Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

A Word of Love

Talk three of five on the ethics of speech

Metta, usually translated as loving kindness, is the fundamental principle of Buddhist ethics. Stated in the negative form, it is the principle of non-violence. When this principle is applied to speech we arrive at the precept that exhorts us to refrain from harsh speech or engage in kindly speech. Kindly speech is an expression of metta. It is not a case of being nice in a rather superficial way. We need to cultivate positive emotions such as love, generosity, compassion and sympathetic joy and allow this positivity to find expression in our speech and writing. We develop loving kindness through the Metta Bhavana meditation practice, through acting generously and through being a friend to others. This last point is important. We often hear about the importance of friendship in the spiritual life and we tend to think that yes, it would be good to have spiritual friends. But we need to take on board that friendship is not something we can have; it is something we need to do. So if we practice friendship, generosity and the Metta Bhavana meditation we will be cultivating the positive emotions which are the basis for all Buddhist ethical life, including kindly speech. More specifically, we can also quite deliberately develop a habit of rejoicing in other people’s good qualities and good deeds. We can develop a habit of praising and encouraging others. Because of the quantum of negativity that we are heirs to, the quantum of negativity that is part and parcel of unenlightened humanity, we tend to find it easy to criticise, to blame, to complain and to see faults and weaknesses everywhere. Part of our spiritual training and development is to actively work against these tendencies of thought and speech. So that rather than being cynical about those who are more developed than us, competitive with peers and contemptuous of those less developed, we need to endeavour to open our hearts and give expression to gratitude, friendliness and encouragement. We need to cultivate gratitude towards those who are more experienced on the spiritual path, those who have made an effort and have set up conditions that enable us to practise and progress. And we need to give expression to this gratitude as a practice of kindly speech and as a way of not being lulled into complacency or taking for granted the institutions and people who are helping us to grow. With our peers we should be friendly and co-operative. Those who share our aspirations and are, like us, making an effort to grow spiritually, are invaluable companions. Whoever thinks he or she can make spiritual progress without the help of other people is deluded. It’s just not possible. So if we are in a situation where lots of people are making a spiritual effort we are extremely fortunate and need to recognise the opportunities that are available to us. One way of availing very fully of these opportunities is to befriend others and to co-operate with them to maintain the positive conditions we have. We need to work to maintain the positive atmosphere of spiritual aspiration and effort and we need to work to support the institutions of classes, courses, teams and communities which provide conditions for the expression of that aspiration and effort. In relation to those who are less experienced or less spiritually developed than us, kindly speech is a matter of encouragement and perhaps, on rare occasions, advice. But as the Dhammapada says, “First establish yourself in what is good, then advise others” (verse 158). If we make an effort we can develop the positive habit of giving frequent expression, in speech or writing, to our feelings of gratitude, friendliness and compassion. This is kindly speech. Criticism can also be kindly. If we have a criticism to voice we need to question ourselves as to our motivation. If we genuinely have the other person’s best interests at heart and feel that we can communicate our criticism in a way that is helpful, then it is appropriate to be critical. Such criticism is compassionate. Unless we are unusually aware and perceptive, we probably need to know someone quite well before we can tell what is really in their best interests, except in a general way. The Buddha, in the Dhammapada, goes so far as to say that we should associate with those who criticise us constructively. “Should one see a man of understanding who, as if indicating a buried treasure, points out faults and administers reproof, let one associate with such a spiritually mature person” (verse 76). Harsh and unkind speech takes many forms, some very overt and some hidden. Overtly harsh and unkind speech are such things as swearing, teasing, cynicism, abusive language, and so on. Hidden harsh and unkind speech are such things as malicious humour, ‘back-biting’ and whatever other ways we use to give vent to our negative emotions indirectly. Sometimes people defend swearing on the grounds that it is a way of being real or authentic. This may be true if one is in a relatively crude and unskilful state of awareness but, if one is inhabiting relatively more refined states of consciousness or even aspiring to something higher, then swearing and crude language are not at all authentic. In fact, they are much more likely to be a façade, a sort of verbal bravado, to hide one’s sensitivity behind. Humour is also sometimes excused from criticism on the grounds that it’s good to have a laugh. And yes, it is good to laugh and joke sometimes but it ought not to be at someone else’s expense and it definitely ought not be an underhand way of criticising others. Quite often what passes for teasing can have this sort of malicious edge to it. This is not to say that teasing is always unkind or unskilful, just that it can be and we need to be aware of the tendency for humour to become a vehicle for negativity. When spirits are high, awareness can go out the window. Sexual innuendo is another area of harsh speech. This kind of adolescent humour is quite ugly and unsavoury in the mouths of adults and unfortunately sometimes people’s conversation is peppered with it. This can either be because one is obsessed with sex in an unhealthy way or simply because one has developed a habitual way of speaking that one considers to be witty and sophisticated, but outside the schoolyard is not really considered particularly interesting or intelligent. Ugly and unsavoury speech creates an ugly and unsavoury atmosphere. Harsh and unkind speech creates a harsh and unkind atmosphere. Kindly speech creates a loving atmosphere. By learning to speak in a kindly and sensitive manner we create a world around us which is enjoyable to live in. A world where we can relax and be free from the stresses and strains of verbal warfare, with all its crudeness and malice. Kindly speech is the expression of metta or non-violence, and non-violence is the fundamental ethical principle of Buddhism.