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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life > Session One: Buddhist Science and Philosophy as the Context, and Right Speech

The Three Trainings and Eightfold Path in Daily Life

Alexander Berzin
Kiev, Ukraine, June 2013

Session One: Buddhist Science and Philosophy as the Context, and Right Speech

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:51 hours)

Thank you very much for your kind introduction. I’m really delighted to be back here in Kiev once more.

Introduction

Buddhist Science, Buddhist Philosophy, and Buddhist Religion

When His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks to a general audience, he makes a certain division that is very helpful, I believe. He speaks of three divisions: Buddhist science, Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist religion.

When we talk about Buddhist science, we’re talking about the science of emotions, how the mind works, what he calls mental and emotional hygiene. Buddhism has a very detailed analysis of all the various emotional states and how they work, how they go together, etc.

Then there’s also:

  • Cognitive science in terms of how our perception works, the nature of consciousness itself (what is it?), the various types of trainings to help us to develop concentration.
  • Quite a detailed analysis of cosmogony – how the universe starts, how it endures and ends.
  • A detailed analysis of matter and energy, subatomic particles, etc.
  • Medicine and how the energies in the body work.

All of this is in the sphere of Buddhist science. This is something that anybody can learn from, anybody can profit from or benefit from, and the Dalai Lama holds many discussions with scientists about this.

Then there’s Buddhist philosophy, the second division, and this includes things like:

  • Ethics. So the discussion of basic human values that are not necessarily related to any religion. Anybody can benefit from these types of basic human values like kindness, generosity, etc.
  • And there’s a very detailed presentation of logic and metaphysics. That has to do with set theory, universals, particulars, qualities, characteristics, how they work together and how we know them, this type of thing.
  • A detailed analysis of causality, cause and effect, and the basic understanding of reality and how our projections distort reality.

So that whole sphere of Buddhist philosophy is something that is not necessarily limited to Buddhists. This is again something that everybody can benefit from.

And then the third division is Buddhist religion. This is the actual sphere of Buddhist practice, having to do with things like karma and rebirth, ritual practices (like mantra recitation, visualization, etc.). So that’s the actual sphere of Buddhist religion and what is specific for people who follow the Buddhist path.

If we think in terms of this threefold division – Buddhist science, philosophy, and religion – we can examine how our topic, these three trainings, fit into that context.

The Three Trainings

So what are these three trainings?

The first one is in ethical self-discipline (tshul-khrims). This means refraining from destructive behavior – so the discipline to actually get us to do that, to stop acting in destructive ways (basically self-destructive ways) – engaging in constructive behavior, and having the discipline to help others. This is the first training, discipline, but it’s ethical discipline and ethical self-discipline. It’s not that we are trying to discipline others. It’s not like we’re training our dog.

The second training is in concentration (ting-nge-’dzin), and this is to get our mind focused so that we don’t constantly have mental wandering with all sorts of extraneous thoughts. And so our mind is not dull; it’s sharp and focused. Also what’s necessary for concentration is that we have emotional stability as well so that we’re not upset emotionally by anger or attachment or jealousy or anything like that. So we need mental stability and emotional stability.

Then the third training is in discriminating awareness (shes-rab). Discriminating awareness – we need to understand what that’s talking about. It sounds like a technical term, doesn’t it? But it’s the ability to discriminate or differentiate between what is to be accepted and adopted and what’s to be rejected. It’s like for instance when you go shopping and there’s a whole section of vegetables that you’re buying. You discriminate: “Well, this one doesn’t look very good. That one looks very good.” So you discriminate between them – what’s to be accepted, what’s to be rejected.

But that discriminating awareness can be on a much more profound level than just shopping for vegetables. We have this discriminating awareness:

  • In terms of our behavior – what is appropriate behavior, what’s inappropriate behavior – depending on what the circumstances are, the people that we’re with, etc.
  • And, much deeper, to discriminate between reality and what are our projections of fantasy.

So these are our three trainings in ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness. Now, these three can be presented simply in terms of Buddhist science and philosophy, which then can be applicable and appropriate for anybody, or they can be presented in terms of both that and Buddhist religion.

That corresponds to a division scheme that I myself like to use between what’s called Dharma-lite and the “Real Thing” Dharma (like Coca-Cola Light/Lite and the Real Thing Coca-Cola). Dharma-lite is practicing the methods from Buddhist science and philosophy just for the sake of improving this lifetime, and the “Real Thing” Dharma is adopting these three for the sake of the three Buddhist goals – a better rebirth, liberation from rebirth, and enlightenment.

When we speak of Dharma-lite, I usually speak of that in terms of a preparation for the “Real Thing” Dharma, sort of the preliminary step. You need to recognize “I need to work on just improving my ordinary life” in order to then think of further spiritual goals. But if we think just in terms of Buddhist science and philosophy, it doesn’t have to be a preliminary to Buddhist religion; it can be for absolutely anybody. So that’s the level at which I’d like to discuss the topic in just general, basic guidelines and advice of how we can use these three trainings to improve our life, whether we think in terms of a preliminary to a Buddhist path or we think of it just in general, for anybody.

The Four Noble Truths

Now, in the sphere of Buddhist philosophy (I suppose we would call this), we have a general presentation of the way in which Buddhist thinking works. It’s usually called the four noble truths, but you can think of it just in terms of four facts of life:

  1. Looking at suffering and problems that we all face. That’s the first. So that’s a fact. Everybody faces problems. Life is difficult.
  2. The second fact is that these problems come from causes.
  3. The third fact is that there is such a thing as a stopping, a getting rid of the problems. It’s not that we are condemned to always experience them and we have to just shut up and accept it.
  4. And the fourth fact is that the way we get rid of the problems is to get rid of the causes of the problems, and that is by means of following some sort of… it’s usually called a path, but it’s referring to a way of understanding, a way of acting, a way of speaking, and so on.

So if our faulty way of acting and speaking, communicating, and thinking is causing our problems, we have to change that. These three trainings, then, are part of what we need to do to get rid of the causes of our problems. So this is a very helpful way of understanding these three because it indicates why we would train in them. If we’re having difficulties in life, then we see:

  • Well, is there a problem in my ethical discipline with how I act?
  • Is there a problem in my concentration – I’m just all over the place, an emotional mess?
  • Is there a problem especially in my way of differentiating between realty and my crazy projections?

And this can apply to just our ordinary life in this lifetime, or it can be in terms of the problems that we might encounter in future lives, with rebirth in general, with our limitations in helping others (so the more spiritual goals). But I think that on a beginning level, we need to really consider these trainings just in terms of our everyday life: How can they help us? What are we doing that’s causing our problems? And what can we do to alleviate that – what changes can we make? Okay.

The Cause of Suffering

In general, from a Buddhist point of view – Buddhist philosophy again – we would say that the cause of suffering is our unawareness. So we’re unaware. We just don’t know two things, or we’re confused about two things.

The first thing that we are unaware of is basically cause and effect, cause and effect in terms of our behavior. This is saying that if we have disturbing emotions – we’re under the influence of anger or greed or attachment, pride, jealousy, etc. – then we act destructively. We yell at people because we are angry, we do things that hurt them, or we cling onto them, and this causes problems. And all of this, as a result, brings us unhappiness, doesn’t it? So this is the first problem. The problem is unhappiness. And where does our unhappiness come from? It comes from acting destructively because of these disturbing emotions – speaking, acting, or behaving in a way that is completely stupid. Right? It’s self-destructive, basically.

It’s very helpful to look at the definition of a disturbing emotion. It’s a state of mind which, when it arises, we lose our peace of mind and we lose self-control. We yell at somebody out of anger, and it may upset them or it may not upset them (they may not hear what we say; they may just laugh and think we’re stupid). But we have no peace of mind – we’re really emotionally upset (our energy is upset) – and that lasts after we stop yelling, and that’s an unpleasant experience. And we lose self-control because we say things that later we might regret.

So we act in that way because:

  • We really don’t understand cause and effect. If we act in this type of way under the influence of these types of disturbing emotions, it’s going to make us unhappy.
  • Or we’re confused about it; we understand it in the opposite way. We think “Well, if I yell at this person, it’ll make me feel better,” which of course it never does. Or because of attachment, you yell at somebody – “Why don’t you call more often? Why don’t you come and see me more often?” – and of course that just chases them away, doesn’t it? It doesn’t accomplish what we want. So we’re confused about cause and effect.

The second type of unawareness, the second topic that we are confused about or just don’t know, is about reality. Because of confusion about reality, we get disturbing attitudes. An example of that would be self-preoccupation. We’re always thinking of me, me, me and myself, and how I should be. It can be very judgmental. And then you get a whole syndrome of “I have to be perfect,” and you get perfectionism, for example. Even if we act in a constructive type of way trying to be perfect and get everything in order, and so on, then it’s very compulsive, isn’t it? Although we might temporarily be happy, it changes very, very quickly to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. We still think “But I’m not good enough,” and then you have to try more and more and push yourself.

An easy example is somebody who’s a perfectionist in terms of cleaning their house. They’re under the misconception that they could somehow control everything and keep everything in order and clean. Well, that’s impossible, isn’t it? So you get everything clean, you try to make it perfect, and you feel very good, and then the children come home and they mess it up, and then you’re dissatisfied and you have to clean it again. It’s compulsive, isn’t it? And every time you finally feel a little bit of happiness – “Ahh, now it’s in order” – it goes very quickly, doesn’t it? There’s always a spot that you missed.

And then by repeating these states of mind, whether it’s this disturbing emotion or a disturbing attitude, and repeating this type of compulsive behavior, you get what we call the all-pervasive suffering. All-pervasive suffering is talking about how we build up the habits of all of this so that we perpetuate our problems – they just repeat over and over again – because we’ve made it such a habit of constantly cleaning or constantly losing our temper.

And it affects our bodies as well. We’re always angry and so on, and so then we have high blood pressure, and you get an ulcer from worrying, and this type of thing. Or you’re a perfectionist – everything has to be clean and in order – so you’re always tense, aren’t you? You’re never relaxed, because “Oh, I have to be on guard in case dirt comes in.”

So what we need are these three trainings:

  • We need discriminating awareness to get rid of this unawareness, this confusion. Like for instance it’s impossible to control the orderliness and cleanliness of my house. That’s impossible. And so you need to differentiate, to discriminate, between this fantasy you have that somehow everything could be perfect and under control and “Me, I’m the one who could control it” – you have to see that this is absurd; it doesn’t refer to reality. I mean, of course you try to keep your house clean, but you don’t feel as though “I have to get it so that it never gets dirty.” Of course it’s going to get dirty. So you’re more relaxed. So this discriminating awareness is between what’s reality – “Of course it’s going to get dirty. Nobody can control that” – and fantasy. The texts use the example of cutting down a tree. So this is like the sharp axe to cut through our confusion.
  • But in order to cut down the tree with this axe, you need to always hit it in the same place, and so this is concentration. If our mind is wandering and distracted, and so on, then you lose that discriminating awareness. Or if we’re emotionally upset, also you lose that discrimination. So we need concentration to always hit the same place with the axe.
  • But in order to use that axe, we need to have strength – if you don’t have the strength, you can’t even pick it up – and that strength comes from self-discipline, ethical self-discipline.

Well, this is the way in which we can understand these three trainings in this context of what can we do to overcome the source of our problems. And as I said, we can then apply this in a Buddhist science/philosophy type of way to our ordinary lives. Okay?

So let’s take a moment to just digest that before we go on:

  • We want to use this discriminating awareness between reality and fantasy so that we understand clearly cause and effect in terms of my behavior and reality. Because when I’m confused about this or I don’t realize that this is the cause of my problems, by my behavior and my attitude I create either being unhappy or having the type of happiness that never satisfies and I get dissatisfied. As in the example of, on the one hand, always losing my temper or always nagging somebody – “Why don’t you call me? Why don’t you come more often?” – and on the other side, being a perfectionist. You need the discrimination to understand that acting under this confusion just causes problems.
  • But to understand that and to apply that, I need to stay focused on this, so I need concentration.
  • And in order to concentrate, I need discipline so that when my mind wanders away, I bring it back.
  • And I want to apply all of these trainings and develop myself in these basically in order to get rid of my problems and be happy, to improve the quality of my life.

Okay? So digest that for a moment.

I think the key insight that we need to gain in all of this is that the unhappiness and dissatisfaction that we have in life is basically coming from our confusion. Rather than blaming all our problems on others and on circumstances, society, or economics, or whatever, focus on a deeper level. We may have economic problems, financial problems, and difficult situations with family and sickness, and so on. That’s one thing. But here we’re talking on a deeper level, which is our state of mind in dealing with these situations. We may have a lot of difficult situations, but here we’re talking about feeling unhappy in general or feeling a type of happiness that never lasts and is never satisfying, and we want something better than that, a type of happiness that is with peace of mind and more lasting.

We could face a difficult situation with depression and being absolutely miserable. Or we can face it with more peace of mind because we see more clearly what’s happening, what’s involved, what are the ways to deal with it, not just feel sorry for ourselves. Or you know how sometimes when you have a child and the child goes out at night, you’re really worried about “Are they going to get home safely?” and this sort of thing. And so again it’s this attitude that “Somehow I can be in control of the safety of my child,” which is of course a fantasy. And they come home safely and you feel happy, you feel relieved, but the next time they go out, again you worry. So that type of feeling at ease doesn’t last, does it? And then we’re always worried, so it perpetuates – we’ve made it into such a habit that we worry about everything – and it affects our health, and that’s a very unpleasant state.

So the real key is to understand that the cause of all of this is my confusion. I think that acting in a certain way is going to make me happy. Or I think that my attitude about reality – that I can be in control – is correct, but it’s not. So we have to cut through this – “This is absurd” – and stay with that, stay focused on that, and have the strength to always stay focused.

Okay, so this is a general idea of the three trainings.

Questions and Answers

Are there any questions about that before we go into what are the three trainings and how do you train in them?

Participant: Can you say something about the sequence of adopting this training? Is there a sequence, or do we do them all at the same time?

Alex: There are several sequences in which this is presented. I’ll discuss that. But the basic training that you start with is the discipline, and then you can apply that. If you can discipline your way of acting and speaking, then that gives you the strength to be able to discipline your mind with concentration. Then when you’re able to use concentration, you can develop this discriminating awareness.

But then there’s another presentation, which says that if you can develop this discrimination, then you will act and speak, and so on, in a proper way. So you get the discipline following from that. And then that leads to concentration. And with concentration, you can get back into the discriminating awareness.

However, when we have trained sufficiently in these three, we combine them and apply all of them at the same time together.

Participant: My question is about the difference between perfectionism and efficiency. There is a very thin line, a very subtle line, which differentiates them. For example, if you are a manager and you have some people around you who are working, if you’re not a perfectionist you might not care about what they’re doing and so you’ll be less effective. How do we deal with that? How do we find this balance of effectiveness and perfectionism?

Alex: The difference I think between being efficient and trying to be a perfectionist has to do with this self-preoccupation. Perfectionism has this whole idea that “I have to be perfect” – it’s a focus on me – “I have to be able to control everything so that it is perfect.” And because it is based on this fantasy that it’s possible for you to control everything independently of all the other causes and circumstances and situations, you’re always tense. It’s a disturbing attitude, so – back to the definition – you don’t have peace of mind when you’re a perfectionist, because you’re always tense that something might go wrong, and then “I have to correct it. And if it goes wrong, it’s my fault.” And being a perfectionist, you tend to lose self-control so that you yell at your workers if they’re late or if they’re not doing something correctly.

Being efficient doesn’t have to do with an ego trip of “Me, I have to be perfect.” Efficient is just seeing what works, what doesn’t work, and just doing things in the way that is optimal. But to actually be efficient, you need to be realistic. And being realistic means that you know that sometimes your workers get sick, sometimes the machinery breaks, and you’re not tense that “Oh, I have to be in control of it.” You deal with whatever happens: This one is sick, so you substitute. The machine breaks – “Okay, so today we’re not going to be as productive as the other days,” and you get it fixed. So you’re much more relaxed. This works in terms of business, it works in terms of your family, it works in terms of your personal life, and so on.

Someone in the back had a question.

Participant: My question is about ethics. In some books and texts, I’ve seen descriptions of great teachers who didn’t behave themselves ethically. And different countries have different customs. For example, in ancient Greece it was normal to live with a young boy, but my question is not about this. My idea is that maybe ethics is just a way of devising these different categories and that different cultures have different conventions. Is that so?

Alex: Well, you’ve asked two questions here.

First in terms of reading about various teachers who act in an unethical type of way: you have to make a differentiation between those who are acting improperly because they’re really not qualified teachers, and so they’re abusive teachers – and there are certainly many examples of that – and those that are acting in a strong way for a specific purpose and it’s going to be of benefit. For instance, my own teacher (Serkong Rinpoche) always used to scold me and call me an idiot – that was practically the only name that he used for me – because I came to him from a strong Harvard background, where I excelled, and I was very arrogant. So his scolding me was very, very helpful actually, because it pointed out to me that I really was an idiot and I wasn’t so smart, and it helped me very much to develop humility. So it was very, very helpful. He was acting in this scolding manner, which could be destructive in certain contexts, but he was acting like that out of a motivation to try to help me. He wasn’t acting like that out of a motivation of being angry with me or wanting to hurt me. So that’s the difference.

Now, in terms of cultural aspects of ethics, there are certain acts that are said to just be naturally destructive – for instance, killing. So, for instance, if you have a culture that says that if you kill somebody in my family, I have to kill somebody in your family out of revenge. And according to their system of ethics this is correct and that if I don’t kill somebody in revenge, then that’s wrong – well, just from a natural point of view, that’s still destructive. Their ethics is a bit distorted about that point. Whereas if you have a cultural ethic that says that women must always wear a scarf over their head – well, that wearing of a scarf isn’t in itself destructive (it’s a neutral act), and so that’s culturally specific. So in terms of ethics, we need to differentiate certain things that are naturally destructive and certain things that are considered improper or destructive just within a certain framework and not a general framework.

Anything else? Good. Then let’s continue.

Training in Ethical Discipline

When we train in these three trainings, one way or one presentation of how it’s done is with what’s called the eightfold path. These are eight types of practices or things that we train in that are going to develop these three aspects – ethical self-discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness. And each of these eight has an incorrect way of applying it (which we want to rid ourselves of) and a correct or right form that we want to adopt.

So let’s start with ethical discipline. We have three aspects here, three practices:

  • What’s called right speech (yan-dag-pa’i ngag), so a way of speaking, communicating.
  • Right boundary of – the technical term is the right boundary of our actions (yan-dag-pa’i las-kyi mtha’). In other words, how are we going to act? What is the boundary that we don’t go beyond in terms of our physical behavior?
  • And then right livelihood (yan-dag-pa’i ‘tsho-ba), how we make a living.

So they entail refraining from a destructive way of speaking, a destructive way of acting, a destructive way of making a living, and engaging in a constructive way of each of these that will benefit others.

Wrong Speech

Let’s look at what would be considered wrong speech, the type of speech that would cause unhappiness and problems:

  • The first one is lying, saying what’s not true. So this is basically deceiving others. And what’s the problem with that? Well, the problem with that is that if we are known to be somebody who lies and somebody who cheats and deceives others in terms of what we say, then nobody’s going to believe us; nobody’s going to trust us. So this is an unhappy, unsatisfactory situation then.
  • The second destructive way of speaking is speaking in a divisive type of way, which means to say bad things to people about their friends or their partners. And what happens as a result of that? When I’m with you and I say something – “Oh, your friend (your partner, your husband, or your wife) is such a terrible person,” and so on – then what are you going to think? You’re going to think “Well, what does he say behind my back about me?” So if we’re always saying bad things about others, again our relationships will break. People will leave us because they’ll think that we’re going to do the same thing and say bad things about them. Here the motivation, of course, is that we want them to break up.
  • The third one is speaking in a harsh and cruel manner. If we’re always yelling at others and swearing at them and speaking in this very abusive type of way, others will start speaking to us in that way as well. And unless they’re a masochist, nobody wants to be with somebody that’s constantly yelling at them.
  • And then the fourth one is idle chatter. If we’re just talking all the time – “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” – and interrupting people and speaking about just absolutely nothing, nonsense, then what’s the result? No one takes us seriously. People think that we’re just a pain to be with – we’re just constantly talking – and we waste all our time, and we waste other people’s time as well.

So these are the four improper ways of speaking:

  • Lying.
  • Saying bad things about others so that we can get them to part.
  • Speaking harsh and cruel words, words that can hurt somebody.
  • And idle chatter – “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” – about just complete nonsense. Or it can also be gossiping, this type of thing – telling all sorts of things about other people which is really none of their business and none of your business either.

Right Speech

So what would be right speech that we would want to apply discipline with? Constructive speech is the speech that refrains from these four. Right? So the first level of discipline that we develop is that when we feel like saying something that is untrue, or we feel like yelling at someone, or we feel like just chattering away – to recognize that this is destructive, this this will cause unhappiness, and not do it.

That’s not so easy, because you have to catch yourself at the moment where you feel like doing it and before you just compulsively do it. It’s like for instance you feel like having another piece of cake. So before you just compulsively go to the fridge or whatever to take it, realize that “Even though I feel like this, so what? I don’t have to act it out. And if I do act it out, I’ll just become more and more fat. So I don’t want that.” And then you don’t go to the refrigerator. I mean, sometimes we do have the opportunity to do that. I remember the other day I felt like having a piece of cake – that’s why I’m using the example – and I didn’t have any in the house. So I was on my way home, and I started to go to my favorite place where they have the type of cake that I like very much. But as I was walking (so I had a space to think about it), I said, “Hey, I’m trying to lose some weight. And I don’t really need the piece of cake,” so then I – ethical discipline – so then I turned back and just went home. That’s what we’re talking about in terms of discipline.

Shantideva, a great Indian Buddhist master, uses the example of when you feel like doing these things, just remain like a block of wood. So I feel like yelling at you or saying something nasty to you, and I realize that’s just going to make me upset, make you upset, and then I just don’t say it. Remain like a block of wood. I feel like telling some stupid joke or making a stupid comment, and I realize that this is just idle chatter, and I don’t say it. This type of thing. Okay?

That’s the first level of ethical discipline that’s involved here, which is when you feel like speaking in one of these four destructive ways, remember that this will only cause unhappiness and problems, and don’t say it; don’t say anything.

But then the second level is the discipline to actually do what is constructive – so to speak in a constructive way – again from realizing that this will bring more happiness, make a more harmonious situation. So what are we doing here? We’re thinking in terms of cause and effect.

Cultivating right speech requires a very conscious effort and a strong resolution to speak truthfully, gently, kindly, at the appropriate time and in the appropriate measure, and only what’s meaningful:

  • So you don’t constantly interrupt people with constantly calling them or constantly SMSing them, messaging them, and so on, about what you just had for breakfast or “Oh, I don’t like what this person said,” and so on. I mean, it’s meaningless chatter, and it interrupts others.
  • Or speaking in the appropriate measure. I find that I have a problem with getting impatient with people. Somebody tries to convince me of something to do with my website or with whatever, and they explain it once, and I say “Fine, I’ll do that,” and then they continue to try to convince me, and they go on and on, but I’ve already said yes to this. So this is in the proper measure – when the person agrees, end of conversation; go on to something else.

So we try to be helpful in the way that we speak and in a way that creates harmony rather than creating division.

Now, of course you have to use discrimination (I mean, all these three trainings fit together). So speak truthfully – well, if somebody is wearing an ugly shirt or an ugly dress and you know it’s really going to hurt them, you don’t just say “Well, that really is ugly” or “You look terrible.” So sometimes you have to be skillful, and again it depends on the person.

My sister was just visiting me in Berlin. We were going out somewhere, and she put on a blouse, and it was a little bit stretched and so on. Well, it’s my sister. I can say to my sister that “That really looks terrible. You should put on another blouse.” But if it was somebody else, you couldn’t say that. So, I mean, again you use your discrimination. What you can say to your sister is quite different from what you can say to others. You wouldn’t say that to your new girlfriend – “That’s an ugly blouse you’re wearing. Put on something else” – when you’re going out on a date with them, even though it would be the truth.

And harsh language – you might need to say something strong. Let’s say if your child is playing with matches, a fire, a cigarette lighter, something like that, you have to speak strongly. But it’s not harsh. Your motivation is not anger. And your motivation for not telling the truth in terms of “That looks terrible” is not that you want to deceive the person. So motivation is really important.

So we have the discipline, ethical discipline, self-discipline, to refrain from destructive ways of speaking and the discipline to engage in constructive ways.

Other Examples of Wrong Speech

Now, there’s the classic presentation of these destructive ways of speaking, but in a program that I developed called sensitivity training, I extended the analysis of these destructive ways of speaking to include not only directing destructive speech toward others but also directing it toward ourselves when we’re dealing with ourselves. So we need to think, I think, in a much broader way about these destructive ways, improper ways, of speaking.

Lying can also include lying to others about our feelings or our intentions or deceiving myself about what my feelings are toward you or what my actual intention is toward you. We might be very nice with somebody and speak nicely, and so on – saying “I love you” etc. – and we might even fool ourselves into thinking about that, but actually what we want is their money or something else. We are, in a sense, lying about it, deceiving. That doesn’t mean that we tell the person, “Well, actually I don’t love you. I just want your money.” That’s a bit inappropriate. But the thing is to examine in ourselves have we been truthful about what we actually feel about somebody, what our intentions are with this person, and correct it if it is on the basis of a disturbing emotion – greed for their money, and so on.

And divisive speech: it’s not only saying things that will part someone from their friends, but it can also be speaking so obnoxiously that it causes our friends to become disgusted with us and leave us. So it’s not only that we’re trying to make your friends leave you, but the way that we speak is so horrible – like for instance always complaining – that it drives everybody else away from us. People who are constantly negative – always complaining, always saying how bad everything is, and so on – we don’t want to be with them. So, likewise, if we’re always like that, who wants to be with us? Or speaking nonstop so that you don’t even give the other person a chance to say anything. That also drives people away. I mean, I know people who speak like that, and I don’t want to be with them particularly. So if I speak like that, nobody would want to be with me. So it’s very important to say nice things about others – not just bad things and complain about them – say nice things about others and to be positive, not negative all the time.

Then harsh language. We want to stop not only verbally abusing others but stop verbally abusing ourselves. There are a lot of people who say terrible things to themselves: “Oh, you’re such an idiot,” “You’re so stupid,” “You’re so horrible,” “How could anybody like you?” and so on. You say very nasty things. And if you said that to somebody else, that would be very cruel. But it’s very cruel directed toward us. It certainly doesn’t make you any happier, does it? So what’s very important is our attitude toward ourselves and how we treat ourselves and how we speak to ourselves in our minds.

Idle chatter. It’s not only wasting others’ time and our own time by interrupting them with SMSs and Facebook posting and tweets about trivial things all the time. It’s not only that – that’s really idle chatter (it wastes their time; it wastes my time) – but also in this category of gossip, which is another type of idle chatter, don’t betray the confidence of others by revealing their private matters to other people. Somebody tells you in confidence that whatever – that they’re gay or that they have cancer or whatever it might be – but keep it to yourself. “I needed to tell somebody, but don’t tell others” – and then you immediately tell everybody else. This is certainly idle chatter. It’s betraying their confidence.

But now we look at it in terms of ourselves. Don’t speak indiscriminately about our own private matters to others – our doubts, our worries, and so on. You don’t need to share that, for instance, with your children. You’re a parent, you have a young child, and you say, “Oh, but I’m so worried. How am I going to get enough to feed us? How am I going to pay the rent?” I mean, you don’t have to share that with your child. Or “Oh, I’m having difficulty with my girlfriend (or my boyfriend).” There are certain people that you don’t share that with. So we have to refrain from speaking indiscriminately to certain people about our own things that are none of anybody else’s business or that are inappropriate.

So this is the first aspect here. Right speech, it’s called – proper speech. So think about that for a moment, and then perhaps you have some questions. When you think about it, by the way, what you need to do is to review in your mind: How do I actually speak with others? How do I speak to myself?

Okay. I think we can extend this even further to the whole topic of speaking in an appropriate way to appropriate people in situations. There are certain situations (and certain people) in which you need to speak in a very polite way and other situations in which you would speak in a very informal way. So to speak informally in company where you need to speak politely – that’s inappropriate, isn’t it? It makes everybody uncomfortable. Or when you try to explain something to a child, you have to explain in a way that the child can understand. You don’t explain the same way you would explain it to a professor at a university.

Questions and Answers

What questions do you have about the way we communicate and the discipline that would be involved in refraining from speaking in destructive or inappropriate ways, the discipline involved with speaking in constructive ways, and the discipline involved in speaking in a way that’s going to be helpful to others?

Participant: My question is generally about discipline itself. When we’re trying to train in discipline, we will have some errors while doing it, so my question is about how to react to these errors in a healthy way without blaming ourselves.

Alex: Well, discipline is involved with setting boundaries, that “I’m going to not go beyond that boundary.” So if we do go beyond the boundary, which inevitably we will – so I deceive you or I yell at you, or whatever – then the first thing is that we need to acknowledge that we made a mistake. I mean, there’s a set of opponents that are used here:

  • First you have to acknowledge it, so that’s being honest with yourself.
  • Then regret. Regret is very different from guilt. Regret is that “I wish I hadn’t said that, but it doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.” Guilt is identifying with “I’m a bad person,” holding on to “What I said was so bad,” and not letting go.
  • Then you resolve to try not to repeat it.
  • And you reaffirm what direction you’re going in – so your motivation – that “I want to avoid going beyond that boundary, because it just makes me unhappy; it causes problems.” You reaffirm that.
  • And then you apply an opponent. So, for instance, if you yell at somebody, you apologize: say “I’m sorry. I was really in a bad mood. I regret that. I hope that I won’t repeat it.” So you try to counteract it.

So what’s very, very helpful as a guideline is when you call somebody… I mean, people are SMSing all the time and interrupting everybody, which is a terrible idle-chatter type of thing of always interrupting people. But if you call somebody, the first thing to say is “Are you busy? Do you have a moment? Is this a good time?” Check to see. Maybe they are busy. Maybe this isn’t a good time. Don’t just insist that what you have to say is so important that they have to drop everything and listen to you.

This SMS habit – you get very angry if people don’t answer it immediately. So it’s the same type of thing: we assume that what we are asking or saying demands that they stop everything, read it, and answer it. This certainly makes for very bad concentration – they’re not able to concentrate – so it’s destructive to the other person and destructive to yourself (because you think “I’m so important”). So again you would apologize to the other person for sending them completely meaningless, unimportant SMSes and say “I’ll only SMS you when it’s really important. And please only answer if you have time.”

Participant: My question is about uniting our positive motivation to help someone and our way of speaking. For example, if our motivation is to bring benefit to the other person but we need to speak in some not very gentle way, would it be better for us just to keep silent? Or should we say that thing which would be not so gentle but say it with a positive motivation?

Alex: Oh, definitely you need to say things in very strong ways in certain situations – like for instance if your child is playing with a cigarette lighter.

Participant: My example is not about the person who I’m talking to but it’s about a third person who is not here. So if we’re speaking about some third person who might be of bad character, should we talk about him in this way?

Alex: That’s a very delicate subject. For instance, your teenage child is hanging around with friends who are into drugs or into stealing or whatever, and then it’s very difficult (if you say bad things about their friends to a teenager, usually they’ll rebel and do the exact opposite). So your motivation to divide them from their friends is that you want to benefit your child; it’s not that you want those friends for yourself, you’re jealous. But then you need to be skillful, because for them to leave their friends – you basically have to get them motivated, motivated by seeing that “Well, how is this affecting you?” So this is not so easy.

I think actually one needs to not so much focus on dividing them from the friends but dividing them from the bad habits. The Dalai Lama always points this out, that you need to differentiate the person from their behavior. You have to differentiate their friends as persons from the behavior of their friends. In that way, if they can see that always being into drugs or getting drunk all the time, and so on, is having a negative effect on them, then either they will stop hanging out with these people or, even when being with them, they won’t drink or take the drug.

This is very difficult with teenagers, but more relevant things are people who are with misleading teachers or people who are with… I’m thinking of an example of somebody who was a financial advisor. And a financial advisor basically just wants to make money off of you (“Well, if you buy this stock or if you buy this policy…” and the advisor will make five percent). So to warn somebody and say, “Hey, they’ll just try to sell you anything so that they can make a profit.” So then again your motivation is to help this person not to be taken advantage of. So rather than say “This person is a bad person and just wants to make money off of you and cheat you,” what’s more skillful is to say just the reality: “Whatever they sell you, this person is going to make five percent profit on it, so it is to his benefit to sell you something. It is to your benefit to try to do an investigation and find out, figure out, if what they’re recommending is appropriate or not.” So you’re not actually saying something bad about the person; you’re just saying the reality, that their main thing is to make a profit and they’re trained to be friendly to you so that you’ll trust them.

It’s like somebody trying to sell you a used car. You never trust them. They’re just interested in selling the used car. They’re not going to tell you what’s wrong with it. They’re going to just try to convince you – by being friendly and so on – to buy it. It’s up to you to really test it out. So this is what you would say: test it out.

One last question.

Participant: How do we understand what our real motivation is? Sometimes, in some cases, on the surface it may seem that we have a positive motivation to help someone, but deep inside our motivation is destructive. So how do we differentiate between them?

Alex: Be honest with yourself and analyze – look more and more deeply. And the thing that is very, very helpful is to look at the definition of a disturbing emotion: it makes you lose your peace of mind. In examining how you’ve been acting or speaking or dealing with a situation, is your energy calm or is it upset? So try to quiet down to be sensitive enough to your energy to see “Well, am I uneasy or not?”

Okay, so let’s end here for today, and we’ll continue working through the so-called eightfold path tomorrow. Thank you.