(Krishna Kshetra Swami)
(I presented this short reflection in an interfaith panel, “Ethical Speech and Deep Listening as Pathways to Peace” at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Barcelona, August 9, 2004)
It is a common observation, often dramatically or narratively expressed in traditional cultures the world over, that speech has the vital power to heal or to harm, to bless with life or to curse unto death. Linguists today agree that so-called “speech acts,“ in contrast to propositional speech, can change the course of lives, that utterances – even a sentence or only a word of cursing or blessing – can oppress or liberate a person, a community or an entire people.
From the ancient Indian sacred scripture Shrimad-Bhagavatam, revered by the Vaishnavas, we have one such narrative involving a curse that is transformed into a blessing. I must skip the interesting details of this story to focus on our topic of ethical speech and deep listening as the basis for lasting peace. Ever-so briefly, this narrative is the frame-story of the Shrimad- Bhagavatam, in which the philosopher-king Pariksit, in a moment of uncontrolled anger, evokes a curse upon himself to die after seven days, a curse he graciously accepts as the just karmic reward for thoughtlessly venting his anger on a harmless ascetic. Now forced to face his impending demise, stripped of all distracting mental comforts, the king commences a process of deep listening with a question we might all do well to ask: „What should a dying person do?“
This story’s message applies to us all: Every one of us is in a similar predicament as this ancient Indian philosopher-king – our days are numbered, and our first and foremost business as human beings is to develop the capacity for deep listening, shravanam in Sanskrit. Then and only then can there be ethical, liberating speech, or kirtanam.
I mention this story of the Shrimad-Bhagavatam to introduce two key principles in the Vaisnava tradition of deep listening.
The first is “eagerness to listen” – sushrushu. The second is an essential outcome of the first when appropriately pursued, namely sama-darshanam – “equal vision.”
We can think of the first principle, eagerness to listen deeply, as the energy and sense of urgency that allows us to abandon false pretenses (ahamkara – the sense that “I am the doer, the principal actor”), and to seek the authentic self by listening to another. Whatever initially prompts such a sense of urgency, Vaishnava spirituality calls us to nurture that eagerness by conscious restraint of the tongue from its natural inclination for idle talk, prajalpa, which in its extreme forms becomes violent speech. Beginning with intentionally restrained speech one can expect to progress through several stages of enriched consciousness that I cannot detail presently. Suffice to say, the return to selfhood culminates in perceiving the uninterrupted, profoundly meaningful flow of divine sound, shabda-brahman, which the Shrimad-Bhagavatam celebrates as krishna-katha, divine sound invoking the sports of the supremely attractive Person.
This eagerness to listen can be thought of as “nourishing silence,” which is also “active silence,” listening for higher, deeper comprehension of self and divinity, self as part of divinity, and self in the other. For Vaishnavas, like the philosopher-king of Shrimad-Bhagavatam, it is an inquisitive listening that brings thoughtful questions before a realized speaker, a sara-grahin, one who can “grasp the essence” and convey it in truthful speech. Such a speaker is inspired by thoughtful questioning to draw wisdom from the deep well of his or her realization for the benefit of the listener and for the benefit of the world.
The second principle of deep listening goes to the heart of our topic of grounding peace in ethical speech and deep listening. This principle is expressed not in terms of sound but in terms of sight and measurement – sama-darshanam, “equal vision,” or sama-buddhi, “equal or equiposed intelligence.” Equal vision both depends on and enables deep listening, and it is what opens the way to ethical speech. Indeed the Shrimad-Bhagavatam links the ethical speech and equal vision directly: satyam ca sama-darshanam – truth, truthfulness, reality, is constituted by equal vision or equiposed vision.
By “equal vision” I do not mean the negative erasure of differences by which we tend to depersonalize others, with generalizations and stereotyping. Rather, equal vision means equation or identification with oneself, the vision implied by all the great religious traditions in the ethical notion that we should treat others as we would have ourselves treated. The Bhagavad-gita, another important sacred text for Vaisnavas, describes equal vision this way:
One is a perfect yogi (practitioner of the spiritual path) who, by comparison to one’s own self, sees the equality of all beings, in both their happiness and their distress. (Bg 6.32)
Such equal vision is not cheap. It demands refined intelligence, equinimity amidst all sorts of persons, whatever their attitude toward ourselves might be. Krsna (again in the Bhagavad-gita) challenges us to come to this stage of consciousness when he says:
“A person is especially accomplished in equal intelligence (sama-buddhi) who regards honest well-wishers, affectionate benefactors, the neutral, mediators, the envious, friends and enemies, the pious and the impious all equally.” (Bg 6.9).
Attaining such a level of equinimity requires practice, a process of spiritual hearing, or shravanam, – not as an occasional exercise, but over a lifetime. This cultivation of deep listening is simultaneously cultivation of character in a spirit of service, a practice we can surely compare with spiritualities of other traditions (I’m thinking in particular of the Benedictine Christian practice of lectio divina).
Along with lifetime cultivation of character, for Vaishnavas deep listening is also a practice of refining and even redefining all the bodily senses, centered on the tongue. Indeed, in Vaisnava tradition it is said that self realization begins with the tongue.
This brings me to a recommended practical technique for purifying the listening faculty which is based on a third principle that links together sushushru and sama-darshanam, eagerness to hear and seeing with equal vision. The practical technique is mantra meditation, and the principle behind it is praise, kirtanam or sankirtanam. The word “mantra” has recently taken on a negative connotation in the western media, as any form of thoughtless repetition of words or ideology. But the Sanskrit word “mantra” literally means “tool for the mind,” that is, an aid for awakening the mind’s powers of spiritual comprehension. For Vaishnavas of the Caitanyaite tradition which I follow, the well-known “maha-mantra” is the be-all and end-all of spiritual life. This mantra consists of the repeated names Hari, Krishna, and Rama in the vocative, the grammatical case for directly addressing a person. Practitioners experience that through these divine names, sound-forms of divine grace, the flickering mind is bridled and the heart is opened, bringing ear, tongue, and heart into harmony based on the principle of abhinnatva, or non-difference, between divine name and the divine referent of the name.
The Vaishnava conviction is that truly ethical speech begins with and has its essence in praise. And praise has its roots in deep listening, and deep listening springs from a change of heart that draws one progressively forward to the vision, the equal vision, that can bring true and lasting peace to the self and to the world.
I will end by saying that one would hope and expect that in the so-called communication revolution we all participate in, our communication skills would radically expand. And one would hope and expect that this expansion of communication would bring about peace, seeing that its opposite, war, is the final breakdown of communication. Unfortunately, the ‘communication revolution’ is proving to be more an explosion of quantity, of ‘information’ and, even more-so, mis-information, with an inversely proportional decrease in quality, substance, and regard for truth. Who of us would not agree that there is need for a recovery of substance to communication, and that this requires a return to, a rediscovery, and re-formation of the most basic skills of listening and speaking that are at the wellspring of spiritual life? Though I speak from one particular spiritual tradition, the Vaishnava bhakti tradition of India, I also speak as a westerner, brought up within the sphere of West Asian religiosity and spirituality. From this double perspective it is my conviction and experience that there is much to be shared across cultures when deep listening is practiced, that from such sharing the sort of genuine commitment that can only come from recognition of spiritual equality among all people can arise, and that from such commitment to spiritual equality the lasting peace that we all long for can be attained.