Sunday, September 28: Mindfulness in Speech (Part 2)

My reasoning for focusing on the practice of mindful speech is due to its straightforwardness and its applicability. As I’m fond of saying, “You can be mindful of anything.” Speech is no exception. In addition, speech is one of the most common activities that we do every day. So, constantly working on being aware of our speech strengthens our ability to be mindful. Finally, speech is a powerful thing. It has the ability to express love and hate and everything in between. Mindful speech can be a powerful tool for creating more peace in the world.

from “Skillful Speech” by Bhante Gunaratana

The second aspect of Skillful Speech is avoiding malicious talk. As an old folk saying tells us, “The tongue is a boneless weapon trapped between teeth.” When we speak malicious words, our tongue releases verbal daggers. Such words rob people of their good name and their credibility. Even when what we say about someone is true, if its intent is to cause the person harm, it is malicious.

The Buddha defined malicious talk as speech that destroys the friendship between two people. Here’s an example: Suppose on a trip I meet one of your good friends who lives far away. I remember that several months before, you had told me an unflattering story about this fellow. I may not remember your exact words, so I add a little flavor when I repeat what you said. I even make it look like I am doing this guy a favor to let him know that you have been talking about him behind his back. Your friend responds in some heat. When I get home, I repeat his words to you, spicing them up a bit to make it a better story. Because it causes disharmony and breaks up a friendship, such speech is malicious.

Sometimes we disguise malicious speech as concern about another’s behavior. Or we reveal a secret that someone has confided to us, believing that we are doing so “for his own good.” For instance, telling a woman that her husband is being unfaithful because “you don’t want her to be the last to know” may cause more suffering for everyone involved. When you are tempted to speak in such a way, ask yourself what you hope to gain. If your goal is to manipulate others or to earn someone’s gratitude or appreciation, your speech is self-serving and malicious rather than virtuous.

Public speech can be malicious as well. Tabloid newspapers, talk radio, Internet chat rooms, and even some respectable news media seem to be making their living today using words as weapons. A fresh shot at this week’s media target scores points that translate into increased viewers and advertising dollars. Malicious speech knocks someone down to raise someone else up. It tries to make the speaker look incisive, smart, or hip at another’s expense.

Not all malicious speech sounds nasty. Sometimes people use words that seem gentle but have a derogatory meaning. Such disguised verbal daggers are even more dangerous than overtly malicious words because they more easily penetrate the listener’s mind and heart. In modern terms, we call such speech a “backhanded compliment.” We say to someone, “How clever of you to fix up your old house rather than moving to a more fashionable neighborhood,” or “Your g~ray hair is so becoming. Isn’t it wonderful that looking older is acceptable in our profession?” Skillful Speech not only means that we pay attention to the words we speak and to their tone but also requires that our words reflect compassion and concern for others and that they help and heal, rather than wound and destroy.

This week, please try and remember to pay attention to (i.e., be mindful of) the spectrum of kindness in your speech. As you go through the week, each night before you sleep, reflect on how you spoke during the day and make notes in your journals of 3 instances where the quality of kindness was present or absent in the way you spoke. In addition, reflect on these questions:

  1. Am I using speech to gain something from the person that I’m talking to such as appreciation or reputation or sympathy?
  2. Do I use my speech as a way to wield power over someone else?
  3. When I speak unkindly, what’s going on under the surface? Can I recognize a sense of “lack” fuelling the intentions behind my words?
  4. Do I speak to myself unkindly – if so, what’s going on there?
  5. When I speak kindly or unkindly, what does that feel like in my body? For instance, is there an excited feeling in my belly; is there a hardness in my heart, etc.?

Sunday, September 21, 2014: Why do Buddhists Pray?

This week we’ll discuss the place of prayer in our lives, and in Buddhism. Below is a short excerpt from the cover article in the current Buddhadharma periodical.


It doesn’t matter if you don’t know whom you’re praying to, says Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. The very act of asking for help allows the heart to open and invite the world in.

Buddhists tend to dismiss prayer, which perhaps isn’t surprising. After all, aren’t we trying to get away from putting the responsibility for our spiritual development on something outside of us? And if we were to pray, whom would we pray to anyway? In this day and age, prayer is often seen as superstitious and embarrassing. We forget that we function in dualism most of the time and that there are benefits to knowing what we want and asking for it on the spiritual path. Prayer can help us do that.

Prayer is like riding a bike—our steering will always naturally follow our gaze. The direction we go in is up to us. If we direct the mind toward making money, we have a better chance of earning money. If we don’t, it’s doubtful we’ll have enough to pay the rent. The same is true with our spiritual life. Spiritual progress—human progress—requires clear intention.

So how do you pray? You can recite a particular prayer or pray in a spontaneous way, using your own words. Whichever way you choose, it’s important to make the prayer personal. You can do that by making the supplication specific so the practice doesn’t get abstract. You might begin by focusing on a friend who is suffering from illness or on a mistreated animal. Or you might supplicate for a way out of an unhelpful habit or addiction. At times praying will naturally segue into resting, beyond words or ideas, into the fathomless nature of being.

Often we supplicate because we don’t know what to do. Praying can be a way of giving over to the mystery and movement of life. It expresses an acceptance that we don’t know everything and never will—that we only ever see a little piece of things. We don’t see the infinite web of interconnected relationships. Still, we have our part to play in that bigger picture, and everything we do in life matters. It takes a big mind to live in the heart of this paradox— to be awake and responsive while accepting the indeterminate nature of things. This is the spirit of prayer.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is a teacher in the Vajrayana tradition and spent six years in solitary retreat. She is the author of The Power of an Open Question.



For myself, I turned away from prayer several years ago. Just in this past two years have I been encouraged to explore it again as a way to develop openness, compassion, and surrender. Within the Buddhist community alone there is no ‘one answer’ about the role in prayer – let alone our larger society! If you’re interested, check out the Buddhadharma website for a few more short discussions from some other teachers. I’d like to learn about your experiences with prayer and share mine. Especially if this is something you have turned away from – this discussion will be a great opportunity to re-examine your opinions.


Over the next few days here are some ideas on what to reflect on:

  • How would you describe your relationship to ‘prayer’?
  • How do you use prayer in your life? (daily and/or long term)
  • Do you have any reactivity to prayer? (positive or otherwise)
  • Do you know people who have different ideas/relationship/goals about prayer?

Prayer for some of us (all of us?) is a deeply personal thing. Please come prepared to this discussion in such a way that we can talk in a respectful and open manner.


Sunday, August 7, 2014: Mindful Speech (Part 1)

Hello sangha,

Over the coming weeks, I will be facilitating discussion about Mindful Speech. This will take the form of a short reading, some practices to do in your daily life, and reflections to put in your journal.


My reasoning for focusing on the practice of mindful speech is due to its straightforwardness and its applicability. As I’m fond of saying, “You can be mindful of anything.” Speech is no exception. In addition, speech is one of the most common activities that we do every day. So, constantly working on being aware of our speech strengthens our ability to be mindful. Finally, speech is a powerful thing. It has the ability to express love and hate and everything in between. Mindful speech can be a powerful tool for creating more peace in the world.


“Wise Speech” by Thanissaro Bikkhu

As my teacher once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.’ This is why right speech is so important in day-to-day practice.

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. This helps get you in touch with all the machinations taking place in the committee of voices running your mind. If you see any unskillful motives lurking behind the committee’s decisions, you veto them. As a result, you become more aware of yourself, more honest with yourself, more firm with yourself. You also save yourself from saying things that you’ll later regret. In this way you strengthen qualities of mind that will be helpful in meditation, at the same time avoiding any potentially painful memories that would get in the way of being attentive to the present moment when the time comes to meditate.

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don’t need to be a victim of past events…So pay close attention to what you say — and to why you say it. When you do, you’ll discover that an open mouth doesn’t have to be a mistake.


For this week, be mindful of you intentions for truthfulness in your speech. Remember, be mindful of your INTENTIONS for speaking. Notice how your intentions line up with the truth of a particular situation.

Here are some suggestions for what you might pay attention to:

  1. Whenever possible, before you speak, reflect upon whether what you are preparing to say is honest. If you don’t remember to do it before, try and remember to reflect on it after the fact.
  2. Don’t just look for examples of big lies. What are some small ways that you might mislead someone to cast yourself in a better light or to make that person less uncomfortable, or to present a false modesty, etc.?
  3. Do you ever lie with silence rather than words?
  4. When someone is talking to you, what does it feel like to take one mindful breath before responding?
  5. Be sensitive to your body language. Notice when your body language and your words don’t line up. What’s going on there?
  6. Avoid relating to this as truthfulness is right and untruthfulness is wrong. Instead try to spend your energy being aware of your speaking intentions rather than spinning a judgmental story about yourself.

As always, I really encourage you to write things down either in the comments section or in your journals. I find it really helpful when doing a week of specific practice like this to write a note on my bathroom mirror or coffee pot or wherever I’ll see it when I start my day. It helps me remember my intention to be mindful throughout the day.

with love,