111 – You Can't Hold on to Stillness: Practice in Activity
Talk at San Francisco Zen Center: A Sermon for Buddhists in the Climate Crisis

In this episode I continue our study of 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s essay, Bodaisatta Shishobo, or what I’m calling the “Four Ways Bodhisattvas Embrace Living Beings.” In Episode 105 I gave you an overview of the essay and briefly defined the bodhisattva’s four “embracing actions,” which are practicing nongreed, loving words, beneficial action, and “being in the same boat” as other beings. In Episode 106 I took us line by line through the part of Dogen’s essay about nongreed, or giving. Today I’ll pick up where we left off, and cover the section of the essay on loving words, or kind speech.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Dogen’s Shishobo on Loving Words
Loving Words Means Speaking as If to a Baby
Extending Loving Care Toward All Beings
Recognizing Others Will Appreciate Our Loving Words and Care
Hope for People as an Aspect of Love
Kind Speech as the Basis for Reconciling Rulers and Subduing Enemies

 

Unless I indicate otherwise, I’ll be quoting from the translation by Lew Richmond and Kaz Tanahashi, which can be found Tanahashi’s book Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo.

Dogen’s Shishobo on Loving Words

I will share the whole section from Dogen’s essay Shishobo that covers loving words, because it’s not very long and I want you to hear all of it as background for my discussion. Note that Richmond and Tanahashi call this embracing action “kind speech,” but the Japanese Dogen used is Aigo, which could also be translated as “loving” (ai) “words” (go). Dogen says:

“Kind speech” means that when you see sentient beings, you arouse the heart of compassion and offer words of loving care. It is contrary to cruel or violent speech.

In the secular world, there is the custom of asking after someone’s health. In the buddha way there is the phrase, “Please treasure yourself” and the respectful address to seniors, “May I ask how you are?” It is kind speech to speak to sentient beings as you would to a baby.

Praise those with virtue; pity those without it. If kind speech is offered, little by little kind speech expands. Thus, even kind speech that is not ordinarily known or seen comes into being. Be willing to practice it for this entire present life; do not give up, world after world, life after life. Kind speech is the basis for reconciling rulers and subduing enemies. Those who hear kind speech from you have a delighted expression and a joyful mind. Those who hear of your kind speech will be deeply touched; they will always remember it.

Know that kind speech arises from kind heart, and kind heart from the seed of compassionate heart. Ponder the fact that kind speech is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.

Loving Words Means Speaking as If to a Baby

For the moment, let’s leap beyond ideas about speaking with kindness because it’s morally good, or demonstrates we’re a good person, or even that it’s the most effective way to get through to people. Without the correct attitude, we’ll find sincere kind speech very difficult; as Dogen says, “Kind speech arises from kind heart, and kind heart from the seed of compassionate heart… speak to sentient beings as you would to a baby.” So, let’s consider the overall attitude behind loving words to a baby.

Ideally, when we speak to a baby or small child we love and care about, we have their best interests at heart. Even when they need to be educated, corrected, even punished, we do so without judging the child as bad or deficient. When a baby throws food on the floor, a toddler rushes into the street, or a young child refuses to share with others, we don’t think, “This is ridiculous! They should know better. They shouldn’t be acting this way!” Maybe we’re frustrated or at a loss for how best to respond, but we understand our job is to guide and take care of the child no matter what her behavior. In addition, it doesn’t occur to us to feel superior to the child, or disparage her ignorance or inexperience. We have greater skills, perspective, and knowledge because of the passage of time, and because other people raised and took care of us. Our adulthood is not a matter of pride compared to the position of a child; it’s understood the child’s position is temporary, and they will inevitably grow, learn, and mature.

Our responsibility as an adult caring for a child has no bounds; for example, it’s not just our job to remind the child of the rules, it’s also our job to address a rebellious attitude, or recognize when a child can’t follow the rules, or when there’s something more serious going on than misbehavior. It’s our imperative to try anything we can, in order to get through to the child. If a child in our care goes astray, it suggests our own lack of skill, dedication, experience, patience, and creativity. That’s not to say parents or caretakers are to blame for everything children do, but when we’re inhabiting that role ourselves, we feel an imperative to keep trying. We fail only when we give up.

In addition, whatever words we need to speak to a child we’re caring for, whatever actions we need to take in order to guide them, we make our best attempt to communicate our love for them through it all. We know that a temporary “success” in getting a child to act the we want him to is not worth it if we use cruel or violent speech to do it, because it damages or destroys the relationship we have with him. Not only is that tragic in and of itself, it also undermines our ability to have influence on the child in the future.

Extending Loving Care Toward All Beings

Most of us are familiar with the attitude of loving care for children, but we rarely extend it to adults. Once someone’s reached a certain age, we figure they’re responsible for themselves, and should be held accountable for their shortcomings and mistakes. If an adult is acting inconsiderately, selfishly, ignorantly, or violently, we call them on it and demand they stop. We usually give little thought to whether our words are loving, much less to whether our attitude is loving. Perhaps we tone down our true feelings by speaking diplomatically, but this is usually done simply to get a better reception from the person we’re addressing. After all, we think, it’s not my job to love this person, and it’s certainly not my job to take care of them, or invest energy and time into patiently guiding them.

And yet in the Metta Sutta, the Buddha tells us to cherish all living beings as a mother would cherish her only child.[i] Jesus said “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”[ii] Dogen says, “When you see sentient beings, you [should] arouse the heart of compassion and offer words of loving care.” What does it really mean to extend this kind of love toward people we’re not responsible for in a traditional, social sense? It requires a radical reorientation of our minds and hearts.

Recognizing Others Will Appreciate Our Loving Words and Care

First, we need to see ourselves as having something to offer. Occasionally this might be guidance or correction, but the vast majority of the time it is simply our love, care, friendliness, and warmth. Ironically, we fail to extend this love to most people because we assume they don’t want it or need it. Indeed, strangers would probably bristle at a patronizing or condescending attitude based on some idea that they’re in need and we’re the well-resourced adult there to meet that need for them. But as mentioned earlier, a truly caring attitude doesn’t involve a sense of superiority.

So, imagine leaving superiority and inferiority out of the picture, and extending your care and love to everyone you meet as if it really mattered to them. Imagine the person you pass in the grocery store cares what you think about them, and is hoping you notice them. Imagine your annoying coworker will come around eventually, and will always remember the acceptance and compassion you showed them in the meantime. Imagine that your family member is trying really hard and would feel supported and encouraged if you acknowledged what they do with a spontaneous and gracious compliment or expression of gratitude. Because even though the people around us are usually not expecting love and care from us, it’s very rare for anyone to react badly when love and care is offered freely anyway.

For many people, when you start talking about extending an attitude of love and compassion to anyone you meet, they think of the Dalai Lama. There are countless stories of how people are personally touched by his presence – on more than one occasion hotel staff line up after he has stayed with them, and he offers each person a smile, grasps their hands, looks into their eyes, and expresses his real and sincere appreciation for them.[iii] People report being profoundly affected, but I don’t think this is because the Dalai Lama has special powers or is holy in a way we’re not. Instead, the Dalai Lama has been told since he was a small child that he’s an incarnation of compassion. Everywhere he’s gone, people have expected that of him, so he delivers.

What if you had been told since childhood you were an embodiment of compassion, and most of the people you met had treated you that way? You’d probably walk through the grocery store, sharing a little of your compassion with every person you encountered, confident that you would brighten their day and their lives. I know I extend much more of a loving attitude when I’m at my Zen center, where I’m the founder and one of the teachers, than I do when I’m elsewhere in public. At my Zen center I know each person is likely to notice the teacher and appreciate when the teacher takes the time to acknowledge them or interact with them. It’s relatively easy to act as though it really matters to each person at the Zen center how I treat them, because it probably does. Elsewhere, when I’m not in any special role and I’m just blending in with rest of the anonymous public, I’m much less inclined to think I have anything to offer the people I encounter. And yet, that’s the practice. Dogen says, “Those who hear kind speech from you have a delighted expression and a joyful mind. Those who hear of your kind speech will be deeply touched; they will always remember it.” I think we have all experienced being on the receiving end of kind speech, and know what Dogen says is true.

Hope for People as an Aspect of Love

To extend love, and therefore sincere loving words, toward all people – as Buddha, Jesus, and Dogen recommend – we also have to have real hope for people. Our kindness and patience towards children come largely from the sense we’re facilitating their learning and growth. We set boundaries for a toddler over and over and over: No, don’t pull the dog’s ears; don’t eat dirt; don’t pull the table over on yourself; don’t step off the ledge… We may get exhausted, but we understand this is a process of training, and we’ll be rewarded eventually by seeing the child start to conduct themselves more safely and appropriately, and thereby achieve more independence.

We’re not nearly so patient with adults, or so hopeful about their ability to learn and grow. Certainly, adults are more resistant to change than children, and may even be dead set against changing. But slow or unlikely change is not the same thing as no change. Human history is full of examples of how individuals and societies have changed their minds and behaviors in significant ways. There are former white supremacists who now dedicate themselves to helping others get out of hate groups, presidents who publicly changed their minds about gay marriage, and self-identified anti-liberal, anti-environmentalists who are starting to see the benefits of investing in green energy. In another essay, “Tenzokyokun” (Instructions to the Cook), Dogen says (this translation by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi):

“Do not consider the merits or faults of the monks in the community, and do not consider whether they are old or young. If you cannot even know what categories you fall into, how can you know about others? If you judge others from your own limited point of view, how can you avoid being mistaken? Although the seniors and those who came after differ in appearance, all members of the community are equal. Furthermore, those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today. Who can know what is sacred and what is ordinary?”

“Those who had shortcomings yesterday can act correctly today.” If we lose hope that this is so, we will lose our loving and caring attitude. We will write people off, and alienate them in the process. It may not be our personal responsibility to attend to a particular individual over their lifetime of development, but at least in our current interactions with them, our communication can reflect our faith that they have the potential for growth, learning, greater wisdom, and compassion. Sometimes we may find it impossible to summon such patience and understanding for someone, but if we can’t, it’s our shortcoming and not theirs.

Dogen says, “Praise those with virtue; pity those without it.” Again, we have something to offer: Rather than look at those with virtue as simply meeting their minimal adult requirements, our loving words can support and acknowledge them. What about pitying those without virtue? Perhaps pity isn’t quite the right word, because as we all know pity can contain contempt. “Compassion” for those without virtue might be a better way to put it. This means we recognize there are reasons for the way someone is acting. Perhaps they don’t understand what’s really going on, or don’t comprehend the repercussions of their actions. Perhaps they are strongly influenced by the people around them, just as we are, and have not been exposed to less harmful views. Perhaps they are struggling economically, emotionally, or physically, and find it difficult to extend generosity or concern beyond their immediate family and friends. Perhaps they are fearful, and find it easiest to blame their fear on people far away, who look and seem foreign and therefore vaguely threatening. These aren’t excuses, but they are reasons – reasons which, if understood, can be addressed.

Kind Speech as the Basis for Reconciling Rulers and Subduing Enemies

Dogen says, “Kind speech is the basis for reconciling rulers and subduing enemies… [it] is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of the nation.” I don’t think Dogen would think it was kind speech to call one’s political opponents a “basket of deplorables.” In the public realm, in social media, and in discussing our opinions with like-minded people, most of us throw loving words right out the window, calling one another “elitist,” “unpatriotic,” and “idiotic.” Even when there might be some aspects of truth behind a comment, it’s definitely not kind speech to describe people acting within the rule of democratic law as “fascist,” “totalitarian,” and “zealots” (the left uses these terms for the right, and right uses the same ones for the left). We may think such things about the “other” side, but the regular use of these terms on both sides of today’s deep political divide isn’t meant to be a thoughtful critique, it’s meant to shame, vilify, and discredit. How well is that working? Both sides feel self-righteous and hate their opponents.

What on earth would loving words look like in the realm of rulers and enemies in today’s world? It’s difficult to imagine, given how far common discourse has departed from them (if common discourse was ever loving in recent millenia). It occurs to me that it would start with listening and watching. After all, to return to our analogy of providing loving guidance to a child, if a child is acting up on a regular basis, you first have to figure out why. What’s actually going on for him? What’s he thinking? What does he want? Maybe he just wants attention, in which case giving him positive attention will be much more fruitful than simply prohibiting and punishing unwanted behaviors. When working with a child, what actually works? As Dogen says, loving words are “not just [praise]” – they’re words meant to express care, and meant to take care. How do we take care of people who feel unseen, unheard, and neglected by our society and governments? How do we take care of youth worried about having a livable future, and those worried about not having enough money to take care of their families?

In closing, please note that speaking to each and every person as if you were speaking to a baby you were taking care of is an ideal. Ideals are for inspiration and direction, not for beating ourselves up. Few of us are going to manifest this ideal in the majority of our interactions, and getting upset about not gliding through our day like a radiant saint is more a matter of self-concern than caring about others. Still, just because following the teachings of Buddha, Jesus, or Dogen completely is pretty much impossible, it doesn’t mean we don’t try. Every situation where we find ourselves facing difficulty or feeling resentment because of the behavior of other beings, we have an opportunity to turn toward the practice of love by seeing ourselves as having something to offer, and by having hope for people. I’ll end with Dogen’s encouraging words:

If kind speech is offered, little by little kind speech expands. Thus, even kind speech that is not ordinarily known or seen comes into being. Be willing to practice it for this entire present life; do not give up, world after world, life after life.

 


Endnotes

[i] “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html .
[ii] John 13:34-35, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+13%3A34-35&version=NIV
[iii] https://www.facebook.com/DalaiLama/posts/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-with-kitchen-staff-of-his-hotel-during-a-break-in-hi/10153637391482616/

 

111 – You Can't Hold on to Stillness: Practice in Activity
Talk at San Francisco Zen Center: A Sermon for Buddhists in the Climate Crisis
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