04 June 2023

"Say when"

‘Say when’ is something you tell someone when serving that person, typically a drink. The receiver is expected to say ‘enough’ or indicate in some other way that the required amount has been poured.

It is about what’s sufficient, what’s ideal, what’s appropriate even. Less wouldn’t suffice and more would be just too much. It is about proportions. About having a sense of proportion. Something on the lines of ‘this far but no further.’ It could also be interpreted as knowing when to say ‘stop,’ ‘now,’ ‘enough’ or ‘no.’

Once someone put a question to the Dalai Lama about mosquitoes: ‘what if a mosquito troubled you, how would you respond?’ The Dalai Lama offered a response on these lines:

‘I would brush it off with a wave of my hand. If it comes again, I would do the same thing. And if it does it a third time….’

The Dalai Lama didn’t say anything. He just smiled and slapped his arm (the place, we are supposed to imagine, where the mosquito would alight). No anger. No joy.

Now one might argue that this would violate the first precept but let’s leave the debate on doctrinal matters to those well versed in such things. What I draw from this example is appropriateness. The ‘when’ of it.

For example, if the Dalai Lama said nothing when the question was put to him and instead simply slapped his arm, i.e. in the first instance and not the third, that would be his ‘when.’ We can say that’s the limit of his patience. That’s his notion of appropriateness.

The thing about ‘when’ is that it varies from one person to the next. So we obtain appropriateness from norms and values. We let the law frame limits. We do say ‘enough,’ ‘now,’ ‘stop’ and ‘no’ but whether or not we are conscious of it, the decisions are informed by these things.

Saying when about coffee or tea we need or the amount of milk to go with coffee or tea is easy. Uncomplicated. Certainly no controversy there. How about appropriateness when it comes to, say speech? How do we decide what’s ok and what’s not? What would be useful and what’s meaningless? What would be benign and what might cause hurt?

Perhaps there’s an answer in the Abhaya Sutra where the Buddha recommends the following:

If you know something to be erroneous, untrue, without benefit or unconnected with a particular goal, un-endearing and disagreeable to others, do not say it.

If you know something to be factual, true, without benefit, un-endearing and disagreeable to others, do not say it.

If you know something to be factual, true, beneficial, but un-endearing and disagreeable to others, it is best that you pick the proper time to say it.

If you know something to be erroneous, untrue, without benefit, and yet endearing and agreeable to others, do not say it.

If you know something to be factual, true, without beneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, do not say it.

If you know something to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, and you have a sense of the proper time for saying it, then do so.

Well, the Buddha didn’t really prescribe. What he did was to inform Prince Abhaya of the parameters that define right speech, the ‘rules,’ if you like, that the Buddha follows when it comes to communication.

In this manner we could determine what to say and what not to say, when to say it and when to remain silent. Why? The Buddha says, ‘because the Thathagatha is compassionate.’

The ‘right’ of it or the ‘when’ (if we take the word as metaphor) is not limited to speech or ‘word.’ The consideration of fact, truth, whether beneficial or not, endearment and agreeability as well as a sense of ‘the moment’ or the ‘right time to say [it]’ could, if we so wish, inform views, resolve, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. In other words the Noble Eightfold Path.

The rehearsal or practice if you want to call it that would open the doorways to enlightenment but let’s not go that far. All that matters is that such conduct is wholesome, beneficial to oneself and recipient of one’s words (or actions as the case may be) and certainly does not and cannot harm.

There are many ways of saying when, saying enough, saying now, saying stop and saying no. There are many ways of saying [something]. There is always the option of choosing a particular way of saying something. There’s always the option of saying nothing.

Requires a bit of reflection, that's all.
['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart