Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Talking About Talk

To talk (katha) is to articulate words and to listen (nisameti or sussusati) is to attend to words being spoken. A combination of talking and listening is the most common form of human communication and, therefore, is of great importance in human relations. Refusing to talk with someone, not making oneself clear when talking to them, or not listening to them when they are trying to explain themselves, are the cause of innumerable problems between people. If we talk to others and listen when they talk, we create the possibility of mutual sympathy, understanding and tolerance.
The Buddha's concept of Right Speech (samma  vaca) pertains mainly to the ethical dimensions of speech, to what we talk about. But the Buddha was also concerned with how we talk, with those qualities that can make our words a positive and effective means of communication. The Buddha always talked in a way that was `serious and beneficial for opening the mind' (katha  abhisallekhika  cetovivaranasappaya, A.V,67), and he asked his disciples to talk without ambling (na byadhayati) or hesitating (asandittham), in a gentle tone (sanha) and to use `language that is polished, clear, free-flowing, meaningful, comprehensive and unbiased' (A.II,51; V,81). Talking in such a manner makes ordinary social interactions more pleasant and harmonious, and teaching the Dhamma in such a way makes it more attractive and convincing.
However, not all eloquence is positive. Some people combine their rhetorical skills with clever arguments and a loud voice to dominate every conversation and stifle every point of view but their own. In the religious debates at the time of the Buddha, some speakers could `counter and crush true speech with false speech so that the audience gets excited and shouts “A sage indeed! A real sage!”.’(A.V,230). Saying something simply, sincerely and in a gentle measured voice can sometimes be more effective than sophisticated delivery.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to effective verbal communication is talking too much, of being `so talkative and long-winded that no one else has a chance to say anything' (Ja.I.418). This unattractive habit has its roots in narcissism, a lack of awareness of others, or being too attached to one's opinion. The Buddha often praised those who were `easy to talk to' (suvaca, A.V,81), a quality that requires a person to be approachable, friendly and to let others know that he or she is interested in them and what they have to say. It also requires punctuating one's conversation with pauses that allow others to express their ideas, to consider what is being said or to ask questions. Talking all the time or for too long is a form of selfishness, while being easy to talk to shows respect, generosity and courtesy towards others. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the Buddha saw being easy to talk to as an expression of love (Sn.143).
But for communication to take place it is not just enough to let others talk, we have to genuinely listen to them when they do. Sometimes, when others are talking, we affect an expression of interest although we are not really listening to them but only waiting for an opportunity to interrupt them so we can say what we want. To genuinely listen, we have to close our mouths and open our minds so that the other person's words are not just heard but comprehended. Being a good listener helps us understand people and it also helps us understand ideas. The Buddha knew that listening is an important factor in education. He said: `There are five advantages of listening to the Dhamma. What five? One hears things not heard before, clarifies things heard before, dispels doubts, straightens one's ideas and one's mind is delighted' (A.III,248). Before teaching the Dhamma, the Buddha would often say to his audience `listen carefully, pay attention and I will speak' (sunahi sadhukam manasikarohi, A.V,302). 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Some Thoughts On Metta

If anything, how we speak can have an even more important role to play than our actions do in cultivating and encouraging mettā. Snide comments, put-downs, racial slurs, making fun of people or casting aspersions on them, all create an atmosphere of negativity and exclusion. The Buddha dubbed this sort of thing “stabbing others with the weapon of the tongue”  (aññamaññaṃ  mukhasattīhi vitudantā, M.I,320).  This colourful idiom is reminiscent of such English phrases as “sharp language”, “cutting speech” and “character assassination”. It is also one that well describes the potentially destructive impact our words can have. By contrast, the Buddha described positive and skilful speech as “pleasing to the ear”, “going to the heart” and “worthy of being treasured up” (kaṇṇa sukhā, hadayaṃ gamā and nidhānavatiṃ, D.I,4). To hold back from vituperation or backbiting when we might otherwise be tempted or provoked to do so indicates a commitment to kindly restraint. To build others up by encouraging them, praising their genuine strengths and achievements and affirming their value, is love transmitted through sound. More than that, such speech has the ability to bring out the best in people. Beyond one-on-one interaction positive and skilful speech is significant in the wider society. The Buddha identified loving speech (peyyavajja or piyavācā) as one of the four bases of community, those qualities that that bring people together in harmony and goodwill, and that pre-empt friction between them or sooth it when it does occur. The others bases of community (saṅgaha vatthū) are generosity (dāna), doing good to others (atthacariyā) and treating them impartially (samānattatā); e.g. see A.II,32; IV,219; 364; D.III,152).  
In recent years the phrase “random acts of kindness” has become popular and has led to the founding of several organisations promoting the concept and even the designation of certain days for being kind. Some might see such things as well-meaning but cheesy and shallow, self-indulgent even. Buddhaghosa observed that each of the Brahma Viharas had what he called “near enemies” (āsanna paccatthika), very good copies but lacking the originals’ depth, strength and authenticity (Visuddhimagga 318-9). Sentimentality would certainly qualify as a near enemy of mettā. However, it is not always easy to determine exactly where genuine efforts to be more loving and kind end and mawkish sentimentality begins. If we are mindful and aware we should be able to distinguish between the two.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Should Buddhists Be Ambitious?

Ambition (chanda or iccha) is an eagerness to acquire personal advantage: wealth, power, status or fame; while aspiration (pathana) is a gentle but firm determination to achieve something. The English word ambition comes from the Latin ambitionem meaning  “going around”  while aspiration is related to the Latin spiritus, breath, and comes from the French aspirare meaning  “to breathe out”. Ambition is not necessarily negative, but it does have a tendency to override integrity in its drive to get what it wants. And when it does get what it wants, it sometimes misuses it. Successful actors who end up becoming drug addicts, star athletes who cheat in order to win yet another medal, and wealthy businessmen who dodge taxes or steal from their shareholders in order to accumulate even more, would be examples of this. As the Buddha said:  `Because of his craving for riches, the fool undermines himself' (Dhp.355). All too often, ambition just keeps us `going round,' i.e. it further entangles us in samsara. The so-called Self-Improvement Movement would be a good example of a philosophy of life based on ambition. Behind all the talk of  “the passion for excellence”,     “being the best you can be”  and  “contributing to society”, usually lies raw greed and selfishness.
Aspiration is a form of desire tempered by thoughtfulness, integrity and a self-interest that takes into account the interests of others too. While ambition is focused totally on the goal, aspiration never loses sight of either the goal or the means used to attain it. Aspiration allows us to  “breathe freely”  (assasa, M.I,64) after we have achieved our goal, because we know we have done it without compromising our values or disadvantaging others. Aspiration also understands that, while mundane goals may be useful in this life, spiritual goals benefit us in both this and the next life and will eventually lead to the state of complete fulfilment where we no longer strive for any goal, i.e,  Nirvana. The Buddha said one should,  “put forth his whole desire, exert himself, make a strong effort, apply his mind and resolve” to attain such goals (A.IV,364). And when he said that one practising Dhamma should be  “moderate in his desires”,  he meant we should aspire towards worthwhile goals without allowing our aspiration to degenerate into ambition.