Dharma Topic: Compassionate Listening, Loving Speech

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Dear Still Water Friends,
This Thursday Evening, after our meditation, we will recite the five mindfulness trainings and focus our attention on the fourth training, right speech.

In the West, often, when we hear a way of doing something being described as the “right” way, there is resistance. It reminds us of an arbitrary (and often mean-spirited) higher authority deciding what is “right” and “wrong,” and wanting to punish those who transgress.

The meaning of “right” in the Buddhist tradition, however, is quite different. Often it is said to be synonymous with beneficial, healthy, or wholesome.

The Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri explains (in You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight):
In Sanskrit, the word for “right” is samma. It means “to go along with,” “to go together,” “to turn together.” It originally comes from a term that means “to unite.” So “right” is a state of being in which everything can live together, or turn together, united. Right is a state of human life in which we live in peace and harmony with all other beings. It is right, beyond our ideas of right or wrong, good or bad.

As Thich Nhat Hanh eloquently explains below, the emphasis in right speech is not simply on what WE are doing (not lying, for example), but on the consequences of what we are doing for others. Am I listening in such a way that it truly relieves the suffering of the other? Am I speaking in a way so that it is healing and not creating any avoidable suffering in others?

When we are using right speech we are, to use the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” We are speaking in a way which nourishes peace and harmony. We are speaking in a way which creates unity and awareness.

The questions with which I wish to start our discussion are:

Concretely, when is it difficult for you to use right speech?
What do you do when it is difficult? (How do you bring yourself back?)

You are invited to join us this Thursday, March 9, 2006, for our meditation, our recitation, and our discussion. As usual, the best times to join us on Thursday evening are:

  •     Just before the first sitting at 7 pm
  •     At 7:25, at the beginning of walking meditation; or,
  •     At 7:35, at the beginning of the second sitting.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner

Thich Nhat Hanh from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

In Buddhism, we speak of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Kwan Yin, a person who has a great capacity of listening with compassion and true presence. “Kwan Yin” means the one who can listen and understand the sound of the world, the cries of suffering. Psychotherapists try to practice the same. They sit very quietly with a lot of compassion and listen to you. Listening like that is not to judge, criticize, condemn, or evaluate, but to listen with the single purpose in mind to help the other person suffer less. If they are able to listen like that to you for one hour, you feel much better. But psychotherapists have to practice so that they can always maintain compassion, concentration, and deep listening. Otherwise, their quality of listening will be very poor, and you will not feel better after one hour of listening.

You have to practice breathing mindfully in and out so that compassion always stays with you. “I am listening to him not only because I want to know what is inside him or to give him advice. I am listening to him just because I want to relieve his suffering.” That is called compassionate listening. You have to listen in such a way that compassion remains with you the whole time you are listening. That is the art. If halfway through listening irritation or anger comes up, then you cannot continue to listen. You have to practice in such a way that every time the energy of irritation and anger comes up, you can breathe in and out mindfully and continue to hold compassion within you. It is with compassion that you can listen to another. No matter what he says, even if there is a lot of wrong information and injustice in his way of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames you, continue to sit very quietly breathing in and out. Maintain your compassion within you for one hour. That is called compassionate listening. If you can listen like that for one hour, the other person will feel much better.

If you don’t feel that you can continue to listen in this way, ask your friend, “Dear one, can we continue in a few days? I need to renew myself. I need to practice so I can listen to you in the best way I can.” If you are not in good shape, you are not going to listen the best way you can. You need to practice more walking meditation, more mindful breathing, more sitting meditation in order to restore your capacity for compassionate listening. That is the practice of the Fourth Mindfulness Training —  training oneself to listen with compassion. That is very important, a great gift.

Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don’t speak that day. “Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I’m afraid I’ll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day.” Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You have to train yourself to be able to do so.