Friday, January 4, 2008

The Third Step

A drill instructor motivating United States Ma...Image via Wikipedia
Right Speech begins in recognition of the interdependent union among people and an enlightened intention to insure harmony, honesty and integrity. The guiding force must be to insure growth toward removing delusions which hinder genuine wisdom discernment. Ideally what we say, and how we say it, will be a reflection of selfless service. Our voice has power to bring about transformation for either good or evil. That is a tall order given the fluid nature of conditional life, the goal of emancipation, the challenge of over-coming attachments, the model of the Buddha and the use of expedient means.

If you research the matter of “Right Speech” you’ll find a set of precepts such as abstaining from lying and divisive speech, abstaining from abusive speech and idle chatter, being firm and reliable, not deceiving, having conviction in what you say, telling the truth about spiritual knowledge, using words that are friendly, benevolent, pleasant, gentle, meaningful and useful. All of these guidelines are “Right” and “Wrong.” They are of course right as standards and they are wrong depending on causal conditions in light of the overall mission to free sentient beings from the bondage of suffering. An example will illustrate the difference.

When I was a much younger person I served in the Marine Corp and underwent the training of Sergeant Fox during boot camp. He, like all Marine Corps drill instructors, had a clear mission: to prepare a basically rag-tag bunch of wimps (one of which was me) for war and he had a limited amount of time to accomplish his mission. Sergeant Fox redefined the meaning of “Right Speech” with words that would make anyone blush, regardless of moral persuasion. He did not employ any of the conventions prescribed above but he did accomplish his mission. What he accomplished, through “expedient means” was nothing short of a miracle and there is not a shadow of doubt that he saved not only my life but the lives of countless others by defying every single prescribed guideline. Sergeant Fox may have been a buddha. Who can say, but I do know that he embodied the essential spirit of “Right Speech.” His mission dictated the measure of expedient means which he employed and he was not attached to inflexible standards.

He could have, of course, clung to the letter of the law and dished out a meal full of kind and gentle words and I would not be here now sharing these thoughts if he had. The point of my story is that there is a difference between being attached to any fixed standard of perfection (which is not a standard of perfection) and staying focused on skillful means necessary to accomplish a mission.

In the seventeenth chapter of the Diamond Sutra the Buddha said an amazing thing. He said, “Subhuti, in the dharma realized or taught by the Tathagata, there is nothing true or false. Thus the Tathagata says, ‘all dharmas are buddha dharmas.’” This statement requires some serious reflection. What does it mean, “true” or “false?” And what does it mean “all dharmas are buddha dharmas”?

Let’s examine this together. Something is either true or false when it either matches or doesn’t match a given standard. In conditional life, fixed standards don’t work very well since the conditions keep changing. It is like trying to chain the tides of the ocean. So a standard may work most of the time but not all of the time. Does that mean that we should indiscriminately lie or employ a harsh tone of voice? Yes and No. If there are no inflexible standards to follow, how can we establish “Right Speech?” The answer is Wisdom—the soil upon which the Path lies and if that is the standard then “all dharmas are buddha dharmas,” since wisdom is the ground of all buddhas.

But doesn’t this present the risk of self-serving delusions and spinning truth? Indeed it does which necessitates the need to reflect back to upon the first two steps—Right Views and Right Intentions. “... no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life or a soul.” A “self” being served is not a self being served. That is a delusion. To be truly selfless is the only way to honor the mission of “Right Speech.” When we set aside our own attachments to standards and access wisdom by piercing delusions, then we have a hope of administering right speech. Short of that we will always find ourselves struggling to chain the tides.
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