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Harsh speech and idle talk

Harsh speech and idle talk

Part of a series of teachings on the text The Essence of a Human Life: Words of Advice for Lay Practitioners by Je Rinpoche (Lama Tsongkhapa).

  • Harsh speech
    • The motivation behind harsh speech
    • Being super-sensitive, getting defensive—inhibiting communication
  • Idle talk
    • What is and is not idle talk—motivation
    • Paying attention to what we talk about and how long we talk

The Essence of a Human Life: Harsh speech and idle talk (download)

We’ll continue on with harsh speech. Harsh speech is when we insult people, criticize them, yell and scream, ridicule them, make fun of them, point out their mistakes, all of this done with the intention to hurt them, or the intention even just to release our own upset.

We usually think of harsh speech as somebody completely flying off the handle. But it can also be very harsh when we ridicule people, or tease them about things they’re sensitive about, or when we really want to hurt somebody we act so sweet, and we say just the thing that we know is going to hurt. Things designed to hurt people’s feelings and humiliate them in the presence of others. All this kind of stuff that we do.

It can be done out of jealousy, out of anger, sometimes out of attachment or ignorance. But it always results in other people’s feelings being hurt.

Now does that mean that whenever other people’s feelings are hurt our speech was harsh speech? No. It has to have a negative motivation that wishes to hurt others or humiliate them. Lots of times we may say things but people are incredibly super-sensitive and everything gets taken as a criticism, or as making fun of them, or something like that. These kinds of things are not harsh speech on our part. Sometimes we may be asking a question and somebody gets all up in arms about us asking that question. Or you ask for some information and people get defensive and they think (you’re criticizing them). In these kinds of situations that isn’t harsh speech, and we certainly aren’t responsible for other people’s flair-ups because of it. We may learn, okay, people are sensitive about certain things, so walk delicately in those areas, but it’s not necessarily negative karma on our part to be like that.

On the other hand, we need to look at our own selves and when we are on the receiving end get defensive in a fingersnap. People say “good morning” with a wrong tone of voice and we get up in arms about it. So to really look at how we inhibit free communication with other people, from our side, by our habitual misunderstandings and our super-sensitivity.

What’s interesting is this has come up a few times in explaining these verbal nonvirtues, hasn’t it? Our discussion a few days ago about lying, and how the person who’s getting lied to often is the one inhibiting the communication because they’re so sensitive, or they’re so opinionated, that other people can’t speak freely to them. So (people) wind up lying. That doesn’t justify the lies the people tell them, but just in our internal research to create good communication with other people–which is what I think we all want–is to see where sometimes we’re the ones who put up the barriers, and then complain that the other people are mean. So, it’s interesting to do that.

And then the fourth of the four verbal ones is idle talk. This is when we’re just jabbering for the sake of jabbering, on and on about inconsequential things that often are objects of attachment for us. Like sales and where to buy cheap things. Sometimes politics can devolve into that. Sports. Food. Oh my goodness, yes, talking about food on and on and on, so boring. Except for the people who find it interesting. Talking about what this person does and that person does, just for the sake of talking about them, not for the sake of sharing information that can be helpful to share. But just basically using our speech to waste a lot of time.

Now, does this mean that every time we talk to somebody we need to have a really serious, intimate, meaningful discussion? No. Because when you work with people you want to keep up a friendly feeling in your workplace, and so often you chit chat a little bit about this and that just as a way of paying attention to each other, acknowledging each other’s presence, sharing a little bit with the other person. That kind of stuff is okay as long as we’re aware that we’re doing it and why we’re doing it. But we may start out aware that we’re doing it and then it just goes into blah blah blah blah blah about so many unnecessary things, and giving advice, and giving opinions, and telling people what to do, and you know how it is.

It used to be that you’d wind up on the telephone with somebody like that, and you have something you need to do and they’re on the phone going on and on and on, and it’s hard to get them to be off. This is the one thing that maybe is good about email. But then some people write you constant emails, and long emails, and so there sometimes you just have to press the delete button, or you respond to them in two or three weeks because as soon as you respond they send you two more. Also using email it’s too much chatting. And I think people use texting—from what I’ve observed—as just lots and lots of idle talk.

Somebody (may) say, “But that’s not talk, that’s type.” It’s still included because it’s communication even though you might be typing or thumbing, it’s still included under the four verbal nonvirtues. So something to be careful of.

Questions and answers

Audience: [inaudible]

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): It could be, it depends a lot on the situation. Because I use that expression of “water off the duck’s back” when I observe people coming in…. I was working with Lama Yeshe one time, and people coming in, this person saying this, and that one complaining about that one, and that one, and he just listened to all of it but he didn’t react to it. It was like water off a duck’s back. He heard it, so what was important he would deal with. But he didn’t react. And I think that’s the thing is, people may say all sorts of stuff, and to be able to differentiate what is important information that we need to deal with at that moment or at another moment, and what is stuff that is better just to completely disregard. They say you have to pick your battles, you know? It’s like every time somebody says something if we feel like “oh this is something to be dealt with and I have to correct them” we’re going to become unbearable. So sometimes you just have to let stuff go.

[In response to audience] Right, you have to really have let it go instead of explode later on. I’m talking about you’ve really let it go. Clearly suppressing it and stacking it up, it’s not sliding off the back like water off a duck’s back. It’s going into the container of “my grudges to throw at somebody next time we have an argument.” And that’s not very helpful.

Audience: [inaudible]

VTC: Yes. What is mine to respond to and what’s not. Because sometimes people tell us stuff and we respond to it and put ourselves in the middle of their trip, which is not at all helpful. And some people love to do…. I mean, they throw out hooks and they want to hook us into their drama, and you have to know when to just let it go, not bite the hook, and not insert ourselves in something that is somebody else’s problem to work out.

Like so-and-so comes to me and complains about the person over there, and then I get all worked up “oh this person’s really unhappy, and that person did something that this person’s unhappy about, so we have two unhappy people, and I better fix it and make everybody happy because if they aren’t all happy I get too anxious in the environment.” So then I get all anxious anyway and I try and placate this one, then I go to that one and I say “you know, you said this and that and so and so is mad at you because of it….” Then, instead of placating the other person, that person gets really mad. And then they get really mad and they go back to this person and say “so and so told me that you said this and that about me.” And then this person says “well, yes I did,” or, “No I didn’t, so and so exaggerated it.” And then they both get mad at you for exaggerating it. [laughter] so those kind of things, they are none of our business.

So if somebody comes to us and they’re speaking badly, blah blah blah, they’re venting, if we can help them calm down that’s good. If we can help them look at their anger and realize they’re angry and apply Dharma antidotes, that’s good. But we don’t get involved in being Mr or Ms, Henry Kissinger, going back and forth between the two parties. [laughter] trying to fix up their problem which is now, we’ve taken on as our problem, when it’s none of our business.

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.