Harmony (1/6)

pdf_24x18Herewith I begin a series on the topic of interpersonal and social harmony. This is a serialization of a chapter to appear in the next draft of the text I have been progressively improving as I teach a semiannual introductory course in Buddhism. Those eager to read to the end to see how it comes out can click on the pdf link for the whole chapter. Incidentally, the following book on this topic is scheduled to appear in November:

The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications.


“… although they wish to live without hate, harming, hostility or malignity, and in peace, they yet live in hate, harming one another, hostile and malign …”  (DN 21)

We are a social species; we live in relationship to others, occupy social roles and obligations and are in constant negotiation with one another. But our interpersonal and communal lives are all too often marked by discord, ruffled feathers, infighting, argument, insult, exploitation, violence and war.

Still, it is substantially within the realm of interpersonal and communal relations that the practices of generosity, harmlessness and purity of mind that we have discussed in previous chapters play out. As we perfect our generosity, our harmlessness and our purity, our relationship with our fellow social beings improves. We treat them with more kindness and compassion, we take care not to step on their toes nor harm or insult them in other ways, and we do what we can to help them rather than to exploit them. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone developed in this way!

Nonetheless the interpersonal/communal realm has its own peculiarities and pitfalls that most of us are slow to master. Fortunately the Buddha has given us provided abundant wise advice about these. That is the topic of this chapter.

Be careful of what you say

A primary conditioning factor of interpersonal and communal harmony or disharmony is how skillfully we wield the instrument of speech. The Buddha has a lot to say about this skill; we will see later that one of the eight factors of the Buddhist Path (the topic of Book Two) is Right Speech, which in particular censures false, harsh, divisive and frivolous speech. Here are the primary requisites for speaking skillfully in a nutshell:

“Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five?

1. It is spoken at the proper time;
2. what is said is true;
3. it is spoken gently;
4. what is said is beneficial;
5. it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness.

Possessing these five factors speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” (AN 5.198, enumeration mine)

We notice all three systems of ethics intersect here; avoiding harm, producing beneficial consequences and a checking the purity of one’s intentions come into play. Furthermore, finding the right time and speaking gently harmonize with the sensitive nature of human receptivity.

For instance, a common, and one of the most awkward social situations, arises when there is need to reproach someone for doing something felt to be inappropriate or harmful – someone is stepping on your foot, for example, or failing to complete an agreed task –, without causing offense and in such away that the proffered advice is actually usefully accepted. Considering the right time takes note, for instance, of whether the person to be admonished is now in a good or receptive mood. Sometimes a bit of friendly small-talk will serve to set the mood before the more topic is broached, “It’s good to see a familiar face. By the way, can I give you some friendly advice on that project you are doing?”

Nonetheless, most people are difficult to admonish, easily offended and some fly off the handle no matter how skillfully we present the situation. If no benefit is likely to accrue, then discretion suggests saying nothing, thereby cutting our losses and preserving harmony. Incidentally, the monastic code includes a rather important precept that prohibits monks or nuns from being difficult to admonish, for instance, from being argumentative or conjuring up counter-admonitions, as many people do by nature. Our practice typically makes us more thick-skinned, such that our egos are not so easily bruised, so that we begin to see admonishment as advice, which may be either useful or useless, but which demands no emotional response.

One of the greatest dangers to communal harmony that the Buddha warns us about is speaking divisively. Rather than attempting to admonish someone for his perceived errors, this person speaks about them to others, generally in his absence. Unfortunately such speech is often repeated by others and may even go viral.

Having heard something here, he repeats it elsewhere in order to divide [those people] from these; or having heard something elsewhere he repeats it to these people in order to divide [them] from these Thus he is one who divides those who are united, a creator of divisions, one who enjoys factions, delights in factions, a speaker of words that create factions. (AN 10.176)

Divisive speech may target individual people or entire groups of people. It can occur quite frivolously, often as an attempt at humor or wit. Or it can be used as a way of building countervailing group solidarity. Many people routinely speak ill of others in an attempt to build self-esteem or to reassure themselves of their own righteousness. Increasingly, particularly with the rise of mass communications, it arises deliberately and with great precision as a way of controlling populations. Consider that racism and ethnic cleansing begin with divisive speech and colonial empires could not have been built without the policy of “divide and conquer.” Divisive speech is poison to both large societies and small communities. It undermines our trust in the targeted people and populations and ultimately our trust in each other. We should take great care not to divide with our speech, nor to repeat divisive speech we have heard elsewhere.

Next Week: Harmony (2/6), the Error of Retribution.


One Response to “Harmony (1/6)”

  1. Branko Says:

    Very interesting topic!


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