I took a mindfulness workshop at a friend’s yoga studio this weekend. The class was taught by an ordained monastic in the Jonang lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I’m not much of a follower of anything, but Buddhism offers something for everyone. I learned that one of the limbs of smrti, Sanskrit for mindfulness, is that, “One is mindful to abandon wrong speech and to enter and remain in right speech.”
So what is right speech? I’d think it is language that attempts to be as true and factual as possible, though, of course, there’s always a lowercase “t” on truth and facts can be subjective sometimes. But according to the monk, right speech is not necessarily truthful. It is helpful rather than factual. It is kind. It is timely.
Here’s an example:
An angry, armed man knocks on your door and asks for your brother. You know that he is upstairs asleep. Would you tell the truth and send the shooter upstairs or would you say that your brother left for the airport an hour ago?
Of course, you’d tell him the latter. That would be the “right speech” for the time, although it is not factual.
But circumstances are not always this clear. Do you tell your spouse that you cheated on her once—only once, a long time ago, while you were still engaged? Doing so would relieve your conscience but burden your wife. Do you rat out a friend who has lied on his resume, knowing that if he loses his job, he won’t be able to support his family? It’s not fair that he takes credit for things he didn’t do, and yet his three kids would pay the price.
Oftentimes, we are faced with these dilemmas. Trishia Jacobs shared an interesting conversation posted by Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago. ”What do you do if a dying family member wants to know that you believe in Jesus and god before their impending death? If you tell the truth they may hate you, but yet you don’t want to lie to them. What do you see as the solution?”
One woman responded, “Always be true to yourself. Why should my beliefs have any bearing on whether or not they get into a make believe utopia? They should be content in THEIR own beliefs.” There were many others like her who agreed.
Seems heartless, thinking only of yourself when someone you supposedly love is in pain physically and emotionally. You and I both know why a dying Christian would ask this: He wants hope that he’ll be reunited with you and those he loves. Is that such a bad thing? What is the right speech, and what will it cost? If we are being helpful, kind, timely and merciful, we will ease the emotional burden of the person who is dying. There is no cost to us, no price we’ll pay by simply saying “I believe in Jesus” or by giving a squeeze on the arm for assent. Our rights will not have been affected, nor will our lack of belief. The conversation will soon be buried, gone forever. And the truth could be that you believe in what Jesus taught about love and kindness, but not in his divinity.
It is important to teach our children right speech, too, because it takes the focus off them and encourages empathy and compassion. Wisdom comes from knowing when to make an issue of religion and when to make peace.