Spoken language has existed since the earliest times, and all the oldest written texts were originally transmitted orally. This oral transmission requires, by modern standards, superior powers of memory since, for example, the Rig Veda alone comprises almost half a million words. In Plato's Phaedrus (§274) Egyptian King Thamus tells Theuth, the inventor of writing, of the superiority of memory:
you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Indeed, today written language has precedence over orally preserved language. Although recent archeology has uncovered in China carved signs similar to writing which may date to 8,600 years ago, conventional wisdom holds that the first writing, cuneiform, appeared in Sumer in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago.
Sumerian pictographic tablet, 4th cent. BC
Some scholars, however, believe cuneiform was developed from an earlier counting system in use 10,000 years ago, recorded with etched symbols on clay tokens. Like modern Japanese or Chinese scripts, all currently known early written languages used pictograms and symbols. Later the quicker-to-learn alphabet system developed whereby individual sounds are represented by symbols strung together to form words. The last 500 years have seen an explosion in the way ideas are communicated. The ability to record and transmit written language on a grand scale emerged with the European use of the printing press during the 1450s, and since then literacy has spread worldwide, empowering millions to communicate their thoughts more widely. The past hundred or so years has seen the invention of the telephone, radio, television, typewriters, word processors, faxes, satellites, email, the internet, computer video-conferencing, and the human voice recorded on wax cylinder, records, tapes, compact discs, and computer drives. Mobile phones enable voice-contact with others almost any time, anywhere.
Words play a vital role in today's global psychological battlefield. In those modern influencers of mass opinion — news, entertainment, and advertising especially — they are used with ever more contrivance and persuasiveness, resulting in a greater challenge for us to determine how accurately the world around us and our place in it is being described. However, there are also many writers, broadcasters, and musicians using the language of the heart, inspiring many with visions and ideas of truth, beauty, hope, and optimism. Movements and programs promote ethics in this area, such as the American campaign "Words Can Heal" which aims to "eliminate verbal violence, curb gossip and promote the healing power of words to enhance relationships at every level"; the extensive research in psychology and sociology into the positive and negative effects of speech on the speaker and hearer; and courses in speech ethics.
In the West speech also takes a backseat to writing with regard to preserving ritual and prayer. Not so with some indigenous peoples. For example, some Native American tribal leaders have been reluctant to allow written versions of their languages to exist. To maintain purity and sacredness, shamanistic teachings are never written down. The details and nuances of some natural healing methods have also been lost when oral instructions were written down. There has perhaps, then, never been a more critical time for us to understand what we really have in the power of speech and language and the ethical responsibilities that come with that power.
The story of what our speech is, its evolution, and how we can use it, is truly magnificent. H. P. Blavatsky expresses it mythically in The Secret Doctrine: as the gods or intelligent forces in nature awakened from an ages-long sleep, they began to form around them the material universe until they had expressed themselves in their relative fullness. First to arise was the desire to express latent possibilities and urges, and the bringing to rebirth by karma of long-dormant causes. The shockwaves of this initial cosmic event are still vibrating in every atom. The desire to express inner thoughts, forces, motivations, and ideas is constant throughout nature, as we can see in the perpetual destruction and regeneration of all things. Mankind is no exception to this universal law, since we are continually expressing our inner desires through our thoughts and actions. One way we express our thoughts is through speech.
Speech and language are implicit in our humanity, natural emanations from our innermost being. The Secret Doctrine marks the importance of spoken language by saying that it developed during the turning point in our evolution, anywhere between ten to fifteen million years ago (2:198). According to theosophy the earliest human beings were speechless, using a type of "thought-transference," with no method or need to express thought physically. Over millions of years a language of vowel-like sounds akin to chanting evolved, later including onomatopoeic sounds from nature such as clicks, snaps, pops, and animal and plant noises. Eventually monosyllabic speech — vowel sounds broken by consonants — developed, as self-aware mind emerged along with the power of reasoning. This spawned the birth of language as we know it, and speech moved through cycles of growth including agglutinative languages, in which word elements are strung together without changing each other, and inflectional languages, in which word elements may change form according to their grammatical function. The pattern here is that everything flows and is governed from within, and our speech is intertwined with the creative forces of the universe. The more refined and developed human self-consciousness becomes, the more refined our language and speech may become, or we may move away from verbal communication altogether and rely more on psychic and spiritual methods, the seeds of which are germinating now.
The world currently has about 6,000 to 7,000 languages. As to their ultimate origin, opinion is divided between those who assert that language and speech are instinctive abilities and those who believe that linguistic evolution follows the Darwinian model of natural selection. Because the sound of a word has no direct connection to its meaning, words change meaning and form so quickly that many linguists argue that their origins are virtually untraceable, lost in history. The linguist most celebrated for work on the historical relationship between all the world's languages, Dr. Joseph H. Greenberg, disagrees. He states that the meanings and sounds of certain language items are more stable than others: personal pronouns, parts of the body, and natural objects such as the sun and moon. By comparing hundreds of stable, core words he constructed a grouping of twelve super-families, such as Eurasiatic and Amerind, which may have been in development for at least 60,000 years. Russian linguists Illich-Svitych and Dolgopolsky derived independently a controversial Eurasiatic super-family called Nostratic, which they believe was spoken more than 12,000 years ago. Nostratic overlaps Greenberg's Eurasiatic and includes some Middle-Eastern and Afro-Asiatic languages but not Eurasiatic's Japanese and Eskimo-Aleut languages. Derek Bickerton contends, in opposition to the notion that primitive language may have arisen out of the basic need to communicate, that speech and language manifested as the mind strove to comprehend the world around it. His theory is underpinned by the idea that the stages of development a human being progresses through from conception to adulthood may parallel mankind's evolutionary stages.
Archeological research into population genetics is used to support many historical linguists' theories. Comparisons of mitochondrial DNA from ancient cadavers in various parts of the world, and cross-references of today's language similarities such as grammar and syntax, reveals a picture of human migratory routes spanning millennia and the origins and development of certain languages. How far back this process can take us is debatable. Merritt Ruhlen makes the controversial case for a global language called Proto-Global, suggesting that today's languages might be descendants of a single ancestral human language with roots hundreds of thousands of years old. This ties in with some DNA studies* which assert that all peoples, and perhaps all languages, are descended from a tiny African population some 200,000 years ago — the " 'Eve' out of Africa" theory. Many scholars are now engaged in a multi-disciplinary endeavor called the "Emerging Synthesis" which aims to unite research in linguistics, human genetics, and archeology to form a single hypothesis concerning the origin and spread of modern humans from Africa to the rest of the world over the last 100,000 years. In contrast to the single ancestral language theory is the idea that there are multiple ancestral languages which may have developed independently of each other on different parts of the globe during different phases of human evolution which together spawned the diversity we see today.
* For a discussion of different models of human descent, see "The Quest for Human Origins" by Ina Belderis, Sunrise, April/May 2003.
Some projections show the likelihood that between 3,500 to 5,500 languages will become extinct in the next hundred years due to such factors as population displacement, merging cultures, land destruction, government policies, migration, disease, globalization, and electronic media. There were once many more languages; Spanish and Portuguese, for example, now dominate in South America at the expense of hundreds of indigenous languages. Now half the world's population speaks only fifteen languages and half the world's languages are spoken by groups of no more than 2,000 to 3,000 people. We may feel that having many languages in the world enriches our ability to express ourselves and allows us to perceive the world and others through concepts different from our own. The Sanskrit word karma, for example, virtually unheard of 150 years ago in the West, encompasses meanings and concepts with no European single-word equivalent. Is it not also important to preserve the folklore, mythology, and history of a people to give some kind of cultural and spiritual context to their lives? Attempts are being made to save and revive languages before the only remaining record of them exists in written form or they disappear altogether. Some argue, however, that with more people speaking fewer languages cultural barriers may lessen and encourage the blossoming of much needed understanding between peoples across the globe.
Writing in 1888, Blavatsky stated that "there was, during the youth of mankind, one language, one knowledge, one universal religion," (SD 1:341). Although The Secret Doctrine refers to a few extremely ancient languages, the oldest that theosophical literature speaks of at length is Senzar, which Blavatsky describes as a secret sacerdotal language: "for there was a time when [it] was known to the Initiates of every nation, when the forefathers of the Toltec understood it as easily as the inhabitants of the lost Atlantis, who inherited it, in their turn, from the sages" going back to the earliest human beings (SD 1:xliii). It remains unknown to modern linguistics, and theosophical literature maintains that it has been unknown to the mass of mankind since global cataclysms caused the divergence of languages from a common tongue, events characterized by flood myths and the biblical allegory of the Tower of Babel. Blavatsky calls it the "direct progenitor" or "root" of Sanskrit, and relates it also to ancient Persian, Japanese, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and Native American languages.
Senzar was a means of communicating the most profound esoteric truths. Although it has its own written characters, its essence lies in part beneath the universal pictograms, glyphs, and geometry used in spiritual traditions, and partly in the storytelling devices and archetypes of allegory, parable, and metaphor found in dreams, mythology, folklore, religions, and the arts. All of us can intuit to a degree the meaning implied in such symbols as a circle or cross, the parables of Jesus, or Grimms' fairy tales. We think in symbols and concepts, in a language some linguists call mentalese, so these are perhaps collective memories of spiritual truths we all once understood that lie still within us, truths buried under many lives of habitual materialistic thinking, waiting for us to make the call. In an echo of Plato's teaching that all learning is remembering, Blavatsky implies that mankind will one day restore knowledge of the universal mystery language.
One major object of linguistic study today is to "show that all languages are variations on a single theme, while at the same time recording faithfully their intricate properties of sound and meaning" (Language and Mind: Current Thoughts on Ancient Problems, Noam Chomsky, 1997). Studies do indeed show that, although different in many cases, all languages' grammar follows underlying, natural, predetermined patterns much in the same way that a story must have a beginning, middle, and end, or a song must have rhythm, harmony, and melody. These researchers employ a holistic approach: learning how word categories (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, etc.) relate to each other and using them to construct phrases which in turn are positioned to form sentences. We do this almost effortlessly and unconsciously to convey meaningful information to others. Believing that languages are more similar than dissimilar, Chomsky pioneered investigating language as a common "cognitive structure" and function of the mind, much in the same way that a biologist investigates digestion as a common bodily function. In asking how we learn a language, he further asks what a human being brings to the task of acquiring and learning a language. He theorizes that we have a "language instinct" or "language organ," the physical representation of which is as yet unidentified within the brain, that uses what he calls universal grammar, a natural foundation of rules or laws upon which any language can be learned, including sign languages. As a result of this innate quality, the ability to apply even complicated grammatical rules arises spontaneously within children from every culture as they acquire the use of language and expand their vocabulary. This substratum of intelligent order is certainly not taught by parent to child, for as Chomsky notes:
the child knows vastly more than experience has provided. That is true even of simple words. Young children acquire words at a rate of about one every waking hour, with extremely limited exposure under highly ambiguous conditions. The words are understood in delicate and intricate ways that are far beyond the reach of any dictionary, and are only beginning to be investigated. When we move beyond single words, the conclusion becomes even more dramatic. Language acquisition seems much like the growth of organs generally; it is something that happens to a child, not that the child does. And while the environment plainly matters, the general course of development and the basic features of what emerges are predetermined by the initial state [Universal Grammar]. But the initial state is a common human possession. It must be, then, that in their essential properties, languages are cast to the same mold. The Martian scientist might reasonably conclude that there is a single human language, with differences only at the margins. — Ibid.
Language acquisition in children is a fiercely contested scientific area: the familiar "nature versus nurture" debate is alive and well here. On the one hand it is generally accepted that babies and young children do acquire individual words and their meanings into their mental dictionaries by learning from their family. However, understanding such complex and subtle qualities as recognizing and responding to individual sounds within a word, generalizing and specializing over categories of meaning (whether "stone" means rock, a particular rock, the verb "to stone," all the qualities of a stone, a mineral, an inanimate object, etc.), and inference, are, like many innate abilities, little understood.
What is missing from the standard insights into language acquisition is the notion that the human body, with its brain, is the vehicle of an inner divinity. In our higher reaches we have an all-encompassing understanding of ourselves and our environment based on countless lifetimes of refinement through reimbodiment on physical, mental, and emotional planes. Our growth from germ through childhood to adulthood is directed by our spiritual self. The human soul or higher mind is itself an emanation of spirit. During physical gestation it attracts around it attributes from previous lives to build the composite spiritual, psychic, and physical human being, a process which stops only towards the end of the natural life-span. The link between spiritual and physical is strong, and we rely more on the spiritual than the physical for governing our biological and psychological processes as well as for developing deeper understanding.
The universal theme upon which all languages are based — written, spoken, sign, Braille, or finger-spelling — and the innate ability to acquire language with all its subtle, complex qualities may exist within and operate through a nonphysical medium. One possibility is biologist Rupert Sheldrake's morphic field theory: that fields of intelligent energy, "an inherent memory in nature," are used to record and transmit mental, behavioral, social, and cultural ideas from one generation to another, a process Sheldrake calls morphic resonance. This idea relates to the archetypes in C. G. Jung's theory of the collective unconscious. These archetypes are closely connected to our impulse to try to understand and learn, as they form the foundations not only of the physical world but also of our mental and emotional worlds. Collectively these living symbols may also form the vibration from the "keynote of truth" struck millions of years ago into the mind of mankind by higher intelligent forces overseeing the early stages of human development, as mentioned in The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett. Theosophy holds that thoughts are entities with rudimentary intelligence which naturally reside within a vast mental repository, sometimes called the astral light, surrounding and interpenetrating our planet. As far as our physical, mental, and emotional growth is concerned, including language acquisition, we have karmic tendencies, individually and as a humanity, closely tied to attributes from former lives and influences within the astral light which determine general as well as more specialized strands of our development. The rapidity and rationale of our first language acquisition, therefore, may be an unconscious remembering or "downloading" of the language qualities we have learned as a species since the foundations of language were originally laid down within the astral light by the earliest humanity, all the way through to the grammar used by each of us in our last incarnation.
Linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt said that language is "infinite use of finite means," perhaps because it has to satisfy the infinite array of potential human experiences. To me this suggests that the roots of language lie deep within us as a universal well of kaleidoscopic expression, and that speech is not solely a learned or conditioned behavior, but is an essential aspect of the journeying pilgrim within each of us: the inner immortal hero that relishes life's battles, quietly learns from victory and defeat alike, and suffers human weaknesses while urging onward courageously day by day, life after life, towards the light.
Thoughts can inspire not just generations but cultures, individually and collectively, to achieve the most noble aspirations. Some of humanity's greatest figures have soared to realms of experience deep within the heart of nature and have perceived with their own minds the truth of what binds the universe together. Some, who can choose words that convey those mighty spiritual concepts with sufficient accuracy and potency, share this light on their return. These able ones have left us the world's great spiritual, religious, and philosophical texts and teachings. Great poets and writers flesh out the world's library of inspiring works. As we enter new realms of experience in these interesting and unpredictable days, the unrecognized mass of human beings are also, by our speech and writing, adding to the ever-changing richness of the "language legacy."
What effect does the human voice have on us and our surroundings? Can it affect physical health, for example? Speech is the physical emanation of thoughts modified by emotions, hence it would be incorrect to say that speech itself affects the body, as ultimately thought and emotion are the motivating cause. However, once we vocalize thoughts, their corresponding vibrations resonate throughout the body, affecting every atom while being attracted to specific areas. The human voice and sound in general have been used through the ages in healing practices and ritual. Shamans use sound and rhythm to enter altered states and vocal intonations to create conditions favorable to restoring balance. Silent as well as vocal prayer, especially singing, can have powerful effects on the mind and body. Vocal affirmation of inner beliefs and aspirations not only strengthens resolve but can vitalize the body. Some techniques of "vibrational medicine" involve using the human voice to disperse blockages within the physical or astral body. Modern medicine acknowledges to a degree the power and benefits of sound as a healing aid, although at present not the human voice. For example, physiotherapists are using ultrasound in the treatment of damaged muscle tissue.
Despite penetrating insights into the mechanics of language by modern linguistics, the ethics of speech seem to belong more in the realm of spirituality than of linguistic philosophy. Our daily speech follows distinct patterns, using our own habitual palette of words. Our motive, often unspoken, is more powerful than our words in its effect, and therefore more care should be taken in controlling motive than controlling the words we choose to speak. For example, in "vibrational medicine" do we primarily want to heal or to develop personal powers?
The ability to speak, then, carries with it a certain responsibility. Sometimes we don't put our brains into gear before we speak and what comes out is either a load of nonsense or not a true reflection of what we were thinking. Our voices are physical emanations from inner planes. In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker explains one theory of this concept — mentalese:
We have all had the experience of uttering or writing a sentence, then stopping and realizing that it wasn't exactly what we meant to say. To have that feeling, there has to be a "what we meant to say" that is different from what we said. Sometimes it is not easy to find any words that properly convey a thought. When we hear or read, we usually remember the gist, not the exact words, so there has to be such a thing as a gist that is not the same as a bunch of words. — pp. 57-8
Concluding, he says:
People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought [mentalese]. The language of thought probably looks a bit like all these languages . . . to get these languages of thought to subserve reasoning properly, they would have to look much more like each other than either one does to its spoken counterpart, and it is likely that they are the same: a universal mentalese. — pp. 81-2
Thoughts are so complex, and the languages we use so limited in their ability to convey what we are really thinking or our motives, that only a very small amount of our inner life ever reaches the physical plane. This means that what we do say carries enormous weight in characterizing ourselves. How then can we best use our voices to fully articulate what we are thinking? Should we bother to care what we say or how we say it? H. P. Blavatsky's opinion was that we should because
the spoken word has a potency unknown to, unsuspected and disbelieved in, by the modern "sages." Because Sound and Rhythm are closely related to the four Elements of the Ancients; and because such or another vibration in the air is sure to awaken corresponding powers, union with which produces good or bad results, as the case may be. — The Secret Doctrine 1:307
Uttering certain words in certain ways, producing certain sounds and resonances within the vocal chords and cranium, have long been known to produce occult effects. Used correctly these can have beneficial effects, but used unwisely this can be very dangerous and it is with good reason that many "magic" words, mantrams, and methods of vocalizing are closely guarded. Even everyday, conversational speech causes occult effects which can influence those in the vicinity. This is simply karma in operation and as such is neutral. What determines the polarity of these causes — harmful or harmless, beneficial or detrimental — is the motive and emotion behind the words.
Once a word is spoken, its effects on our environment and within the mind of another are difficult to change. If we keep our thoughts to ourselves, however, we can manipulate them as far as our imaginations can soar, and perhaps if the circumstances are right we can speak with truth and beauty and avoid regretting what we said. On the nature of words, William Quan Judge wrote:
Words are things. With me and in fact. Upon the lower plane of social intercourse they are things, but soulless and dead because that convention in which they have their birth has made abortions of them. But when we step away from that conventionality they become alive in proportion to the reality of the thought — and its purity — that is behind them. . . . Let us use with care those living messengers called words. — Letters That Have Helped Me 1:14
On a practical level he further advises:
Begin by trying to conquer the habit, almost universal, of pushing yourself forward. This arises from personality. Do not monopolise the conversation. Keep in the background. If someone begins to tell you about himself and his doings, do not take first chance to tell him about yourself, but listen to him and talk solely to bring him out. And when he has finished suppress in yourself the desire to tell about yourself, your opinions and experiences. Do not ask a question unless you intend to listen to the answer and inquire into its value. Try to recollect that you are a very small affair in the world, and that the people around do not value you at all and grieve not when you are absent. Your only true greatness lies in your inner true self and it is not desirous of obtaining the applause of others. If you will follow these directions for one week you will find they will take considerable effort, and you will begin to discover a part of the meaning of the saying, "Man, know thyself." — Ibid. 2:63
Because speech is a physical ability with its roots in the spiritual part of us, it would make sense that spiritual laws are attached to it to which we must adhere if we are to fulfil our destiny and live consciously as spiritual beings. The way to do this has been outlined by many of the world's teachers, one method being the Buddha's teaching of right speech, a part of the Noble Eightfold Path. Right speech is part of the dharma or the dutiful way a human being should live, daily and through the course of evolution.
In Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, the first step is to have the right view, an attitude or understanding that empowers one to act wisely in all spheres of life and in harmony with the world. Right speech naturally follows: the intention to refrain from false speech, from slanderous or divisive speech, from crude, harsh, or frivolous speech. If our minds are idle, we say the first thing that comes into our heads, and it usually communicates nothing of lasting value. Right speech encourages us to reflect on our speech, before, during, and after, and to examine why we want to speak at any given moment. Speech uttered rightly should be carefully weighed for meaning, said at the right moment, and be logical, moderate, and full of sense.
The Tipitaka contains some beautiful examples of the Buddha's use of right speech together with its theory. The Abhaya Sutta gives a short but comprehensive list of how a Buddha uses speech:
1. In the case of words that the Tathagata [Buddha] knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
2. In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
3. In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
4. In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
5. In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
6. In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.
This seems like a lot to remember. However, the lines "he has a sense of the proper time for saying them" and "Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings" imply that Gautama didn't have to remember a formula to use on demand. One of the differences between a higher being, such as a Buddha, and ourselves is that while a buddha always knows and speaks the truth, we are often placed in the position of knowing the truth and choosing not to speak it, such as admitting guilt. Honesty, conscience, and intuition are powerful allies on the road to achieving right speech, and courage is needed if mastery is the goal. Effective practice of right speech relies not on education or clever wordplay, but on saying what we feel we should say, always trying to feel sympathy for what might cause suffering to others or what may go against the truth.
Slander, ridicule, malicious sarcasm, and gossip, besides damaging the speaker, can cause emotional scars to the recipient which last a lifetime. Sometimes there is a fine line between the listener or subject perceiving such speech as harmless fun (laughing with) and harm itself (laughing at). If there is the slightest doubt that someone would be hurt by the words, keep quiet. Think. Put yourself in the frame of mind of the other person and choose new words if need be. The reflexive nature of much of our everyday speech means we often say what we don't truly mean. Constant sensitivity to those around us is very difficult to maintain, but worth trying.
Despite the fact that no sane person would want to be the cause of another's lifelong emotional scarring, there are other more far-reaching reasons not to create wounding speech. Judge lays these out in an article entitled "How Should We Treat Others?":
The fact that the person whom you condemn, or oppose, or judge seems now in this life to deserve it for his acts in this life, does not alter the other fact that his nature will react against you when the time comes. The reaction is a law not subject to nor altered by any sentiment on your part. He may have, truly, offended you and even hurt you, and done that which in the eye of man is blameworthy, but all this does not have anything to do with the dynamic fact that if you arouse his enmity by your condemnation or judgement there will be a reaction on you, and consequently on the whole of society in any century when the reaction takes place.
. . .
. . . As affecting you there may be various effects. If you have condemned, for instance, we may mention some: (a) the increased tendency in yourself to indulge in condemnation, which will remain and increase from life to life; (b) this will at last in you change into violence and all that anger and condemnation may naturally lead to; (c) an opposition to you is set up in the other person, which will remain forever until one day both suffer for it, and this may be in a tendency in the other person in any subsequent life to do you harm . . . , and often also unconsciously. Thus it may all widen out and affect the whole body of society. Hence no matter how justifiable it may seem to you to condemn or denounce or punish another, you set up cause for sorrow in the whole race that must work out some day. . . .
The opposite conduct, that is, entire charity, constant forgiveness, wipes out the opposition from others, expends the old enmity and at the same time makes no new similar causes. Any other sort of thought or conduct is sure to increase the sum of hate in the world, to make cause for sorrow, to continually keep up the crime and misery in the world. Each man can for himself decide which of the two ways is the right one to adopt. — Echoes of the Orient 1:480-2
"When the time comes" — we so often do not recognize it for what it is. Yet armed with the knowledge that karma provides, we can at least have the opportunity in many situations to wipe the slate clean.
Buddha's reason for renouncing his just reward of entering nirvana was to help humanity ease its suffering. Indeed, the gift of all the Great Ones and their helpers is that of empowerment so that the veil of ignorance may be lifted by our own actions, that the light of truth might shine within us all. When we think of the wider implications of our words, we can see why the Buddha is not alone in including speech in his teachings. The Hindu Vedas mention different grades of speech, indicating levels of spiritual teaching meant only for those who can understand the language in which they are communicated. Socrates asks in Plato's Phaedrus, "Do you know how you can speak or act about rhetoric in a manner which will be acceptable to God?" and later expounds the noble virtues of the "serious pursuit of the dialectician" which can lead to the "utmost extent of human happiness." In the Christian Gospels when Jesus sent his disciples out to spread his teachings he said they need only have faith in him and they would find the right words to use that could reach people's hearts. Faith in the Christos principle within us, the part which intuitively understands, might illumine with wisdom the brain-mind which would ensure spontaneous, truthful, spiritually inspiring speech. Native American tradition teaches that each person should regulate his or her own life. "Give your word and live up to your word," is one medicine man's advice. Perhaps in trying to adopt the Buddha's frame of mind of "sympathy for living beings," our words would simply flow from our more altruistic motives.
Since writing can be spoken and conveys thoughts and intentions, it would follow that the ethics that apply to speech should also apply to writing. But the quality most prized by the true seeker — wisdom — is acquired through living, not by reading or writing. Nature, in offering the chance to learn her secrets, does not distinguish between the literate and illiterate, nor between those who can speak and the mute. Many spiritual teachers leave no written record. The power behind their spoken words, actions, and influence are recorded by their followers and over time the once living message becomes almost lifeless. For this reason the Great Ones continue their regular appearance at appropriate times in history and embrace the oral teaching tradition, though of course there are always exceptions.
Although it is a virtue we can all adopt, right speech can be relative: what is right for one person to say may not be right for another. It isn't about being so concerned with what we say that we become rigid at the expense of spontaneity. Ultimately, what is most important in speaking and writing is getting the meaning or intention across. In listening and reading what is most important is trying to understand what is truly meant. We each rely heavily on our intuition to decipher the melee of information and stimuli we encounter every day in order to discern the true from the false. The intuition appeals to us to try to understand the language of spirit which speaks through all of nature. This is a reflection of our innate and constant unspoken desire to realize truth, an inheritance from our spiritual ancestors, the creative gods or forces of the universe. And we do this without recognizing that we do so. We learn when we don't think we are learning, and yet surely there is a responsibility to meet this unseen, inner impulse halfway by making ourselves as receptive to it as we can. The practicing of ethics and the daily willing of the mind to do the bidding of one's conscience and intuition is a difficult but tried and trusted way of sharpening and strengthening our awareness.
The magic of these spiritual teachings of right speech can come alive only when put into practice. It is something we can start doing immediately and which is free and relatively easy to begin with. It is heartening to know that despite the fact that there are thousands of languages, there is a deep-seated universal quality present within enabling each to be used in the "right" way. If we try to practice right speech all the time, every word that passes our lips will take on greater significance. Despite it being a rule of conduct, right speech also carries with it total freedom of action. Indeed, it gives us greater scope for creativity because it encourages us to say things we may not usually say, or not say anything at all, and to think more about the meaning and effects of the words we use, so that hopefully what we say and write will lose the power to wound and instead add much needed weight to the compassionate forces at work relieving suffering in the world.
(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 2003, December 2003/January 2004; copyright © 2003 Theosophical University Press)
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