Words for the wise
Think before you speak, because your words may hurt others as well as yourself, even when spoken with the best of intentions. Timing can be everything, and listening even better
Story by SANITSUDA EKACHAI
Graphic: POSTgraphics: Pirada Jaokaew
TYour best friend is suspicious that her boyfriend might be seeing someone else. When your friend goes out of town, you see her boyfriend wining and dining another woman. Do you tell her before she gets any deeper into what could be a doomed relationship? Or do you remain silent?
Or perhaps you've heard gossip concerning a co-worker, that this person is a hypocrite and a back-stabber. Do you tell your other co-workers about it so that they know what kind of person this is?
Or perhaps your spouse likes to say things that make you angry, perhaps purposefully pushing your buttons. What do you say in return?
Or perhaps you have a friend who is being professionally and psychologically exploited by a co-worker. She sometimes shares her frustrations with you. Would you tell her to keep away from that person?
Or perhaps you have a friend who is in love with a married man. She wants to force him to choose between her or his wife. She asks for your advice. What do you say?
It’s a daily dilemma. Just exactly what sort of words should we let fall from our lips?
The Buddha taught that the mind was the master, and that our intentions determined whether our deeds or words were wholesome or not. If that’s true, then why do we say things with the best of intentions, and then wind up regretting having said anything at all?
"How we say things is more important than what we say" is one of the golden rules in the art of interpersonal communications, which is also in line with the Buddhist teaching of piya vaca, meaning "kind, pleasant speech".
Does it boil down to simply being tactful and diplomatic? Why are we supposed to coat the truth with sugary words when the Lord Buddha taught us not to lie?
The Buddhist precept of right speech — "tell no lies" — sounds simple enough. It’s what we learned in childhood, but it didn’t take long to find out that telling the truth was not always such a straightforward business. Hence a frequent warning: "Truth may not die, but the one who tells it might."
We also tell "white lies" to prevent situations from getting worse.
In addition, the fear that our words might backfire often keeps us from saying anything at all — we fall back on the old saying that "silence is golden" to justify passivity and lack of moral courage. Our silence might hurt someone, but we tell ourselves that it's none of our business.
Since what makes us unhappy often stems from hurtful words and misunderstandings that arise from what is said and what is not said, it is worth taking a close look at what the Buddha taught on samma vaca or "right speech".
Right speech is more than refraining from lies; it’s also about abandoning false, divisive, harsh and frivolous speech.
We might be proud of ourselves that we never tell deliberate lies, and yet our everyday words might be fraught with wrong speech — if we are not mindful, the things we say might pit people against each other, or hurt people's feelings.
Many believe that gossiping and engaging in idle chatter are part of "information-sharing" in our work life. Call it what we may, it is certainly not "right speech".
One reason is because such behaviour goes against the principle of non-exploitation. The Buddha taught that we should not hurt others, either by word or deed. Nor we should hurt ourselves. And saying false, abusive, abrasive or divisive things not only hurts others, but also ourselves.
If we are honest about our feelings, we find that whenever we speak badly with or about others — even when we believe what we say is true — our mind is agitated with feelings like anger, resentment, envy. Meanwhile, the words we say fan our own negative thoughts and feelings. The more we talk about it, the more agitated and entangled we become in our own negative emotions. This is suffering.
If you think that refraining from saying things that affect one’s calm state of mind is difficult, engaging in right speech is even more challenging.
Actually, the Buddha did not leave much room for interpretation as to what is worth saying. Right speech, he said, must be true, factual, spoken with goodwill and with kind words. In addition, it must be beneficial, harmony-oriented, and in accordance with dhamma and efforts to end suffering. Lastly, it must be spoken at the right time.
Probably the most difficult is the last part — deciding on the right time to speak. What we say may be factual, and we may be certain of our good will, which will help our words to be heart-warming and harmonious, but how can we be certain of the mental readiness of the person we speak to? If we judge wrongly, what we say might not be useful at all, and therefore, not worth saying in the first place.
While we often worry about the right thing to say, we forget that the best gift we can give to another person is not our advice but a willingness to listen. By giving our attention to what he/she has to say, we are already giving that person a chance to go through their thoughts and problems systematically. This process will help that person find the right choice for him or herself, without our having to utter a word.
That brings us back to the central teaching of mindfulness and compassion, because that is what is needed to cultivate right speech and right listening.
The Buddha advised his followers to maintain and develop positive mental qualities through constant self-training in right speech.
If we, too, can follow his advice, we will soon find how our words — and our kind attentive ears — can be a gift not only to others, but to ourselves.