Today is Tuesday, December 3, 2019. Welcome to Day 3 of the 2019 Bodhi Season. Today we discuss the 3rd item of the Eightfold Path – Awakened Speech.
Awakened Speech kicks us into 2nd gear on this Bodhi Season 2019 journey through the Eightfold Path. It’s part of a sub-group that includes Awakened Speech, Awakened Action, and Awakened Livelihood (3rd, 4th, and 5th items of the Eightfold Path, respectively). This sub-group of the Eightfold Path begins the exploration of thoughts that originated from inside our heads and now out into the swirls of world.
The items of this sub-group are less “exotic”, easier to swallow, and easier to digest than the two “1st gear” subjects of Awakened View and Awakened Intent. However, without the prerequisite of seeing through the perspective of Awakened View, Awakened Speech devolves into just another way to say what the proverbial mothers always told us: ” If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” So please visit or re-visit the posts on Awakened View and Awakened Intent before continuing.
Compassion Versus Passivity
A seeming take-away from this post, which may seem odd to many, is that Buddhism can’t be defined simply as selflessness and compassion. For many not familiar with Buddhism, I’d say the most famous Buddhist, even more so than Siddhartha Gautama himself, is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and his image of pure compassion. And that’s absolutely great. He is pure compassion, and a Buddha.
The problem is, at least in my observation, “compassion” sometimes seems to be confused with “passivity”. Compassion is fully understanding that other creatures share this Earth with us, all creatures must play their parts in the system of Life on Earth, we all learn from each encounter, and to be grateful those others for the lessons. Passivity is to turn the other cheek, which isn’t very rich with opportunity to learn.
Life on Earth emerges from countless, balanced interactions between all creatures, the geologic processes of Earth, the Sun, and even a few meteors shaking things up every now and then. Buddhists don’t think in terms of good and evil, but balancing systems of paradox and fixing the wobbliness of a wobbly Sentience.
So when discussing Awakened Speech, it would be easy to assume this means simply to say only nice things, never lie, never berate. But it’s not quite that simple. Blending into this wondrous system of Life on Earth is definitely about participation.
Decoupled Thought and Expression
The trade-offs for cheap, short-term wins through lying or angry expression (words and body language) aren’t worth the long-term costs. As Ringo says: Don’t engage. Take the small loss over an ugly win … or ugly loss.
We can forever destroy a relationship with others in a second with a single impulsive outburst of poorly chosen words and a poorly chosen delivery. The Gift of Sentience acts as a buffer between thoughts in the privacy of our brains and what we express out into the real world.
For most higher animals, there is a decoupling between our recognition of a situation requiring some sort of action and the action we actually take. We aren’t push-button machines – a button is pushed, information is processed, a decision is reached, and actions are carried out. A concrete analogy is someone commits a crime, a trial is held, a decision and sentence are determined, and the sentence is carried out. We don’t just throw someone in jail without first exploring the case.
Monkeys have less of the ability to ponder possible actions than humans. That’s a really good thing for monkeys since in their world, they often only have an instant to react. In fact, the less of a gap between recognition and action, the better … for them. Monkeys are impulsive, and impulsive decisions add up to a waste of Sentience.
For humans, it seems the evolutionary trade-off of the ability to think through a response before carrying it out versus the ability to react quickly worked out – we are the apex predator. But it wasn’t a complete trade-off. We still have this amygdala thing that still provides some level of knee-jerk reaction. Cougars and bears still live where we hike and aggressive drivers now place the cost of a few seconds over the safety of their fellow travelers.
Nice is Usually Right
In the system of Life on Earth, practically all creatures, plants and animals, are essentially lying and exaggerating to each other through camouflage in the game of the eternal struggle between predator and prey. Animals all hiss, roar, bark and aggressively posture at each other with the sole purpose of intimidating the other. Such expressions from animals such are deep, natural phenomenon that is suggests Awakened Speech is not as simple as following rules to not lie or exaggerate, yell at or threaten, or gossip about others.
From the point of view of one of these creatures caught in that game of Predator and Prey, it’s horrible. But it’s horrible because we happen to be sentient, thus cognizant of being part of that game since we are still animals. But from the point of view of Life on Earth, that game is fundamental to how Life on Earth survived for over three billion years. For all practical purposes, immortal.
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave … when first we practice to deceive.” – Walter Scott
“Deceive” could involve physical qualities as well as just words. Think of the camouflage of any animal. They are physical lies. Most plants and animals do it, both predator and prey.
Although telling lies about people or berating people is simply not nice, Walter Scott’s quote captures that Awakened Speech (from the Awakened View) is more than just being nice.
One of my favorite books is How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne. One of the primary lessons in his book mirrors Walter Scott’s quote. Lying is cheap, and it’s always for short-term gain. When we habitually lie, some lies will be exposed and we need to cover those lies with other lies. It may not be a single new lie covering one old lie. It may take multiple new lies to cover one old lie.
You become indentured to the lies. You’ve incurred a growing tax on your activities since you risk being exposed. Eventually, there will be no escape and your credibility is shot. Of course, there is a network of others involved who may have suffered damage through the web of lies.
Exaggeration is lying, but what’s different is that the goal is simply to be respected – to show off, like peacocks. For example, if you exaggerate about some work experience to get a job, that’s the kind of lying I’m talking about. In that situation, you definitely will step into a web of lies to cover it up or need to churn like hell to meet those expectations. For some, that latter may not be too much of a problem.
If we exaggerate our accomplishments for just increased popularity, that may be relatively harmless. However, wouldn’t it be incredible to actually become what you’re exaggerating about? Even if it’s just half of what you exaggerate about being.
The thing is, you must first free yourself from the tyranny of seeing through the lens of your primate brain and see through Awakened View. Otherwise, any effort towards becoming what you exaggerate about will be met with frustration.
This is a tough one. Sometimes violently yelling at a bear actually works. Sometimes you are unfairly the scapegoat or punching bag. Some people only respond to a scolding. Sometimes “the airing of grievances” (thanks, Seinfeld) is what’s needed.
However, those statements are through the lens of the primate brain. As the Enlightened Soul in this complex world that you wish to be, de-escalate. You may not be able to actually resolve the problem, but perhaps you can untangle everyone, freeing all of you to go off on your separate ways.
Considering Ringo’s advice earlier (“Don’t engage. Take the small lose over the ugly win.”), the highest level of understanding comes from fully digesting the 2nd Zen Story underlying the Teachings of the Eternal Fishnu, Is That So? This isn’t simply about turning the other cheek.
The story teaches to the seeker of enlightenment that we can fight whatever comes our way depleting energy and suffering through our short time on Earth. Or we can shut up our monkey brain, listen carefully to all that is going on, blend into it, and learn all we can from the unique situation – all the wiser, a further polished mind of the Buddha.
The first two items of the Eightfold Path, Awakened View and Awakened Intent, takes place in our heads – respectively, how our brains perceive the world around us and that things we cling to are leashes that exist only in our heads. Today’s item, Awakened Speech, gets out of our heads into the world.
We’re taught to turn the other cheek, not say anything if we can’t say something nice, don’t lie, don’t speak harshly. Those are excellent heuristics – general rules to go by as a default without enough information. However, life isn’t as easy as that. Capacities for aggression evolved in us for a reason. We must see clearly from an Awakened View to better know when such hopefully rare expressions are appropriate, and to measure them carefully.
Speech is soft-action. Your intentions are disclosed, nothing physical actually needs to happen. Tomorrow’s item, Awakened Action, is about ensuring your actions, which are physically irreversible, are as free from unforced errors as possible.
Faith and Patience to you!
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Bodhi Season/Day 2019: