we talking about? I know one of the things, and it is coming up again this year for people especially outside the Abbey, is the election. We are talking endless hours speculating, “Who will win?” and “Oh, that one,” and “Who will be the Republican nomination?” and “What about this?” and “What about that?” Some degree of that is probably useful, but at some point it really becomes has no constructive purpose. And worse, this is what I have been thinking about idle speech. If you spend much time thinking about it or doing it, you can see how fast it slips into divisive speech, “them and us,” very quickly. How fast it slips into exaggerations of their badness and our goodness, and therefore how quickly it goes to lying. It is just like a little platform for all of these other things happening.

The result of idle talk is you will be gossiped about. How many of us like that to happen? I don’t, unless I’m in on it to correct the misperceptions. You will have the habit to do this over and over. Again, these environmental ones are interesting. You will live where crops fail and where rain comes at improper times, so it’s either drought- or flood-kind of conditions. To me on a personal level, I think the worst result of this is something Venerable Chodron said quite a while ago, “We simply waste our precious human lives. We simply waste them away doing this. If you bring to mind the day you are dying, which is going to happen, then you really want to be thinking, ‘Is that what I will be saying? I wish I had sat in the coffee shop longer speculating about the next president?’” I don’t think so. The effects of it are so potent.

I remember a story from Jeffery Hopkins in his book. He was accompanying his father as his father died in the hospital. When he came in he noticed the television set was on—which it is often in hospital rooms. You can ask to have it turned off, but I do not know if people know that, or feel powerless, or maybe they are part-comatose or whatever. He turned the TV off and then just sat with his father who was in and out of consciousness. Then his dad said, “Oh, my gosh, you won’t believe what is going on in this hospital.” Jeffrey asked him, “About what?” His dad started telling him about the soap opera that was happening on the TV when Jeffrey had come in. This kind of idle talk, idle entertainment, idle engagement of our mind in these meaningless things can be so potent at these kind of times—and also just in our regular life.

Venerable Chodron pointed out:

It’s not idle talk if it is done with a good motivation. An example of this might be in meeting with a stranger. They come in to visit the Abbey. You don’t think, “Oh my gosh I can’t engage in idle talk.” So you say, “Hi!” You can say, “How are you?” and chat a little about family and stuff.

But again, we just need to watch the slippery slope—how our minds are the ones that are going on to these other very difficult things.

Developing conviction in purification

Vajrasattva purifies all of this. This is called the expelling upward. I talked about it last time. Now I want to share what Lama Zopa Rinpoche says. He says

Imagine the nectars and light rays descend from Vajrasattva into your body and they fill you from the soles of your feet up. The nectar fills your whole body.

Venerable Jigme said something this retreat that has been so helpful for me. Really pay attention to the parts of your body that you leave out and you don’t go there with the pure nectar and light. It is interesting to explore, “Oh yes, I always do it through here but what about there? Why am I leaving that out?” You want to get every nook and cranny. It’s like pouring water into an empty bottle and any dirt on the bottom is carried upward and spills out of the top through your sense faculties: mouth, eyes, ears, and nose. At the end he says

No matter how many mantras your recite, (you must) develop a very strong conviction.

Every teacher says this, to think, “I have actually purified these negativities.” He continues:

It is important to generate this so we do not waste time on doubt or any kind of backtracking.

Now Lama Zopa says:

As you probe deeper….

And I know those of you listening, and those of you in the room for sure—as you go into this accumulation of negative actions just in this lifetime, you will become quite surprised. This is a quote from Lama Zopa:

…you will wonder, “How could I have ever done these negative actions?”

I have found this as we peel off layer after layer off, “Oh my gosh, this is really disgusting. Was I crazy at the time?” He says:

Yes, we were.

So we bring the kind of compassion that we would bring to someone who is just literally out of their mind or under the influence. We’re just like the puppet under the influence of the obscurations and afflictions. You will be amazed at the quantity of negative actions you have done. But, he says:

Purification is possible— always.

One Kadampa master said:

Because the nature of all functional things is impermanent, if someone engages in the practice of purification, accumulates merit, practices visualizing, and does the sadhana with great effort….

(which is what we are doing, all of us)

…what may now seem impossible to achieve, like high realizations, will come about one day.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche reminds us of that in a piece he wrote about Angulimala who killed 999 people and intended to kill the Buddha. Later, through strong regret and ethical actions, Angulimala engaged in correct methods to purify them, and became a very successful person, who is probably completely realized by now. Lama Zopa ends this by saying:

This is the power of the Dharma, and it is the kindness of the Dharma.

Let’s keep going.

Zopa Herron

Karma Zopa began to focus on the Dharma in 1993 through Kagyu Changchub Chuling in Portland, Oregon. She was a mediator and adjunct professor teaching Conflict Resolution. From 1994 onward, she attended at least 2 Buddhist retreats per year. Reading widely in the Dharma, she met Venerable Thubten Chodron in 1994 at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center and has followed her ever since. In 1999, Zopa took Refuge and the 5 precepts from Geshe Kalsang Damdul and from Lama Michael Conklin, receiving the precept name, Karma Zopa Hlamo. In 2000, she took Refuge precepts with Ven Chodron and received the Bodhisattva vows the next year. For several years, as Sravasti Abbey was established, she served as co-chair of Friends of Sravasti Abbey. Zopa has been fortunate to hear teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Jampa Tegchok, Khensur Wangdak, Venerable Thubten Chodron, Yangsi Rinpoche, Geshe Kalsang Damdul, Dagmo Kusho and others. From 1975-2008, she engaged in social services in Portland in a number of roles: as a lawyer for people with low incomes, an instructor in law and conflict resolution, a family mediator, a cross-cultural consultant with Tools for Diversity and a coach for executive directors of non-profits. In 2008, Zopa moved to Sravasti Abbey for a six-month trial living period and she has remained ever since, to serve the Dharma. Shortly thereafter, she began using her refuge name, Karma Zopa. In May 24, 2009, Zopa took the 8 anagarika precepts for life, as a lay person offering service in the Abbey office, kitchen, gardens and buildings. In March 2013, Zopa joined KCC at Ser Cho Osel Ling for a one year retreat. She is now in Portland, exploring how to best support the Dharma, with plans to return to Sravasti for a time.

More on this topic