The Buddhist Concepts of Right Thought and Right Speech and the Perception of Others

Our thoughts color our perception of reality. Whatever we see is filtered through the lens of thought and it often becomes twisted and transformed into something else. The great German philosopher Kant reminds us that we can never see “how things really are”, all we are left with is our version of how things may appear to us yet it would never be on purely scientific criteria. Even science then would be limited by our undeniable subjectivity.
gautama buddhaYet all of this is not a real problem. It often can be used to our benefit. Existentialism underscores this unique capability of ours something that as Descartes has observed truly sets us apart from other kinds of beings: Our capacity to create meaning, our ability to look for an underlying reality, the reality behind the veil of reality.

Religions have dealt with such ideas extensively. Whether it be the “City of God” as idealized by St. Augustine, or “Maya”, the world of illusion of Buddhism, or the Nirguna Brahman versus the manifested Saguna Brahman, each tradition has their own yet highly similar take on perception versus reality, appearance versus truth.

But all these varying points of views aside, there are some very important pragmatic and moral truths expressed in the Buddhist practice of the eightfold path. These days I am quite taken by two of them, namely “right thought” and “right speech”.

Right thought or intention refers to how we represent a particular event or person within us. Mostly we deconstruct or break down the person and only focus on peculiar characteristics. For example, we claim that John is a backstabber. This belief, regardless of its truth and validity primes most of our perceptions of this particular person. Instead of seeing John as a complex and holistic person, we define each of his acts with our perception of his lack of trustworthiness. Even a good deed would then be either construed as a hidden act of betrayal or shelved away as an exceptional circumstance, but with our perception in mind we would not easily shake off the tendency to see him as a backstabber.

As we can see our thought process interferes with how we make meaning of and how we relate to a person. This can be very deceiving. When we are upset with a person, we carry around this anger and we feel its presence in various other subsequent meetings with this person and all of this causes unnecessary tension. We tend not to actually listen or perceive the person but only focus on what annoys us about the person; we would actually prolong and perpetuate a stifling and uncomfortable climate between the two us instead of looking past the previous differences or giving the other person a fair and balanced hearing.

As Krishnamurti states, it is our thought process here that needs to change for us to effectively communicate and “see” the other person. Once we manage to control these waves of mostly negative thought, it would become easier to retain a sense of peace and harmony among each other. To me, that is a case of right thought. Even if we may have been actually wronged by the other person it would take a conscious effort to forgive and erase this source of tension so that we can start on a new clean slate with the other person, without grudges or past grievances.

Right speech goes hand in hand with it. If our thoughts are tinged with negativity towards the other person, then it is often expressed in words. It can also be used as talking behind the person’s back. In this case, we are influencing the perception of a third person so that next time this third party comes into contact with the person in question his or her perception would be primed and steered by those negative characteristics.

Some people are bitter about life and constantly express negativity. They complain about everything and everybody; their family and friends, the bus driver, their boss and coworkers etc. But doing this they unwillingly create more negativity for themselves and it becomes a vicious cycle they may escape from only with a high degree of effort and difficulty. Yet it can be done by breaking the chain of karma and seeing everything in its “right” light.

One can practice resisting the temptation to have negative thoughts about others; one can learn to stop blaming others by accepting responsibility and action and to weigh one’s words before uttering them because words have powerful lingering effects and can be destructive weapons. Once one’s thoughts are cleared and one’s speech is purified one can get closer to a life of harmony, gratefulness and yes – even true happiness.

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