The five gatekeepers of speech's all you have

As I sat down to write my first post in this shiny new blog, it occurred to me that I should probably write something biographical….spiritually autobiographical, perhaps – whatever that might mean!

However, almost immediately I came up with a glitch:   that’s old news; the past holds little interest for me anymore, except as a source of occasional anecdotes.

So I happily jettisoned the idea in favour of starting right where I am, which is smack in the middle of my daily life.   After all, it’s here that the rubber meets the road, in each day as I’m living it, not in some stale tale of days gone by.

So without further ado, here’s what I’ve been thinking about this week:

A few days ago, a friend and I were talking about healthy ways of dealing with, and expressing, anger (my friend is a counsellor).  Shortly after that conversation,  I came upon a gem of wisdom in a wonderful post on Upaya News.  [I would have provided the link, but now I can’t find it!  Apologies.]

Roshi Joan Halifax

This is a short excerpt from a talk given by Roshi Joan Halifax**
of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, NM:

“The Buddha identified five conditions we are to explore in relation to speech:

  1. Do I speak at the right time or not?  Is this the right time?  Really stepping back to see if this is the right moment.
  2. Do I speak the facts or not.   Am I saying what’s really true?
  3. Am I speaking harshly or gently?
  4. Do my words benefit beings or not?
  5. What is my motivation? Do I speak with a good heart or is my heart malicious?

When the Zen teachers of America, as a community of Buddhist priests, began to explore the function of speech in our communities, we agreed to use the Gatekeepers of Speech,  that lead to the classical admonitions.

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it beneficial?
  4. Is it necessary?
  5. And is it the right time?”

It seems to me that working with anger  –  as well any other strong feeling  –  is all about asking ourselves these questions.   However, in order to do this, it also means “being with” the explosive feelings and angry words that fill our minds when we’re angry, until they change – since, like everything else, they inevitably do change – and then speaking from that changed place instead of the carelessly lashing out.

On the other hand, repressing our feelings is just as damaging.   Some of us simply freeze, terrified, at the first inkling of uncomfortable emotions.  Like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, we just want it all to go away.  So we stuff it down, waaaay down.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Whew, that was a close one!   Same issue:  different response.    Unfortunately, all that repressed muck eventually just winkles its way back up.  So we then have a choice:  we can stuff it back down again, or we can examine it, watch it, and learn from it.

There are times when difficult things must be said.  But if we can catch that instant of suddenly being aware of what we’re feeling as we’re feeling it, we can look at our thoughts from the point of view of the Five Gatekeepers and eventually speak from a place closer to the heart, which is invariably more respectful than our hot heads and most honest than our frozen ones.

For me, meditation was the door to my first inkling of this awareness – awareness that eventually extended beyond the cushion and into the busyness of my life.  Without the habit of first noticing, and then simply watching whatever was going on in my mind during my times on the cushion, I don’t know that I would ever have discovered those precious moments when it’s possible to step back and simply be aware.

And am I now an expert on handling difficult emotions?   Hah, I wish!

But I do know this much:  it gets easier with practice.


**Joan Halifax Roshi is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and author. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center, a Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

1 Comment

  1. Susannah, this is a wonderful new beginning, and like the Gatekeepers it will be true and kind, and for me expecially beneficial and necessary – the time really is now. Namaste, Laura Lee


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