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Talking mouth

Idle Chatter

In the context of the Buddhist eightfold path, some aspects of correct speech make sense to me, that is, no abusive, dishonest, or manipulative speech is allowed. But there is also a prohibition against idle chatter. What is idle chatter, and why is it bad?

Apparently, idle chatter was defined by the Buddha as any talk about other people, about the past, and about the future. He didn’t just prohibit talking about mundane topics, he was even against philosophical discussion. The Buddha listed only ten wholesome topics. Not surprisingly, they all have to do with his teachings.

In fairness to the Buddha, his disciples were engaged in serious work. They spent their whole day pursuing enlightenment, and just as scientists must review their findings and conclusions with others to maintain the advancement of science, so must meditators to maintain the stability of their practice. They didn’t have time to chat about other stuff, they had real business to attend to. In their estimation, this was the most serious business that a human being can attend to.

But isn’t this lifestyle unhealthy? What we commonly call "small talk" is actually not so trivial, for it consists of attentive listening and discovery of other people’s interests. It’s a skill we all need to cultivate. So why would the Buddha shun this?

The original Buddhist path was clearly transcendental, meaning that it led away from the world, and to something more real. One feature of this type of spirituality is sensory withdrawal, which involves restraining talking. For example, some Christian monks take vows of silence that can last for years!

Why is talking restrained? First, there is a karmic reason. Words can easily lead to misunderstandings. Just think of all of the problems caused by lying. Think of the manipulation, and the power that comes with it, by those who use words to deceive us, whether the media, or politicians, or other authorities. But lying is just the most obvious form of distortion. Even unintentional misunderstandings can lead to preventable conflicts. These conflicts are not always trivial. Sometimes words can even start wars!

Second, there is a psychological reason. Words create illusions by dividing up our thoughts. Interestingly, even though language is an abstraction, words have, as their referent, things that can be directly perceived in the physical world. Talking is a worldly activity. Words, therefore, are a poor tool to use to understand spiritual reality. As Eckhart Tolle said "Silence is the language God speaks."

While words have their problems, they are also useful in other respects. We are social animals, first and foremost, whose survival is tied up with communication. I wouldn’t say that nonverbal consciousness (i.e. pure sensation and emotion) is necessarily enlightened compared to the intellect. Everyone that is alive and is not brain dead, emotes, feels, imagines, as well as thinks (which is basically talking to yourself). Spirituality is sometimes portrayed as merely getting rid of analytical thought and just dwelling in nonverbal consciousness, but the point is not just to emote and feel, for we do that anyways, but to notice this, and when we can do that, as well as witness our own thoughts, only then can we say we are engaged in genuine contemplation. Senses, emotions, and intellect together are what make us human, and it is best if these functions work in harmony. A transcendental spiritual path should not work against the mind, but with the mind and its limitations, to realize that which is limitless.

As we know, talking is important to maintain social bonds (some anthropologists think that casual conversation started as a form of "social grooming," similar to how primates sit in a circle and clean each other’s hair). Even in monasteries, people have to talk to each other every once and a while. In a monastery you are not there just to survive, or maintain the status quo (gaining money, possessions, or manipulating your outer circumstances). There should be no ulterior motive to your conversations. The focus of the monastery is your inner life. Not only do you live differently, you don’t even think the same way. Though it seems harsh, this is done to ensure that one can directly know ultimate reality. But what happens after you get to the Real?

Wisdom necessitates realizing the One among the many. Compassion necessitates coming back to embrace the Many, which is the earth, phenomena, all of the gyrations of restless bodies and minds. The combination of transcendence and immanence is the tantric way of non-duality. It’s common to think of enlightened masters as carefree, just floating on a cloud of bliss away from the troubles of the world. But must we lose our humanity? Why can't an enlightened person also care about the world, about relationships with other people and the fate of people's lives?