Sutta Study: Speak up!

Sutta Study: Speak up! October 18, 2017

Sutta Study from PexelsThe wanderer Potaliya approached the Buddha and after they had exchanged greetings and ‘cordial talk’ (I’d love to know what this was! Maybe they talked about the weather or local politics…) the Buddha offered Potaliya a teaching. He told Potaliya that there were four kinds of people:

“What four? (1) Here, some person speaks dispraise of someone who deserves dispraise, and the dispraise is accurate, truthful and timely; but he does not speak praise of someone who deserves praise, though the praise would be accurate, truthful and timely. (2) Some other person speaks praise of someone who deserves praise, and the praise is accurate, truthful and timely; but he does not speak dispraise of someone who deserves dispraise, though the dispraise would be accurate, truthful and timely.” From the Anguttara Nikaya 4:100, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi

The third kind of person is someone who doesn’t speak dispraise or praise of a person even though it would be accurate, truthful and timely, and the fourth is the person who speaks both dispraise and praise when it is accurate, truthful and timely. The Buddha then asks Potaliya, which is the most excellent and sublime of these four?

Potaliya answers that the third person, the one who doesn’t speak, is the most excellent, as they are able to dwell in equanimity. The Buddha corrects him. The most excellent person is the fourth person, who speaks up – because what excels “is knowledge of the proper time to speak in any particular case”.

I love this teaching, as I hear the Buddha saying to me, ‘speak up!’. Don’t sit back with a faint, blissful smile on your face, demonstrating how unmoved you are by the good or unskilful deeds of another. When it is helpful to offer them praise, then offer it. When it is helpful to call them out on something, then call them out.

It can be difficult to speak up. I am remembering a time when a family member’s boyfriend, a large man with scary and powerful friends, said something racist whilst he was visiting our flat. I felt the heat rising in me and I calmly told him that he was free to be racist in his own house, but not in mine. I don’t think that my boundary-setting led to a great change of heart, but he didn’t speak in that way in my presence again, and I was glad that I had spoken.

The Buddha is asking us to be courageous. As Buddhists or as people following a spiritual path we often find ourselves wading against the rushing stream – living in ways that aren’t approved of by society at large. We might decide to refrain from intoxicants when all our friends and everyone else in the pub are knocking them back. We might choose to follow a vegan diet to the dismay of our friends, or to leave our ‘successful’ well paid career to choose a ‘right livelihood’ job.

Of course, we need to remember to be skilful. We don’t just praise and dispraise willy-nilly – only when it is accurate, truthful and timely. How do we know when it’s timely? Unless we’re a Buddha, we won’t know for sure. We can think it through as carefully as we can, and then make our best-guess decision. Would dispraise be too much for this person to hear or bear at this particular moment? Are they open to changing? Are they or other people suffering as a result of their behaviour? When it comes to praise, does this person know that they have done something praiseworthy? Would the praise go to their heads or would it soak into their hearts and give them encouragement to continue? Are we welling up with gratitude that we would like to share with them?

We won’t always get it right. But we mustn’t let a fear of reprisals or of looking foolish stymie us. What would the Buddha say? If we allow him to speak through us, with compassion and wisdom, who knows what effect our words will have?


Image from with gratitude

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