Five Simple Syllables

“Even a fish wouldn’t get caught if he kept his mouth shut.” Among the plaques bearing “words of wisdom” that hung on the wall of our family’s basement barroom was one with these words. I had no idea at the time how Buddhistic these words were.

Recent events brought to the forefront the power of our words. A radio personality uttered five simple syllables and a national uproar ensued. Suddenly, the remark of one person, unknown to most Americans before this episode, unleashed a torrent of emotions dealing with racism, sexism and many of the other real or perceived ills of modern society. For weeks, in the media, it seemed as if the only event worth discussing was his remark and its repercussions. This personality had not committed an act of terror, formed a hate group or done other heinous acts against humanity. He had merely uttered five simple syllables.

In his first public talk after his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha presented the Eightfold Noble Path. Included among these attributes of an enlightened being is the teaching of Right Speech. The Buddha recognized the level of suffering caused by our words. As we become more aware of what we say, we are able to lower the level of this suffering. Once again, the ignorance caused by our ego gets in the way.

Gossip and remarks that belittle others come easily to many of us. For a brief moment, our ego relishes in the thought that somehow we are better than those about whom we are speaking. A perverse sense of pleasure comes from this feeling of superiority. The Buddha saw that this type of pleasure was fleeting, yet the suffering caused by these words could persist far into the future.

Often, we try to justify our words by telling ourselves they are reaction to the words of others. Or, that compared to what others have said, our words are not as bad. The Buddhadharma teaches that this comparative approach to life only perpetuates suffering. We can never control the actions of others. Our temple’s founding minister spoke of the issue of insult and criticism in his book The Center Within. He wrote, “If the criticism is true, accept it as fertilizer for growth. If the criticism is false, then it has nothing to do with you.” Therefore, we must be aware, and through our actions end the cycle that leads to suffering.

Unlike the times in which the Buddha lived, words today can travel around the world in an instant. As many of our politicians and other leaders have learned there is no such thing as “off the record” anymore. The teachings of 2,500 years ago are still true today. Live your life as if everything you say is “on the record.” Suffering is not only caused by long winded speeches of intolerance. Suffering can come from something as small as five simple syllables.

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