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Right Speech - A Commentary

By Stephen Whitley, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – For someone like me who makes a living using words, the thought of censoring my own talk is daunting. I cut my milk teeth on words; my baby book says I started talking at nine months, and I pretty much haven't shut up since then. Having a command of words can be both a blessing and a curse. I can usually think of a witty comeback when someone says something to me, but I can also make my remarks cutting and hurtful. According to the Buddha, this is not right speech, this is wrong speech, big time. So I've decided to start watching everything I say and to follow one of the tenets of the Buddha's Eightfold Path, "Right Speech."

In Sylvia Boorstein's book, "It's Easier Than You Think," she describes Right Speech as, "Speech that doesn't add pain to any situation and maintains the balance of situations by not adding the destabilizing element of gossip." Gossip is talking about someone who isn't there except to convey a need on behalf of another person. She suggests attempting to go through a whole day without gossiping. Give up making comments about people who are not there, but more importantly, listen to the voice inside your head that is about to make the comment. Then ask yourself, "Why am I saying this?" "Am I going to bring hurt or comfort to this situation?" I did this a couple of weeks ago at lunch, and it was quite difficult.

It's not that the guy at the other table was annoying me, or anything, but his cell phone rang about every five minutes and he would talk with his mouth full. When his phone wasn't ringing, he was phoning someone with the important news that it was raining outside and he didn't have his umbrella. One of his lunch companions, not to be outdone, started phoning people with equally inane comments. Another lady at a table close to me was wearing an awful cowboy hat and got her lunch before I did, although she had arrived after me.

Now, on a normal day I would have loudly told my lunch companion how RUDE it was to talk on the cell phone with one's mouth full. I would have made comments to my friend about how awful that hat was and that the whole straw-hat-Madonna-trend was so 2001. I would have dished with my friend about what was happening at work and who was getting on my nerves and why I think they should be fired. But I held my tongue, for the most part. I started to say something about the girl in the hat, but caught myself just in time. I tried to ignore the guy with the phone and look the other way when he talked with his mouth full, and when my friend and I talked about work we just exchanged information about who was working on what project and how schizophrenic everyone seems there.

Well, I guess I did okay except for that last part. But that's one of the great things I've learned about Buddhism. I don't have to be perfect. I just have to try to act with more thought and compassion, not only to others, but to myself. Because in reality, the only person I would have hurt with the comments I wanted to make at lunch was myself.

I'm going to continue to try and practice Right Speech and to be mindful of what I'm going to say and why I'm going to say it, but I have a feeling I'm not going to be talking much for awhile.

Stephen Whitley is a writer from Dallas.