Speaking Kindly

I’ve been thinking lately about kindly speech and making a more conscious effort to put it into practice, sometimes by thinking “what would be the kindest thing to say now?”. Rev. Master Mugo posted a quote from the Pali Cannon about right speech on Jade Mountains a few weeks ago: To Speak as Buddha Taught . One of the lines says “Abandoning harsh speech, he refrains from it.”

When we use harsh speech or raise our voices we stir up fear and anxiety, stress, defensiveness and all sorts of painful emotions in others. Speaking in an off-hand or thoughtless way can have the same effect. If we truly wish not to cause harm, then such speech is certainly to be abandoned. I also remember Rev. Master Daizui, a former head of our Order, saying (and I think he was quoting the Buddha) that if a person is disposed to hear you, they will hear you if you speak in a kindly manner; if they cannot/will not hear you when you speak kindly to them they will not hear you any better if you shout at them.

To speak kindly to someone is to treat them with respect and dignity. There are times when we need to say something to someone about the effect of their behaviour, and if we do this as kindly as possible, as free as we can be from any wish to cause upset to the other, then our words are much more likely to be taken to heart, and we will not cause suffering to ourselves by regret for what we said.

And it helps to remember, when we are the recipient of harsh words, that the person speaking them is probably in pain, mental or physical. Such a reflection may help us to realise that it is not all about us and to respond more kindly than we might have. I remember an example where someone was, shall we say, expressing a little annoyance towards me. I knew she was having a difficult time and so I was able not to take it personally and responded with sympathy and offers of help and all her anger dropped away. (I’m not always able to be so saintly!)

The following words are from Shushogi, translated by Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett in her book Zen is Eternal Life:

To behold all things with the eye of compassion and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness. If one would understand tenderness, one must speak to others whilst thinking that one loves all living things as if they were one’s own children. By praising those who exhibit virtue, and feeling sorry for those who do not, our enemies become our friends and they who are our friends have their friendship strengthened: this is all through the power of tenderness. Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed; if a kind word be spoken in his absence, the impression will be a deep one: tenderness can have a revolutionary impact upon the mind of man.

17 thoughts on “Speaking Kindly

  1. Hello Rev. M. Mugo and Rev. Alicia! I just read Alicia’s article and found it to be a good reminder of how people listen to us and when they don’t. It reminded me of something that happened to my husband and myself a couple of years ago.

    My husband is involved in raising a lot of canaries and is considered one of the top breeders of ‘fancies’ here in Canada. He also started up a club and is supportive of the members’ contributions, education, and attempts to do what he does. And of course, members are always made up of all types of people. In this club, there was one man whom everyone was afraid of and wouldn’t go near him or even talk to him. He was loud, swore a lot, was uneducated (schooled), had no social graces, and he was also quite large physically. But he liked the birds my husband had.

    One very cold day in January, he showed up at our house. He had just come from work and was pretty grubby, but he wanted to speak with my husband. I invited him in. He was hesitant to come indoors, but I offered him a hot cup of coffee and he seemed to be agreeable to that, so he came in and sat down.

    I had just made a huge pot of Hungarian Goulash (my mother’s heritage and my grandmother’s recipe) and some fresh buns to go with that. Since we were just going to eat I invited him to stay and when I told him what it was, his eyes lit up! I didn’t know it then, but he was also of Hungarian descent and hadn’t had ethnic food since he had moved from Hungary 35 years before. So we ate, and he ate and ate and stayed long into the evening, chatting with my husband.

    He started to come around more often and I noticed something: he was very respectful to us, ‘soft’ around me, and he never swore around us. As time went on, he became a welcome visitor in our home and we got to know him better. He became a good friend.

    Last year he told us he had cancer and wanted to go home to die. We had looked after his birds while he was undergoing treatment here while in the hospital for several weeks. He wanted to pay us but we would have nothing of it. We offered to continue to help him until he left and he agreed to that.

    We made his travel arrangements for him because we found out that he couldn’t read and write, only his name and a few key words here and there. He was going home to live with the few who remained in Hungary, of what family he had left.

    The day before he flew out he came to our home for one more meal and a visit. He told us then, which deeply touched us and was also a bit sad, that ‘we were the only people who had ever been kind to him in this country. He really liked both us and respected us enough to never swear in our home or our presence.’ He didn’t hug us because we knew that wasn’t in him to do so, but it was okay because we knew that he knew how much his friendship meant to us as well. We were sorry to see him go, and even sadder because we also knew we would probably never hear from him because of his illiteracy, nor would we probably ever know about how his life became.

    This man, the one who many people disliked, became an example to both my husband and myself, of the goodness and kindness that lies within the hearts of those who often seem to be the most untouched by life itself. This man taught us about kindness, listening, and responding. He had a tough life for certain, but there was always a gentle ground beneath it that was waiting for others to see. I’m so grateful to him that we were able to share what we could and that he was more than happy to accept. Actually, I think he gave us far more than we gave him.

      • Alicia, thank you. I found out through this relationship that if I had any fear of others, it may often have been my own mistaken view of what appeared to be sitting on the surface. It also gave me the opportunity to sit with this person, and now with others I have been uncomfortable with. It challenged me to hold my judgments in check while I really make the attempt to actually ‘hear’ what is there. I have discovered that there is often another person underneath that has not been heard. I have become a better listener because of it.

    • Brilliant story Bev. Life changing I’d have said. For you both and for the chap too. Love those canaries.

  2. Hello to everyone, I have had much trouble from anger and it’s subsequent ungentle speech. I loose patience because of inner pain. Recently I have taken my pain and tried to think of all those who feel the same pain at that moment and send them merit instead, the pain no longer swamps me and I am then happy to feel it. It seems to make pain a blessing, turning it on it’s head.

    • Now that is an interesting way to go. I guess you are describing an active use of empathy. Great!

      • Empathy, yes … that is what it is! I have always thought of empathy as something one sort of “drums up” when seeing another in pain, usually for me with impatience and maybe some “advice” thrown in for good measure to sort them out so I can get to my own lonely pain – aw. So out with the old and in with the new!! Thanks for your comment Rev Mugo.

        • You bet Julie, we all travel along together and now and then there comes an opening to be of service to others. Those windows do tend to flap open when we least expect that to happen. No stress.

          • Speaking of which, please could I trouble you for a little merit for my brothers girlfriend who has just died (sunday) and for my brother who blames himself and for my mother who has just had skin grafts for skin cancer (she’s 87). They all lived together. Robert, my brother who is 63 has “cracked” and the light is flooding in amongst the tears. It’s rather wonderous really.

          • Julie, I will keep them all in my thoughts. Yes I can appreciate what you are appreciating, seeing your brother dealing with the situation well.

  3. Hi Rev Alicia, Rev Master Mugo, how are you?

    “To behold all things with the eye of compassion and to speak kindly to them, is the meaning of tenderness …… Whenever one speaks kindly to another his face brightens and his heart is warmed;”

    This is without doubt my favorite writing by Great Master Dogen and for me is also his clearest and at the same time his most profound.

    When I was about 16 (nearly 50 years ago) I was an apprentice electrician and sent to on a big building site near Liverpool. It was pretty scary for a skinny rather naive country boy. The first morning I was sent by my journeyman electrician to brew the tea. I didn’t know where anything was and was wandering around the site somewhat lost. I met the Irish ganger (foreman labourer) – he was physically big with a reputation for being really tough and his men were scared of him (I didn’t know that at the time). Anyway, to cut a long story short, he took me under his wing, showed me the primitive brewing facilities, how to clean the cups with sand, etc., and generally looked after me during the several months that I was on site and we became good friends. I never forgot his kindness and have tried to be the same with others. Some 10 years later I came across the quotation from Shushogi and it really struck a chord and still does some forty years later.

    Keep well. With bows,

    • Dear George, Speaking for myself I am fine and well. You know I think I remember you telling the story of the ganger at a group meeting years ago. Touching story and wonderful for that 16 year old that you were. Stay well and love to Joyce too.

    • Hello George, I’m glad you have such a connection with this passage of the Shushogi and thank you for your story, it really illustrates the meaning of it.
      Best wishes to you & Joyce

  4. Thank you for this. I increasingly think that the four Bodhisattva wisdoms are really important. I remember someone, possibly Rev Alexander, saying that the Shushogi contains almost everything one needs to understand in our tradition.

    • Hi Ian – you probably know that the Shushogi was compiled from pieces of Great Master Dogen’s writings in order to encapsulate the teachings of Soto Zen, so yes, it is pretty good stuff!

  5. My sister recently criticised me for using a very factual turn of phrase, particularly when writing emails. This brutality of phrase is tricky but there is no malice intended simply a laziness in not thinking how a message will be received.
    I will work on it!

    • Hi Tom – good point, the written word can need more care than the spoken one, perhaps a subject for another blog post!

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