Talking: A Problem and
a Challenge

The Tao is the source of all words
to those that are silent.

(The Tao is Tao, 5)


The control of the tongue is essential to spiritual development, and in Buddhism, "Right Speech" is seen as one of the eight qualities on the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.

Yet, even when you have the best of intentions and your language is close to perfect, verbal communication remains problematic. Words tend to corrupt meaning, even if they are used with the purest of intentions. Sometimes conversation is more a source of grievance than understanding.

This essay is an effort to deal with the difficulties involved in the control and use of speech as a constructive and supportive form of communication.

The author has tried to avoid becoming too abstract, and has used real-life examples and situations to illustrate and clarify the difficulties and challenges involved in "Right Speech".

1. Talking too much

You probably ask what "too much" is supposed to be. Good question. The answer is simple. One harmful or destructive word is one word too many.

Situation 1: Forced conversation

Have you ever been the host in the company of incredibly uncommunicative people at dinner, who would seem to expect you to maintain some semblance of conversation? At the end of the evening, you would be totally exhausted. In your desperate effort to entertain the silent guests, you might even, if you were not careful, have slips of the tongue which might offend either the guests, or your spouse. Afterwards, you might feel that there were things you should not have said.

What I have learnt is that you do not have any obligation, in any company and in any role, be it as host or guest, to maintain conversation. Often people, particularly quiet ones, feel more at home when you are quiet too. Your success as a host does not depend on your ability to keep a conversation going. Be quiet. Let your guests also do the talking - if they feel like it. Give yourself time to think before you talk. Ask questions and listen. Most people prefer to be listened to rather than spoken to. Attentive silence is often better company than hyper-talking.

Situation 2: Competitive conversation

You have probably experienced this in some or other way as well. You are at a conference or in a workgroup or a team, and you are expected to contribute. You are unfortunate enough to have a member in the group striving for attention and admiration, and everybody else has become infected so that the conversation has acquired a competitive edge. You are filled with ambivalence, for you detest the situation, but you do not want to appear like an idiot either.

The best thing to do in situations like this is to speak only when you have something substantial to say. Do not let other people affect you with their egocentricity. Again, this is easier said than done. If you find you get dragged into this kind of competition easily, it means that you quite simply have too much ego for your own good. You are too dependent on the opinion of others.

The best form of exercise to get rid of this dependency is to shut up. Every time you feel the urge to say something, shut up and count to hundred. You will see that this exercise is wonderfully satisfying. It will give you a sense of accomplishment, but it will be your own private feat. Nobody should know about it.

What you are going to find out is that people often do not think less of you when you speak less. In fact, often they sometimes even think more of you. But do not be annoyed if they think less of you. The purpose of the exercise is not to be admired, is it? Remember, who you really are is what matters, not what people think of you.

2. Talking as reaction

Situation 1: Reacting to humiliation

Hurling insults
at the Taoist sage
is like
throwing stones
at empty space.

The Taoist sage
clings to nothing
and therefore
has nothing to lose.
He cannot be hurt,
because he has accepted

(The Tao is Tao, 78)

You have probably often been dragged into arguments by people, or you might even have been responsible for starting arguments.

You know the situation. You sit there, and somebody makes a statement which irritates you, because it contains an unacceptable assumption. The matter becomes even worse if it reflects, even indirectly, negatively on you or your specific ethnic or professional group.

Let me give you an example. I am a teacher, and most males in my country have fled the profession. Male teachers have become almost extinct. The reason for this is that most males have been led to believe that teaching is a low prestige job, and that, somehow, you must be inferior as a male to remain in the profession. I, however, believe, that this is the most important profession in the world, for it deals with the education of young people. Nothing could be more important.

At a party one evening, a colleague and I were standing together, when a vain middle-aged medical doctor, carefully nurturing his vaguely Einsteinian looks - obviously very impressed with himself, his own intelligence and his material wealth - gave his opinion on what he thought of teachers. "Most male teachers," he said, "are so stupid that if their brains were gelignite, they would not be able to shoot the wax out of their own ears."

The group standing in a wide circle tittered appreciatively at the ‘witty’ remark. My friend and myself looked at each other. What made it even worse was the fact that the person who said this knew we were male and we were teachers.

How do you react to humiliation and provocation?

The perfect reaction, of course, is not to react at all. Just stand there and swallow your dignity, as if nothing has happened.

Things do not stop there, of course. Life is not that simple. Even if you deal with the situation perfectly, you still have your own mind to deal with. Again, your own thoughts will show you how much ego you are burdened with.

Most people will be haunted by this kind of humiliating experience. You have probably also experienced this in many ways. You would reenact the scene in your mind, taking your sweet revenge by cutting the pompous gentleman down to size, with everybody tittering at him. You could have told him, you would think, "Ah, now I know why you’re bald. You have so much brains that it has blown off all your hair." You would be enacting the scene in an effort to regain your pride, to get rid of some of the hurt. You would in fact become a victim, for you would be infected by his ignorance, and become as mean and pompous as he is. Even if it is only in your mind.

My friend’s reaction was different. "You know what, Jos," he confided in me, "in some company I’m too ashamed to mention that I’m just a plain ordinary teacher." In a way, my friend was the real victim. He actually absorbed the values of that ignorant and vain man.

What is the perfect reaction then? It is one of wisdom and compassion, of course. It is to accept that the gentleman who has humiliated us has spoken out of ignorance and vanity. You would realize that his values are mixed up, and that he would also have to suffer because of it. You should have enough compassion not to react and humiliate him, not even in your thoughts. You should find strength in the assurance that what matters is what you are truly doing, and not what other people think of it.

In teaching, you often have your most brilliant moments in total obscurity. Education is not what you tell your students; it is what they tell you. This seldom happens in front of an appreciative audience. Mostly you would be alone with a student, who would tell you something that would be a clear indication that the student was moving forward in his development.

Your reward? The student has moved forward. There is no other reward. Nobody except you and perhaps the student will know. You will not get public recognition or medals for it. You will not be mentioned in awe by admiring fans. You will not even get a promotion. That vain doctor will still think you are a member of a brainless underclass.

If you can accept obscurity or your relative insignificance in a materialistic society, your ego will die a natural death, and you will be immune to the way ignorant people look at you. You will become a person of incredible power.

Of course, one point of advice should be added.

Unless unavoidable, avoid vain people who make it difficult for you to maintain your own balance. Even if you try to avoid them, you meet enough of them, as it is.

Situation 2: Dealing with differences in principle

The Tao
is not interested in teaching
anybody anything,
yet true wisdom can be learnt from
the Tao.

(The Tao is Tao, 12)

Another situation that could provoke you into breaking your silence is when someone speaks out against a strong principle of yours.

If it is a principle attached to compassion, it becomes even more difficult not to get involved. Let me give you an example.

I live in a country, which has been influenced by Apartheid, that terrible blend of racism and injustice, for countless years. Even though the political structures have been put into place to correct past injustices and extinguish Apartheid, the minds of people are still very much infected. There are whites who have changed - and sincerely also - with the system. There are also whites who only pay lip service to the new values of non-racism, but in private they would manifest their virulent racism.

As a white, I am sometimes in the embarrassing position of being in the company of whites who do not know me and assume I am "one of them", so to speak. This would happen usually at professional meetings like conferences. Sitting at a table where only a group of whites sit, I would then have to listen to their blatantly racist remarks, and they would smile at me in a most cordial fashion.

"The trouble with these kaffirs," one gentlemen confided in me once, "they screw like animals. Small wonder they all have AIDS, which is God’s way of solving the problem."

What do you do in a situation like this?

Well, some people would not react at all because they are too cowardly to do so. They would smile meekly, scared to be branded by the rest of the group. This kind of "group mind" has a tremendous intimidatory influence on individuals, and psychological experiments have shown that very few people have the courage to go against a majority, even if the majority is completely wrong.

Some people, and they count as courageous, would immediately react with great anger in the most uncompromising way. "Do you think God is some kind of white fascist like you, killing off people to ‘solve problems’?" they would scream at the offending white, and they would do their utmost to humiliate his views and him in public - irrespective of whether their remarks would really change him or not. Their reaction would be one of anger more than of compassion, and would probably aggravate rather than heal.

There are many other possible reactions. You could politely, silently, take your plate and leave the table, and settle down at another table, say a group of black teachers, or at least a multi-racial group. You would then take great care to avoid that particular group for the rest of the conference.

Just remaining silent in protest, without giving some signal of your disapproval, could easily lead to misunderstanding, for silence is often seen as a form of consent.

Maybe you should have had the savvy in the first place not to have settled down at a table with only whites.

On the other hand, should one live in fear of confrontation? Of course not. This kind of confrontation is difficult to predict anyway.

You could of course, in a friendly and polite manner, tell the gentleman that you do not agree with him, and try to argue with him. The question is what kind of effect argumentation would have on this gentleman. Do you really think that you could, by arguing with the gentleman in the presence of his racist cronies, change his views? So why would you argue? To prove to yourself you are no coward? To satisfy your own ego? Maybe, even though you know you will not change their views, your taking a stand will demonstrate to them that not all whites are like them. But don’t they know that already? It is very complicated, isn’t it? No matter what your reaction, you will seldom be sure if you have reacted correctly or not.

Situation 3: Religious confrontation

Arguing about the inexpressible
hatred and fear.
The Taoist sage knows only
brings compassion.

(The Tao is Tao, 27)

Religious argumentation is probably the most futile form of argumentation. Winning religious arguments seldom changes people’s views. Often it only serves to harden the views of those you argue against.

Of course, if the people involved in the argument are open and sincere and ready to change their minds, there is nothing wrong with it. Discourse can only have positive effects on sincere, open-minded people.

This, however, seldom happens in religious argumentation, where people want to argue logically about things that often exist beyond logic. You cannot really argue about faith. But many religious people insist on arguing fervently with those they consider to be heathen, i.e. those that do not agree with their particular concept of God.

These arguments easily become abusive, for they are often based on intolerance and an unwillingness to listen and understand other points of view.

My general rule here is not to argue at all, especially not with strangers.

But let me give you an example. I have a colleague who is fervently religious. I have nothing against this, for I believe that she helps quite a few students to overcome difficult times, because she actually sometimes really cares for them, which is good. She has one flaw, though, and that is that she believes that her formula is the only right one, and that people who do not agree with her theology, including me, are "on the wrong path" or totally heathen, and should, somehow, be converted. So she has accosted me countless times, coming from all angles, to try to "convert" me. How do you react to this?

My main tactic is to try not to argue with her, even though this has not always worked. But I have mostly managed to cut off her arguments at the very beginning by stating that there is no way God can be understood and defined, and I would therefore prefer not to argue with her about the inexpressible. I have not tried to convert her to my point of view. I just tried to persuade her in the most civil way possible not to argue with me about religion.

It took at least a year and a lot of patience from me, but her efforts gradually became less frequent.

What I have tried my best not to do was insult her faith or her, or weaken her faith. It is clear that she is not ready to accept my radically different approach, and that she needs her own particular brand of faith - with a personal God protecting her - badly. If I should ever feel that she is ready for my views, and when she invites me to, I would discourse with her. But I would only do this when I am sure my discourse is an act of compassion, and not an effort to boost my own ego and win my arguments.

What I am trying to illustrate with this example is that argumentation is only worth its while when it is done at the right moment, i.e. when people are ready for it, and when it is an act of compassion, and not of competition.

Often I still hear her make statements that I disagree with, but I remain silent.

What is taxing about this is that you need patience. What I have discovered is that the less ego you have, the more patience you have. The less ego you have, the more space there is for compassion.

Patience is a tremendous virtue. With patience and silence you may not win arguments, but you often encourage people to become silent themselves - and more open-minded. To come back to this colleague. She is now at a stage where she has become silent around me too. I see this as a positive sign. She actually came to me the other day and started the conversation this way, "Jos, I do not want to missionize you now, but I have a question." For the first time, we had a proper conversation. She listened, really listened, and left. And in the course of the conversation, she also taught me something. She really cares for her students, and for me. More than I do for her, to be honest. I have no reason to feel smug about my views.

3. Public speaking

One important principle to remember is not to speak about matters of faith to people you do not know well. You can cause more damage than good.

It is therefore mostly preferable to remain quiet when you are dealing with people you do not know.

For this reason, I avoid speaking in public about matters of faith, even though I have often been invited to do so. Speaking to an audience is like shooting in the dark, to use this terrible metaphor. You do not know who you are going to hit. I prefer not to shoot at all.

Not that I have not spoken in public. But then you have to be careful what you say. Words often lead to terrible misunderstanding. The ability of language to convey the truth is often overestimated.

But isn’t my writing all this a form of public utterance? Sure, but my audience is not a captive one. You are reading this, because you have chosen to, and probably because you are interested in what I have to say.

Thank you for your interest. I hope I have not offended you in any way.

4. Frivolous talk

This is something that I find difficult to avoid: not indulging in what is considered by many to be frivolous talk. Many Buddhist texts warn against this. You will even have lists of the kinds of things you should not talk about.

I find it quite depressing. I have met some of these people in various religions, who are so dead serious and only talk about depressingly grave topics in a depressingly solemn and boringly pious way. I have had some of my most illuminating moments choking with laughter, and I have often found the most profound insights in what appeared at first as frivolous talk.

Nevertheless, I think there is some truth to this warning not to indulge in superficial talk. You have probably experienced this yourself. A group of bored people start talking nonsense to kill time, and they end up nearly killing each other. Small talk easily creates aggression in frustrated people.

But should it do so in people who are balanced, happy, and are perhaps just looking for moments of fun together? I mean, there is nothing wrong with having fun, is there? My fondest memories of my parents are the moments where we would be helpless with laughter after some remark by a family member, often at the most inopportune moments.

I think it has to do with whether there is compassion involved or not. Just before one of my nieces who had a particularly malignant form of cancer, underwent horrific surgery and chemotherapy, my family sat around her to support her, and what did we do? We joked and talked nonsense and had her laughing and feeling warm and protected. We loved her, and we knew she loved to laugh and be happy. It was our way of loving her. We were frivolous, and yet we were not, for we cared for her.

You can be pious and correct and serious without caring for anyone. A spoilsport. There is nothing more frivolous than that.

5. Silence

The best form of speaking is often to be silent. It is not so much how much you talk than how much you listen that defines your effectiveness.

Silence as a weapon

The Tao gives true power
to those who do not use power.

(The Tao is Tao, 7)

When I speak of effectiveness, I am not thinking of those tactical silences utilized to draw the opponent in before you execute the paralyzing blow. Effective negotiators will tell you silence is an incredible weapon in softening up your adversaries and luring them into compromise.

Remaining silent can also be the coldest and most heartless answer you can give anyone. You might also have experienced with what devastating effect silence can be used to break people down. The vengeful person will refuse to talk to someone for days, even weeks on end. It can be a terrible form of revenge, often damaging the perpetrator as much as the victim. Silence can turn a relationship of warm love into something cold and lifeless.

The silence of compassion

The true person of Tao
shows compassion
without hope of reward,
for she can find a treasure
and discard it.

(The Tao is Tao, 14)

The kind of silence I talk about is the silence which is essential when you really care for people. The silence of compassion. For this you need to be in touch with people around you. Empathy is a prerequisite to this kind of compassion.

You might have experienced it yourself. A friend who supports you in silence without expecting embarrassing explanations from you. A friend who remains silent when he knows you are about to explode. Somebody who concentrates on your worries and refuses to become moralistic or judgmental. A friend who can shut up when necessary. Sometimes it is by not saying anything that you do most to support others.

Silence as a mirror

The silence of the sage
the essential words
of those ready
to listen to him.

(The Tao is Tao, 29)

Have you noticed? Silence functions like a mirror sometimes. People see themselves reflected in your silence. They become honest, because they sense your empathy and selflessness. They will then come to insights about themselves and admit things you would not have dared tell them, or did not even know. Often the only thing you have to do is echo what people say.


Complaining person: This kind of uncertainty is eating me alive!
You: It must be painful.
Complaining person: Yes, it is. And I feel like murder.
You: You sound angry!
Complaining person: Yes, I am! But I know I am being unfair.
You: (Silence)

It is often very helpful to support a person emotionally, clarifying to him what he feels, as long as you don’t push him in the wrong direction, causing him to become irrational. Be careful, though, not to verbalize the person’s own painful realizations about where he is wrong. Silence is mostly the best reaction here, unless of course you are certain the person is ready to listen to you, but even then I would be careful. Remember, what you say rarely has any lasting positive effect on a person. It is what a person says about himself that constitutes real insight and changes a person for the better. When a person is ready for change, your silence can be the mirror which reflects his insights.

Silence against rashness

Silence is also a way of protecting you from rash action. One rule that I try to keep, but not always successfully, is not to speak in anger. This can cause tremendous, sometimes irreparable damage. When angry, remain silent and if possible, move away from the confrontational situation. Give yourself time to calm down and analyze a situation before you decide to act or not to act.

Avoid drinking alcohol in intense conversation. It breaks down your ability to control your reactions. It "loosens" the tongue, and as we know, the tongue on the loose can be lethal from a spiritual point of view.

Silent persuasion

The sage does not search,
for she accepts emptiness.
Nor does she explain,
for silence needs no explanation.

(The Tao is Tao, 23)

Silence can be incredibly persuasive on a spiritual level. The ability to suffer silently and gracefully has inspired many. Silence as a manifestation of selflessness appeals to the very best in us. The person who is willing to work for the benefit of all silently without uttering a word in his own glory - what an inspiration she is to those who know greatness when they see it. In many situations, silence is only possible if a person has given up her own ego and she is living in harmony with emptiness.

Anonymity and obscurity are forms of silence signaling that the spirit has been victorious over the ego.

Unfortunately, in our society, compassion has often become a public relations slogan. Our world has become brash and loud, with everybody singing their own self-praises loudly. The way politicians are forced to praise themselves in public in their election campaigns is a nauseating example of this. We are far removed from the ideal leader, who is so much the leader that his people will not even know who he is. True leaders - those that lead with the spirit - are silent ones, who prefer anonymity and obscurity, who speak only when essential and never to praise themselves.

Practicing silence

After the ego has perished,
the true self rises from its dust
like desert flowers
after spring showers
have swept across arid plains.

(The Tao is Tao, 21)

Practice silence. It is easy, yet painful sometimes:

  • Try to remain silent every time you have the urge to speak. Try doing this for a while. Only speak when it is essential. You will discover all kinds of things when you do this. You will, for example, realize that most of the things you wanted to say someone else was going to say anyhow. You were just going to do it before they could. You would also discover that often you want to speak because you are craving for attention or recognition. Remaining silent and suppressing this urge is a great way of deflating your ego.
  • Don’t be overeager to criticize once someone has said something you disagree with. It is mostly your way of outshining someone else. So it is your fat ego again.
  • Try to express what you feel in a non-verbal way. Words often sound false even when you mean them. A reassuring smile can be worth a million words.
  • Listen more than you speak. Make a point of it. What you have to give up when listening to another person is to listen to your own thoughts while pretending to listen to the speaker. Truly listen to a person. It gives tremendous strength to the person being listened to. If you are not interested in what you yourself are going to say next, you will start giving a person the kind of undivided attention essential to sensitivity and empathy.

The trap

The worst thing that can happen to you is to have the reputation of being "witty". Often you are then under the perpetual compulsion to speak and demonstrate your wittiness. "Wit" often means being quick to react to anything said, and to react without considering whether you are going to hurt people or not. Witty people are often quite mean, too.

Being witty can be a death trap for your spiritual development. You often have to choose between your witty reputation and your effort to improve. If you refuse to be witty in this rash way, it does not mean that you are becoming dumb. In fact, you may employ your wit differently. Use it to demonstrate real truths.

Many Zen masters were in fact very witty, but they used their wit to bring people closer to the Tao, and often to shock them into enlightenment. Wit is important, but like anything else, its usefulness depends on how you use it.

Even silence can be witty, as Sakyumani often demonstrated.

6. Conclusion: Winning the battle in your mind

People who hate
are ignorant
of the emptiness and beauty
which fill all sentient beings.
The Taoist sage,
dwelling in emptiness,
does not need to show mercy,
for there is nobody to be forgiven.
His compassion does not waver,
for it is based on emptiness.

(The Tao is Tao, 36)

What you say is a result of what happens in your mind. If you hate, no doctrine in the world can help you. No matter what you say, your words will be poisonous, for their very source is poisonous.

If you act in compassion, your words have a way of healing and of helping, even if they are not perfect.

The perfect way is to know when to be silent and when to speak; and when you speak, to use only those words that are of benefit. This is only possible if you are filled with wisdom and compassion, which is again only possible if your own ego is left out of the equation.

You have to become silent in your mind first. Only then will you start controlling your tongue.

Even when you understand
every detail of the universe
and have uncovered
the mystery of life,
you will be entirely ignorant
if you do not reside in emptiness,
from whence all compassion flows.

Even when you have no education
and cannot even write your name,
you will be a true Taoist sage
if you reside in emptiness,
from whence all compassion flows.

(The Tao is Tao, 50)