One Nation and Right Speech

Yesterday’s theme, Silence in action, is just one approach to changing the world. I am a person who believes that individual suffering and the sufferings of the entire world are inextricably linked together, and further I believe that Buddhism has as its aim the salvation of both.

There are times when silence is the wisest course of action, and then times when people need to raise their collective voices, and in the case of today’s One Nation March, recommit their voices, and hearts and minds, to change. With the election of Barack Obama this country was handed an opportunity, no that’s wrong, we grabbed an opportunity to affect meaningful change. We took it, and we embraced that moment and absorbed all of it, squeezed every bit of hope and joy we could – but only for a moment, then we handed it back. Since then, the moment, the opportunity for change, has belonged to the ugly voices of those who preach hate and fear and division.

One Nation Working Together. Who could have a problem with that?

Well, the answer is not surprising. Glenn Beck, of course. He has denounced the march as a “Socialist Communist Plot.”

We must do something about our level of discourse. It is really getting out of hand. There’s a congressman from Georgia, a Dr. Paul Broun, Jr. who claims that we are “headed for socialism” because the Center for Disease Control wants Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. Seriously. He says “They want to get all the power of the federal government to force you to eat more fruits and vegetables. This is what the federal, CDC – they’re going to be calling people to find out how many fruits and vegetables you eat today. This is socialism of the highest order.” His office claims he was joking. I don’t know. You can see the video here on YouTube.

Even if he is kidding, there are some who will take him seriously and believe it. It is completely irresponsible speech.

The spirit behind the Buddhist principle of Right Speech is not merely to speak the truth or to refrain from idle chatter, but to speak responsibly, to speak carefully, with reason, from wisdom; to use words that heal, that contribute to the solution not add to the problem. This is the spirit that all leaders should have, whether they are in business, politics, or religion.

It’s obvious that many of our nation’s leaders, across the board, are not in touch with this spirit of Right Speech. That’s one reason why I don’t have a problem with socially engaged Buddhism. It’s why I see a real need for Buddhist to have, perhaps not a louder voice, but a wider one.

If the voices those who have the floor today cannot do anything to improve the quality of our national discourse then new voices should step up and be heard. Hopefully, the One Nation March today will be a good step in that direction. To paraphrase the Who, the new voice is the same as the old voice, the one of 2008. We need to recover that voice, and I believe that Buddhist principles can inform that voice in a positive way, but if the Buddhist voice is never heard, no one will know.

As I pointed out in a recent post, the idea of Buddhism informing and guiding the political world goes back to the Buddha himself.  I am not suggesting that Buddhists should form a political party or even thinking in terms of organized social change as much as I have in mind individuals taking a stand right where they are in daily life. I’m talking about practicing responsible speech, and I think too, pointing out irresponsible speech when we hear it. I feel that too often we let inappropriate things be said and left unchallenged by some false notion of civility. But the truth is that when we don’t object to incivility, we are enabling it.

Wrong speech is a form of injustice.

Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest of to impress people. Do not utter words that cause diversion and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

That safety might be our comfort zone. It might be a misguided sense of politeness. It might be in the way we let wrong speech pass by unchallenged because we believe the intention behind it is right minded. However, that is just aiding and abetting. We need to threaten our own safety first. We should be the ones who challenge ourselves out of comfort zones.

Bob Dylan once sang, “There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’.” The battle is the battle to win over ourselves. Individually and collectively. Learning to practice Right Speech should be among the first salvos fired in that fight.

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10 thoughts on “One Nation and Right Speech

  1. “It’s obvious that many of our nation’s leaders, across the board, are not in touch with this spirit of Right Speech. That’s one reason why I don’t have a problem with socially engaged Buddhism. It’s why I see a real need for Buddhist to have, perhaps not a louder voice, but a wider one.”
    — the Reverend”

    David,
    I have only begun looking about at Buddhist blogs and watching Buddhists make comments. I am find them as needful of “right speech” as I find with the Christians, Atheists and others. Just “being Buddhist” gives no one brilliant insight and wisdom or a good tongue, no more than the high ideals of other faiths guarantees quick fixes for their denizens.

    Thus, your call for Buddhists to have a louder voice is not comforting to me at all. I get what your after, but linking a religion with how to run economic institutions or trade policies or health care systems seems a bit naive. But then I know I am naive and maybe I am missing something.

    1. Sabio, thanks for your comments. First, you are right, there are a few Buddhist bloggers out who need take a different approach in their “speech.” Rude and crude is not an approach that works for me.

      I don’t think that you do get what I am after. It has nothing to do with running anything. I’m saying that Buddhism has a positive point of view, one that in the case of this post, might help raise the level of our national discourse (which I think to some extent is reflected with the aforementioned bloggers), if that point of view had more of a forum. I see nothing wrong with Buddhism exerting some influence upon the collective consciousness. Perhaps this is difficult to understand for someone who does not have a core philosophy. Don’t take that the wrong way but I’m just saying I’m not sure that being an atheist is about anything in particular, so much as it is being against something, and therefore, by itself, does not have core principles.

      1. “rude and crude” are almost more managable than haughty, self-content, smug, and many more. If you include all those, it happens on many (not a few) Buddhist blogs. My point — they are people. Their Buddhism does not drastically transform them.

        Christianity has a positive point of view too and might help raise national discourse. <– See, we could substitute Sufism, Judaism, Taoism, Mormonism and lots more in there. And we could make those same substitution in your sentence:
        "I see nothing wrong with Buddhism exerting some influence upon the collective consciousness." And I know you don't want that.

        I think this exposes a false assumption on the unique brilliance that just being a Buddhist makes someone. Everyone feels that about their religion. Everyone thinks their religion should have a bigger voice in politics. So it should be obvious, to keep the flag of religion out of it. Do your thing, be the best you can and try to speak out in Politics without dragging religion into like everyone else.

        Concerning "Atheism" — it is a label stuck on me because I don't believe in a theist god — that is all to that. And I don't carry it into the political realm either.

        1. Sabio, I am not talking about dragging religion into politics, per se. You are kind of missing my point completely or else I am failing to explain myself very well.

          I happen to believe that Buddhism has a fairly unique take on a number of different subjects. Not saying it is superior or anything, just unique. Most people, as recent polls have shown, know little about Buddhism or have misconceptions. If Buddhist values were more widely known, this could possibly have a positive influence on society. That is the crux of what I am saying.

          Maybe the other religions you mention have positive contributions to make with their philosophies also, but I don’t practice them. I am looking at things from a Buddhist perspective. If I thought those other religious philosophies had a better take, I might be tempted to try them. I don’t however.

          Christianity may have a positive view, or maybe not. Frankly, I think Christianity has a very narrow point of view and I think there are aspects of it that contribute to society being generally narrow-minded and ignorant. So I can’t say that I am really in favor of more Christianity.

          I don’t have a problem with religion being political. I don’t know where you are but in the US we have this “separation of church and state” thing, which only refers to the government establishing religion and interfering with freedom of choice. It doesn’t mean religions can’t be political or active in social causes.

          Yes, there are haughty and smug blogs out there. They are certainly easier to take though than angry, in your face, let-me-make-some-outrageous-comments-to-attract-attention blogs. I am not in favor of more Ann Coulters either. Nor am I particularly tempted to read blog posts that have the words fart or crap in the title.

          And you know I don’t want what?

          1. Didn’t mean to come across as irritated. Sorry if I did. Also I see you have a post today with one of those words in the title. I wasn’t referring to you.

  2. PS – I didn’t see the option to follow this post by e-mail. You may want to activate that option so as to facilitate communication. I doubt I will keep coming back to this post’s comments just to see if someone responded.
    Just a thought from one blogger to another. Or did I miss something and you have another system.

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