Is every word that comes out of your mouth an expression of compassion? No? Me either. Let’s talk about that.
Traditionally, we’d say a bodhisattva has four “methods” (in an early Pali text, the Sangaha Sutta, they’re called “bases of sympathy”). The first is giving, which can seem really complicated—what is ours to give? How much can we afford? The second, loving speech, seems pretty simple by comparison. Just say nice things. How hard is that?
Pretty hard. I’ve known people—just a few—who only use loving speech, who only speak from a place of kindness (or, when they can’t, don’t say anything at all). It’s jarring to be around that—wonderful, in a way, but it can seem almost naïve, or even just boring. So much of our humor, for example, is about poking at people, sometimes cruelly. What would late night TV be if the hosts only used loving speech? And what if someone isn’t being nice to me? Why would I offer those people loving words?
Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, describes loving speech in a way that makes it seem pretty hard to pull off. He said we need to take every opportunity to use loving speech, to use “caring and loving words” and not “violent or harmful words.” We can’t accomplish this if we’re lazy—moment by moment, not only do we have to refrain from unkind words, which might be what we resort to for fun, or out of habit, or because we’re being reactive, but we also have to pay real attention to what it means for words to be “loving.” Dogen was clear that loving speech does not mean praise; it isn’t telling someone what they want to hear; it isn’t being false for the sake of being “nice.”
All this would be easier if we could just start from a place of perfect compassion. If that’s where you are, read no further—you’ve got this. But for most of us, we need to learn what compassion is every day, and we don’t get there just by imagining it. We get there by doing it. That means that when we speak, and we’re not sure what to say, we have to give some thought to what might be beneficial and what might be harmful. That might mean we have to pause. It might mean we say nothing. And it almost certainly means that if we’re aiming for perfection, for speech that is compassionate and honest and exactly what that person needs to hear right now, we’re going to miss the mark.
Dogen wrote, “Whether subduing a deadly enemy or making peace, loving-speech is fundamental.” One of the questions that comes up in Buddhist circles all the time is “If Buddhism is so peaceful, does that mean I can’t defend myself is someone is hurting me?” I’ve heard lots of teachers speak to this, and the response is moving and challenging, in equal parts: By all means, yes, defend yourself, but do so in part because you’re helping the other person to stop causing harm.
That’s a very high bar, to hit back for the other person’s benefit. But that’s the bar we’re offered. And tricky—we can delude ourselves into believing that what we’re saying is kindness, that it’s exactly what that person needs to hear, when it’s really more for our own sense of power or catharsis, or when we genuinely don’t know but want to say something.
Still, we try. We write that letter to our local representative, the one who seems to have no one’s interests in mind but his own, and we make clear that we are pushing back not to create greater separation but in order to close that gap. We find a way to wish him and his family well, even if we aren’t sure in our heart of hearts that he would wish us the same. At the dinner table, maybe we even refrain from making that joke about him, lest we make it even more difficult to return to that voice of compassion later, when it really counts.
Try this on, just for a day. Write a little reminder to yourself, so you see it first thing in the morning: Loving Speech. Your partner, your boss, your kids, the neighbour, the talking heads on TV—offer them all compassion, not just in your heart but with your own mouth, forming the words. Make that little offering, however small, and refrain from the rest.
It probably won’t come naturally. But it may not be as hard as you think. And the next day, I promise, it’ll be easier.
Author: Koun Franz
Koun Franz is a Montana-born Soto Zen priest who trained, taught, and translated in traditional monasteries in Japan. He is the guiding teacher of Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax, Nova Scotia; his talks can be found on the their podcast.
There is so much leeway in the terms caring and loving – and ‘skillful speech’ – that different people intent on expressing themselves from a place of compassion can veer widely and even wildly in their responses to the same situations.