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Right Speech-Right Silence, DhammaWeb OpinionRight Speech-Right Silence
Sati Saraniya

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What makes us pacify and fawn on those we don’t respect – only to lose respect for ourselves? Or hold our peace when someone insults us or another? Are we too afraid to protest lest we offend? Or are we intimidated into a silence that breaches our principles so as not to draw criticism or anger? In life’s conflicted moments, how do we judge when it’s right to speak out?

There’s nothing golden about a silence that shrugs its shoulders because we’re too scared to say what we feel. We may dodge the vitriol aimed at us or – to our unspoken relief – at someone else, but each time we do so it may be at the cost of our own integrity.

Last year, when my kappiya* underwent a major operation, the charge nurse visited, checked her charts, and supervised the attending staff with a crisp efficiency – for which we were grateful – and a loud and ostentatious competence. The following day she arrived with an obese young woman in tow, introduced her as the hospital dietician, and pronounced mirthlessly, “She’s so fat, that’s why she’s in charge of the food!” adding an affected chortle.

Her hapless underling winced while my pallid devotee and I looked on – stunned by this odious effrontery. Still we continued to chat amiably as if nothing unusual had happened. I neatly rationalized my passivity, thinking, “Not my ‘place’ to remonstrate” and “Better steer clear”. In truth, I just did not know what to say.

Hard as I tried to absolve my sense of guilt, reflecting on this incident unearthed an even less flattering reason for my silence: I was compromised by my indebtedness to the head nurse for the promise of her help – it simply would not do to upset her. And, besides, confrontation is downright uncomfortable.

So is the feeling in my heart when I recall the pained expression on the face of the overweight nutritionist. How could I pretend there was nothing wrong as the head nurse casually humiliated her colleague? Was my silence a subtle form of complicity? When I allow myself to be intimidated, I reinforce moral weakness – in myself and others – while they continue their abuse through shabby conduct. Can any good could come at such a price?

Krishna presidesWe have all been the object of different forms of invective. Recently, I was invited for vegetarian dana* at a temple where "Guest is God" and religious volunteers prepare a buffet of fresh curries, rice, and desserts, paid by donation. A favourite for monastics and their hosts alike, we would sit surrounded by statues of Indian deities in the tranquil space that opened onto a garden and its canopy of flowering trees and shrubs.

My restriction to finish eating by noon meant I had to pay close attention to the time. Naturally, the gods would have to be fed first – unless there were human take-away orders. Usually, by 11:30 I could begin walking pindapat* alongside the servery to receive food from my devotee's hand directly into my bowl.

As it was getting late, we stood ready nearby. The cooks, familiar with this tradition, informed us unapologetically that today’s meal was delayed and we would have to wait. Finally, by the time the food was offered and I had chanted a blessing, there were only minutes left to eat. Unable to finish, I emptied the leftovers onto a plate before washing my bowl.

Suddenly, the brawny head volunteer and one of his lackeys charged towards our table from behind the counter. Unprovoked, he launched into a sermon, berating me publicly for the terrible sin of wasting 'prasad', food made holy under the gaze of their gods. When I tried to explain, his manner turned abusive, fuelled even further by my devotee’s strident retort.

Analakshmi elephantThough all my efforts at conciliation fell flat, I did not give up, repeating why I could not complete my meal and that no insult was intended. I hoped an apology and acceptance of responsibility would appease but the volume of his self-righteous harangue only swelled. Seeing that he would not desist, even as I appealed for compassion, I could no longer tolerate his conduct and hastened to leave.

These demeaning exchanges violate us. But anger is not more powerful than kindness – unless I buckle under it. Expressing indignation may not be appropriate either. Would anyone hear? In the case of our hefty nutritionist, my protest may even have added to her embarrassment. As for the pietistic temple cook, he would neither be placated nor realise how mistreating his guests dishonoured his gods.

Sometimes silence is the harder choice. I bite my tongue and restrain the impulse to express how I feel. Doing so would be foolhardy without the essential wisdom and diplomacy. But even if I uphold core values by saying my piece, must I do so at any price? Can I never be excused from failing to take a stand against poor manners let alone vileness and injustice?

Working from the principle of non-harming, often my hesitation to choose what is ostensibly right comes not for lack of courage but because of the ethical complexities of human dynamics. Intervening might be futile; worse, I could exacerbate an already untenable situation.

Whatever we decide to say or not in the patchwork of human interaction, though guided by our moral code, it provides no precise script. Today’s insight may be a poor fit for tomorrow’s encounter. But the responsibility for restraining abuse belongs first to the one who perpetrates it; next, to those caught in its path. In most cases, we teach others – subconsciously – how they can treat us. Only I can set the bar for myself not to end up a victim or scapegoat.

Feeling too appalled or confused, can I wait to speak when I have a better chance of being heard? Though I risk losing the opportunity, I must take care to strike a balance, neither undermining my commitment to Right Speech nor mowing down others with sanctimonious zeal; at the same time, refrain from inappropriate apology and retreat that only suppress my own truth.

I speak well not by keeping silent, but by practising speech that is wise, compassionate, and true, protecting and dignifying my relationships with others. And if I have no ‘right’ answer, at least silence can give me pause to reaffirm what is inviolable for me and guard it well.

*kappiya: attendant
*dana: meal offering
*pindapat: alms round

© Ayyā Medhānandī

Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Right Speech, Right Silence