A person who loves to gossip, is in fact the first to hear the gossip; a person who likes to write others off, is in fact often the first to be written off by others; and a person who indulges in negative speech, is also the first to hear the negative words. The reason being, our ears are in close proximity to our lips; hence, whatever our ears hear or perceive depends on what our mouth speaks. Not only this, if a person’s mind is filled with negative thoughts, then his ears will naturally be more attuned to negative messages; he will even go to the extent of interpreting the world through a negative lens. Such a person often loses composure in the face of negative messages, so he is unable to perceive clearly or bear the right perspective in matters.
Everyone can speak, but not everyone can exercise kind and positive speech. Speaking kind and positive words is a habit that must be cultivated and learned through practice. The words that we speak express our inner voice and are also a reflection of our inner thoughts and emotions. To someone who has a habit of positive speech, he may feel very uncomfortable if he were asked to lament or complain about something. To someone who is outspoken with a quick tongue, it may be difficult for him to speak tactfully and appropriately. And if a person is very talkative, it would be a struggle for him to keep quiet, and as a result, he may end up saying hurtful words that lead to regret later.
Everyone in the multitudes serves as our mirror, and we can practise self-reflection and alert ourselves by observing the countenance of those we interact with. If we wish to lead happy and carefree lives, we must speak mindfully at all times, so that this becomes a habit and our character trait. If we can do this at all times, we will be able to empower and bless ourselves.
A good speaking habit is not just a conscientious effort, but requires wisdom, too. Careless little slip-ups are like sticks of lighted matches that have the potential to ignite a big fire at any time.
In ancient times, there lived a young man in a village who loved to indulge in negative speech. A landlord in the village had a son who was going to get married and was ready to invite all the villagers to the wedding feast. But he was worried that the young man would utter inauspicious words during the joyous occasion, while at the same time concerned that others might misinterpret that he was being biased if he did not invite that man. Thus, the landlord sent one of his men to make a pact with the young man, asking him to eat as much as he could during the feast but speak as little as possible, to which the young man immediately agreed. During the wedding, the young man abided by his promise. He spoke nothing, and only ate and drank voraciously till the end of the banquet. Seeing that, the landlord finally heaved a sigh of relief.
While the host was sending off the wedding guests, each guest spoke words of blessings to the wedded couple. When it came to the young man’s turn, he faced the landlord and blurted out: “Sir, I’ve followed your instructions, to eat and drink to my fill without saying a single word!” The landlord was deeply grateful to the young man, but the latter continued saying, “So, whatever shall befall this couple in the future has nothing to do with me!” Upon hearing these ill-timed words, the landlord fainted on the spot.
The sage, Confucius, said, “Words spoken can prosper or ruin a country.” Even though he was referring to the power in the words of a monarch, a careless word spoken in our daily life has the power to ruin our interpersonal relationships. Words that are spoken may influence our lives, and they may even affect a nation’s well-being. Unpleasant or inappropriate words can sow seeds of discord between people.
Once, a famous actor said at a Boao Forum*: “The Chinese need to be managed (by the government)”, and he was strongly refuted by Chinese nationals, who rallied around to attack him. In fact, if two key words were removed from his quote, it would sound more acceptable and less offensive. Instead of saying “the Chinese need to be managed”, a better choice of words could be “people need to be managed”. In this way, the quote becomes deeply philosophical, and it would avoid causing unnecessary trouble.
Hence, we need to constantly exercise prudence in our choice of words and actions. We must be mindful in our speech, while exercising tact and wisdom at the same time. Minor careless habits are like sticks of lighted matches that may ignite a great fire at any time. In fact, all of us carry a few of such lighted matches within us. Small bad habits or shortcomings cannot be taken lightly, and it is the same in how we govern our tongue.
“Learning when to speak or not to speak is about exercising wisdom in our choices, and this is something that we can learn from our interactions with others.”
There was an occasion, where a veteran volunteer who was following Dharma Master Cheng Yen, upon hearing some news about a certain volunteer, wanted to convey the message to the Master as she thought that it was something very important. “Master! I heard someone say that this person has done it again…” Without waiting for her to finish, Master Cheng Yen responded, “Who said what? I’m now only hearing you talk about (this person).”
This was a golden learning opportunity that taught people not to spread rumors based on hearsay. Even if the message is confirmed to be true, if it is not beneficial to our mind and body, we should not say it or spread it around. After the same message has passed through many lips, it will inadvertently turn into rumor or gossip. Just because we can see something with our own eyes does not mean that it is necessarily the truth, what more to say about news from hearsay?
However, if we are able to transform chaotic circumstances into opportunities for spiritual cultivation or for training our hearts, even a negative situation can become a learning opportunity that will help us achieve personal growth.
The Bible contains this teaching: “A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” Indeed, our words have the potential to hurt or cause unhappiness to people, and they may not benefit us or others, just as the Jing Si Aphorism goes, “Not knowing when to speak and how to speak tactfully, or when to keep quiet, will cause misfortune.”
When we constantly utter kind and positive words, it will strengthen our positive thoughts and bolster our positive feelings. It will also serve to boost our courage. When we make this a daily habit, it can empower us each day.
*The Boao Forum for Asia is a high-level forum for country leaders, business leaders, and academia in Asia and other continents, to share their visions on the most pressing issues in the region and the world at large.