Just stand up and complain

A Complainer (not properly naming this photo because too many people accidentally link to this post due to an unrelated search)

Up late due to a car alarm that won’t go off in the neighborhood (and practicing loving kindness with every ounce of my sleep deprived consciousness).

I’m going to try to avoid just ranting about the Buddhist community for once. Last weekend I noticed a lot of talk about Right Speech at the full-moon uposatha. Those teachings plus all this ranting have got me thinking about where the act of complaining fits into the practice of Right Speech. So here’s some rambling about Right Speech…

And maybe also a little more ranting about the community!

When Lord Buddha explained his speech to Prince Abhaya, he emphasized that his words were factual, true, beneficial and said at an appropriate time, regardless of whether or not they were pleasing to others. (See the Abhaya Rajakumara Sutta/MN 2.1.8 also in Pali.) In terms of “what not to say”, Right Speech basically consists of avoiding lies, slanderous/divisive speech, harsh speech and idle chatter. (Here’s some commentary by Thanissaro Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi.)

My kind of blog ranting clearly falls into more than one of these categories. First off, it’s almost clearly idle chatter. Most of what I ramble on about could be put more simply, if it need be said at all.

My words are also divisive, as I made references to “white people [who] go to learn meditation” or more pointedly: “liberal Buddhist romanticists, not to mention aficionados of the Orient.” I might as well have replaced these phrases with THEM. Aside from being divisive, my phrasing implies that I’m not white, that I haven’t traveled abroad to learn meditation, that I’m not a liberal Buddhist, that I don’t ascribe to romantic views, and that I’m not obsessed with Asia. All of which I am/do.

My speech has also been harsh. I always understood pharusa vaca (harsh speech) as not swearing and not being insulting. (Bhikkhu Bodhi includes sarcasm as a type of harsh speech, but I’d say it’s a form of lying.) Well, I’ve certainly been insulting, I even admitted as much in my last post. I also could have written about my concerns more respectfully.

Looking back, it seems my harsh and divisive words are based on two unwholesome qualities. First, there is aversion. I didn’t like what I saw, and I responded to it negatively. I encouraged division with harsh, disrespectful language. Secondly, there is greed. I wanted to get a reaction out of readers, so I avoided polite discussion and framed my argument provocatively. And indeed I got snarky comments!

So should I have instead kept my speech in line with Right Speech?

I still believe that I have legitimate concerns regarding race, class and political issues in the Buddhist community. Some of these concerns were funneled into a divisive and harsh critique of the Tricycle Blog. While these concerns aren’t by nature inflammatory, I doubt whether other bloggers would have paid as much attention had I written in restrained and unprovocative prose.

On the other hand, the snarky critiques demonstrated that my points were almost completely lost amid my harsh language (and bad rhetorical structure). Granted, there were at least one or two bloggers who saw the points that I was trying to make. I’d hoped my posts might act a basis for discussion, but instead the blog comments degenerated into finger pointing. I guess it’s always that way.

I don’t expect to see my words rise to the level of Right Speech any time soon, so don’t fret/await any great changes to this blog. It’s still always good to look at one’s own words through the lens of the Dharma, which — to address the topic at the beginning — provides what I think is a useful framework for measuring the quality of one’s words. Ideally, we’re all working to a more enlightened mind, where greed, aversion and ignorance have no place to take root.

So that’s today’s early morning rambling. Outside of the blogosphere, I’ve tried to practice Right Speech by avoiding sarcasm, by saying “I’m not sure” when I’m not sure, and by saying “I don’t know” when I don’t know the answer to a question (as opposed to offering what seems like the most probable answer). As for all the other flaws, weaknesses and countless unwholesome qualities that I’ve declined to note… well, there’s a whole comments section below!

A last note: Where are my other Dharma Folk? Are you guys okay?

5 Replies to “Just stand up and complain”

  1. No, I think you said the right things. I’ve been avoiding saying them for months (in keeping with the Buddhist efforts at avoiding devisive speech), but finally lost it last night when I decided enough was enough. I read something (darned if I can remember where) about focusing on changes in oneself and at home first, and I felt someone had hit it right, so I decided to rant on the subject.

    I am sorry I dragged into it though. I wasn’t expecting fallout from my post to trickle back to your blog.

    Still, rather than retreating, I am digging my heels into the issue and standing my ground. I stand by what I say, and won’t let a few of my fellow posters make me feel guilty.

    Call it stubbornness. 🙂

  2. I for one deeply appreciate your self-critical awareness and mindfulness and willingness to look yourself square in the face and ask, “hm. am I right? am I behaving badly?” This is what it’s all about, isn’t it?

    On the other hand. (Ah! The other hand!) I think that in our efforts to avoid any and all “wrong” speech, we should go back to what you said right at the top of this post. That the Buddha describe his speech as “factual, true, beneficial and said at an appropriate time” — emphasis on the appropriate time. I think this is the bit that often gets lost in discourses on Right Speech. It’s not so much *what* we say — it’s *how* we say it, *when*, and *to whom.*

    Personally, I believe that many Buddhist communities in the States need to hear this level of critique and discourse on race, class, gender, political issues, etc., etc. Because these things are factual and true; because talking about them will enable Buddhist communities to better themselves; and that can be nothing less than beneficial. And I do hope you keep up the good work.

  3. Hi Scott,

    The Right Speech issue has really been on my mind a lot since the full moon. In fact I just got an email from a friend asking about how my newfound commitment to Right Speech is affecting my otherwise overwhelming sense of sarcasm 😉

    I’m not really feeling all too penitent for “Georgia on my mind”, but I think it’s interesting to note that posts that I wrote with a purely informational intent — such as about cheap zafus (really zafu pricing) and Vietnamese Theravada temples — are the posts that are most consistently visited over time.

  4. Dear whoever you are,

    Thank you for your picture of Oscar the Grouch. We needed it for a song.

    Thank you,

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