Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Right Speech & What We All Know

Some Wrong Speech

One Sunday morning a few years back, when there was no Children Program, I went to Green Gulch to hear a talk by my teacher, Furyu Nancy Schroder. This particular talk was very painful for me personally, and it was hard for me to remain in the Zendo for the entire program. Even now I feel that getting up and leaving would have been the correct response.

Unfortunately I've been unable to find the recording or a transcript, so I can't quote verbatim but thus have I heard:
The now sitting Abbess related teaching an anger management course for a group of men who had been arrested, charged and sentenced in family court to attend these classes following an incidence of domestic violence in their homes. After making that statement, she further elaborated: "It's always men. We all know that men are the problem."
Following that statement the room erupted in a chorus of "um-hummms." Which is the first time I can recall the congregation spontaneously calling out in response to something said at a dharma talk.

What We All Know

If you are an adult raised in the western world this will sound exactly correct to you. The story that we have been told and re-told to ourselves about domestic violence goes exactly that way: a boorish, probably drunk man, aggressively controls and abuses his family, sometimes violently. Women and children are his victims and our response is to lay the blame for the situation on his shoulders, then economically and socially punish him.

This narrative was codified into the Duluth Model and then legislated into the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), championed by Vice President Joe Biden when he was a Senator. VAWA's original form specifically legislated the above story about domestic violence into a totally pervasive story and legal framework that we still live within today.

This characterization of All Men as the controlling, entitled and violent in the home goes back at least as far as the Women's Temperance Movement of the late 18the and early 20th century, when the behavior was presented as the inevitable consequence of excessive drinking:

Of course, we now know that prohibition was more damaging than drink alone, and we are quickly making the same determination about the failing War on Drugs and working to decriminalize and legalize in the more libertine parts of the country. Unlike the narrative about drinking and drug abuse which has evolved from being a religious problem to a criminal problem to a public health problem, the narrative on domestic violence remains nearly completely unchanged over the past century.

Certainly, we cannot afford to ignore violence against anyone if we hope to have a peaceful and just society. But by sticking to the old one-sided story we completely ignore violence committed and instigated by Women in the home and in public. Our collective response to violence in the home is to lay the blame on the man, and provide protective services and institutions for women and children, at the exclusion of men and adolescent boys.

Right Speech: More than just Truth, Kindness and Necessity

Now, the Abiding Abbess of Green Gulch has begun promoting the teaching of Right Speech, no doubt in response to the rise of the Tweeter in Chief's blatantly wrong style of public address. The Facebook-able quote about right speech you may have heard asks that you consider three things before speaking: 
"Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?"  
Of course, that's the sound-bite version, the Sutras ask you to consider a couple more things before opening your mouth:
[1] "Do I speak at the right time, or not?
[2] "Do I speak of facts, or not?
[3] "Do I speak gently or harshly?
[4] "Do I speak profitable words or not?
[5] "Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?
From The Patimokkha
Right speech is the critical middle ground of the Buddhist moral compass: Right Thoughts lead to Right Speech lead to Right Action, in that order, resulting in more favorable karmic conditions. Conversely, Erroneous Thoughts, lead to Erroneous Speech and Erroneous Action lead to less favorable karmic conditions. By encouraging Right Speech we hope to make the world a better place for more right speech, as the improved karmic conditions continue to roll forward on the great wheel of life and death.

An Unnecessary, Unkind, Harsh Lie, told with Malice

As a man who has been the target of abuse and violence from women in my life, I was more than saddened to hear that "We know men are the problem". Here was my spiritual teacher telling me that my experience wasn't valid, or perhaps that I was the true cause of it. The community reinforcement of her statement made it clear that this was a popular if not quite unanimous belief of the Sangha.
To suddenly find myself surrounded by people who's thoughts and words and actions so clearly dismissed even the possibility of my personal experience was devastating. My personal suffering and life-long struggle to heal the holes in my heart left behind by growing up under the control of and eventually—as many survivors do—marrying a women with a capacity for abusive, violent and manipulative behaviors totally disregarded because of what "we all know."
While my personal case may be in the minority (it's hard to say for sure, there are deep reporting and prosecution biases) it's not unheard of. Ignoring the violence and abuse of women means that other women and children, who are often the targets of violent women, are ignored. These pre-conceptions are particularly harmful to people who experience violence with a same-sex partner, as the model breaks down completely without easily identified abuser and victim roles.

How Should We Think, Speak and Act About Violence In Our Lives?

Another lesson of the Buddha is not to place too much stock in reports, legends, traditions, scripture, logical conjecture(!), analogy, argument, probability or even the words of a teacher. We should instead decide who to trust based on their skillful qualities, and then to only trust that adopting those qualities will help us in our lives (again, the moral hierarchy values action before words before thoughts):
“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.” 
~ Kalama Sutta
My personal experience tells me that domestic violence is not exclusively a women's issue, that despite our preconceptions, women are just as capable of abuse and violence as men. We are all equally human in that regard, driven by a complex evolved set of evolved behaviors which include altruism, violence and the entire spectrum of interpersonal interactions.

What is needed when facing issues resulting from our long and painful evolution from mute completely self-concerned single cells to the social, cooperative, sentient beings that we are now is the well timed, factual, gentle, helpful and kind words and actions. It is imperative that these are to extent to both parties, the abuser and the abused, as these roles are not static, any more than they are strictly assignable to one gender or the other.

We should approach difficulties such as these with as few pre-conceptions in our minds as we can manage, and we should review those pre-conceptions when we see that they are harming us and the people around us. As it says in the liturgy:

This is what should be accomplished by the one who is wise, Who seeks the good, and has obtained peace 
. . . 
Not holding to fixed views,
Endowed with insight,
Freed from sense appetites,
One who achieves the way
Will be freed from the duality of birth and death.
~ Loving Kindness Meditation