January 19, 2011

Buddha Says “Shut Up.”

Suffering and Speech:  A Buddhist Approach.

In the wake of the recent mass shooting in Arizona, a great debate is being waged in the United States over the effects of violent and angry rhetoric in political speech. A nation that has long prided itself on the defense of free speech and the democratic process is being forced to face the demons of its increasingly divisive approach to governance. Buddhists will tell you that division, anger and violence give rise to dukkha or suffering. One approach we can all take, regardless of our beliefs, to quell this rising conflagration is taught by the Buddha himself—right speech.

How many times have we been admonished to think before we speak? It is a simple cliché that holds tremendous power.  In teaching his followers how to alleviate their own suffering as well as that of the world, the Buddha spoke of a path—a Noble Eightfold Path. It was a prescription of eight pure practices that anyone could learn to master. The third of these steps he elucidated is called right speech or samma vaca. Of this skillful manner of speaking, he is quoted in the MaggaVibhanga Sutta as saying:

And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: this is called Right Speech.

The problem in America today (and indeed the world) seems to be one of divisive and violent rhetoric. Like a disease, it has infected the whole of political spectrum from the men and women who lead us to the armchair politicians who debate their politics at home and in public. The “us versus them” mentality, the need to be right or to win at all costs, the allure of total control: each of these is fanning the growing flames of political rancor that is now spilling into the streets of cities and neighborhoods. The questions we face now are stark, yet critical.  Has the recent bloodshed finally broken our self-imposed naïvete towards the power of insinuation? And what can we do to help reduce this senseless violence and needless suffering?

Whether we choose to believe the politicians and others who hinted of violent acts as a means to settle political scores are actually responsible for the actions of an angry and disturbed mind in Arizona, surely none of us now can deny that words can and do spur consequences. Instead of just waiting for our leaders and the media to wrangle with culpability and blame, we can seize the moment and start by scrutinizing our own communications. Ask yourself whether you are practicing right speech.  It is easier than you think.

In the AmbalatthikaRahulovada Sutta, the Buddha essentially instructs us to reflect on our words before, during and after speaking.  It is nothing that our own parents and teachers have not already preached to us. For a more enlightening look at how to determine whether what you are saying is right speech, Thanissaro Bikkhu provides an excellent translation of the Abhaya Sutta. It is one of the Buddha’s most explanatory discourses on the subject. One line of it in particular is worth mentioning directly. The Buddha says,

In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.

Sympathy towards the suffering of living beings is something of which the United States, its leaders and citizens can certainly use more. The whole world can. While the blame game for the deaths in Arizona rages hot and heavy, perhaps we can turn the pointing fingers back on ourselves for just a moment. Perhaps we can all start thinking about the things we say on a daily basis. Change has to start somewhere. Why not with right speech from our own hearts, minds, and mouths?

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Randi Young Jan 21, 2011 6:26am

John, this is one of the best and most time-appropriate pieces I've read in a while. I hope you strike the nerves of others as you have in me. I really think this pinpoints a big part of our problem in the United States, where hate speech seems to go on without end under the so-called "freedom of speech" scapegoat. I mean, how free can one TRULY be when all that flows from their mouth is bitter, divisive word vomit?

Lyl Jan 21, 2011 5:56am

Amen! You 'said' it beautifully! I couldn't agree with you more and I will share your words with others in hopes they will learn from and do the same. Thank you.

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John DiGilio

John DiGilio lives in Chicago with his partner and his boss, a finicky Chihuahua by the name of Peanut. He is a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist and Gnostic seminarian. John’s interests include anarchism, vegetarian cooking, and reading. He is a librarian, educator and writer in the fields of law, information, ethics and spirituality. For more, check out John’s post at the Chicagoist.