This post collects excerpts about loving speech and deep listening from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, in which Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh introduces the core teachings of Buddhism, and shows that the Buddha’s teachings are accessible and applicable to contemporary daily lives.
For a better understanding of these teachings, we encourage you to read the entire book, and to dig deeply into the resources at the end of this post.
The teachings of the Buddha were not to escape from life, but to help us relate to ourselves and the world as thoroughly as possible. The Noble Eightfold Path includes Right Speech and Right Livelihood. These teachings are for people in the world who have to communicate with each other and earn a living.
Deep listening and loving speech is the Fourth Mindfulness Training, and it offers a very good description of Right Speech (samyag vac):
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.”
Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look and listen with the eyes of compassion. Compassionate listening brings about healing. When someone listens to us this way, we feel some relief right away. A good therapist always practices deep, compassionate listening. We have to learn to do the same in order to heal the people we love and restore communication with them.
When communication is cut off, we all suffer. When no one listens to us or understands us, we become like a bomb ready to explode. Restoring communication is an urgent task. Sometimes only ten minutes of deep listening can transform us and bring a smile back to our lips. The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She has the quality of listening deeply, without judging or reacting. When we listen with our whole being, we can defuse a lot of bombs. If the other person feels that we are critical of what they are saying, their suffering will not be relieved. When psychotherapists practice Right Listening, their patients have the courage to say things they have never been able to tell anyone before. Deep listening nourishes both speaker and listener.
Many of us have lost our capacity for listening and using loving speech in our families. It may be that no one is capable of listening to anyone else. So we feel very lonely even within our own families. That is why we have to go to a therapist, hoping that she is able to listen to us. But many therapists also have deep suffering within. Sometimes they cannot listen as deeply as they would like. So if you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Be a therapist. You may be the best therapist for the person you love if you know how to train yourself in the art of deep, compassionate listening.
You must also use loving speech. We have lost our capacity to say things calmly. We get irritated too easily. Every time we open our mouths, our speech becomes sour or bitter. We know it’s true. We have lost our capacity for speaking with kindness. This is the Fourth Mindfulness Training. This is so crucial to restoring peaceful and loving relationships. If you fail in this training, you cannot succeed in restoring harmony, love, and happiness. That is why practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is a great gift.
So many families, couples, and relationships have been broken because we have lost the capacity of listening to each other with calmness and compassion. We have lost the capacity of using calm and loving speech. The Fourth Mindfulness Training is very important to restore communication between us. Practicing the Fourth Training on the art of listening and the art of loving speech is a great gift. For example, a family member may suffer very much. No one in the family has been able to sit quietly and listen to him or her. If there is someone capable of sitting calmly and listening with his or her heart for one hour, the other person will feel a great relief from his suffering. If you suffer so much and no one has been able to listen to your suffering, your suffering will remain there. But if someone is able to listen to you and understand you, you will feel relief after one hour of being together.
Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, “I was just telling the truth.” It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is “Right” in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. You have the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don’t speak that day. “Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I’m afraid I’ll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day.” Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You have to train yourself to be able to do so.