Intimate Speech: It’s so important to know our intention, our motivation. This arises out of the silence, the deep inner stillness of silence.
Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Is it necessary? And is it the right time?
Intimate Speech by Roshi Joan Halifax
Toad, a poem by Mary Oliver
I was walking by. He was sitting there.
It was full morning, so the heat was heavy on his sand-colored head and his webbed feet. I squatted beside him, as the edge of the path. He didn’t move.
I began to talk. I talked about summer, and about time. The pleasures of eating, the terrors of the night. About this cup we call a life. About happiness. And how good it feels, the heat of the sun between the shoulder blades.
He looked neither up nor down, which didn’t necessarily mean he was either afraid or asleep. I felt his energy, stored under his tongue perhaps, and behind his bulging eyes.
I talked about how the world seems to me, five feet tall, the blue sky all around my head. I said, I wondered how it seemed to him, down there, intimate with the dust.
He might have been Buddha – did not move, blink, or frown, not a tear fell from those gold-rimmed eyes as the refined anguish of language passed over him.
This dharma talk is about the “anguish of language.” Let’s begin to look at the function of speech through a case in Dogen’s Shobogenzo : “The great master Hyung ju was asked by a government official who had brought an offering, “It is said that the World Honored One had intimate speech, and Mahakashapa did not hide it. And what was the World Honored One’s intimate speech?
This is a wonderful question. And it’s a challenge, as you can imagine. Another koan to consider:
Hyung ju said to the man who was presenting a gift to him:
“No I don’t.”
“If you don’t understand it, that is the world’s honored one’s intimate speech. If you do understand it, that is Mahakashapa not hiding.”
You might remember the story of Mahakashapa. The Buddha was talking before a great assembly and, at a certain point, he held up a flower. Everyone in the assembly was asking, ‘What was that about?” and Mahakashapa, in the back of the assembly, just smiled. This is a story about that kind of connection, in fundamental silence. The whole assembly was quiet, the flower is herself silent, and it’s a much deeper silence we are referencing here that gives birth to intimate speech, that incredible sense of connection that happens through the medium of a moment, a moment that is characterized by openness, ease, spaciousness, boundlessness.
A little later we’ll look at the function of discrimination in how speech arises, but I wanted to begin with three precepts from the Order of Interbeing that are interesting to use as a base for our exploration, and to look also at the classical definition of dis-speech if you will.
The first precept in the Order of Interbeing says: “Do not be bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thoughts are guiding means, they’re not absolute truth.” This is a basis for how we communicate. The precept guides us to not be bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones. It goes on to state that all systems of thoughts are guiding means, they’re not absolute truth.
What we often say in the zendo, usually during sesshin, is, “Don’t believe your thoughts. Don’t believe them. They’re just concepts in the mind, see if you can drop beneath the mind.”
Later on in the precepts, Thich Nhat Hanh articulates two mindfulness trainings that are related to speech. In the eighth precept of the fourteen, “Do not utter words that create discord and cause the community to break. Make every effort to resolve all conflicts, however small.” This is a very powerful admonition not only for our community of practice, but also as a vision of a global community. “Make every effort to resolve all conflicts, no matter how small they are.”
Then in the ninth Precept, he bares down a little bit, because he is very committed to engaged practice. He says: “Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that can cause division or hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”
This is a very big step in the Buddhist world. It was a big step in Vietnam: if you must, you must risk your own life by speaking the truth. Even when speaking the truth puts you at risk, you must speak the truth. These two precepts on speech are at the center of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, they’re the articulating point as 8th and 9th. The 7th has to do with the breath, the function that sews mind and body together, and the last precepts have to do with body.
In the classical or Theravaden teachings of the precepts of speech, there are certain perspectives on speech that are identified as ones you must avoid. You can’t lie. You have to speak the truth. Another is the destructiveness of engaging in gossip and slander. Another behavior of speech that harms is using harsh or cruel language, rough language, even skeptical language. The fourth type of speech that is considered harmful is engaging in trivial talk, frivolous speech.
These dis-positive speech behaviors are interesting to consider in our current world. As I move around our own monastery or move around airports, one hears how much toxic speech comes out of people’s mouths. You listen to cooks at fast food places in the airport and you hear what they’re talking about and you might ask yourself: is this what’s going into the food?
The Buddha identified five conditions we are to explore in relation to speech:
1. Do I speak at the right time or not? Is this the right time? Really stepping back to see if this is the right moment.
2. Do I speak the facts or not. Am I saying what’s really true?
3. Am I speaking harshly or gently?
4. Do my words benefit beings or not?
5. What is my motivation? Do I speak with a good heart or is my heart malicious?
When the Zen teachers of America, as a community of Buddhist priests, began to explore the function of speech in our communities, we agreed to use the Gatekeepers of Speech, that lead to the classical admonitions.
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it beneficial?
- Is it necessary?
- And is it the right time?
I really appreciate the guidepost: “Is it necessary?” Imagine reflecting only on this before you opened your mouth? Is it necessary?
In the classical teachings of the Buddha there are various kinds of karma (meaning action, cause and effect.) Weighty karma is interesting, because it involves terrible things like wounding a Buddha, or killing a fully enlightened being, or killing a parent, that’s weighty karma. But the weightiest of all karmas is causing a schism in the sangha which is done through speech. This is very deep, and very interesting to contemplate.
In the classical teachings of the Buddha, he articulates guidelines in a community of practice, and this pertains to our families as well. How do we relate to each other to create depth and coherence in a family system? Or in a community system? One is that we all share a common space. We’re not living all over the place; we share a common living circumstance. We also share the essentials of daily life, including food. We break bread together, we become companions. We observe the precepts. We understand how important it is to practice in a wholehearted deep and loving way together, and we help each other to live wholesomely together. We use words that benefit individuals and the entire community, and we avoid using words that are harmful to ourselves and to others in our community. We create the opportunity to share insight, communicating deeply about our values, and to not engage in trivial speech, which is a caricature of what it is to be human. To speak deeply about subjects of relevance and concern. We share a common practice and ethos.
The Buddha articulated these insights 2500 years ago. Dogen zenji, who brought the Soto school to Japan in the early 1200s, recognized the impact of communications on relationships. He articulated what he called the Four Beneficial Actions. The first was the action of giving, what is it to give your energy, your resources, your life, to truth. To be really seated in the dharma, in truth, in reality, as a non-dual experience. The second was the importance of kind speech. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline not to engage in speech that is harmful, but to engage in speech that is beneficial to others. Then he spoke about ‘identity action.’ This is very important in our world and in the Buddhist community. What is it to treat every individual with ultimate regard? Not that this one is more special than that one, but holding all individuals in ultimate regard, treating them all equally well. The fourth is beneficial action. How do we embody basic goodness, how do we actualize it through the medium of our body, through our actions in the world? Beneficiality, goodness for others.
Dogen wrote, in Moon in a Dewdrop,
“Kind speech means that when you see sentient beings, you arouse the mind of compassion and offer words of love and care. It is contrary to cruel and violent speech. You should be willing to practice it for the entire present life. Do not give up. World after world, life after life. Kind speech is the basis for reconciling rulers and subduing enemies. You should know that kind speech arises from kind mind and kind mind from the seed of compassionate mind.”
“Kind speech is not just praising the merit of others. It has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.”
Most of us are very in touch with what’s happening in the world today, and how the destiny of the world rests in speech, and how we wish it were more kind.
Katagiri Roshi gives a slightly different perspective, reified in the Pali canon:
“Kind speech is not merely speaking with an ingratiating voice like a cat that’s purring. This very naturally consciously or unconsciously is trying to get a favor by fawning of flattering. This is not kind speech. Kind speech is not the usual sense of kindness. It can appear in various ways, but we should remember that it must constantly be based on compassion. Under all circumstances, that compassion is always giving somebody support or help or a chance to grow.”
This is a very pivotal statement in our exploration, because what Katagiri Roshi says is that kind speech isn’t necessarily being a sweet person. Kind speech means speaking the truth to benefit others. It means speaking truth to power as Gandhi articulated. How do we speak truth to power in a way that is beneficial but not fawning or attacking?
Speech also is a reciprocal experience. There’s the speaker and the listener. I had a very interesting experience a few days ago, where someone called me to discuss an issue. When I’d say something, they would seem to hear me, but they weren’t hearing what I was saying at all. It was an interesting moment. As I was taught to do I’d ask: “What did you hear me say?” “What do you think I meant by that?” What I realized in the interaction was that mutuality, reciprocity in speech and listening, is a very fundamental part of this training in right speech and right communication. Instead of right speech, we could say right communication, which involves reciprocity and mutuality. When someone is engaging in slanderous speech in relation to an individual or the sangha or gossiping, one stops that. One tries to transform that. One endeavors to clarify the communication. One invites inquiry into the process. One does not engage in that mutuality of slander by tolerating listening, or by that kind of invitation allowing the slander to deepen in the atmosphere.
I think that the “right speech” precept should be called “right communication,” because times have changed. At the time of the Buddha, the Buddha was speaking directly to his students and to those who came to him for advice. But now, we’re dealing with a huge range of communication media, including texting, email, advertising, radio, magazines, newspapers, movies, TV, and so on. How do we actually create a context where right communication can happen? Communication that is truly about benefiting the world?
One of the interesting and contemporary perspectives on right communication comes from Suzuki Roshi, who realized that the fifth precept on intoxicating substances also included speech; dogmatism, trying to proselytize, was a form of intoxicant. You can use speech to convince people to join your view. He says: “Do not sell liquor means not to boast or emphasize the advantage of things. If you boast about the profundity of Buddhist teaching, you are selling a kind of liquor to the people. Any spiritual teaching by which we’re intoxicated is liquor.”
I think this is very wonderful for Suzuki Roshi to say. People do get intoxicated by teachings just as they get intoxicated by movies, by advertising.
“Do not sell alcohol,” says Suzuki Roshi, means absolute freedom from all teachings. Complete freedom from all teachings. We should practice the precepts, yet not be bound by them.
So how do we listen to the teachings. or look at television. or go to a movie and be in that communication medium and yet not be tainted, not become intoxicated?
The Lankavitara Sutra of the Sixth century puts it very simply. “Words or speech arise from the experience of mental discrimination.” When we’re dropped beneath ‘this is that, that is this” kind of mind, when we’re in the experience of ‘intimate speech’ referenced in the koan, we’re deeper than the mind that is discriminating, that is categorizing, that is caught in this little box-making: “Words arise from the experience of mental discrimination.”
So any time we’re engaged in speaking, in thinking, in reading, we’re not in that mind of intimate speech. My first teacher, Seung Sang, called it ‘before thinking mind.’ It’s the mind and heart of transmission, the non-dual mind, the mind that’s profoundly open. It’s why when we do deep practice here, we are in silence, and why we ask people to not read, or get on the internet, not even to journal, but to see if the speaking function can calm down. Behind that, the thinkng function then can calm down, so beginner’s mind or “before thinking mind”, “not knowing” can be more present.
Speech is an outflow of energy. When people, for example, are gravely ill, we encourage them not to speak so much. The Sanskrit word ‘asrava’ connotes exactly this kind of energy loss that happens when people speak for too many hours during the day. The capacity for concentration definitely diminishes when the speaking function is overly engaged in. So we want to explore what it is to be very conscious about our speech, very mindful about the experience of speaking.
Speech also has a very powerful effect of that whole domain of practice that we call Engaged Buddhism, a Buddhism of social action and social service. Social action means the transformation of those institutions that are engaged in structural violence. Social service means direct service to populations in need or environments that are marginalized. Chris Queen, who’s written on Engaged Buddhism, talks about an ethic that involves discipline, virtue, altruism, and engagement—four different expressions of a deep Buddhist ethic. The ethic of discipline means we restrain ourselves from engaging in speech that is harmful or trivial or non-factual, untruthful. We just don’t do it. And that restraint, renunciation, discipline is a very important part of what it means to live in a sane and ethical society.
An ethic of virtue, Dr. Queen writes, is engaging in speech that actually promotes depth, understanding, insight and harmony in society. An ethic of altruism, he references, it’s knowing when it’s right to speak the truth. Knowing when the moment is right, even when that might produce a short-term difficulty.
Sally Taylor, also a Buddhist scholar, talks about another kind of speech. She calls it ‘prophetic speech.’ This is very important in Engaged Buddhism. because so much of how Buddhists have engaged in speech has been narcotizing; it doesn’t necessarily result in transformation. She says that prophetic speech avoids psychic violence or interpersonal vilification on one hand, but doesn’t engage in narcotizing, non-dualist speech that makes it seem as if the perpetrator of violence isn’t culpable or responsible for his or her actions.
It is speech that holds individuals or institutions deeply accountable. This is a kind of speech that has a much higher level of accountability. In fact, in the Pali cannon, the Buddha teaches that as long as speech is based in compassion and is truthful and timely, it’s okay to admonish deeply individuals and governments.
But the more nervous Buddhists don’t feel so comfortable with this. In fact, from the point of view of social responsibility, justice and environmental sanity, although I believe that Buddhists hold a very good heart in this regard, often Buddhist voices are rather muted and not calling governments and individuals to accountability. Some of us feel that it’s absolutely necessary to do this, to speak out.
I don’t believe this reflects the lack of resources within Buddhism because certainly the central teachings in Buddhism on non-violence, patience, generosity, compassion, interdependence suggest powerfully that when such things aren’t present in the mind of an individual, we need to help them be present not only through actions but also through education and transformation. But more than that, many engaged Buddhists feel we have to actively condemn institutions that engage in criminal behaviors, in amoral and immoral behaviors like piracy or prostitution or slavery or the black market in drugs or the exploitation of and violence toward women and children. We can’t just look into the suffering of the perpetrator. It’s not enough. We have to engage in much more forthright behavior based on the insight of the suffering of the perpetrator, but to actually engage in speech and activities that promote social change.
Martin Luther King was such a person who did not hold back. He said: “Our lives begin to end the day we remain silent about something we care about. In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” And Ellie Wiesel said: “We must always take sides. This seems contrary to Buddhism: you would think that you don’t want to polarize, you don’t take sides. Ellie Wiesel says: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Gandhi said it another way: “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”
We must expect that our prophetic speech might be disagreeable to people, to our leaders. But let’s think of it as a bitter pill—it’s hard going down, but hopefully it produces a better effect. What makes the difference in “prophetic speech” is if you drop beneath the discursive and the discriminative to the place where intimate speech is present.
Do you have a way to do that? To stop the asrava, the outflow of energy which is produced in a mind that’s very active and compulsive. Do you have a way to step down to a place where you can touch into your fundamental motivation? Why really am I here? What am I here to serve? How can I do my best? How can I really be of benefit to others? What will really make a difference when I open this mouth? How can I be more skillful? How can I use words that not only heal but that transform individuals as well as social institutions?
So in this regard then, I hope that we can consider the profundity of examining, inquiring into the function of speech and communication in our lives. I think that no matter what kind of people are in a society or community, more difficult than intoxicants, more difficult than sex, the most difficult of all the guidelines we live by is speech. How can we drop beneath speech altogether? How can we use speech to benefit? How can we use speech to transform? How can we not engage in mutuality that is slanderous and gossipy? How can we not engage in speech that is just stupid and trivial? And how can we engage in a communication with each other that is based in the deep consideration of truth and its timeliness. And finally to ask ourselves, is it really necessary? And if it is, then it is both beneficial and transformative.
It’s so important to know our intention, our motivation. This arises out of the silence, the deep inner stillness of silence. I hope we can step into internal quietness, to really see what is really necessary, to see what is true.