Friday, February 27, 2009

Spiritual Hucksterism: Right Speech

Soen Nakagawa, a man with his own set of problems, once said something to the effect that even tabloid news could be understood as sutras, viewed the right way.

So it is with blogging.

It's easy, and this blogger's probably as guilty as many others, of affecting outrage and a textual talk radio feel to the medium. It's fun as somebody somewhere else put it; something else to which one can attach. On a big blog like Kos, every now and then you can push the needle a few nanometers. And if you're Kos you can do better. There's a place for the use of speech if your goal is to effect political change for the better, and as citizens I think that's within the realm of our duties. So even though there's a risk of attachment, we can't generally stay uninvolved. That ship sailed before I was born. Even a hermit-monk must avail himself of opportunities to help hermit-monk practice, as it has much in common with those of us who do householder practice.

But what do we say?

What is right speech?

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist of the Thai forest tradition says:

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person's feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all)...

Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak...

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don't need to be a victim of past events.

I think Thanissaro Bhikkhu is largely correct, although I think both the blogosphere and the parent-sphere (and unfortunately, the managment-sphere) admits room for harsh speech from time to time, with the intent of helping.

I was thinking about this post in response to another I saw, wherein that person's attachments, and other aspects were dripping from the prose presented in cyberspace.

Not only do I know the poster is wrong, but I could take his post, and line-by-line dissect it. And it would probably harm his current business too, because this rather curious appropriation of Buddhism seems to be well bound up in that person's livelihood.

And though it is kind of damaged, I don't want to take away anyone's livelihood. Somebody might pick up enough of the right stuff merely as a chance encounter with this guy to figure out that the guy is full of brown smelly stuff. And if I went into polemic mode, it would stand me in no good stead.

So with all of that foregoing, what can I say in right speech avoiding Buddhist and other spiritual hucksters?

Here's a few guidelines:

  • I think it's a good idea in general to be on the lookout for pathological narcissism (see here and here for more.) You really want to deal with folks who see themselves as "nothing special" because they are and so are you and I. I'm not a mental health care professional, and don't play one on TV, but you should be able to spot the difference, I'd think, between the Buddhist professional who says he's nothing special and lives it, and the guy who actually does either say or live or both that he's different from the rest of us.

  • In line with that, they should approach Buddhism as something that's not necessarily what they want. They shouldn't promise Buddhism will take you to a "state" that's in any material way any different from where you are right now. They shouldn't even promise that all your suffering will go away. They might say that you might learn tools and disciplines for going beyond suffering and attachments, but if they are advocating the use of "Buddhism" merely as a getaway, you're not getting the real deal, which is simultaneously far more horrible and wondrous and ordinary and elegant than anyone's profundity, especially mine.

  • And finally, beware of those who think they are special or exalted because they've behaved badly. Or not for that matter.

    I've behaved badly.

    It doesn't make me anything other than One Who Has Behaved Badly (and isn't doing it now).

    On the other hand, and I've said/wrote this many times: I want to learn tennis from a tennis pro, somebody that has played the game themselves. If you want to learn signal processing, frame theory, and statistical decision theory, talk to me. I can even teach you how to do the preliminary meditation work that beginners do in zazen.

    I would not go to someone who has been a total failure even if they've admitted they're a failure at whatever they're preaching on. They generally don't have good advice. And if they don't demonstrate the skill or experience to live well, well, it's a good chance that taking their advice might not be a productive use of your time, and that time's quite limited.

That should take care of things for today.

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