Saturday, March 1, 2014

Right Speech in the Trenches

A couple of posts ago, in Right Speech, I summarized four criteria that the Buddha suggested we consider when deciding whether and how to speak: “Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it beneficial? Is it timely? Will the hearer welcome it?” These criteria seem pretty straightforward and readily applicable to all of our myriad utterances, don’t they? Let’s be clear, though, the Buddha had a pretty high bar for determining whether something was worth talking about or not (at least for the renunciants in his midst) regardless of how truthful or beneficial or timely or welcome it might be. For instance, in the Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life, he is reported to have said of virtuous contemplatives:
Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — [the virtuous contemplative] abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue. (Digha Nikaya 2)

So, no matter how truthful it might be to say that the new Ethiopian restaurant in town is simply superb, no matter how beneficial it might be for both your foodie friends and the owners of the restaurant for you to spread a good word, no matter how timely it might be that your friends are looking for a new dining experience just as the new proprietors are beginning to wonder about their investment, and no matter how welcome such discussion might be to all parties involved, it would still not necessarily be an appropriate topic of conversation amongst virtuous contemplatives. Why not? Because the renunciant neither needs nor wants to have his or her passions stirred up with talk of the sense delights of food and drink. And how much more would the passions be stirred with talk of politics and people and the philosophical speculations of the day. Such talk can only lead the contemplative away from the path of liberation.

But think of the awkward silence that would exist if we more worldly spiritual practitioners were to refrain from talking about any of these subjects. How strange our social interactions would be! How few our social interactions would be, for that matter! We are not all like-minded contemplatives living in a tight-knit and highly structured spiritual community who can coexist in near silence. We exist as family and friends and neighbors, fellow citizens and human beings, and we (at least in our presently evolved social state) need the social lubrication of conversation in order to build trust and relationship. Thus, what makes perfect sense for the avowed contemplative seeking to remain in the deepest meditative state possible for as much of the day as possible may not be so skillful for the rest of us. Furthermore, what makes perfect sense for the renunciant may not be in keeping with a bodhisattva’s vows to alleviate the suffering of others precisely by remaining engaged in the affairs of the world.

It is worth pointing out that at least one other translator, Walshe (1995), chose to translate the above quoted text as The Fruits of the Homeless Life (emphasis mine). How, then, might we worldly practitioners, we contemplative householders and engaged Buddhists, think about right speech as we go about our days providing a voice of witness here, a word of support there, a consciousness-raising comment here, and a rebuke of injustice there? Let’s consider a much discussed recent event in order to possibly glean some insight.



Ruth Orkin's American Girl in Italy

  

As most of you probably know, the New York Times published an open letter one month ago today in which Dylan Farrow alleged that she was sexually abused by Woody Allen when she was a girl. The allegations are graphic and appalling and worthy of our thoughtful consideration. Thus, I mean no disrespect to Dylan Farrow or her personal experience when I say that the media coverage that ensued had all the ingredients of a typical media brouhaha: private tragedy, public interest, alleged legal and moral transgressions, all wrapped in just enough ambiguity as to have us abuzz with the taking of sides and the lambasting of those who would refuse to take sides. Yes, for some strange reason, the very ambiguity of a set of circumstances seems to make the taking of sides all the more inviting and compelling.

Unfortunately, the taking of sides in this instance does nothing to change the facts of the unfortunate situation, and I’m not sure it does much to keep similar situations from reoccurring. The taking of sides really only reveals the way the various lenses through which we might look prompt us to overlook the inherent ambiguity. So, is your lens colored by the factual, yes, factual knowledge that instances of rape and sexual abuse are tragically frequent, underreported, and egregiously under-prosecuted – thereby leading you to conclude that any and every accusation of sexual abuse or assault constitutes prima facie evidence of a crime? Is your lens colored by a belief in the incestuous nature of Woody Allen’s current marriage – thereby leading you to believe that any allegations of sexual transgressions must undoubtedly be true? Is your lens colored by an awareness of something referred to as false memory syndrome or allegations of the vindictive and manipulative nature of Dylan Farrow’s mother, Mia Farrow – thereby leading you to totally dismiss what Dylan has to say? (The interested reader might want to check out Woody Allen's response and Moses Farrow's response to Dylan’s letter.) It behooves us to be aware of what lens we might be looking through so that our speech might have a positive effect – that it might be as “right” as it can be. Let’s face it, while the media brouhaha might have done a good job cleaving off members of Woody Allen’s fan-base, it has done a less than stellar job – although I hope that I am wrong in that regard – of changing in any way the underlying social dynamics that give rise to the following statistics as reported on the website of RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network:

·         44% of [sexual assault] victims are under age 18
·         80% are under age 30
·         60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
·         97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail
·         Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim
·         38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance

I’m confident that Dylan Farrow (regardless of her religious affiliation or lack thereof) sincerely strived to engage in right speech when she wrote her open letter. I’m fairly certain that the allegations are either truthful or believed by her to be truthful. I also trust that she believes her open letter will be beneficial in encouraging other individuals to come forward and speak of their having been abused. Her letter is timely also in that it coincides with Woody Allen being given a lifetime achievement award, something that makes it appear to some as though society at large condones his alleged behavior and his lack of punishment for having committed it – a view that is certainly defensible given the nature of the statistics cited above. No, the letter was not welcome to all, certainly not Woody Allen or his current family, but welcomeness was not mandated in the Buddha’s criteria for right speech – it was a consideration. Sometimes unwelcome words need to be spoken. Thus, I do not fault Dylan Farrow for speaking out as she has done. As far as I can know, her intentions are positive and she firmly believes that she is speaking THE truth.

And how did the rest of us do with respect to right speech on this issue? Sure enough, the conversation is timely and beneficial in that it calls attention to a major societal problem that drastically needs addressing. It is pretty clear that this is an injustice for which a bodhisattva, or at least an engaged Buddhist, would seek redress. Thus, it should be a welcome conversation for many of us. However, what do we know about whether our own words on the matter were truthful or not? Yes, we might all be able to say with confidence that we spoke “our” truth, but did we speak THE truth. I hope that everyone will recognize that whereas Dylan Farrow either spoke THE truth or what she believes to be THE truth, the rest of us can only surmise that we know what THE truth is; and therein lies all the difference as far as I can tell.

How, then, would a true bodhisattva, one who has vowed to save all beings, have spoken on this issue? While we can’t know with certainty how such a perfected being might behave, we can perhaps intuit a few things. I’m fairly certain that a bodhisattva would acknowledge the pain and suffering that Dylan Farrow has lived with and would want for that pain and suffering to be mitigated in some way by her being able to experience both personal justice and greater social justice in how sexual abuse is dealt with. I would also think that a bodhisattva would recognize that Woody Allen is also worthy of compassion and justice, and that any clumsily applied “justice” that sacrifices him for some perceived greater good, regardless of THE truth, is really no justice at all.

It may be that we won’t be able to give Dylan Farrow a sense of personal justice. So much time has elapsed between the events of which she speaks and now that it simply does not seem likely that she will have her story heard and adjudicated in a way that might bring her the peace and resolution that she deserves. However, perhaps we can at least give her the peace that might come from an improved climate of social justice regarding how accusations of rape and sexual abuse are dealt with within our families, communities, workplaces, and within our justice system. It seems to me, then, that we would do more to honor THE truth in the long run by focusing on the statistics quoted above than by making this issue all about the guilt or innocence of one man, Woody Allen, and then forgetting the issue as soon as the next salacious media storm appears on our horizon. Towards that end, here are those statistics again:

·         44% of [sexual assault] victims are under age 18
·         80% are under age 30
·         60% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
·         97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail
·         Approximately 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim
·         38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance


References
  
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). Samaññaphala sutta: The fruits of the contemplative life (DN 2). (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html#speech
Walshe, M. (1995). Samaññaphala sutta: The fruits of the homeless life (from The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya). Wisdom Publications.

  
Image Credits

American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin via:



Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank

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