Campaigning for the general election is in full swing here in the UK and I can’t help being struck by the harshness of speech that has become the norm for politicians. I also feel deeply that it does not have to be this way.
In the Noble Eightfold Path the Buddha set out a complete guide to a compassionate way of living that will bring the most joy and fulfilment to oneself and others and lead to the realisation of our true nature. I believe these steps can be practised by anyone, whatever their walk of life and regardless of the way that their colleagues choose to conduct themselves.
One of the steps on the Path is right speech. In his book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness, in the summary at the end of the chapter on Skilful Speech, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana lists some key points including this one:
The test of Skilful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
I realise that this is a pretty tall order when in the midst of a lively conversation or debate, but the more one practises skilful speech in everyday life the more it becomes natural to speak in this way and, actually, to feel it keenly when one makes even a slight mistake and speaks in a harmful way.
Trying to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice we will often find ourselves going against the flow of what is considered normal behaviour, and it takes great courage and effort to do so. I am heartened by the few, exceptional, politicians that I have seen or heard of who can express themselves and their policies clearly and effectively without demeaning others. Such a person demonstrates to me a strength of character that is truly inspiring.