Saturday, May 18, 2013

On Right Speech

Those of you who know me on a daily basis won't be surprised to hear this, but of late I've been drawn to Buddhism.  It's a long story, and something for another blog entry, but not this one.  This is about what the Buddhists call "Right Speech", which they hold to be he best, wisest, and most productive way to talk to one another.   What I'm doing is a rambling riff on the principles of right speech, as they apply to writing and, I guess, how I try to speak to other people.  This passage comes from the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta translated from the Pali byThanissaro Bhikkhu; the numbering is my own.
And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? 1. There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, 'Come & tell, good man, what you know': If he doesn't know, he says, 'I don't know.' If he does know, he says, 'I know.' If he hasn't seen, he says, 'I haven't seen.' If he has seen, he says, 'I have seen.' Thus he doesn't consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. 2. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. 3. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. 4. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.
In a nutshell, then, a way of talking to each other.  I've seen this formulated into questions you might ask yourself before speaking.  You might have another version, another way of addressing how you talk to those around you, but what follows is my version, what I'm getting from this teaching, filtered through some of the things I'm learning as a novelist.  These are questions that I forget to ask myself sometimes, both in my work and in my daily dealings with all of you.  So I'm renewing the promise: I'm going to ask myself these things in the coming days.  I'm going to break the promise, and I'm going to promise them again because long experience as a writer and as a human being tells me that the things below add up to a kind of "right speech", a way for us to use language in books, in discussion, and in all kinds of conversations.  So, before I speak—either aloud or on paper—I'll be asking myself…
  1. How do you know this thing you're about to say?  Lots of treatments of Right Speech present this as "Are you sure?"  Lots of people I know, however, are always sure, whether they admit it or not, or whether it ends up that they are actually right.  I'm not much of a postmodernist, but I'm enough of one to know that surety is a pretty high bar to jump (postmodernists are sure of nothing except that everything is uncertain—of that, they're absolutely sure).  So I'll put surety to the test by thinking about the source of my information, "citing my sources".  Do I speak from personal experience?  From anecdote?  From an explanation of the subject by one of you?  Out of something I've read?  Seen on television?  None of these sources—not even FOX News—are always wrong, but when you look at the list, you'll probably come to the same conclusion I have: that none are always right.  Neither am I.  Nor you.  Does that mean you should not voice an opinion?  I don't think so.  What's helpful to me in my version of the question is that it asks me to think about where I learned this, and to proceed with the knowledge that I just might be mistaken.  Those who know me can vouch for my own failings in being humble in this, but it's something I work on as a novelist as well: there's always a danger to a story if the writer tends to preach, to proclaim, to rant.  I find myself more tempted to do so as I get older, because I've lived a long time without seeing certain things get fixed, and sometimes it gets frustrating to know that they are not gonna get fixed, that they are unfixable given the human condition.  But as a novelist, you always consider motive, how the character comes to his behavior and what makes him do the things he does.  If you hijack the plot and characterization to suit your personal agenda, you're setting up one of the ways that a book can go bad.
  2. Does what you're saying create concord?  This is the question at which a lot of my community fails, since most of my friends are pretty individualistic, not doctrinaire with their philosophies, theologies, politics.  We tend to characterize the other guy as doctrinaire, of course, but not ourselves—we call it as we see it.  The longer I live as a novelist, the more I understand this question through my own work.  Characters who are doctrinaire become pretty much uninteresting as primary actors in a piece of fiction: they can be great foils or cameos or walk-ons, all of which help define the main characters, the ones you are interested in, the ones who change, question and contradict themselves, and otherwise comprise a good subtle story.  But for all that individualism, they're part of a larger story—events that move toward meaning and a kind of resolution.  Which I think is what I'm looking for in living, even if I don't find it a lot (or even most) of the time.  It's what most people are looking for, at least in my experience.  And our conversation should reflect that.  The idea is to find common ground so discussion can begin: the sutta talks about reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, and I think if we are going to live together, that should be in our sights.
  3. Is it kind? Of the four questions, this one is probably the least obviously connected to my life as a writer.  Start by saying I follow a number of the Buddhist framings of abstaining from abusive speech.   Language is my medium: I use it to make up people and events, and I should honor it by dedicating myself to its precise and evocative use.  That means a number of things: that I should attend to grammar and usage, so that each sentence is intentional; that I should understand the characters who emerge from my words and honor their motives; that I should honor the writing rather than writing for honor.  Kindness, in its most interpersonal form (because ultimately kindness has to do with how we treat others), leads me to questions of professionalism:  Writers can be exasperating, ego-ridden people, and I have been among the worst offenders.  But it's an ego-based calling to begin with.   We tend to forget that people don't have to read our work, that their generosity in doing so is, in some ways, a call to our gratitude and kindness. It can be humbling to remember that. And those who hold egos in check are usually the most kind and (to me) among the most admirable.  As I write this, I think of my friends Marian Allen, Stephen Zimmer, and most of all Margaret Weis, who is (next to my wife, Rhonda) the best person I know.  One other thing about abusive speech: Being kind doesn't mean you have to agree, just that you should strive for civility.  Lanny Davis, a former advisor to President Clinton, has written on how to re-introduce politeness into American conversation, especially when we are disagreeing: he says to start with the facts, to put them on the table, and then discuss.  Now, sometimes discord in this country (perhaps worldwide, but certainly in this country) often has reaches the point that we can't even agree on some of the facts.  But trying to establish them has a tendency to cool down the conversation.  And folks, please consider the possibility that name-calling is not discussion? I don't tend to cut off conversations unless you're calling people names.  Finally, yes, sometimes there is kindness in correction, but see #1 above before you start correcting? 
  4. Is it necessary? The sutta speaks to idle chatter.  I suppose that's gossip and superficiality.  But necessity also suggests that there's a right time to say things. As a novelist you have to learn when to introduce detail, situation.  It's pacing, timing, the soul of good narrative, and something I wrestle with all the time, often unsuccessfully.  But I still attend to it, still think about when it's right to bring something up.  This also is useful to think about when we are in conversation: someone I knew quite well, rest her soul, would say hurtful things, then justify having done so with "I had to say it".  Well, she really didn't have to.  Sometimes I've found it best to be quiet, when people are neither listening nor ready to listen.  If I had offered my opinion, it might have been a kind of "vanity press"—unleashing words into a conversation that are not shaped and chosen and polished to be heard.
A lot of things went down in this blog: writing and Buddha and everyday conversation.  All of which centers on acts of attention.  I'm not great at tuning in, but my work and temperament and life in general improve when I attend to right speech.