For many years, I was closely in touch with people who were affected by domestic violence. Most of the victims were women and children. As a nun and a Dharma teacher, I listened to many painful stories around the world that involved violence at different levels. As a result, I was moved to find some means to help people to become free from these problems. Violence, whether in thought, word, or action, leads to much stress and pain in the minds and lives of the people involved.
After listening compassionately, my job is to advise those affected about how to avoid situations that trigger violence in future. I found some very helpful sources of guidance in the ancient teachings of the Buddha. Loving speech (metta-vācī kamma) is one of the six principles for creating harmony in groups or society. Right speech (sammā-vācī) is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to freedom from all sufferings. The way we communicate with others, whether by verbal and written statements or by bodily language and gestures, are all actions (karma) that have consequences and, as such, matter to all parties involved. Bad karma produces bitter and harmful results whereas good karma yields harmony, happiness, and satisfaction.
A popular form of communications training called Nonviolent Communications offers advice that is very similar to the teachings of the Buddha. “While studying the factors that effect our ability to stay compassionate, I was struck by the crucial role of language and our use of words. I have since identified a specific approach to communicating – both speaking and listening – that lead us to give from the heart, connecting us with ourselves and with each other in a way that allows our natural compassion to flourish. I call this Nonviolent Communication…” i
We find this as a resonance in a passage of 2500 years ago, when an elder monk named Vangisa captured his understanding on the way of “good speech” as taught by the Buddha as follows:
“Speak only such words
As do not hurt yourself, Nor harm others.
Such speech is truly well spoken.
Speak only pleasing words,
Words received gladly;
Pleasing words are those
That don’t have bad effects on others.
Truth itself is the undying word:
This is an eternal principle.
Realists say that the Dhamma and its meaning
Are grounded in the truth.” ii
As a factor that contributes to harmony and prosperous community, loving speech is speech that touches the heart of the listener. It makes one feel warm, well received, and respected. Such speech generates positive feelings and confidence. This does not mean false praise or flattery, which is vain and untrue. It means that we choose words that are pleasant and polite. When our conversation partner is in a good mood, well intentioned humor or jokes can also be a means of skillful communication.
In giving and receiving verbal messages, there is an episode in the life of the Buddha that has always inspired me. When discussing the topic of right speech and non-violent communications, I tell this story again and again. This narrative describes how the Buddha emerged as a very well known spiritual teacher in India, a land where many other religions and schools of philosophy also flourished. One day, a brahmin of uncertain motivation came to test the Buddha’s patience and to checked whether he practiced what he preached. When he met the Buddha, the brahmin let forth a volley of abusive speech. He used many vulgar words in use at the time and accused the Buddha with many unthinkably bad things that the Buddha had never said or done. He went off on a monologue that lasted for almost two hours, until he was sweating and trembling as a result of his own violent speech and offensive gestures. Then, the brahmin paused to take a breath. The Buddha just sat firmly, silently, but radiating a strongly compassionate presence.
Taken aback, the brahmin asked, “Wanderer Gotama, do you feel that you match all my accusations. Is that why you do not react to me?”
The Buddha calmly responded, “No, Brahmin, but the Tathagata does not feel any need to respond to the offensive behavior you displayed.” And he continued, “Brahmin, do you sometimes receive visits from your friends or relatives?”
“Yes, I am a respected person here and have many visitors,” the brahmin answered proudly.
“And do they bring gifts to you when they visit?”
“Yes, they do.”
“If you do not receive the gift, to whom it belong?”
“Of course, it belongs to the person who brought it in.”
“This morning you brought some gifts to me, but the Tathagata does not wish to receive these gifts. Now you have two options: either let it go or take it back with you.”
The brahmin’s jaw dropped. He became downcast and speechless, and did not know how to response.
This is a story about the Buddha, the fully enlightened One. But how about us, who have not reached that level of patience and are still living in a world ordinary beings? This question leads us to reflect on our practice as followers of the teachings of the enlightened ones. In practice, following these noble teachings and avoiding the habitual tendency and temptation to respond violently requires a lot of training and commitment. In this paper, I will present a step-by-step method for practicing non-violent communications in dealing with domestic violence, using Buddhist principles that pertain to relationships.
We know that, Buddha was born and grew up in this world with all of its complexity concerning different kinds of human relationships. After his enlightenment, he decided to give teachings to “those with little dusts in their eyes”, however, he did not expect that every body who listen to his teachings will immediately get enlightenment. The path he showed to human kind is a gradual path to enlightenment. Right speech is the third factor of the Noble Eight-fold Path, in the training of morality (sila-sikkhā). In the early discourses, right speech is defined as follows: “And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech.” (SN 45.8)
One of the dearly remembered discourse that embody this path is presented in The Great Discourse on Happiness (Māha Mangala Sutta). Among 38 dharma which embracing a gradual path of practice to enlightenment, four of them concerning speech and listening. Well spoken words are called subhāsitā vācā in Pali. There are five factors make a good statement as follows: right time, is truthful & affectionate which benefit listeners, and it is spoken with good intention. (AN 5, Subhāsitā Sutta).
However, we should know that not all good intentions are received as good. So we should be able to aware of other’s feeling and state of mind when they receive our messages. When it is the right time? Its depend on the context of the relationship one is in. Beside, not all truths need to dig into. Imagine, if your husband made some mistakes in the past, and now and again you torture him by unkind words concerning these painful past. Is that bring any benefit to your relationship? It doesn’t make you feel good either.
Now how can we communicate our uneasy feelings, or to convey a truth that we considered as beneficial, but hard for others to receive? It takes skills and practice to make our statements less judgmental and non-offensive to listeners. Words do not jump out by themselves, they are preceded by thoughts. So take few seconds to be mindful of our rumbling mind, and just keep watching until these negative emotions faded. When we are calmer, then speak to convey our needs or feelings.
There is no need for a prompt reply to unkind remarks or criticism. Its painful to hear such a judge, especially when it is unfair to our services or our good intentions. Now, remember what the Buddha had responded in such a situation, be silent, and compassionately absorb the hurt and pains that such a wounding speech impacted on one’s mind. This pain might trigger us to react in a way that hurting back. And if we can’t flash out these uneasy feelings, it burning our hearts and we are wounded. The receivers and carriers of these words and hurts will finally become the offenders. Thus, bad karma never end. This makes samsara long and vicious. Life becomes more unbearable. Remember that, like the Tathagatha, we have a choice here, either receive these hurts and become a victim, or channel these negative emotions, then using them as mirers for our own enlightenment. The none-receiver of ills, like the Buddha.
When we have not reached that stage, we need Dharma therapy to heal our hearts. Practice forgiveness and loving kindness meditation will help to soften our hearts, pacify and transform bitterness into understanding and compassion. From understanding sufferings, we take a further step to resolve upon not to pass this kind of suffering on ourselves as well as to others. Its take Sila or moral commitment to stop unwholesome speech and violent communication. There are many passages in Buddhist scriptures to guide us in the right way of communication. One of such is the power of reflection. For example, in one occasion, when the Buddha advised Rahula, his own son, he said:
“Whenever you want to perform a verbal act, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then any verbal act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful verbal action with happy consequences, happy results, then any verbal act of that sort is fit for you to do.
While you are performing a verbal act, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both… you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not… you may continue with it. “Having performed a verbal act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction… it was a skillful verbal action with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities. (MN 61)iii
Reflection is, perhaps, the most important factor in making decision on what and how we should articulate what we want to communicate with others. If we are mindful of our speech and its impacts on the receivers’ feeling and state of mind, we would not say things that contribute to the disadvantages of ourselves and trigger others to response in a way that harmful to us or to himself/herself or to both sides.
i. Giving from the Heart, P. 3, Marshall Rosenberg “Introduction NVC”. Edited by Lucy Leu, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life”, 2nd Edition, Manufactured in USA, Aug. 2003.
ii THERAGĀTHĀ, MAHĀNIPĀTA, PAṬHAMAVAGGA, 21.1 Vaṅgīsattheragāthā, verse 2228,
Tameva vācaṃ bhāseyya, yāyattānaṃ na tāpaye; Pare ca na vihiṃseyya, sā ve vācā subhāsitā. Piyavācameva bhāseyya, yā vācā paṭinanditā; Yaṃ anādāya pāpāni, paresaṃ bhāsate piyaṃ. Saccaṃ ve amatā vācā, esa dhammo sanantano; Sacce atthe ca dhamme ca, āhu santo patiṭṭhitā.
Translated by Bhikkhu Sujata, source: http://suttacentral.net/en/thag21.1:
Ref. p. 401, Palms of Ealy Buddhist, translation by Mrs Rhys Davids, Pali Text Society, Oxford 1994.
iii Ref. P. 525-6, Bhikkhu Bodhi 1995, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A translation from Majjhima Nikaya, Wisdom Publications, Boston 2009.