Prajnaparamita. The Eightfold Path. Upright Speech

Dear Friends,

It seems to me that the regular state of mind of the human being is in love with recipes. “In love” meaning that there is a very strong and mostly unconscious habitual attachment to them. Generally when “recipe” is used it refers to food. In addition to over $20 million dollars spent on cookbooks annually, there are thousands of online sites with recipes for every gastonomical urge, not to mention the card recipe boxes and ancestor journals that are used to capture “the way grandma used to make it.” But there are also recipes for making money, staying strong, getting ahead, being in relationship, fixing a car… What is this love of recipes? Maybe it is the drive to fill the experience of emptiness and fear that comes with “I don’t know.” or, perhaps, the fear of doing it wrong. This addiction to recipes permeates the entire human social structure these days and is exacerbated by infinite access to “the right” answer” via the internet. It is embedded in the educational system, medicine, psychology, political institutions and spirituality. “If we just get the right recipe, everything will be alright and we’ll teach it to everyone so we’ll all be doing it right!” “If I sit upright in meditation and force the mind to follow the breath and obliterate thoughts, I will become an enlightened bodhisattva.” Apparently this is the approach to buddhism that developed when it was brought to the West. It’s also the approach that Jesus’s teachings took when they were appropriated by the Roman Empire. 

But when we approach these teachings and any recipes with uprightness, free from the habitual tendency to look “out there” for enlightenment, or heaven, or “the way grandma made it”, or “the way buddha did it”; when we let these teachings resonate with the experience of this moment; when we sit in the emptiness and fear of unknowing without expectations or answers, we may begin to realize that these recipes are only pointing us to see the original recipe of our true beingness that is already and will always be just here. Uniquely manifesting in this moment out of all the karma, causes, and conditions as just this point of being, we might be able to begin to write an original recipe that is free from the burden of “doing it right” or getting the “right answer”.  This is the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path and the Paramitas, and the Beatitudes. Recipes work and frequently give us a little taste of something sublime, but when we set down the cookbooks, turn away from the internet of right answers and invite the recipes, the teachings, the way, the path, into the innermost; when we practice uprightness whenever we can remember to, there is not only a chance of seeing the beauty of our own original recipe but the exquisite radiance of the infinite original recipes of all beings. 

So, how do we practice uprightness? Here is an excerpt from one of Tenshin Anderson’s dharma talks:

Zen practice is to be upright in the middle of whatever you choose to do, such as following your breathing. The public case can even manifest as a compulsion; in the midst of your compulsion you can be upright. If you are trying to follow your breathing and are unable to, and get angry at yourself and start beating yourself up for not being able to do it, and you call yourself bad names because you are so distracted, and feel bad about yourself because you don’t do what you say you want to do; in the midst of that, you’re always clearly aware and no words reach it. This is the Dharma gate of repose and bliss. Once its heart is grasped, you’re like a tiger when she enters the mountains, you’re like the dragon when he gains the water. Being upright is not about self improvement. To make your mind state better is OK. If you want to make your mind state worse, that’s all right also. What we are concerned with in sitting upright is to actually practice the total culmination of practice realization right now. Bodhisattvas vow to accomplish such realization for the welfare of all beings.” [For the full commentary on uprightness:  Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on the Realization of Mere Concept (Trimsika Vijñaptimatratasiddhi Commentary) by Tenshin Reb Anderson. Sesshin Day 2 Dharma Talk, October 3, 1994. pgs 42 – 46. ]

The Eightfold Noble Path. Upright Speech.

The recipe for samyak vaca (Sk) or “right speech” is  generally taught in buddhism as abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech and idle chatter.1 It is also considered speech which is truthful, affectionate, helpful,  and  promotes  concord, harmony, and unity. These sound like a great recipes for “right speech”. The same resources tell us that Shakyamuni suggests that five things that we should consider before speaking. “The speech should be 1) factual and true, 2) helpful, or beneficial, 3) spoken with kindness and good-will, or well-intended (that is, hoping for the best for all involved), 4) endearing or not harsh (that is, spoken gently, in a way the other person can hear), and 5) timely (occasionally something true, helpful, and kind will not be endearing, or easy for someone to hear, in which case we think carefully about when to say it.” 2

Reflecting on  the practice of upright speech I sense that there are  two steps  that are often left out in the process of  speech, or for that matter any expression, before we get to the recipes of considering  and then speaking mentioned above. 

First there is listening. This is the practice of taking on the upright posture of opening all of the sense gates to what is happening in the present moment. It is the practice of bringing full uncluttered awareness to just what is. I think that often we find ourselves “relating” to what someone is sharing or what is happening. We nod and “mmm-hmmm” or we think about our own past experiences, making judgments about what we are listening to or experiencing, agreeing or disagreeing, preferring or disliking. We add our own recipes to whatever another is speaking or expressing which clutters and even obscures what is actually being communicated. Someone told us at some point in our experience that nodding and agreeing or saying that we understand because “that has happened to me too!” makes the other feel comfortable or at ease and more able to speak freely. I believe and have the experience that this is the opposite of reality. When I am nodding and saying “I know , I know” or reaching out with a touch or assuaging, that is all about me being uncomfortable with not knowing what to do or being afraid of what might come next. I consistently find that when I am still, open and upright, veering away from my story and making room for what is happening or being expressed in the moment, the other’s expression resonates in the innermost and I become an empath. The speaker’s words or the artists expression flows forth with more ease because I am not in the way.

When I am able to listen in this way the second practice, before considering and speaking, is to understand how what I am about to say may be colored with my own unconscious history, imprints and karma. To the best of my ability I bring awareness to these things and lay them down. I try to step out of habitual responses to let speech or expression come out of just what is here without expectation of resolving or being appreciated or fear of being rejected or not heard. I practice being upright like the whippoorwill and singing just what is here. From this place of uprightness the speech and expression will be “factual and true, beneficial, well-intended, endearing or not harsh and timely”.  Then the speech will be naturally “truthful, affectionate, helpful,  and  will promote concord, harmony, and unity”. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King, spoke, what is now referred to as the “I have a Dream” speech, at the March on Washington he had a prepared speech, a recipe for ending the suffering of the downtrodden and healing the wounds of racism and slavery, but about halfway through he set aside that recipe and spoke words that are timeless, true, beneficial, endearing, and timely. (see below for the spontaneous part of the speech.)

When we are able to speak and express from the posture of uprightness we share the original recipe of our unique beingness. We trust it implicitly and it can be spoken without fear or hesitation because it has been handed down from beginningless time, from all of our grandmothers. Upright speech is “good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end” (from the Kalama Sutta).

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Practice

Practicing in sangha, even virtually, supports the practice of meditation differently than practicing solitarily. The members of the Sangha of the Pandemic, invite you to practice with us. No experience is required. There is no cost. Everyone is welcome. 

 We practice on ZOOM:

Mornings

  • Mondays: Calm abiding. 6:30 AM Pacific Time
  • Tuesdays: Body awareness. 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Thursdays: Tonglen, 6:30 AM Pacific Time 
  • Wednesdays and Fridays: Zazen Practice 7:00 AM Pacific Time.
  • Sundays: Paramitas. 7 AM Pacific Time 

ZOOM Link:   https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789 

Please feel free to reach out with questions or insights. Please also feel free to forward this post and invite others to join the sangha. You may find more reflections, poetry, art at sanghaofthepandemic.org . If you would like to comment or offer feedback and insight you may do so in the comment section on the website or by email to wrgentner@gmail.com 


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Excerpt from Dr. King’s speech. August 28, 1963. Lincoln Memorial. 

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:

My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. 

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.

Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. 

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

1 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344341148_BUDDHA’S_TEACHINGS_AND_ROOTS_OF_NONVIOLENT_COMMUNICATION

2 ibid

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