Controlling our speech is a stupendous practice

Mar 17, 2022



Buddha exhorts us to refrain from four kinds of harmful speech: saying untrue words, speaking harshly, rabbiting on about nothing, badmouthing behind backs. He also recommends that we don’t kill, steal, etc.


It’s safe to say that most of us don’t go around raping and killing people – in other words, we don’t harm others too much with our bodies. But look at our speech! But we really don’t value speech in our culture. “I can say what I like,” we say. What we mean by that is that it doesn’t matter what I say; that what I say doesn’t have consequences. 


Look at the fights that we have in relationships. Look at the dramas in families: children and parents, parents with each other; siblings. This is abusive speech.


And look at the harm caused by badmouthing each other behind backs. Look at the schisms in families, in relationships, in organizations, in Buddhist centers! I think this one is our favorite: we feel so safe saying bad things about people who aren’t there, including the politicians, the next door neighbours, the colleagues at work, our grandmother. This one is constant!


We mightn’t actually lie but look at how we speculate! Something as simple as when you ask me what time the supermarket closes and I blurt out, “Six o’clock.” Are you sure, you’ll say. Yes, I’ll say! And then you discover it closed at four. Oh, sorry, I thought it was six. 


There’s an overload of information out there and we’re endlessly quoting it, telling others – and we actually have no idea if it’s correct. 


We don’t think these things matter. But they matter hugely. We mislead people, we harm people, we confuse them. 


We all try to practice. We do our best. We try to be kind, helpful. But there we are with the kids, the partner, and they don’t do what we want, and out come the words! No control at all. We didn’t even notice we were angry until the words came flying out of the mouth! And we all know that the second the words are out of the mouth, the damage is done. This type of behavior is the basis of so much guilt and aching regret. We know this.


From the Buddhist point of view, the very first level of practice, entry level, junior school, grade one, is to control the body and the speech. Practice discipline. What our body and speech like a hawk. Don’t harm others. 


And why is this first? It’s obvious. The body and speech are simply the servants of the mind. They’re totally driven by what’s in the mind. When we think about it, it makes sense, but we don’t usually think of it like that. We have this feeling that we’re this one big lump of me plodding through life; we don’t distinguish the specific parts, the body, the speech and the mind: they each play their role.


The essential practice of being a Buddhist, of course, is to control and eventually transform the mind. But we’re so unconscious of what’s going on in there. So it’s logical that we attempt first to control the servants: the body and speech. It’s a stupendous practice, actually. Basically it’s learning to behave nicely. If the world behaved nicely we’d never harm another. 


This doesn’t mean that we’re not working on our mind: we are, hugely. It’s your mind that decides to control the body and speech. It has to be a very proactive, intentional decision every day: “I’m going to watch my speech like a hawk.” And we all know when you decide to do something is when you’ll do it.


We really become a Buddhists when we start to work on the mind itself; that’s the second level of practice. And it’s obvious that if we can’t control the servants of the mind how can we control the boss? The mind is what runs it all. As we begin to harness the energy of our speech, let’s say, we have the luxury of being able to be aware of what the hell is going on in the mind, what drives the speech. 


The harm we cause others is evident. But look at the harm we do to ourselves. This is not something we give any thought to whatsoever. And this is actually the basis of this first level of practice: refraining from harmful speech for our own sake. That’s the point about karma: everything we think and do and say just naturally programs us, sows seeds in the mind that will ripen in the future as the person we become. As His Holiness say, “Karma is like self-creation.”


It surprises us that we should refrain from harmful speech for our own sake. But until we get this, we can’t move forward. We have to be sick of suffering and, knowing that we cause it, strongly wanting to stop causing it – by controlling our speech.


Forget about the suffering we cause ourselves in the future; look at how our uncontrolled speech harms us right now. You could be in your house on your own all day and there you are shouting and yelling at the politicians when you watch the news, saying angry words when something goes wrong. What kind of programming is that! No wonder you’re exhausted and full of anxiety by the end of the day.


The long-term results, however, are the ones we need to be conscious of. There was a terrible schism in one of the FPMT centers in England forty years ago. I was there. I’ll never forget it. At the time Lama Zopa Rinpoche told us that this schism was the result of breaking our third root tantric vow (in past lives, of course): “Speaking the faults,” as Rinpoche puts it, “of our vajra brothers and sisters.” 


So, no matter how bad things feel between friends, Dharma brothers and sisters, family, work colleagues: shut the mouth, do not say bad things about them behind their backs, creating terrible disharmony – and, of course, don’t abuse or say words that aren’t true either – now and in the future. 


And not only do we protect ourselves from future suffering, we also develop powerful, beneficial speech, speech that actually helps others. The lamas refer to “the power of speech”: this is the most precious gift of the buddhas. And we all need it.


Harnessing our speech really is a stupendous practice.

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