Pure conduct of the actions of the mouth is a gate of Dharma illumination; for it eliminates the four evils.
Last week we noted that harmful speech can also lead to unskillful action. Suffering leads to more suffering and the creation of more harmful karma for ourselves and others. Actions of the mouth are really a critical part of our practice and are connected to nearly everything else we do. This is not just about saying nice things to each other.
The four evils (四惡 shiaku) to which this gate is pointing are lying, suppression of speech, abusive speech and duplicitous speech. These come from the traditional larger set of ten evils, in which the second is not suppression of speech but idle talk. Rather than lying, suppression of speech, abusive speech and duplicitous speech, the more frequent list is lying, idle or frivolous speech, harsh or abusive speech and divisive speech, like backbiting or malicious gossip.
Not doing these four evils is what Right Speech means in the Eightfold Path. You might recognize this 悪 (aku, bad or evil) from the Shoaku Makusa fascicle of the Shobogenzo. Shoaku makusa is “not doing evil” and it’s the first line of a poem from the Dhammapada:
Not doing of any evil / 諸悪莫作 / Shōaku makusa
Doing of all good deeds / 衆善奉行 / Shu zen bu gyō
Purification of one’s own mind / 自淨其意 Ji jō go i
This is the teaching of all buddhas. / 是諸佛教 / Ze sho butsu kyō (1)
When Okumura Roshi has talked about this poem, he has said that it contains two levels of teaching: we should do good and not do evil; and we should go beyond good and evil. What does that mean for these four evils related to actions of the mouth, or right speech?
The first one is lying. On the surface, this seems pretty straightforward. The fourth precept tells us to abstain from speaking falsehood, and lying is about deceiving somebody, so that can’t be good, right? The most obvious way to interpret this teaching is to tell the truth and not use words to trick people or get something for yourself that you don’t really deserve. The precept came into being because food became scarce after a natural disaster, and some monks started telling people they were enlightened so they could get something to eat. Buddha put a stop to that behavior.
However, we all know that there are times when the compassionate thing to do is not to express what we’re really seeing or feeling. What do you do when your loved one asks, “Do these pants make me look fat?” When little Bobby was expecting a new bike for his birthday, isn’t the kind thing to say, “Of course, Aunt Zelda, he loved the sweater you knit him for his birthday!”? Are those lies doing evil? They’re not true. At the same time, they completely express our reality in that moment, which is that we’re saying something not quite true because we’re trying to be compassionate.
This gets us to the second kind of teaching Okumura Roshi is talking about when he says the Dhammapada verse is about both not doing evil and going beyond good and evil. Words are symbols for other things, not the things themselves, and in that way, all words are false. The only way to make sure you’re telling the truth is not to say anything.
Words are how we poke our heads into stuff. It’s what we layer on top of the reality of this moment. By their nature, words carry our interpretations, ideas, delusions and confusions. Whether our speech is intended as a lie or not, on the one hand it’s a reflection of our own stuff. On the other hand, our speech can’t be separate from this one unified reality—it’s part of the reality or truth of this moment. Paying attention to what we’re saying and getting down to some insight about the real nature of lying is a gate of dharma illumination.
The second evil, according to the older tradition, is idle talk, so let’s consider that. This is the kind of speech that just doesn’t really have any purpose. Maybe we notice men and women talking about each other—isn’t she pretty, and how about that guy? Perhaps there’s a classmate or coworker that just can’t keep from saying whatever comes into his head and seems to be engaged in conversation all the time. These folks could be talking just to make noise, or pass the time, or get noticed somehow. My mother used to call this "talking to hear your head roar." You might say that none of these things is really harmful, but they’re not really helpful, either. There’s some potential to stop paying attention and drift into something less wholesome, like gossip, exaggerating one’s own importance, or making fun of people.
I would distinguish this from small talk designed to build relationships. Chatting with your friend as a way to enjoy being together and get caught up on what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about is not necessarily idle talk. When you meet someone for the first time and you start talking about the weather, you’re looking for common ground and a shared experience so you can get to know each other. On the other hand, idle talk doesn’t really care about the effect it’s having on the listener—it’s kind of selfish and all about me. We can ask ourselves, Is what I’m saying at all beneficial to the other person? Am I doing this with benevolence, or talking to hear my head roar?
The second evil according to Dogen’s 108 Gates is suppression of speech. In a country like the US, where the First Amendment is a sacred document, this feels pretty relevant to us. Suppressing speech is usually an attempt to make something go away or to ignore some part of our reality. It’s just another way to create separation that doesn’t actually exist.
The bottom line here, as always, is wholesomeness. What course of action leads to the amelioration of
suffering or prevents it from arising? There are certain kinds of speech that have to be restricted for the benefit of people’s privacy, national security, or because slandering somebody is harmful. We don’t want to encourage people to say things that lead others to take unwholesome action. Curtailing this kind of speech can be said to lead to healthy circumstances or to prevent injury.
However, suppressing speech because we don’t agree with the opinions being expressed allows us not to take
responsibility for what happens when feel challenged. It’s a way to abrogate responsibility either for our own response to that speech or for engaging with the speaker. The speaker and the speech go away, my reaction goes away, and I can escape from those parts of reality. I can perpetuate my idea that my view is the one true way and I can have things just the way I want.
Of course, this can happen on a national scale or in our own personal interactions. It’s a thorny thicket, deciding what kind of speech should be allowed in a healthy society or a healthy relationship—there’s no one good answer. Sometimes the best we can do is be aware that its tricky, and not assume that everyone has the same values, the same approach or the same idea about what’s dangerous.
We can make effort to actually listen to what’s being said and acknowledge the person saying it, but we need to do that skillfully, without any idea of our own small self. It’s easy to convince ourselves that “I’m the bigger person, so I’m going to listen to this crackpot because I’m doing him or her a favor, or I’m trying to be nice.” That’s just about our own ego, and not so much about the reality of nonseparation.
It’s really difficult sometimes not to engage in suppression of speech. No one wants to get hijacked and triggered. No one wants to be in a toxic situation. And what about suppressing our own speech? It’s also really difficult sometimes to say what needs to be said, but if these things are said with good-will, they’re helpful and it makes them a little easier to say.
The third evil is abusive speech. The abuse being referred to here is slander, saying things about people that you know are not true in order to achieve your own ends. In other words, you’re misusing somebody for your own purposes. It would be pretty hard to think of a case where slander would not be harmful, certainly to the person being abused and also to the person doing the slandering, This is another of those cases where committing unwholesome acts brings the unwholesomeness right back home.
Slander is about ill will, harmful intent, lying, self-involvement, and a whole raft of issues. It’s really not the work of a bodhisattva. We might engage in idle talk without realizing it in the moment if we’re not paying attention, but lying, slander and divisive speech are sins of intention. If we’re doing this stuff, we’re out to get our own way at all costs, no matter the effect on other beings. All of these intentional acts are based in fear—the fear that somehow we are not enough just as we are and we’re going to disappear. Fear is where suffering starts, so slander arises from suffering and results in suffering. I’m afraid of you, so I say something untrue about you. I’m angry at you for something you did to me that makes me feel weak and powerless, so I perpetuate some public lie about you so that I feel strong and powerful. Now you have to spend a lot of time cleaning up the mess, and if I’m found out as the one that started the rumors, then I have all of that mess to deal with myself. It’s an endless cycle, and even if there’s a short term gain, ultimately it’s not a stable, positive outcome.
The fourth evil is duplicitous speech, the kind of speech intended to cause division. In a sangha, this is the kiss of death. Causing a schism is a major offense according to the Vinaya and gets one expelled from the sangha.
This is not the same as a case where there is a real and legitimate difference of opinion about something among sangha members. If someone honestly suggests the sangha buy a new building and half the sangha agrees and the other half doesn’t, that’s not a problem. That’s a community carefully and skillfully considering its options.
Duplicitous speech is aimed at getting people to fight with each other and break up the community, the team, the family or some other group. In the Vinaya, the examples are about arguments over interpretations of the teachings and practice. If two groups of monks are in honest disagreement about the dharma and are going along in good faith, it’s OK even if it results in a group splitting off and starting a new sangha. If the split happens because someone has knowingly misrepresented Buddha’s teaching just to create dissent, that’s unwholesome action. Slandering the Three Treasures also breaks the tenth precept.
Duplicitous speech is clearly aimed at creating separation. We already know that separation is just our idea, so clearly things like malicious gossip are just aiding and abetting our delusion, trying to create separation where ultimately none really exists, and probably for some kind of personal gain for the small self. No good can come of it.
Interestingly, the Buddha said that even in the event of a real schism, each side is still to treat the other with care and respect, even while there may be some investigation into what’s really happening. He even taught about how to choose sides—he said we should always be on the side of the dharma. Which side is acting on behalf of the dharma? That’s not always clear in any disagreement. Which side is working for wholesomeness? Both might actually intend to do good. In the case of someone actively sowing dissention with his or her speech with the intent to cause harm, our job is to be on the side of ameliorating suffering for the largest possible number of beings, not leaving out ourselves and the person creating the division.
When we sit down on the cushion and don’t say anything, we are not able to commit these four evils. The challenge is, how do we avoid them once we get up? We think of zazen as connected to awakening, but can our speech really be a gate of dharma illumination? As bodhisattvas, our speech can lead people to awakening or hold them back.
Questions for reflection and discussion
(1) Verse 183 of the Dhammapada. One translation is here.
About the text
The Ippyakuhachi Homyomon, or 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination, appears as the 11th fascicle of the 12 fascicle version of Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo. Dogen didn't compile the list himself; it's mostly a long quote from another text called the Sutra of Collected Past Deeds of the Buddha. Dogen wrote a final paragraph recommending that we investigate these gates thoroughly.
Hoko has been talking about the gates one by one since 2016. She provides material here that can be used by weekly dharma discussion groups as well as for individual study.
The 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination
 Right belief
 Pure mind
 Love and cheerfulness
The three forms of behavior
 Right conduct of the actions of the body
 Pure conduct of the actions of the mouth
 Pure conduct of the actions of the mind
The six kinds of mindfulness
 Mindfulness of Buddha
 Mindfulness of Dharma
 Mindfulness of Sangha
 Mindfulness of generosity
 Mindfulness of precepts
 Mindfulness of the heavens
The 37 elements of bodhi
 Reflection on inconstancy
 Reflection on suffering
 Reflection on there being no self
 Reflection on stillness
 Dharma conduct
 The Three Devotions
 Recognition of kindness
 Repayment of kindness
 No self-deception
 To work for living beings
 To work for the Dharma
 Awareness of time
 Inhibition of self-conceit
 The nonarising of ill-will
 Being without hindrances
 Belief and understanding  Reflection on impurity
 Not to quarrel
 Not being foolish
 Enjoyment of the meaning of the Dharma
 Love of Dharma illumination
 Pursuit of abundant knowledge
 Right means
 Knowledge of names and forms
 The view to expiate causes  The mind without enmity and intimacy
 Hidden expedient means  Equality of all elements
 The sense organs
 Realization of nonappearance
The four abodes of mindfulness
 The body as an abode of mindfulness
 Feeling as an abode of mindfulness
 Mind as an abode of mindfulness
 The Dharma as an abode of mindfulness
 The four right exertions
 The four bases of mystical power
The five faculties
 The faculty of belief
 The faculty of effort
 The faculty of mindfulness
 The faculty of balance
 The faculty of wisdom
The five powers
 The power of belief
 The power of effort
 The power of mindfulness
 The power of balance
 The power of wisdom
 Mindfulness, as a part of the state of truth
 Examination of Dharma, as a part of the state of truth
 Effort, as a part of the state of truth
 Enjoyment, as a part of the state of truth
 Entrustment as a part of the state of truth
 The balanced state, as a part of the state of truth
 Abandonment, as a part of the state of truth
The Eightfold Path
 Right view
 Right discrimination
 Right speech
 Right action
 Right livelihood
 Right practice
 Right mindfulness
 Right balanced state
 The bodhi-mind
 Right belief
The six paramitas
 The dāna pāramitā
 The precepts pāramitā
 The forbearance pāramitā.
 The diligence pāramitā
 The dhyāna pāramitā
 The wisdom pāramitā
 Expedient means
 The four elements of sociability
 To teach and guide living beings
 Acceptance of the right Dharma
 Accretion of happiness
 The practice of the balanced state of dhyāna
 The wisdom view
 Entry into the state of unrestricted speech
 Entry into all conduct
 Accomplishment of the state of dhāraṇī
 Attainment of the state of unrestricted speech
 Endurance of obedient following
 Attainment of realization of the Dharma of nonappearance
 The state beyond regressing and straying
 The wisdom that leads us from one state to another state
and, somehow, one more:
 The state in which water is sprinkled on the head