Part of a series of talks on Gems of Wisdom, a poem by the Seventh Dalai Lama.
- Cultivating speech that is gentle, appropriate, and useful
- Being mindful of our speech and our reasons for speaking
- Considering others’ feelings and situation and our own motivation before speaking
Gems of Wisdom: Verse 72 (download)
“What is the sweetest conversation, delighting absolutely everyone?”
Audience: About me! [laughter]
Venerable Thubten Chodron: Conversation about me! Telling my good qualities. Not about me telling my faults. Not that one.
Well, the Dalai Lama had a different idea. He said: “Gentle, appropriate words built firmly on useful meaning.”
What is the sweetest conversation, delighting absolutely everyone?
Gentle, appropriate words built firmly on useful meaning.
We have gentle, appropriate, and useful meaning. Three qualities:
Gentle usually means said in a respectful way to somebody else, with mindfulness of having a pleasant tone of voice, pleasant body language when we’re saying it. So speech that is respectful of other people as human beings comes out to be gentle speech.
Gentle does not always mean pleasing to the ear of the other person. Because sometimes to benefit somebody we have to say something that is not pleasing to their ear. And sometimes we may need to speak very strongly to them, and they may not see it as gentle speech. So occasionally that’s the situation, and for the benefit of somebody else we have to speak like this.
But in general we should try and speak in a gentle manner, with our tone of voice being moderate, not being loud, not being [harsh]. Really taking care. Knowing how we want to speak and being mindful of speaking in that way.
Appropriate words. This is saying things that are appropriate for the situation. So each situation we have to really see, well what is the purpose of the conversation. What’s appropriate?
For example, let’s say somebody is telling us that they just lost a dear one. We may want to say, “Oh yes, I had that happen,” and then go off on our story. That’s not appropriate. It may be the same topic as the other person’s talking on, but it’s not appropriate for the situation because they’re trying to express to us their grief and we need to be compassionate listeners at that point. And us having had a similar situation is not what they need to hear at that particular moment. So really seeing what kind of speech is appropriate.
Also, staying on the topic that something is about. Sometimes we may have a conflict with somebody and we start out on one topic but then we go to branch out to other topics. We take out a list of everything we’ve been mad at the person for for the last month that we haven’t said anything about, and now at this one time, well, we might as well list out these other 50 things. No, that’s not appropriate. Right now we’re talking about this one issue, and let’s settle that. And then if there are other issues, then to ask the person, “I have some other things I’d like to talk about, is this a good time to talk with you.” Sticking with the topic that we need to.
Appropriate means “at the right time.” When somebody is in a hurry, when they’re walking from one place to the other, it’s not the time to stop them and have a conversation, because they have something else on their mind. When somebody’s in the middle of doing something, when somebody is not feeling well, when somebody else has something else on their mind, we may really want to talk about something, but it’s not the appropriate time to do it because the other person, their mind is filled with something else at that particular time, and we’re not going to really be able to communicate very well with them.
This can sometimes be hard. I know for myself, when I have something to talk about it’s like, I want to go right there and say it right away, and you’re supposed to stop what you’re doing, and I don’t care what else you’re doing and thinking about and whatever, I’ve got to say this right now. Similarly at a meeting, somebody says something that we don’t agree with some of us feel, “Well, we’ve got to correct it right now, otherwise the whole world is going to fall apart, because somebody said something we don’t agree with.” So that may not be the appropriate time or the appropriate topic or in the appropriate way.
We also have to see, when is it appropriate to do something in a joking way, when in a serious way, when with a gentle voice, when with a forceful voice. To really have appropriate speech.
And then “firmly based on useful meaning.” So, “useful meaning,” it has to be something that’s true. Lying to somebody, outright deceit and lying, is very very damaging to relationships. Because we lie and then people find out about it later and then they don’t trust us. So it’s really important to tell the truth.
That doesn’t mean in every situation you have to tell every single detail in the truth. Because that may not be appropriate. There are some situations where, if you go on and on and explain every single detail because you want to be totally upfront about it, somebody else is going to feel hurt, or you’ll get off onto some other useless discussion, or who knows what. So we also have to say it has to be a useful meaning, but we have to decide how much to explain. It’s like, when somebody asks you a Dharma question, they say, “What is emptiness?” Well, do you pull out Nagarjuna’s Karikas, and then Chandrakirti’s Supplement, because you want to give them a full answer to “what is emptiness?” And then five years later when you’ve studied both of those texts you say, well now you have your answer. Or do you say something, because the person’s brand new to the Dharma, that is in three sentences. Okay? So, again, appropriate and useful.
But the same thing when people ask different questions, we have to see what is useful to explain to them at that particular time. Some topics it’s just not useful to explain to somebody. They’re not ready to hear that. They’re not ready to think about that. Or even in personal situations, how much of our personal thing to say to somebody. We have to be somewhat circumspect and see what is useful and what’s appropriate in a situation.
And then of course, the topic we talk about. Making sure that we adhere to topics that have some kind of meaning. So again, that doesn’t mean we have to talk about deep Dharma philosophical topics over lunch every day. Or, when you say hello, did you realize emptiness yet? You know? Sometimes it’s just a casual situation and you chit chat with somebody to make a connection, but the chit chat in that situation is useful because the purpose is to make a connection with the person. Whereas the chit chat with somebody you already know very well, who is engaged in doing something else, that chit chat is not appropriate, because it’s taking time away from them that they could be using in another way.
Useful means the topic’s useful, but also it has to be useful to that person at that time.
It’s hard figuring out what to say and when to say it and how to say it. We learn a lot by trial and error.
And then also, what to communicate. Some people there are things that they forget to communicate to other people even though it’s really important for other people to know this. For example, when you leave the Abbey to go somewhere, it’s important for other people to know that you’ve left the Abbey to go to this place, and you took the car and you’ll be back at this time. It’s like, the community needs to know. Or if you change things around somewhere, or change the program, or move things around, it’s like, this is a communal place so people have to know what’s going on.
We have to see what things are important to tell everybody and what things maybe we don’t need to tell everybody, only a couple of people need to know. And what things, you know, if I clean up my desk I don’t need to tell all of you. Hopefully you’ll notice it.
Which, by the way, I’ve been looking at some people’s desks recently and I haven’t been able to see the desk. There are a few people [to audience] not only you, but you’re one of them. And I might get tempted to clean up some desks when I’m feeling bored. [laughter] But I think to some extent our desk is a reflection of our mind.
[In response to audience] Yes. Using monastery property without permission can be a very heavy karma.
[In response to audience] This is a good point about appropriate words, because sometimes people, they want to be helpful, but we’re in a mental state where it’s very difficult for us to hear different things. One friend told me after his wife died, that almost everything people said to him, even they were trying to be helpful, pushed his buttons, and made him more irritated, and he felt like they didn’t understand. And then, like you said, sometimes there’s one person who said to you, “I’m sorry you have to go through this,” which was one sentence, and all of a sudden that’s what you needed to hear, which was so nice.
It’s really hard sometimes, when people are facing difficulties, to know what to say to them that is going to be the right thing they need to hear. Because one person may need to hear this, an another person may need to hear that. So it’s also good for us to remember sometimes, too, when we’re going through hard times that the people who say things to us, they mean well. And they may not say things that we need to hear, but to overlook the words and to tap into the feeling with which they’re saying it. Because if we can accept the love with which they’re saying it, then we’ll feel better. And just leave aside the words. That’s for us when we’re on the listening side. When we’re on the speaking side, sometimes it’s just you’re guessing in the dark what to say, what would be helpful. Sometimes it doesn’t need to be very much.
[Response to audience] It’s like, you don’t know. One of her colleagues’ wife, the mother died. And then on the way back from the funeral the sister got in a car accident and died. And so in writing a condolence card you wrote, “This really sucks.” And she wrote back to you later and said, “Thank you.” That was a show of empathy that was what she needed at that particular time.