How to Practice Right Speech Anywhere, Anytime, and With Anyone

How to Practice Right Speech Anywhere, Anytime, and With Anyone
Photo by RKTKN |

And why right speech begins with good listening

By Krishnan Venkatesh

Mastering our minds begins with mastering our mouths. We spend the first 10 years of our lives learning “elementary right speech”: how to interact politely, respectfully, and inoffensively; when to speak, when not to speak. Then we spend another decade learning to express more complex feelings and ideas to others. We might call this intermediate right speech, although what we study even on these two preliminary levels is bottomless. Even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak can’t be determined by a formula; it is a skill refined over a lifetime.

If you want to stop suffering, the Buddha taught, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end: right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. While the word right: carries connotations of orthodox correctness, it is a misleading translation of the Pali word samma, which means perfected, completed, or consummated. The eight limbs of the path are not eight steps to be taken consecutively, but are to be worked on simultaneously. Like the eight branches to one trunk or eight tributaries flowing into one river, each is essential to the elimination of suffering. Of these limbs, none seem plainer than “right speech” or samma-vaca, yet samma-vaca is a powerful practice, and one that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone.

“And what is samma-vaca?” asks the Buddha in The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation. “Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech.”

The process of learning to improve ourselves through language can be thought of as advanced right speech. In this practice, we become more consciously skilled with our words, aware of the effects they can have on ourselves and others, and alert to the ways that our thoughts and statements can grow into habits. We avoid speech that makes us “impure”—confused, muddy, self-evading, and unable to separate truth from untruth.

Impurity, according to the Buddha, can come about in four ways. The first is telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately relax our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves. The second is saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust and at the same time turning ourselves into someone who delights in dragging other people down. The third way is uttering words designed to hurt and upset, which sows internal strife in those around us and undermines their capacity for contentment. And the fourth destructive way may be the hardest for a modern person to understand: filling precious silence with babble that matters to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. (Accustomed as we are to the sounds of entertainment and commentary, silence can disturb us; we find it awkward.) The effect of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.

In contrast, when we learn to be more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, we find ourselves becoming better people. In The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, the Buddha says: “And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech.”

This is the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who never speaks in such a way as to cause discord and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; someone whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; and one who is always to the point and worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being—the kind of person we would want for a friend, and also the one that we aspire to become.

The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced. At the beginning of each day, we can articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of samma-vaca with the particular people and situations we come across. Before we go to sleep, we can reflect on our conversations, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook?

Underlying all of these queries is the larger question about motivation: why did I speak, and what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions. When we do, we are able to, as the Buddha says: “speak words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.”…



Eat Like a Martial Arts Master and Increase Your Willpower

Image via


Deep in the crevasses of the Songshan mountain range, an Indian dhyana master established the first Shaolin Monastery in 477 AD, seeking to spread the relatively new teachings of Buddha at the time. This monastery then bred the Shaolin monks, who are now popular for their incredible feats with Chinese martial arts, particularly with Shaolin Kung Fu.

Since then, Chinese dynasties have been both built and destroyed, but the lives of the monks have persevered through both progress and persecution.

Modern Shaolin monks are popular and known throughout the world, which is evident from their presence even on the silver screen—especially in martial arts films. More than a million people per year visit Shaolin in order to capture a small glimpse into the simple yet extraordinary life of a Shaolin Monk.

The allure of the Chinese monks hinges on the relatively unchanged lifestyle that they have lead for hundreds of years. They follow strict schedules, which include waking up extremely early (5 a.m.), followed by constant strenuous and physically punishing training sessions and bouts of meditation.

One habit of the monks’ lives that is key to their success is their well-known vegetarian diet. Like every other aspect of their lifestyle, the diet is centered around Buddhist ideals, like purity and simplicity. The traditional diet of the Shaolin monks consists primarily of rice, vegetables and fruits—all of which are grown in the confines of the temple. While what they eat is no secret, it’s rare to get a glimpse into the actual meals, as most temples bar technology from being used inside.

Enter Reddit

Redditor pie5135 is a Korean-American student currently taking a gap year in China at a secretive martial arts school/temple for four months. He posted a guide to eating like a Martial Arts Master, including what, when, and how to eat in order to use your body to its full potential.

In the thread, pie5135 described a bit of the foreground of the martial arts school, mentioning that his master is one of the last genuine descendants of the original Imperial Guard of China. Out of hundreds of applicants, only 20 are selected at a time to experience and train with him.

He then goes on to break down his dietary experience into two sections—theory and rules.


  • We are designed to eat as if food was scarce.
  • Half the digestion process is manual.
  • Food should not be a mystery.


  • Chew 30 times per bite. Your food should become into something similar to a liquid or porridge before you digest it. Use all sides of your mouth to prevent soreness in your jaw. Chewing helps your body break down food much easier because of enzymes that break up and increase the surface area of the food.
  • While you’re chewing, put your utensils down. This allows you to focus on your current bite, without having to prepare for the next one. This also gives your body more time to digest the food.
  • Eat everything on your plate. This actually encourages you to put less on your plate, because we usually tend to overcompensate and smother our plates with too much food. As a general rule, start out by only putting about 1/2-2/3 of the amount you’re accustomed to eating.
  • Think before you attempt for seconds. If you want more food because you’re hungry, it’s fine to take more. If you want more food simply because you want to taste more food, it’s better to lay off the seconds. Give your body time to get full before you try for seconds, as unnecessary extras might result in a food coma. Forced bites are not good.
  • Eat everything with chopsticks, including rice. Chopsticks are ideal for gathering the right bite sizes.
  • Set up a time limit (around 20-30 minutes) within which you cannot finish your food. You have to finish afterwards. The slower, the better.

The meals are divided into portions in terms of weight, which is 1:1:2 with vegetables, tofu, and rice. They also have eggs, tofu and broth, which is made by both the students and cooks that they have at the monastery…




Revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Revisiting Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Photo by Wesley Tingey |

The author of the iconic book died last month

By Dan Zigmond

Robert Pirsig died on Monday, April 24, 2017, at his home in Maine. He was 88 and had been in poor health for some time.

In 1974, he published Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an autobiographical account of the road trip he took with his 11-year-old son Chris from Minneapolis to San Francisco in the summer of 1968. It became an unexpected and almost immediate success, selling a million copies within a year and many more millions since.

The book also describes his experience, years earlier, of going clinically insane while trying to discover the meaning of life, eventually leaving him confined to a psychiatric hospital to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Yet a third strand of the novel develops the philosophy he explored during those difficult years—a metaphysics of what he calls “Quality”—in a series of informal narrative essays that form the bulk of most chapters.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is not about traditional Zen, although Pirsig was clearly inspired by Zen Buddhism. His philosophical investigations began through teaching English composition to college students and asking himself the simple question of what made writing good. He started with this practical quandary:

Quality—you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others—but what’s the “betterness”? So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”

Pirsig describes a sort of enlightenment experience around this ineffable Quality koan of his, and he comes to equate his notion of Quality with the Buddha quite literally: “Quality is the Buddha,” he declares near the end. His writing on this point evokes a distinctly Zen flavor:

“To discover a metaphysical relationship of Quality and the Buddha at some mountaintop of personal experience is very spectacular. And very unimportant . . . What’s important is the relevance of such a discovery to all the valleys of this world, and all the dull, dreary jobs and monotonous years that await all of us in them.”

Pirsig adapted his famous—and now frequently imitated—title from Zen in the Art of Archery, a slim volume published by a German philosophy professor in the late 1940s that became one of the first works on Japanese Zen available in English. Although Pirsig’s own book makes few direct references to orthodox Zen practice, there are hints within that Pirsig knew much more than he let on. He makes a fleeting reference to “beginner’s mind,” that favorite phrase of San Francisco Zen Center’s founder Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In fact, Pirsig studied extensively with Suzuki’s friend Dainin Katagiri Roshi, helping him start the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, which still thrives in Minneapolis.

Pirsig developed a deeper and far more tragic connection to the San Francisco Zen Center in 1979, when his son Chris was killed on the street just outside that building a week before his 23rd birthday. Chris had also suffered bouts of mental illness, but had moved to San Francisco and was living at the Center at the time, pursuing the formal practice of Zen that his father’s book largely avoided. Katagiri Roshi gave the address at Chris’s funeral. With the elder Pirsig’s passing last month, both passengers on that legendary motorcycle have now left us.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance likely remains the world’s best-selling book with the word “Zen” in the title. Pirsig himself offered a simple explanation for his work’s enduring appeal: “To reject that part of the Buddha that attends to the analysis of motorcycles is to miss the Buddha entirely,” he wrote early in his book. For certain newcomers to Zen and even some experienced practitioners, Pirsig’s long digressions on tightening bolts and changing spark plugs might just be the inspiration they need to understand life’s great mysteries…



Why You’re Addicted to Your Phone

Why You’re Addicted to Your PhonePhoto by Warren Wong |

The nonstop novelty of cell phones distracts us from the true root of our suffering.

By Kurt Spellmeyer
Kurt Spellmeyer is a Zen priest and directs the Cold Mountain Sangha in New Jersey. He teaches English at Rutgers University and is the author of Buddha at the Apocalypse: Awakening from a Culture of Destruction.

About two years ago, I lost my phone. Waiting at Newark International Airport, I heard the cancellation of my Chicago flight, closed down by a blizzard. I took out my phone to call home, but then I learned about another plane, soon departing from a different terminal. Stampeding down the concourse with the crowd, I must have dropped my aging Samsung.

In the weeks that followed, I added “Buy a phone” to my list of undone tasks, but as each list replaced the former one, something held me back. Gradually, I understood: losing the phone felt liberating.

Living as I do in central New Jersey, I wouldn’t have the same sense of relief if my Toyota disappeared. And I’d surely miss my Kenmore washing machine, still running after 20 years. But cell phones differ from technologies like these—and in ways we might not appreciate.  

Pinging, ringing, and vibrating all the time, phones can be annoying, but that’s not what sets them apart. Lying in my bed at the end of a day, I don’t feel so overwhelmed by anxiety that I can’t relax unless I run downstairs to do another load of dirty clothes. But anxiety, guilt, loss, loneliness—these emotions can arise when I’m unconnected to my phone, and I’m not the only one this happens to. The mystery is why.

Most of our machines have been designed to replicate or enhance our bodies’ functioning. A hammer is a prosthetic hand; bicycles are prosthetic legs. But cell phones, iPads, and PCs are prostheses for our minds.

People often talk about the mind as though it’s a computer when the relationship is just the reverse: computers imitate our mental processing. Our grandparents didn’t need Steve Jobs to watch the screens behind their eyes. They’d admire mental snapshots of their patios or replay movies in their heads, adding sound to the images.

Computers and their spinoffs are machines designed to simulate these capacities, and like all tools, they soon become extensions of ourselves. The mind is no computer, but our consciousness still merges with our phones and tablets as seamlessly as a painter’s hand fuses with her brush or musicians vocalize through their instruments. This fusion can happen, Buddhist teaching holds, because consciousness is formless and adopts the qualities of everything it “touches.” Once we’ve immersed ourselves in our screens, they become our whole reality—and that’s why texting drivers look up with surprise when they rear-end the car in front of them.

We’d like to believe there’s a clear boundary between the real and the virtual, but if screens have become extensions of our minds, that assumption could prove fatally naïve, especially now that IT visionaries claim an implant linking our brains to the Web is less than a decade away.

Long before the Internet, early Buddhists coined a term—prapanca in Sanskrit—to describe the tendency of our thoughts to proliferate like “entangling vines,” as Zen teachers say. Mahayana Buddhists expanded the term to include not only words and ideas but also images, memories, and other mental fabrications. Now, the time has come for us to add everything streaming into our heads from our new prostheses: YouTube videos, online news, music, selfies sent from far away.    

The trouble with prapanca, the Buddha taught in the Madhupindika Sutta, is that the nonstop novelty prevents us from uncovering the sources of our suffering. We shuttle from one screen to the next, trying to allay our nagging sense that something’s missing or not right. But nothing we find satisfies for long, and so we start Googling again.

Instead, we need to turn our devices off. When the screens in front of us go blank, we have a better chance to become aware of another screen “behind our eyes,” the screen of the mind. Then, if we sit quietly, watching the breath or reciting the Buddha’s name, that inner screen will empty out until it appears formless and radiant. And once we make contact with this bright, empty mind, our craving for fresh screens comes to a stop. No matter what displays we encounter when we switch our devices on again, all of them will convey the same “one taste.”

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra describes this “one taste” as a timeless “now” that is “unproduced, unceasing, quiescent from the start, and naturally in a state of nirvana” (trans. John Powers). In that state, where you have nothing to achieve and nowhere left to go, it won’t hurt to make an occasional call or look up a restaurant on an app because the mind behind your eyes hasn’t changed.

Still, I’m not planning to buy a new phone. Phones come in handy if your car breaks down or you get lost in Brooklyn. But when I’ve found myself in those predicaments, I’ve had to reacquaint myself with two often overlooked dharma practices. The first is giving a person on the street the chance to offer me assistance. The other practice goes to the very heart of our real, not virtual, connectedness. That practice is asking for help.


7 Key Principles to Attaining Inner Peace

Inner Peace

by Brandon West, Contributor Waking Times

We all have a connecting link to universal consciousness within us, and when we are open and receptive to that connection then we are in a state of inner peace, love, inspiration, bliss, and so on. All of those wonderful qualities are who we are in our natural state. The only thing disrupting this flow is our thoughts, and the specific perceptions of ourselves and the universe which our thoughts create.

Think of the individual that you used to be for a moment, or the aspects of yourself that you are learning to transcend and transform through spiritual growth. That aspect of yourself is nothing more than a fixed perspective of life, your identity, a reality that is held in place through habitual thought, emotion, and behavior.

You only need to surrender to the higher consciousness within yourself, and all of the issues in your life will be resolved, and inner peace will be yours. You will naturally transform and become greater than you ever dreamed yourself to be as you let go of your old identity and embrace the new, powerful, infinite, and eternal aspect of yourself.

To do so is something that everyone alive has the ability to do. In a general sense it is the purpose of all life. All that it takes is some time, consistent effort, and the right leverage in the right places. These 7 principles for attaining inner peace are that leverage.

1. Meditation

Meditation is the most important practice for attaining inner peace. Inner peace is the result of being perfectly aligned with our life purpose and with our inner truth. When we are acting against who we really are, then we are not in a state of inner peace, but when we are in alignment, inner peace is the result.

Meditation is elemental because it is the practice that specifically works to bring us in touch with who we really are, and is the key to self-mastery. This is because as we practice meditation we are developing attention, and when our attention becomes powerful, it naturally dominates the mind and thus inner silence is achieved.

What Buddhism and Dark Comedy Have in Common

What Buddhism and Dark Comedy Have in CommonPhoto by Bragg’s Untrained Eye |

Much like the Buddha, comics can be a powerful medium for communicating the unsettling truths in life.

By Julia Hirsch

Comedians worth their salt know that neuroses, awkwardness, and dissatisfaction are often the best places to plumb for material. The Buddha knew it, too, although he wasn’t doing slapstick—Buddhism’s first noble truth is an acknowledgement of life’s inevitablesuffering, from the most trifling irritation to the greatest tragedy.

Cue Christopher Kelley, a Buddhist Studies professor at Brooklyn College and the New School who explores the parallels between dark comedy and basic Buddhist tenets in talks across the country. Like Buddhism, Kelley thinks, comedy of the truth-telling sort can help us confront moments and experiences that can be painfully awkward, deeply unsettling, or outright depressing.

Thinkolio, a think tank that connects professors with the general public, is partnering with the Strand Bookstore in New York City to host an upcoming talk with Kelley, “Buddhist Realism and Dark Comedy: It’s Funny Because It’s True,” at 7 p.m. on May 5. Below, Kelley discusses the merits of dark comedy as an effective vehicle for facing what pains us the most.

What does dark comedy have in common with Buddhist philosophy?
Buddhism and dark comedy both seek to expose unsettling truths about the human condition, which we normally choose to deny—namely, old age, sickness, and death. In Buddhacarita (“Life of Buddha”), an epic poem written by the Indian monk Ashvaghosha in the 2nd-century CE, it is Prince Siddhartha’s encounters with old age, sickness, and death that lead him to seek out a solution to the problem of suffering. These encounters eventually transform him into an awakened Buddha. Like the Buddha, the comic can be a powerful medium for communicating the disquieting, shunned truths in life. In comedy—as any good comedian knows—making jokes about the human condition usually gets a big laugh. It’s funny because it’s true.

From day-to-day anxiety to existential dread, how can comic relief be an effective antidote for dealing with our messy afflictions?
The Buddha diagnosed the root cause of human suffering (dukkha) as our own compulsive tendency to cling to unreal ideas about ourselves and the world we inhabit. I think dark comedy offers a kind of disruptive therapy for our anxieties about life by using humor to reveal the profound incongruence between the way we think the world should be and the way the world actually is. A lot of research has been dedicated to understanding why we laugh. One such theory says that we laugh at incongruence itself. We find humor in these moments, be they as simple and absurd as a throng of clowns spilling out of a tiny car or, as I would argue, the disconnect between our idealizations and the way things really are.

Dark comics like Louis C. K. explore this juncture in their stand-up acts when they make jokes about the certainty of death. In a show he performed at the Beacon Theater in 2011, Louis told the audience that it was a statistical fact that one of them would most certainly die within the next year. Everyone laughed at his “joke” because nobody really believes that they’ll be the statistical fatality. We laugh at dark jokes because the reality of things doesn’t quite square with our own perceptions about ourselves and the world. Intellectually, I know that I’ll die some day, but I don’t really believe that I’ll be that statistic. Except I very well could be!…



Tweeting Teachers

Tweeting Teachers
Photo by Przemyslaw Reinfus |

How bird calls invite us back to ourselves and the present moment

By Lauren Krauze

In the park, a sharp screech cuts through the early morning silence. I glance overhead and spot a very large broad-winged bird. I stop walking and watch her swerve around a nearby oak tree, noticing the rich brown wings speckled with white, the rust-colored tail feathers. A red-tailed hawk. She sails through a space between two blossoming trees and then, with a single heavy wing beat, soars up into the open air above the hill. Her flight path is winding, sunlit. After circling several more times, she catches an updraft, ascending higher. I wonder if she’s looking for a landing spot. She spirals again and then flies around the corner of a building, out of sight.

Before I heard the hawk, I had been walking along and dwelling on something that happened a long time ago. I had held up this heavy thing to the light of my mind, turned it around, tried to buffer its jagged edges with repetitive thoughts. Then, a bird called me back to the world. With a single cry, she guided me away from the circular paths of my mind and invited me to join her in the moment.

For me, bird calls are a bit like mindfulness bells: they remind me to stop, offer my attention to the present, and breathe. Sometimes only the loudest honks of geese or the piercing trill of a blue jay can cut through the thicket of my thoughts. Other times, when I’m feeling more relaxed and attentive, the invitation is quieter; it’s the gentle coo of a lone pigeon or the tender threnody of a mourning dove that gives me pause.

Most mornings, I pass by a large rock wall draped with lush, shiny ivy. I stop to watch a choir of house sparrows chatter and flit among the leaves. Some ruffle their feathers and dive into the fluff on their breasts, grooming and picking with their sharp beaks. Others hop over the cracks in the rock, clenching a twig or thick piece of grass. Their movements seem erratic, spontaneous. I can never guess what they’re going to do; I can only watch. The red-tailed hawk is similar. What I imagine to be a calculated effort to search for a landing spot could simply be a morning joy ride. I can never know for sure. Instead, I try to observe and notice the questions and thoughts that arise. Maybe I’m the one who’s trying to land.

I usually walk with my dog, Abby. When she’s off leash, she meanders slowly through the long grass, sniffing dandelions and tree stumps. One morning, she walked ahead of me on the gravelly path and paused by a small lump in the grass. When I approached, she was standing over a dead pigeon. It seemed to have died only recently; it looked deceptively healthy and composed.

Abby moved her nose closer to the bird and sniffed its white feathers. I panicked and started to reach for her collar, then stopped. I realized there was nothing dangerous about the dead bird or Abby’s curiosity. I looked closer, too. I noticed the delicate folds of gray and white feathers, the tiny, fragile head, the body’s odd stillness. I wasn’t sure if I felt sad, afraid, or awestruck. I looked at Abby. “Do you think it suffered?” I asked. She lifted her head and met my gaze just long enough for me to answer my own question: of course it suffered, at least in some way…


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