Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

A Word of Magic

Talk five of five on the ethics of speech

Words are powerful. They can move us to acts of great love or great cruelty. The sublime utterance of a spiritual Master or the impassioned rantings of a Hitler are examples of extremes but all of us have the power to use words to inspire others to action. We can all affect and influence the world around us through our speech. Indeed, whether we wish to or not we all do influence others by what we say. Our influence will tend to be either harmonising or divisive. Gossip, slander, rumour-mongering, complaining, flattery, harshness and untruthfulness are all divisive and destructive. They are destructive of trust and good will and, therefore, destructive of any sense of community. So these ugly verbal excesses should have no place in a spiritual community. The power of words, almost magical in its potency, can be put at the service of our highest Ideals and used to create the positive conditions we need in order to progress spiritually. A major condition that enables us to grow and develop is our spiritual communion with others who hold the same ideals and are making a similar effort. This is the spiritual community or Sangha. When we use speech in a harmonising way, we are creating the spiritual community. As the Dedication Ceremony says, “May our communication with one another be Sangha”. Our communication with one another is generally through speech. So speech is the thread from which the beautiful tapestry of the Sangha is woven. If you are going to weave a beautiful tapestry, your thread has to be clean, strong, beautiful. If we are going to create Sangha, our speech has to be clean, strong and beautiful. The highest level of skilful speech is Harmonious Speech or Harmonising Speech. This is speech which creates harmony, especially speech which creates harmony where previously there was strife or disharmony. The practice of Harmonising Speech involves passing on whatever good or positive things we hear about others and refraining from disseminating whatever might lead to quarrels or disputes. Harmonising Speech enriches the lives of those around us and tends to create the co-operative and harmonious atmosphere that is essential to the life and health of the spiritual community. The four levels of speech as set out in the Four Speech Precepts are to be practised to purify our speech. They are how we train ourselves to be ever more skilful in our conversation and in writing and indeed whenever we use words. They are training principles. This is how we would naturally and spontaneously speak if we were Enlightened. Because we are not Enlightened we have to make an effort to practise these precepts, we have to be mindful and vigilant as we speak so that we don’t lapse too often into old habits of exaggeration or harshness or slander. Kindly Speech is one of the Four Sangrahavastus or one of the Four Means of Unification of the Sangha. This corresponds more or less to the Fourth Level of Speech – namely Harmonising Speech. However, it is slightly different in that the motivation or intention behind it is slightly different. The intention behind Harmonising Speech is to purify one’s own speech, to be more ethical, to train oneself to be more sensitive and appropriate in one’s speech. The motivation for Kindly Speech as a Sangrahavastu or Means of Unification is to create Sangha, to create the Spiritual Community. So Harmonising Speech as a precept is practised for one’s own sake and Harmonising Speech as a Means of Unification is practised for the sake of the whole Spiritual Community. It is a wider, more expansive Ideal. It is the speech aspect of the Bodhisattva Ideal. The Bodhisattva Ideal is the Ideal of practising the spiritual life and attaining Enlightenment not just for one’s own sake but for the sake of others too, in fact, for the sake of all beings. So Kindly Speech or Harmonising Speech as a Sangrahavastu is an expression of the Bodhisattva Ideal, it’s an expression of the altruistic, other-regarding aspect of the spiritual life. Speech at this level is concerned with building the spiritual community, creating the conditions and atmosphere in which the Sangha can flourish and grow. If we create the conditions for the spiritual community to grow and thrive, we help ourselves as well as others because we are part of the spiritual community, we need the spiritual community. So as always in Buddhism what helps others, helps ourselves too. To quote Sangharakshita, “We cannot help others without helping ourselves, we cannot help ourselves without helping others”. Harmonising Speech is the highest level of speech but it is essential that we realise that each level of speech includes the preceding levels. In other words, Harmonising Speech is not separate and distinct from Truthful Speech, Affectionate Speech and Meaningful Speech. It includes them. If we want to practise Harmonising Speech we need to ensure that our speech is also Truthful, Affectionate and Helpful. Sometimes, perhaps because we have a poor self-image or low self-esteem, we don’t recognise the effect our words can have on others. But our words do have an effect. Perhaps it’s easier to get a feeling for the effect our words have by considering the effect that words have had on us, how we have been affected and what others have said. I’d like to give you two examples from my own life – two positive examples of being strongly affected by the words of others. I come from a very poor background in rural Ireland and when I was eighteen I came to London and got a job with a firm of accountants and studied accountancy. A few years later I was well on my way to professional qualifications and a lucrative career. As you can imagine, my mother was proud of me – my whole family was. But I was not satisfied. In fact, I was very unhappy – I was tormented by more existential questions about the meaning of life and found my career suffocating and meaningless. I wanted to give it up and go forth, to use the Buddhist expression, but I was very worried about upsetting my family and especially I was worried about distressing my mother (my father was dead). However, I didn’t know my mother’s strength and when I eventually told her that I wanted to chuck in my career and had no plans for my future – I was surprised and delighted by her response. She was a poor, uneducated, unsophisticated countrywoman but her response, though simple had a profound effect on me. She said, “it is your life, you must live it as you see fit”. I felt liberated by those words. And ever since then, those few words of my mother, “it is your life you must live it as you see fit” have been a sort of touchstone of inspiration and integrity to me. So it is my experience that a few simple words can have a profound effect, especially when they come from the heart. Another example from my own life occurred in 1983 when I was living in West Berlin. I met a Sri Lankan monk who told me about the Five Precepts and taught me the Metta Bhavana and, as a result, I realised that I was a Buddhist. Those few words changed my life completely and set me on the Buddhist spiritual path. I’m sure if you reflect on it for a moment you will find examples in your own experience of the strong effect that a few words can have – either examples of your own words affecting others or yourself being affected by the speech or writing of others. Wordsworth, who knew something about words said, “Words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with. They hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts”. Words can be used quite consciously as an instrument for good – and that in essence is what Kindly Speech as a Means of Unification is about. It’s about using words, using speech as an instrument for creating harmony. So how do we use speech as an instrument for creating harmony? I have come up with four practical suggestions for how to put Kindly Speech into practise more fully. First of all clean up your speech. If you’re in the habit of swearing or being harsh in your speech then you need to give it up. Swearing, cynicism and harshness in speech can be a habit – a bit like smoking. When we are adolescents we smoke to show how grown up we are and we swear for the same reason. However, the real proof of adulthood is giving up the habits of adolescence. So if we have any adolescent habits of speech we need to give them up as a basis for embarking on a more thorough practise of Kindly Speech. My next two suggestions involve talking about people behind their backs. Usually talking about people behind their backs is understood to be ‘back-biting’ or slanderous speech. But we can speak well of people behind their backs, praise and rejoice in people behind their backs. This can be a very powerful, effective practice. It helps to create Sangha in a way that even direct face-to-face rejoicing doesn’t. It creates an atmosphere of friendliness and goodwill, an atmosphere of Metta in which harmony flourishes. The two specific ways in which to talk about people behind their backs are firstly appreciating what they do and secondly rejoicing in their qualities. It is often quite easy to take people for granted and especially to take for granted what they do. But we shouldn’t take what people do for granted. We should try to be aware of the efforts people are making, of the energy they are giving and the effect they are having. And we can give voice to that awareness by appreciating what they do. We can appreciate them face-to-face, tell them that we appreciate what they are doing and in our practice of Kindly Speech, we can appreciate them behind their backs too. Rejoicing in someone’s qualities requires even more awareness. What someone is doing can be quite obvious but their qualities can be much more difficult to see. We need to observe people and think about them in order to really see their qualities. It’s possible to see very general qualities in almost anyone who is trying to practise the spiritual life, but to be aware of their uniqueness, their special qualities, and to give voice to that is much more difficult. That requires reflection. To notice and give voice to someone’s special qualities is like calling them by their real name which, of course, is what happens when people are ordained. By rejoicing in someone’s uniqueness, in their special qualities, we can give the gift of awareness to others and we can contribute to creating a harmonious atmosphere in which the Sangha can flourish. We can also cultivate this atmosphere by passing on any rejoicing or appreciation that we have overheard. The fourth practical suggestion for Harmonising Speech is perhaps the most difficult of all because it demands positive emotion and confidence. Encouragement. That’s it. Just encourage each other. That seems simple enough, but I think giving encouragement can be very difficult indeed. To give encouragement needs courage. Giving encouragement is in fact giving courage. So often we suffer from fear, lack of confidence, low self-esteem and a host of similar selfish emotions and we sink down into self-pity. To be able to encourage others we need to be able to raise our heads out of the mire of self-pity and low self-esteem and take positive action in spite of our fears. If we can take responsibility for ourselves and do something about our lack of Metta, we will be giving courage by example. If we can expand beyond our self-concern and empathise with others, words of encouragement will come naturally to us. Words of encouragement are not sentimental. They are not “there, there” kind of words that might be spoken to a baby or a pet. Words of encouragement should be invigorating, energising and uplifting. When we need courage to face our fears and overcome our self-imposed limitations, we need energy. To encourage others is to give them energy. The energy to change and grow. These are my four suggestions then or these four are the challenge of Harmonising Speech and Kindly Speech as a means of unifying the Sangha. Firstly, clean up your speech. Secondly, appreciate what people do. Thirdly, rejoice in the qualities of others, their special qualities. And fourthly, encourage each other when it comes to building a spiritual community. Perhaps a central point is that what you say to people is important but what you say about people is even more important. To practise Kindly Speech you need courage and energy. You need the courage and energy to go beyond your habits and enter into a new way of interacting that is inspired by a burning desire for harmony, a passion for unity. When we have the courage and energy to break out of our habitual ways of speaking and are able to appreciate, rejoice in and encourage others in a kindly and gracious manner, then we are able to practise Harmonising Speech or Kindly Speech as a Means of Unification of the Sangha. Our words become a magical, unseen force that create a world of harmony and happiness.