Gathering 19: Appropriate Speech


I thought that our discussion of Correct Speech on Sunday evening was particularly fruitful, especially as we got into the positive aspects of Correct Speech – that it’s not only a matter of avoiding lies, hostile or divisive speech, and gossip, but also of finding the Correct words to describe the complex reality that we awaken to when we’re able to see through labels and clichès.

I’d like to continue that discussion this coming Sunday. I’d also like to review an aspect of Correct Speech that we mentioned briefly on Sunday but which deserves a second look; that is the matter of the circumstances in which a particular kind of speech is appropriate, and thereby correct. We looked at a passage in which the Buddha reviewed the conditions that determined whether particular words were Correct: whether those words are factually correct, whether they are truthful, whether they are connected with the goal (generally, the cultivation of the way in our lives; more particularly, the goals that underlie the particular situation under discussion), whether they are welcome, and whether they are encouraging.

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Gathering 18: Knowing Right from Wrong

We had an interesting discussion Sunday evening regarding how we determine that our intentions, our speech, our actions, etc. are “right”. That is, how do we know that we are still on the way that the Buddha’s teachings show us? How do we know that we are really cultivating the Superior Eightfold Path and not just kidding ourselves–rationalizing, or turning away from an unpleasant fact, or simply not paying attention?

A Buddhist nun meditating, from alicesoup Flickr stream

That question is essentially the subject of a short and illuminating discourse that the Buddha delivered to his stepmother Mahapajagotami, who was the first woman to join the Sangha. I’ve posted that discourse, the Gotami Sutta, along with an Afterword that’s rather longer and more discursive than the sutta itself but which might help us relate the teaching to the events in our lives today.

I’d like to discuss that on Sunday, continuing our discussion about knowing right from wrong. I’d also like to keep the focus, if possible, on the notion of Correct Intention, since the intentions we conceive lead directly to how we articulate those intentions in our speech and how we embody them in our actions and our livelihood.

Gathering 17: Paving Stones

In the Pabbatopama Sutta (links to text and audio in sidebar), King Pasenadi of Kosala stops by to visit the Buddha late one afternoon. This is unusual; most of the King’s visits are in the morning or early afternoon, after the Buddha has returned from his alms round and before he retires for the afternoon’s meditation. The Buddha asks the King what brings him here so late in the day, and the King explains that he is returning from inspecting the troops. With what I consider to be an ironic (and perhaps gently teasing) acknowledgment that his activities are not the sort of which the Buddha would approve, he goes on….

“I’ve been doing what we divinely anointed noble Kings typically do, intoxicated as we are with power, driven by lust, obsessed with control, ruling our world, always seeking to extend our realm.”

I imagine the Buddha listening to this with a slight smile; then, after respectful consideration of what Pasenadi had said, the Buddha asks him, “Great King, imagine that a trusted messenger would bring you news from the East; a great mountain is there, seven miles wide and seven miles high, and it’s moving. It’s moving this way, crushing everything in its path. And then a messenger from the West would bring the same news, and then messengers from the North and from the South. Great King, with such devastation coming your way, destroying all human lives, life as a human being so hard to attain, what would you do?”

The King’s response is considerably more humble, “Master, if such devastation were coming my way, destroying all human lives, life as a human being so hard to attain, all that anyone could do would be to follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.”

“I tell you, Great King,” the Buddha went on,”aging and death are advancing on you, and they are unstoppable. What now?”

“Master, as aging and death are advancing, unstoppable, what can I do but follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.

“Master, divinely anointed Noble Kings, intoxicated with power, driven by lust, obsessed with control, ruling their world, fight elephant battles to increase their realms. But elephant battles are useless against aging and death. Cavalry, infantry, chariots—all are useless against aging and death. There are clever men in my cabinet who know how to divide an enemy and subvert his authority, but such knowledge is useless against aging and death. There is gold in my treasury to bribe and corrupt an enemy, but such wealth is useless against aging and death. With aging and death advancing, there is nothing to be done but to follow the Dhamma: act ethically, act skillfully, increase merit.”

“Good answer, Great King,” replied the Buddha. “Good answer.”

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Gathering 16: Look Closer

[The following mail message (clipped) went to the community mail list on 12/21/2012. It’s here for historical purposes; nothing was posted on the web for this gathering.]

Gathering 15: See Here, Now!

We talked at our last gathering about how to approach the Eightfold Path, so as to make that Path our way of life. This coming Sunday evening, we will begin our discussion of the individual Path factors, with a discussion of Correct View, or Correct Seeing—samma ditthi.

Samma ditthi is the traditional starting point for discussion of the Path; when the Path is explained, in the Pali Canon discourses, as a process—one factor leading to the next—Correct View is where it typically begins, and Correct Intention then follows as a natural result of Correct View, Correct Speech is then a natural result of Correct Intention, and so forth. It isn’t that simple, of course—nothing in the Buddha’s teaching is—but it’s still a good place to begin.

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Gathering 14: Wheels Within Wheels…

Opening Lines of the Dhammapada, “The Path of the Dhamma

Thinking leads the way; thinking establishes; thinking creates;
With thinking muddled, speech and action
Are followed by distress, as cart wheels follow oxen.

Thinking leads the way; thinking establishes; thinking creates;
With thinking cleared, speech and action
Shine with gladness, as constant as one’s shadow.

“I’ve been insulted, hurt, violated, defeated”—
By such thinking obsessed, one is overwhelmed with hatred.

“I’ve been insulted, hurt, violated, defeated”—
With such thinking abandoned, one gives hatred no way in.

Never by hatred has hatred been defeated—
Only by kindness; this has been so forever.

Some fail to pay attention to death’s constant presence.
Those who pay attention settle their quarrels.

The Dhammapada
Chapter I (“The Pairs”), Verses 1—6

Translated (pretty literally) by Richard Blumberg

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Gathering 13: Walk This Way

In the very first paragraphs of what is commonly accepted as his very first teaching, the recently awakened Buddha introduced what he had awakened to, that is “This Middle Way”. “This Middle Way,” he said, “is an eye-opener; following it, you will come to know. It calms you down, lightens your load, reveals the truth with lucid clarity; you will awaken fully, completely released from all pain and distress.”

If what the Middle Way leads to sound a lot like Enlightenment, Nibbana, that is, quite clearly, the Buddha’s intention. This is the way that brought him to experience Nibbana, and he holds out the promise that anyone who follows the way as diligently and intelligently as he did will, in fact, reach the same goal.

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Gathering 12: Four Divine Abidings, Four Assurances

In reflecting on our discussion Sunday, I find it interesting how the Buddha’s injunction to approach authority skeptically imposes greater responsibility on the individual than does the traditional injunction to obey the commands. “Know for yourself” is hard; “believe without question” is less hard. Or rather, hard in a different way.

For those who accept the challenge, who choose their way wisely and practice it diligently, the rewards are significant. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha presents those rewards in terms of ways of living that were known, in the culture of his time, as Brahma Viharas. The term is usually translated as “Divine Abidings”; as the Buddha used it, it clearly means living as a God might live, living a life imbued with God-like qualities.

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Gathering 11: The Buddha’s Teaching to the Kalama Clan

Our reading for this week, and for next week as well, is the Kalama Sutta—the Buddha’s teaching to the Kalama people in the village of Kesaputta. In it, the Buddha is as clear and forceful as he ever gets at insisting that the only proper approach to the way that he teaches is with a skeptical attitude and a pragmatic intention.

The discourse, which is widely known and widely translated, has sometimes been called “The Buddha’s charter for free inquiry.” The discourse has two main sections; in the first, the Buddha leads his Kalama questioners toward an understanding of the kinds of tests they might apply to a particular doctrine, to determine whether it presents a way worth following. In the second section, he goes very briefly over the benefits to be realized through choosing a good way and following it diligently. On Sunday, we’ll focus on the first section of the teaching, and we’ll spend some time next week looking at the second section, with particular attention to the four “Divine Abidings”—open friendliness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. We’ll also look glancingly at the role and nature of an afterlife in the Buddha’s teachings.

But Sunday evening, I’d like to keep a focus on the qualities of skeptical inquiry that the Buddha recommends in this teaching. Please read the translation I’ve put up on the site, and you might want to follow the links I’ve provided to other translations on the web.

I’d also like to you look at the summary of the values that I hope we’ll bring to our investigation of the Buddha’s way in our gatherings.

Gathering 10: Meditation

[The following mail message went to the community mail list on 12/12/2012. It’s here for historical purposes; except for the sutta on the site that is linked in the email, nothing was posted on the web for this gathering.]