In the Eightfold Path, the Buddha gives us directions about Wise Speech, Skillful Speech. For our own well-being, we are instructed to refrain from false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech, and idle chatter.
Not lying makes sense to me. I value honesty very highly; it’s even hard for me to tell white lies.
The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” which also covers slanderous speech. There is no divine judge (according to Bhikkhu Bodhi), so we can consider these directions about Wise Speech as a set of guidelines; they are not something anyone else is going to judge you on. You are your own judge, so be kind to yourself.
I know from experience that harsh speech—which I call throwing a hot potato at someone—usually results in having the hot potato thrown right back at me. Mother told me to count to ten, and all these years later, it’s still good advice to refrain from harsh speech or at least think twice about what I’m ready to fling off my tongue.
But idle chatter? That feels like I’m being asked to give up the good stuff. I do like a bit of schmoozing now and then, although I don’t really want to participate in talking behind someone’s back or in shooting the breeze. I myself don’t have much patience for people who run off at the mouth.
The Buddha offers us a long list of inappropriate topics to talk about.
- kings, robbers, & ministers of state;
- armies, alarms, & battles;
- food & drink;
- clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents;
- villages, towns, cities, the countryside;
- women & heroes;
- the gossip of the street & the well;
- tales of the dead;
- tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea;
- talk of whether things exist or not.
2500 years ago, people talked about the same things we talk about today. Although our content is different, the topics are the same.
Conversations about kings, robbers, & ministers of state
You know who these people are: the Presidents of various countries, the Secretary of State, or my current favorite villain, the Postmaster General. “We didn’t receive any mail at all on Monday,” I complain to my neighbors.
I suppose robbers are the white-collar crime guys, those who engage in insider trading, and lobbyists as well as obvious burglaries.
Armies, alarms, & battles
The coup in Myanmar. An air strike on Syria. The Iran nuclear deal—or not. Will Israel and Palestine ever reach a peaceful settlement?
“Alarms” would be the Security Alert level which you hear announced in the airport. The insurrection at the Capitol in January 2021. But it could also be the Police Log in the newspaper or the fire trucks rushing by. “Where are the EMTs going?”
Food & drink
Now we get down to the real idle chatter. So what’s your favorite restaurant? And your friends’ favorite cafe? Your favorite wine? Beer? Coffee?
Since I don’t drink alcohol or coffee, I am totally lost when social conversation focuses on these subjects, as it does for 10 or 20 minutes at a time.
Clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents
Goodbye Vogue magazine, Vanity Fair, and Martha Stewart. Goodbye Pinterest.
Unsubscribe from the L. L. Bean catalog and all the other catalogs that come in the mail. While you’re at it, unsubscribe from all the email newsletters telling you about special sales.
No more shopping with girlfriends, but that’s okay. I’d rather take a scenic walk than walk the mall or its parking lots.
This means refraining from talking about our children or our grandchildren and how cute they are and how smart!
This could mean not harping about our aging parents, which otherwise takes up a lot of conversational space.
Not complaining about the relatives or in-laws with whom we have problems—the mother-in-law, the daughter-in-law, the estranged sibling. Just call it dukkha and feel it. Then practice loving-kindness for yourself.
We think that talking about Teslas and Porsches is so very much more interesting that talking about donkey carts and ox carts and chariots. But vehicles have a fascination all their own. I’ll be happy to talk to you about my Prius and the gas mileage I get anytime.
By the way, are the 777s safe?
Villages, towns, cities, the countryside
The current issue in my village is school funding. The police in the town I live near practice racial profiling.
In the city, there’s a great new exhibit, and there are so many possibilities in New York. Where are the best delis in “The Village”?
Women & heroes
We might say movie stars or sports figures. Refraining from ESPN and videos. This category also includes girlie magazines and pornography.
The gossip of the street & the well
Oh-oh. This means Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all of our social media. People magazine and any of the entertainment-oriented magazines.
Some of the news we hear or see is actual news, but much of it is a repeat. Consider cutting way back on the news you read or listen to.
Political pundits confidently make their educated guesses, but they are not necessarily accurate. Research shows that most pundits are as accurate as a coin toss.
Tales of the dead
I do like to read obituaries in our local paper. History is also “tales of the dead,” and I like history. In fact, I wrote a history book about a bunch of dead people.
Does this mean I have to give up murder mysteries?
Tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea
Now we’re getting into more philosophical conversations. Maybe you and I don’t talk much about this, but my evangelical friends can go on and on about the Second Coming of Jesus.
Talk of whether things exist or not
The sort of article you find in science magazines—string theory, chaos theory, the Big Bang, the universe, the particles that make up an atom.
Oh brother. If we can’t talk about any of these subjects, what can we talk about?
The quick answer is the Dharma.