Where Science and Enlightenment Collide

What does it mean, to avoid idle chatter?

right-speach-smSpeak only the speech that neither torments self nor does harm to others. That speech is truly well spoken. Speak only endearing speech, speech that is welcomed. Speech when it brings no evil to others is pleasant.
– Snp 3.03

He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense.
– AN 10:176

Idle chatter is pointless talk, speech that lacks purpose or depth. Such speech communicates nothing of value, but only stirs up the defilements in one’s own mind and in others. The Buddha advises that idle talk should be curbed and speech restricted as much as possible to matters of genuine importance. In the case of a monk, the typical subject of the passage just quoted, his words should be selective and concerned primarily with the Dhamma. Lay persons will have more need for affectionate small talk with friends and family, polite conversation with acquaintances, and talk in connection with their line of work. But even then they should be mindful not to let the conversation stray into pastures where the restless mind, always eager for something sweet or spicy to feed on, might find the chance to indulge its defiling propensities.
For the Householder or Layperson, the rules are a bit more relaxed, however it does not mean that we should also not strive to at least attempt to follow monastic vows.  The vows of the house holder are as follows:

The Five Precepts

The five precepts are the basis of Buddhist morality. To take Pancha Sila, that is, to vow to live according to the following rules of conduct, is a set of vows a lay-person may take on, to try and live by, to the best of their understanding. So here goes: Pancha ( = five ) Sila ( = discipline ), the Five Precepts:

  1. Do not take life
  2. Do not take what is not given
  3. Do not distort facts
  4. Refrain from misuse of the senses
  5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs

These vows can be taken as promises to yourself and Buddha, but also as a spiritual practice. In the first case they’re generally not very extensive: most of us won’t murder anyone, vow or no. But as a spiritual practice not taking life can include becoming a vegetarian, avoiding the killing of insects etc.

1. Do not take life

This obviously includes killing, both people and animals. In the extreme it would include killing plants and insects. Though it is perhaps possible to avoid killing these latter, in practice every act of eating makes us co-responsible for killing plants. This can’t be avoided. Still, this rule is the basis of the vegetarianism of many Buddhists. Because although those who eat meat often don’t kill animals themselves, they are helping make it financially and socially acceptable for butchers to kill animals.
As recorded in the Pali scriptures, the Buddha did not prohibit consumption of meat, even by monks. In fact, he explicitly rejected a suggestion from Devadatta to do so. In modern Theravada societies, a bhikkhu who adheres to vegetarianism to impress others with his superior spirituality may be committing an infringement of the monastic rules.

On the other hand, the Buddha categorically prohibited consumption of the flesh of any animal that was “seen, heard or suspected” to have been killed specifically for the benefit of monks (Jivaka Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 55). This rule technically applies only to monastics, but it can be used as a reasonable guide by devout lay people.

To understand this “middle path” approach to meat-eating, we have to remember that there were no “Buddhists” in Shakyamuni’s time. There were only mendicants of various kinds (including the Buddha’s disciples), plus lay people who gave them alms out of respect without necessarily worrying about the brand name of the teachings.

It is my opinion that when it comes to the eating of meat, that it be left up to the conscience of the layperson, and not condemned either way by either person. After all Yoga Yama study teaches us that not everyone’s truth is the same as another’s.

2. Do not take what is not given

This rule is usually translated as: don’t steal. But in fact this goes a bit further. To not take what is not given, really means only taking that where explicitly somebody says: this is yours. Taking money from a wallet that somebody left on the train is clearly not acceptable if you read this rule of conduct.

3. Do not distort fact

This one is usually translated as: don’t lie. Again: it wider than that. Sometimes the use of words can make something seem acceptable, when it could also have been said very differently and be totally unacceptable. This would not be a lie, but it would be a distortion of fact.

4. Refrain from misuse of the senses

The senses in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy include not only the five generally thought of: touch, hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting, but also the mind: thinking. This means overindulgence in touching (for instance sex), hearing ( overindulging in listening to music for instance), seeing (too much focus on beauty or ugliness around us), smelling and tasting (overindulgence in food preparation for instance). Lay people aren’t expected to refrain from sex, yet they are expected to refrain from overdoing it. Sex should not be used as a tool of manipulation either, it is the unity of two energies combining into harmony, a spiritual connection between two individuals, it should not be used for selfish endeavors.

The the last sense which can be overindulged is thinking or thought, or use of the mind. One often meets people who think so much, they forget to practice. Or they out-think any morality one can come up with. The mind is a highly deceptive tool and overuse makes it overly powerful over us. When thoughts start seeming real, and control ones life, beyond what is reasonable, it is perhaps time to consider whether perhaps one has overindulged in thinking.

5. Refrain from self-intoxication through alcohol or drugs

This sila is very relevant in our present day world. It has to do with the previous one, in the sense that people seem to use alcohol as a way of making life more interesting, less mundane. The sensual experiences of daily life don’t seem enough and fun can only be had, social contacts can only be made (in certain circles), under the influence.

Being reasonable

Even for those who take Pansil, or in other words: vow to live by these rules, it is up them to decide where to draw the line. Some Buddhists eat meat, others feel that should be avoided. Many Buddhists drink coffee, even though it could be construed to change consciousness and therefore fall under the heading of self-intoxication. Still, every honest Buddhist will try to live by these rules to the best of their understanding and ability. Living by these rules is not so much something to be proud of, as it is a reminder of what hasn’t yet been accomplished. Self-righteousness exists in any religious group, but should obviously be avoided. Most people will realize the fact that these rules of conduct are only outward, and though important in their own way, don’t signify inner wisdom or enlightenment. Since becoming wise (in Southern Buddhism: an Arhat, in Northern Buddhism: a Buddha), is the only object of Buddhism – anything else ought to be merely a stepping stone.


Remember brothers and sisters, the flesh is transitory, impermanent, and a tool for the spiritual journey, speech is also a tool of communication, one of many extensions of the flesh that encompasses our spiritual selves, and should be at least guarded and tempered with compassion.  Treat each thought as if it were a potential sermon, you may never know what lessons can be gleamed from the words you speak, or the even the thoughts you post.



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