Saturday, 22 March 2014

Right Speech

Now while we do not rule the world and cannot control all that goes on around us, how we live matters. We impact on the lives of others and the lives of others impact on how we live. Everything we do and everything we do not do matters. It's the same with how we communicate with one another, how we speak to each other. One careless word can trigger off a chain reaction of destruction throughout the word, just as a one loving word can lead to a tidal wave of compassion...Right speech is so important...

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.

Fifteen minutes later the young yogi jumped to his feet without raising his hand and yelled, "You are a fraud! You cannot possibly be the great teacher you pretend to be." His face was red, his eyes were bulging, his fists were clenched, his body shook.

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.

The funeral was a beautiful occasion as we honoured the life of Peter, a man full of love and life. The next day Peter and Jennifer’s daughter Gina rang to thank me for the way I had conducted the service, particularly for ensuring that her mother could follow my words by reading my lips. I looked at Jennifer directly as I spoke throughout much of the service. She told her daughter that she understood virtually every word I had said and wanted me to know this...The language of the heart always finds a way if we pay attention to both what we say and how we say it, always taking into consideration the people we are trying to communicate with.

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.

At the first gate we should ask ourselves “Are these words true?” If so then we let them pass through; if not, then back they must go. At the second gate we ask; “Are these words necessary?” At the third we ask; “Are these words beneficial?” At the fourth gate we ask, “Are they kind?” If we answer no to any of these questions, then what we are about to say ought to be left unsaid.

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

There are many passage in both the Old and New Testament that refer to “Right Speech. Many preachers in the Christian tradition will offer the following words from Psalm 19 before preaching a sermon “Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God. In the New Testament the book of James makes reference to how a person should use their mouth “With it we bless God, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.” the book of Ephesians, chapter four, verse 25 states “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.”

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.

The other evening I met with my interfaith friendship circle. It is a wonderful group who meet regularly to talk and listen about our different faith traditions. During the conversations celebrity culture came up. One figure who was discussed was Russell Brand. He seemed to divide opinion around the table. Some like the way he is, what he has to say and how he says things and others do not. During the conversations that infamous incident that involved Andrew Sachs came up. You may or may not recall but Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross had left a series of hurtful comments on Sach's answer phone primarily about his granddaughter who Brand had a sexual liaison with. The message went on for quite some time, I will not repeat what was said, but it was pretty awful. The conversation was broadcast live on radio 2 and led to a mass scale media frenzy. Now although the incident was 8 years ago it still haunts Mr Sachs and his family. His anger has been more directed towards Jonathan Ross, than Russell Brand, who he says ought to know better as he is the father of two daughters himself. In a recent interview Sachs said.

“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.

As a minister of religion I need to be very careful in my choice of words and I am not always, especially when trying to be humorous; humour that is hurtful and at the expense of others is not really humour at all. There are warnings about this in the third chapter of the book of James in the New Testament. As he points out preaching and teaching are dangerous professions and any misuses of the tongue by a teacher is judged with extra strictness. He also says that the tongue is a fire. And even a small spark, a tiny hint of a flame, can burn down a whole forest.

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.

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