Dec 3, 2023
Jenny Hall

Verses from The Dhammapada 408

The Buddha once said “He is a Brahmin whose speech is kindly and truthful.”



“He is a Brahmin whose speech is kindly and truthful.”

This verse points to Right Speech, a component of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.

“He is a Brahmin… “

In ancient India, a Brahmin (priest) was at the top of the caste system. However, the Buddha taught that not caste but an individual’s moral character determined his or her worth. Such character is made known by a wholehearted giving into the Noble Eightfold Path. With ‘me’ emptied out, ‘choiceless awareness’ (the Buddha nature) is revealed and 

“… speech is kindly” 

We don’t always consider the impact of our words. They often express hidden inclinations and impulses. Trollope once wrote “words will often lead whither the speaker has not intended”. When we want to impress, we may dominate or belittle others. 

In Emma, Jane Austen’s novel, Emma Woodhouse is a vivacious, privileged young woman. One afternoon she is on Box Hill having a picnic with friends. In the party is a young man called Frank Churchill. They are both rather bored and indulge in a half- hearted flirtation. In an attempt to enliven the conversation, Frank suddenly announces that Emma would like everyone to say something amusing. He says she would be satisfied with one very clever anecdote, two fairly clever ones or three very dull ones indeed. He says Emma will laugh heartily at all of them. Also in the party is a well- meaning though very talkative spinster called Miss Bates. She says disarmingly that she’s sure to say three dull things as soon as she opens her mouth. Emma immediately replies that in Miss Bate’s case, there may be a difficulty in keeping to only three. Very downcast, Miss Bates remarks that she must make herself very disagreeable to others for such an old friend as Emma to say such a thing. 

Emma, desiring to impress Frank with her wit, failed to listen to the situation. She was deaf to her own desire and deaf to the feelings of Miss Bates. 

Feeling we have been treated unfairly may also cause such deafness. We may respond aggressively. We may feel compelled to give someone a ‘piece of my mind’.

The Zen training shows us how to transmute desire and anger into kindness and compassion. We are encouraged to meet the hot emotional energy. We invite it ‘to burn me away’. Choiceless awareness opens. Being free from ‘me’, there is clear understanding of the situation. As the Metta Sutta says speech is “straightforward and gentle”. 

Recently, a neighbour started to play loud video games which kept us awake into the early hours of the morning. After meeting the irritation that arose, choiceness awareness opened. It was possible to explain the problem to our neighbour calmly and politely. It was acknowledged that our walls are very thin. We asked him if he could help us solve the problem. He promised he would move the computer away from the shared wall. The problem was solved without acrimony. 

“… and truthful”. 

A recent study revealed that a lie is often told within the first ten minutes of meeting someone. It may be an excuse for being late or may be a flattering remark. There has also been evidence in the media of political deceit and the dissemination of propaganda. 

In such cases the truth is distorted in order to manipulate. Such manipulation is illustrated in the following story. 

A cat gained the confidence of a mouse by flattery. So successful was he that the mouse agreed to set up house with him. 

Together they bought a pot of fat as provision for the winter months. The cat persuaded the mouse to hide the fat under the altar in the local church. After a while the cat began to crave the fat. He made three visits to the church. By the end of the last he had eaten all the fat in the pot. He told the mouse the same lie on each occasion. He said he had been asked to attend a kitten’s christening at the church. When the mouse asked for their names, the cat said Top Off, Half Gone and All Gone. The mouse thought these were very strange names. When Winter arrived, the mouse discovered that the pot was empty. He saw immediately that the cat had deceived him. He exclaimed “You ate all the fat yourself. First top off, then half gone and then all…”. 

“One more word and I’ll gobble you up”. “Gone” said the mouse. It was too late. 

The cat sprang and gobbled him up. 

Like the mouse, the ‘I’ is easily deceived. If he had really listened to the cat’s words his deceit would have been apparent. However, ‘I’ cannot listen without the disturbance of thought streams. It is only when these are completely emptied out that the quiet listening of choiceless awareness is possible. In the empty heart speaker and listener become one. In such communion there is deep empathy. Often a verbal response is not required. If words are necessary, they will be for the good of all. Master Nyuri expresses it thus: 

“Speaking, but there is no-one who speaks, words are uttered yet they come from an empty heart”.

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