Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone lived by these guidelines? This advice, laid out by Paul two thousand years ago in his letter to the Church in Ephesus, could serve as an excellent explanation of one of the foundational practices of Zen Buddhism’s Eight-Fold Path known as “Right Speech.”
Language is an incredible gift. Our ability to convey concrete and abstract concepts using only symbols allows society to exist. It empowers us to create. It equips us to be in relationship with each other and form social structures. It enables us to worship God and communicate the Gospel, even if only through limited human speech.
But of particular concern in this reading, language allows us to express love for our neighbor and those we love. It also allows us to hurt our neighbor, and even those we love. When we meditate, we may become aware of our less than amicable thoughts about our neighbor (think coworker, classmate, significant other, etc).
Lutherans would say that it is our human sinfulness that results in our selfish misuse of the gift of language to hurt others. Zen would say that is our ignorance of our interdependence and interconnectedness with others that results in our selfish misuse of the gift of language to hurt others.
In either (or any) case, liberation becomes freedom from destructive patterns of language misuse to empower us to speak words of love that build up our neighbor. For Zen Buddhists, this is enlightenment. For Christians, it is the forgiveness of sin and resurrection to new life in Christ. In both cases, we are called to use language out of love.
In short, it is important to be mindful of what we say as an everyday spiritual practice.