The way we use words can either encourage and inspire or discourage others. Kindness and consideration expressed in ordinary conversation are encouraging and are a source of great happiness if they inspire fortitude and hope for the future. Callous words hurt and discourage. This is why we should always be careful to use right speech, words that are appropriate. With the aim of encouraging one another and creating harmonious relationships, we should think carefully about everything we say.
Speech is said to be what distinguishes human beings from other animals, both accounting for our spiritual evolution and making it possible for us to develop further. We use words in thought, speech, and writing. Right speech not only improves and elevates us but also brings out the best in the people we meet.
Emphasizing the importance of right speech, Buddhism teaches that a serene countenance and loving words are required in guiding and teaching others. Truly loving words arise from a warm, compassionate heart. The words of people who sincerely care for others as much as they care for themselves always impress us. These people can lead others to salvation.
Sometimes we are tempted to blurt out comments inspired by the emotion or self-interest of the moment. At such times we should take a deep breath and pause to reflect on how it would feel to be the butt of such remarks. If we pause to consider others' feelings, we can think of the right thing to say. For instance, the way we comment on food prepared for us can express gratitude or imply criticism. Compare "That was spicy, and very good" with "That was good, but rather spicy."
It is important to remember that words rebound on the speaker like a ball thrown against a wall. It is said that constantly finding fault with others mars the face of the faultfinder. Harsh criticism can stimulate another person to self-reflection and improvement only if he or she recognizes that the criticism is warranted. Criticism inspired by self-interest or bias can only invite denial.
Since words reflect the inner personality, we should strive to be the kind of profoundly humane people whose speech--together with fitting acts and trustworthiness--has the power to influence others for the better.
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As children in Suganuma, Niigata Prefecture, one of my younger brothers and I often helped in the farm work by weeding sweet-potato patches in the blazing summer heat. When exhausted, we would sprawl between the rows of potatoes. Although my brother suffered heatstroke once, most of our memories of those times are pleasant.
As we grew older, we were permitted to take on more challenging tasks. The work we did was not very important, yet we were happy to do it and now recall it with pleasure. For instance, one year at planting time we were allowed to do nothing but throw bundles of rice seedlings down to people working in the paddies, but the following year we were proud and gratified to be permitted to take part in the actual planting. Such permission meant that our ability to do more demanding work was being recognized.
We all have unique traits and strengths and weaknesses, and all of us - even if only subconsciously - want our talents recognized. Realizing that we are all alike in this, we should try to guide the desire for recognition in worthy directions. When well bestowed, recognition is welcomed and can be both a stimulus for improvement and a reason for living.
First, we must realize that, having been granted the gift of life, everyone has a role to play and that everyone who has the will and makes the effort can use his or her talents to perform his or her role. If people do not use their talents, there is a problem or they lack something.
Second, it is vital to try always to see others as they really are. This is not easy, because our vision is clouded by emotion, prejudice, lies, conjecture, and calculation of profit. Often we speak and act rashly, unaware of how difficult it is to see others as they are. Thus it is important to question our own state of mind at each moment.
Far from consisting merely of praise or indulgence, friendly advice sometimes requires the pointing out of shortcomings. If the criticism is just, the person being criticized will want to improve. This is yet another reason to remain calm always, trying to see others as they are and trying to make all our words and deeds worthwhile.
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As instances of right speech, polite greetings are especially significant in establishing harmonious social relations. Polite greetings on first meeting someone make a good impression and contribute to smooth relations. But such greetings must be sincere. If we regard them as mere form, we will greet people only when we feel like it.
Greetings are essentially expressions of trust and respect. In Buddhist terms, they amount to paying reverence to the buddha-nature, the potential for attaining buddhahood, that is inherent in all of us. Reciprocity is the true import of courtesy: I respect you, and you respect me.
Differences in likes and dislikes color many people's relationships. Sometimes differences in preferences cause friction between people, but their relations still provide opportunities for broadening and developing the personality. On the other hand, people who cannot accept such differences will never get along with others and will thus hinder their own improvement.
Bias, prejudice, and inflexibility are major causes of social disharmony. We all have faults; no one is perfect. The less magnanimous we are, the more prejudiced we are. Becoming magnanimous enriches us. The more magnanimous we are, the more we can help others be their best.
When we associate with those people we do not especially care for, they may be inspired to work harder at self-improvement if we have the magnanimity to recognize their strong points. And perhaps our magnanimity will help some people become less withdrawn. In other words, recognition can enable people to make the best use of their abilities. Nothing is completely good or evil. Improving one aspect of someone's personality makes him or her a better person. Slightly improving yet another aspect may make that person admirable.
Whether someone makes the best use of his or her abilities and whether we get along with that person both depend on our approach. Keeping this firmly in mind, we should try to broaden and enrich our social relations and make them the starting point for exploring new possibilities for ourselves and others. When we venture into new fields or environments, we must remember that true peace is grounded in genuine affection and trust and in reverence for the buddha-nature inherent in everyone.