Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

A Word to the Wise

Talk four of five on the ethics of speech

Samphappalapavaca veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami is the third of the speech precepts and translated it means ‘I undertake to abstain from useless speech’ or sometimes ‘samphappalapavaca’ is translated as ‘frivolous speech’, but more positively it is an undertaking to engage in meaningful or helpful speech. Primarily this means helpful to the spiritual development of the individual, however, it can include other more mundane kinds of helpfulness. Meaningful or helpful speech in the spiritual sense does not mean talking about ethics or spiritual practice or being serious and pious all the time. In fact, if talking about spiritual matters becomes a substitute for actual practice then it is not at all helpful or meaningful. Of course, meaningful speech can include these kind of topics but it is not necessarily the content or the topic that makes speech meaningful or helpful. Frivolous speech is superficial and unaware and is the product of a mind that is superficial and unaware. Meaningful speech is the product of a mind that is aware and awareness brings depth of experience and understanding. So, one’s speech becomes meaningful and helpful in the spiritual sense to the extent that one develops awareness. This means awareness of one’s self, of other people, of the environment around one and of reality. One is aware of oneself to the extent that one knows where one is and what one is doing, saying, thinking and feeling. Awareness of other people involves seeing beyond the externals of physique and personality and being mindful of their humanity. Awareness of the environment around us enables us to see the world in a non-possessive, non-utilitarian way and, therefore, take greater delight in it. Awareness of reality is the intuitive and reasoned response that allows us to have a spiritual perspective on life and to experience spiritual realities. Awareness taken to the highest degree is Enlightenment and one of the archetypal symbols of Enlightenment is the Bodhisattva Manjughosa. Manjughosa means ‘the gentle voiced one’ and this symbolism emphasises the Wisdom aspect of Enlightenment. In his left hand he holds the book of the Perfection of Wisdom to his heart and in his right hand he holds aloft a sword with flames around the end of the blade. This sword, which he holds very gently with the tips of his fingers, is the Jnanakadka , the sword of wisdom and it cuts through all wrong views effortlessly, all the time emitting the flames of transformation. This is the apotheosis of meaningful speech. The gentle voice of Manjughosa speaks from the depths of Enlightened awareness and transforms wrong views into Wisdom. At this level we can hardly talk of meaningful speech at all since we are in the realms of a direct communication that surpasses the rational faculty. So coming back down to a more appropriate level we can say that meaningful speech is the expression of a meaningful life. A meaningful life is one that is dedicated to the attainment of the perfection of Wisdom and Compassion. Another way to speak of this dedication of one’s life to the highest spiritual ideals is in terms of Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Going for Refuge to these three precious Jewels means putting them at the centre of one’s life, so that the majority of one’s time, energy and abilities are concerned with following the Path and realising the Truth which is enshrined in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. As our lives become more and more permeated with the Truth, Beauty and Goodness of the spiritual Ideal, our communication naturally becomes permeated with these qualities and our words, whether spoken or written, become more and more meaningful and helpful. Following the Path and realising the Truth demands great dedication. It is an heroic endeavour demanding great commitment. One must be committed to developing greater awareness, one must be willing to change one’s views and one’s habits, one must be dedicated to ethical practice in thought, word and deed and one must constantly refresh one’s faith and inspiration. All of this requires effort. We need to put our energy into meditation, devotional practice, study and the cultivation of spiritual friendship. This effort will give us access to a richness of experience and knowledge that will be the raw ore of our thoughts, which we refine through reflection and contemplation until it becomes the gold of our conversation. But helpful or meaningful speech is not simply a regurgitation of our own experience and insights, however profound. To be helpful and therefore meaningful to someone else we need to have awareness of the other person. We need to be able to empathise sufficiently to know what it is appropriate to say. This involves listening, as I said earlier. Our words are probably most helpful when we speak to what is best and highest in other people, rather than colluding with their weaknesses or pandering to neurotic tendencies. As Sangharakshita says ‘ you must not relate to a neurotic person on the basis of his neurosis ‘ ( Peace is a Fire p60 ). To be helpful means to encourage someone’s efforts to evolve spiritually, to praise what is praiseworthy and, above all, to be friendly and generous in our communication. What we say comes from what we think. What our minds are engaged with depends on what we see and hear; what we read, what radio, TV, cinema or theatre we immerse ourselves in. Some things are more profound, partake more of the nature of reality, than others. There is a huge amount of trivia that we can be exposed to and this is something we need to be aware of and do something about, if we want to access the depths and gain some insight into the nature of existence. To quote from Sangharakshita again ‘ One of the great disadvantages of the mass-media is that trivialities can be given an importance that they absolutely don’t possess. People need to be delivered not just from tragedy and disaster, but from triviality. Triviality, in fact, is one of the greatest disasters that happen to us. ‘ Triviality is dangerous because it tends to keep us wandering around lost in a cloud of ignorance, sometimes so confused that we don’t even know we are more asleep than awake. So for our experience to be meaningful and, therefore, for our communication to be meaningful we need to be quite selective about what we allow into our minds. Not all earth and rock can be refined into gold. Dross remains dross whatever we do with it and trying to refine it is a complete waste of time. So a meaningful life is one that is concerned with evolving into a higher state of consciousness and realising the Truth. Helpful and meaningful communication flows from a life lived on this Path, a life dedicated to embodying the True, the Good and the Beautiful, a life committed to Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. If we live like this, we will be rich indeed and our speech will “unlock the treasured heart” as Coleridge put it.