I was recently sent the following story...
The old Buddhist master sat before the assembled yogis. "Tonight I would like to speak to you about wise speech," he began. "According to the Buddha, wise speech is truthful, gentle, helpful, spoken from a kind heart and timely." Then he spoke at great length about the harm that can come from words that are mean spirited, harsh or careless.
A young yogi raised his hand and said, "Venerable sir, I do not understand how this can be. A stone can bruise. Theft can deprive. Brawling can cause bleeding. But words are just sounds. They have no substance. I must disagree with you when you suggest they are so powerful."
The old man replied, "If you weren't such an idiot, you'd understand. So sit down, shut up and stop interrupting with your ignorance."
The young man dropped to his cushion and the master continued his dharma talk.
The old man turned to the yogi and said, "You seem perturbed. Your gentle disposition is shattered. What happened to you?"
"You hurtled insults I did not deserve. No man of wisdom could speak so harshly. You are a fraud."
The old man responded, "Ah. I see. It was my words that had such a transforming effect upon you. It seems you have changed your philosophy. It seems you and I agree that speech can be quite powerful."
The young man's face went blank. His angry flush subsided. A shy smile formed at the corners of his mouth. He bowed slightly, "You are certainly a wise teacher. I shall never forget this lesson. Speech can be very powerful."
Yes speech can be very powerful. We need to be wise in the way we communicate with one another.
I recently conducted the funeral of Peter Ball at Altrincham Crematorium. The funeral provided a new challenge for me as Peter’s widow Jennifer is deaf. Therefore when I was talking with her about the funeral and holding the family and guests during the service I had to ensure I paid close attention to this.
I arrived at the crematorium early and found myself chatting with the vast array of people who were in attendance. One group were Jennifer’s friends, many of whom had attended the same deaf school she had as a child. Amongst the group was David Coyle and his wife Beryl, members at Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, Urmston, one of the two congregations I serve. Beryl is also deaf and has been friends with Jennifer since childhood. I chatted with David and then marvelled at the loving and beautiful conversations the people were having with one another. I wish I could have joined in, but I do not know sign language and I cannot lip read. I noticed how I felt a little left out by this, it gave me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like for many people who cannot fully communicate with others for a variety of reasons.
This experience has once again taught me that in communication you must always pay attention to who you are attempting to speak to...It’s about the other and not just the self.
It got me thinking about how we communicate with one another, about right speech and of course the language of the heart, one of my many passions.
It got we thinking about the “Three Fold Test” for right speech. According to this test there are three things that we ought to ask ourselves before speaking:
Is it kind?
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Apparently It dates back to 1835 and a poem by Beth Day, titled “Three Gates of Gold”.
"Three Gates of Gold" by Beth Day
If you are tempted to reveal
A tale to you someone has told
About another, make it pass,
Before you speak, three gates of gold;
These narrow gates. First, “Is it true?”
Then, “Is it needful?” In your mind
Give truthful answer. And the next
Is last and narrowest, “Is it kind?”
And if to reach your lips at last
It passes through these gateways three,
Then you may tell the tale, nor fear
What the result of speech may be.
Now no doubt this poem was influenced by an old Sufi tradition which suggests that we should only speak after our words have managed to pass through four gates.
Luminaries from Sai Baba to Eleanor Roosevelt have offered variations on the same theme over the years “Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary”. There is also the “Triple Filter Test”, usually attributed to Socrates which asked if it is “true, good or useful.”
Right Speech is central to both Christian and Buddhist morality.
“Samma Vaca” is the third aspect of “The Noble Eightfold Path”, in Buddhism. It is basically abstinence from gossip, slander, lying, maliciousness and hate speech. So to speak wisely or rightly is to do so truthfully with kindness, purpose and meaning.
“Samma Vaca” is usually translated as “right speech”, although scholars suggest that a more accurate translation is actually “wise speech”. Buddhist morality is based on “samadhana”, which is best translated as “harmony”, “coordination” or “generosity”. “Sama vaca” is speech that promotes harmony. Buddhist morality is different to what is often seen as the dualism of western ethics, whether theistic or non-theistic, it is not really about right or wrong; what it is actually about is harmony. “Right Speech” is accompanied by the parallel practice of deep listening. It is about harmony it’s about contemplating what is going on inside both you and the person you are speaking with
The Sufi, Christian and Buddhist traditions as well as other ancient and contemporary ones are saying similar things about how we ought to conduct ourselves with our brothers and sisters. They are saying how damaging wrong speech can be to both our neighbours and ourselves, you sense the essence of the “Golden Rule of Compassion” running through them all and teachings about right speech.
How we communicate is so important. We may not have control over what goes on in the world all around us, but how we act towards others really matters. We need to be mindful in how we speak because what we say and do and what we do not say and do not do has an impact on all around us. As the old saying goes, if you haven’t got anything good to say then its best to probably keep your mouth shut.
“Maybe it was fun for him, but it was excruciating for us. Privately, I was thinking of Shakespeare’s words: ‘He that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed.’
Now everyone says the wrong thing at some point or another. A recent excruciating memory came back to me this week of something I said at a meeting a few years ago. It was an unskilful ill thought out comment that wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but it caused hurt. As soon as I said it I instantly regretted it. I apologised, but it was too late, the hurt was done.
I need to be very careful, skilful in what I say, people listen to me.
I must be mindful not to do what they said of Lenny Bruce “He uses words as weapons to hit people over the head with”. We all need to speak our truth in love, but we need to do so mindfully.
I must never underestimate the power of words as weapons. They can be just as violent as the fist, as sticks and stones and guns and bombs even. Words have the power to cause the utmost damage. That said they also have the power to heal. A word rightly spoken can also heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love. Just another example of that chaos theory of compassion I’m always going on about.
The key is to give words their proper respect. They say a person ought to be judged by their deeds and not their words, but I see words as deeds myself. The action of our tongues can have a much bigger impact than those of our hands.
When we are about to speak we need to ask ourselves.
Is it kind?
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
What we do and what we say matters. Everything matters.
So may what we say be kind, true, and necessary.