In Steve Hagens wonderful Book , Buddhism: Plain and simple, he discusses what we call the Eightfold path. A path in the sense of being a way of traveling, in this case instead of distance, its a way of traveling through the world without disturbing its (or your) natural way.
The other day I was reading the section about “Right Speech”, often this is named “enlightened Speech” or “correct speech”, but no matter how you slice it the gist is that our words have both power and consequences. They are a form of action, and like it or not any action has a corresponding result. Despite (or maybe because of) this, that particular fold might be one the hardest of the eight to stick to.
To not lie seems the obvious point of Right speech, but there is a lot more to it than just that, a lie is a statement that the speaker knows to be false. Its a conscious attempt to mislead the listener. But What is gossip? What is praise? What if what is said is hurtful but still ‘the truth”? In his book Hagen uses an example something like this, If Bill tells you some gossip about Suzy, our usual reaction is to feel that we have learned something about Suzy. But have we? According to Buddhism we haven’t actually experienced anything for certain regarding Suzy, instead what we have really learned is something about Bill. Regardless of Bills intent, good or bad, he has shown us something about himself.
Early in my tattooing career i had not yet formed the thick skin or calm mind of my later years, and in this business (especially back then) your competition constantly shit talked you. I would hear from customers every day about this or that tattooer having said I sucked, was a junky, a nazi, a rock star, unclean, expensive, and much more. None of this was true, but I was being told that other tattooers in town were spreading these tales and I used to get upset by this and a few times thought about barging into this shop or another and blasting the supposed shit-talker in the mouth. However, the more I got used to it and the more I examined the situation i realised that the real “bad guys” weren’t the people supposedly saying these things about me, it was the people bringing me the news! Why did these “friends” insist on telling us that people said horrible things about us day in and day out? I finally understood that these messengers wanted us to feel that they were “on our side” and they they were providing us a service with this ‘spying’. i suppose the idea was that we would be so grateful that they would get a free tattoo or at least the pleasure of watching us get riled up by this “news” they had brought.
Soon i would cut these guys off and simply say “If i don’t hear it firsthand then it didn’t happen.” Within weeks these formerly ‘loyal’ hang-out guys disappeared. Without our angry reaction and without the made up conflict for entertainment, bringing us gossip lost its luster. Soon we would see them hanging out at other shops. It was a revelation and a lesson I never forgot. It also made me examine my own motives for repeating news about another person. Why, I wondered, was I so eager to share some tidbit or bad news about someone else? Why did I think that my opinion of someone else was so important that I had to tell other people this stuff?
I didn’t like the answer very much. It turned out that I liked feeling important, that I was a know-it-all and that knowing everyones business made me feel like I had some kind of power or control over the world. It was my way of trying to be a big shot.
Try a little experiment some day. Wake up and resolve not to talk about anyone who isn’t right there in the room with you for a whole day. Nothing good or bad, not praise or shittalk. No discussion of another that isn’t absolutely necessary. Ive done it and guess what, its really hard to do! Until you make a conscious effort to not do i,t its amazing how much we do it without knowing!
Now think of the people you most enjoy being around, Id be willing to bet that most of them are the ones who don’t gossip or badmouth people, even if you agree with them there is something unpleasant about being around that kind of talk. Its like being stuck in a room with a bad smell, you dont only sense it in your nose, but you feel like its permeating your very skin and clothes. Gossip is the same way, it carries a stain into your mind. But it doesn’t have to.
I’m really trying to keep my mouth shut these days unless I have something appropriate to say. Even the hard truths can be brought out without sounding like a jerk. In fact they are far more likely to be appreciated if they aren’t delivered with anger or smugness.
Right Speech isn’t just about lies or gossip. its about bringing your conscious mind into every conversation and wondering “is what im about to say furthering harmony or destroying it?”