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Kannon (Guan Yin)

Right Speech, Cont.

We should not spend hours protesting assaults upon our fuzzy moral sensibilities while begrudging five minutes of our time to correcting or preventing a related social problem. We should not be found protesting abortion if we are never found volunteering our time at child care centers, youth athletic leagues, or charity 'soup kitchens.'

Of greater importance to the person on the Path are ego-enhancing proclamations which identify an individual with the pro or con of a social issue. "I am the kind of person who defends the earth and its innocent inhabitants. Read my sign!"

We enter the religious life to remove ourselves from the damaging concerns of society. It is another world we wish to enter, a world in which the Buddha looks with equal eye upon the murderer and the hero, upon the polluter and the non-polluter, upon the communist and the capitalist. We cultivate 'holy indifference' by which we do not mean that we do not care. Holy indifference means compassionate non-involvement. We sympathize and support but do not become emotionally aroused by anyone's problems - not even our own. This doesn't mean that if someone is drowning and we know how to swim we just stand by and watch.

Right speech also means treating the telephone as though it were a loaded gun or an instrument of torture. We should be as diligent in preserving the privacy of others as we are in protecting our own.

Many monasteries have regular fund raising drives and assign monks or guest laymen to telephone every Buddhist in Christendom in order to request donations. Direct verbal solicitations are flagrant violations of Right Speech. When a monk with a begging bowl comes down the street chanting and a householder, hearing him and calculating how much rice he can spare, opens his door and gives the monk a spoonful, there is mutual benefit. Likewise, when someone knows that the temple needs money and voluntarily makes a donation, there is also mutual good. But when we actively pressure someone into giving us what we want, we make that person feel as if he has been mugged. (And, really, he has been.)

Meanwhile, back at the monastery, the person who weasels the most money out of people is rewarded with much praise. It doesn't matter that the victims who made pledges may be hard-pressed to honor them or that seventy cents of each dollar raised goes to pay for solicitation and collection expenses - the other thirty cents is needed income. Of course, if all the monks engaged in solicitation were to go out and get honest jobs and turn their salaries over to their abbot, the monastery would actually do better. But who even considers this alternative? A fellow quickly wonders what's the point of being a priest if he has to go out and work like ordinary people... and then be required to be as generous with the fruits of his labor as he, without compunction, requires others to be! Is this a violation of Church and State, or what?

Patriotism, Dr. Johnson noted, is the last refuge of scoundrels. Religion clearly is the first.

Right speech, as we have noted, sometimes means no speech. If family members or friends whose call we welcomed in former days persist in calling us when we are on the Path, we should consider the possibility they are worried about us (nobody is ever quite ready that to accept that we have been saved by Buddhism, of all things). With polite kindness we should reassure them, firmly explaining that all our spare time is devoted to prayer and meditation and that we really can't chat. If our callers are having personal problems and want to unburden themselves, we ought to listen, offering what comfort we can, and suggesting, if appropriate, Buddhist solutions to their problems. We may invite them to services, send them instructional material, or help them to realize that the best therapy of all lies within themselves. But we should never involve ourselves in their problems, nor take sides, nor let them believe that our sympathy is a substitute for salvation.

Right Speech also requires responsibility in relating stories about the Buddha or individual Buddhists. Too often devotees become so soaked with religious fervor that they leak miracles from every pore. Dripping with self-satisfaction, they relate how they prayed for a miracle (one usually involving sex or money) and the Buddha, generous god that he is, rewarded them by providing one. These persons advise their troubled but 'deserving' neighbors to pray for similar treatment. The Buddha can do anything. He can bring back the dead or turn unpaid bills into shares of IBM or cause an slackened lover to become turgid with desire.

When things go wrong, remedy does not lie in the accommodating suspension of nature's laws. We can't pray for miracles and we can't encourage naive or desperate people to believe that any such facile solutions are available to them. Disciplined self-reliance and faith in the Compassionate Buddha are miraculous enough.

Right Speech also prohibits us from indulging in time wasting, ego gratifying, sophomoric discussions. The Buddha was said to be particularly distressed by the tendency of many of his followers to engage in metaphysical arguments. Clarification of totally irrelevant points seemed always to be a precondition to working for salvation. In one of religion's most stunning parables, aptly translated by E. J. Thomas, the Buddha responded to this tendency:

"Suppose a man were wounded by a poisoned arrow and his friend brought a surgeon to heal him; and suppose that the man said, 'I will not allow the surgeon to treat me until I know who it was who wounded me, to which caste he belonged; of which family he was a member; or whether he was tall or short; or whether he was dark, white or yellow skinned; or from which town he came. I will not let the surgeon treat me until I know which kind of bow was used to wound me, whether it was a chapa or a kodanda; whether the bowstring was of swallow-wort, or bamboo fiber, sinew, hemp, or milk-tree; or whether the wood used to make the arrow's shaft was domestic or imported; or whether its feathers came from a vulture or a heron or a hawk; or whether it was bound with the sinew of an ox, or of a buffalo, or of a ruru-deer, or of a monkey; or until I know whether it was an ordinary arrow, or a razor-arrow, an iron arrow or a tooth arrow.' Before learning all of this, that man would die!"

We previously referred to Thomas Merton's translation of a collection of fourth century anecdotes about the Desert Fathers. The last entry in the work is familiar to Buddhists because it is virtually impossible to be a Buddhist and not to have heard this particular tale: A young monk is unjustly accused of getting a girl pregnant. Though he is innocent, he does not protest. He simply accepts responsibility for her and the child. Months or years later the girl confesses her lie and names the baby's real father. With the same tranquility that the monk accepted the responsibility, he accepts everyone's apology and departs to continue his spiritual journey.

This old chestnut has made the rounds of the celibate orders of all religions. The Desert Fathers were Christians. The monk who relates the story about himself is the Blessed Macarius. In Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps' fine compilation of Zen writings, we find the identical story told this time about the Japanese Zen master Hakuin. (I have heard the same tale told about Dao monks and Chinese Chan monks.) Somebody is violating Right Speech. Why this improbable tale should be so popular among religious orders we can all imaginatively answer.

If a priest is unjustly accused of serious immoral conduct Right Speech requires him to defend himself against the charge. He may not acquiesce in a lie. Ultimately, stories of this ilk are intended to demonstrate "holy indifference" to the vicissitudes of fate, and also to create the impression of innocence in every case of accusation. If the truly innocent do not offer a defense against malicious charges, then the guilty, merely by striking a similarly passive pose, may be presumed to be similarly innocent.

If an innocent man, despite his protests, is found guilty by his master or by a court then he must accept the consequences with as much grace as he can muster. If found guilty when he has been, he ought to take the trouble to repent.

Shame sets a good example.

The Seventh World of Chan Buddhism
Chapter 13: Right Speech, Page 2 of 2

Last modified: July 11, 2004
©1996 Ming Zhen Shakya (Chuan Yuan Shakya)