The Power of Words
Translation by Mi-Zhe
A Cruel Remark With Lasting Consequences
During a Bodhi Meditation Retreat, a young woman who had suffered depression for over a decade shared her story. When she was a little girl, her parents sent her to a dance class. An adorably plump child, she was bursting with enthusiasm about learning to dance. Her excitement was cruelly deflated, though, when the instructor told her: “You look like a pig. Don’t come back and don’t ever try to dance again.” That single nasty comment plunged the young girl into a depression that went unmitigated for years. Her interest in school, in communicating with classmates and teachers, vanished, and when she came of age she considered herself the ugliest person in the world. As an adult living with extremely low self-esteem and depression, she was unable to pursue romantic relationships.
Grandmaster JinBodhi came up with encouraging words particularly for students suffering from depression, calling them the “JinBodhi Golden Words”:
I am most compassionate.
I am most confident.
I am most tolerant.
I am most courageous.
I keep my word.
I can do anything.
Every day of that retreat, Grandmaster JinBodhi led the students in reciting these simple lines. His witty and humorous teachings created miracles. Many students suffering from depression were able to break away from their old selves and started to laugh and talk freely in front of the group. This young woman was among those who progressed so far as to be able to perform in class. Radiating self-confidence, she dedicated her dance to Grandmaster JinBodhi. Performing a dance was both a challenge to herself and also a unique way to show her deep appreciation for Grandmaster JinBodhi, who had awakened her life-force.
The power of words should never be underestimated. A seemingly simple remark can send a person into a pit of despair or, conversely, provide a new lease on life. We can find countless examples in families and work environments where words strongly influence people’s emotions and affect interpersonal relationships to life-changing degrees. Words of encouragement and praise are a powerful source of growth and propel us forward; one malicious remark or rebuke can destroy self-confidence and courage.
What is the secret behind the power of language?
The Tower of Babel
In the “Book of Genesis” in the Old Testament, there is a story about language. After the Great Flood, Noah’s descendants flourished and all spoke a single language. They planned to build a tower on the plain that could reach Heaven, which was to be known as the Tower of Babel. God found out and said, “If one people sharing one language can build such a great tower, what can’t they accomplish?” To prevent the people becoming arrogant in the wake of their success, God scattered them all over the globe and gave them many languages, making communication nearly impossible.
In 2006, the movie Babel won Best Director at the 59th Cannes International Film Festival. Using the Tower of Babel as a metaphor, this movie highlighted the need for human beings to communicate with and understand each other.
In the film, a Moroccan tour guide receives an American-made hunting rifle from a Japanese tourist and sells it to a shepherd so he can ward off wolves. The son of the shepherd carelessly takes a shot at a tour bus and seriously injures an American woman. Stranded in a remote Moroccan village, the woman and her husband await medical help while struggling to overcome the language barrier. Back in the United States, the couple’s Mexican nanny is distraught about missing her son’s wedding in Mexico because of her employers’ delayed return, and so asks her nephew to drive her and the kids to the celebration. When attempting to cross the border upon return, the nanny and her nephew are suspected of kidnapping the kids, with disastrous consequences. In Japan, the owner of the hunting rifle is investigated by the police. His deaf-mute teenage daughter is traumatized by her mother’s recent suicide, the fall-out from which has made father-daughter communication challenging. The daughter’s disabilities have caused her to be rejected by boys, and the pain and isolation she feels are fomenting rebellious behavior.
Babel fully explores the wounds that result from language barriers and misunderstandings, exposing the obstacles that are deep within everyone. Certain chasms exist and are seemingly unbridgeable even between those who speak the same language. The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor for the human need to bridge communication gaps, within ourselves and with others. Only when we overcome them and master the art of positive language, can we build a solid foundation upon which to share our thoughts.
In order to master language, we must first understand the power behind it.
The Power Behind Language
The richness of the human mind makes language colorful. Optimistic people are in the habit of using positive words that reflect the brilliance of their inner world. In contrast, pessimistic people who have given up hope and who look upon the world with criticism tend to adopt more negative vocabulary that reflects their inner darkness and despair.
Confucius once said: “To associate with a moral person is like entering a room full of fragrant orchids and eventually getting used to the sweet smell because you, too, have become fragrant; to deal with an evil person is like entering a fish market and not noticing the foul smell after a while because you have acquired the same stench.”
According to the second law of thermodynamics, under natural conditions, heat always flows spontaneously from regions of higher temperature to regions of lower temperature, and never the reverse. It is also known that Earth’s surface air always flows from regions of high pressure to those of lower pressure, thus creating wind. The same dynamic can be observed in human relationships: mentally strong and resilient people with clear purpose always influence the mentally weak.
Therefore, a clearheaded person with a strong will who is optimistic always positively influences a person who is confused, weak and pessimistic. With time, the pessimistic person tends to be inspired by their optimistic friend to see the good in the world. The change in thinking gets reflected in the increased use of positive words. Once a person sees the bright side of life, what is the use of negative speech?
A simple story about two shoe salesmen illustrates the power of positive words. When the salesmen arrived in an area they’d never visited before and found out that people there never wear shoes, the first immediately went away disappointed, saying, “Such bad luck! Nobody here wears shoes!” The second salesman was elated. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “No one has worn shoes yet! How excited they will be!” Predictably, he went on to enjoy huge commercial success. A person’s choice of words is a reflection of the mind; the power of the mind is the force behind speech that affects reality.
Changing the Mind Through Changing One’s Language
Thinking and consciousness can affect our language; does the reverse also hold true? Although the exact mechanism of how consciousness and language transform is still in the throes of research, there is no doubt of the direct relationship between the two. Many people try to change their thinking through changing their words.
English writer George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 is set in Oceania, a fictional superstate that created a new language called “Newspeak” by removing, simplifying and otherwise changing many English words and grammatical rules. Any concept that was not welcomed by the elite ruling class was removed from “Newspeak.” This language was used to falsify historical records and destroy literature. As a result, the generation who grew up with it couldn’t read the surviving fragments of English literature because many English-language concepts simply did not have corresponding language constructs in “Newspeak.”
Such language control has occurred at various times throughout history. In China, there were infamous literary inquisitions held during the Qin and Qing dynasties at which forbidden works were destroyed and their authors prosecuted. The intention was that by preventing the use of certain words, people would be conditioned not to think in ways that were unacceptable to the ruling class.
We can create a language to establish new thinking; we can also give up a language to remove the old way of thinking. When we use active, positive and motivating words, we are in fact establishing a bright and confident thinking habit; when we stop using gloomy and self-abasing language, we are saying goodbye to negative, self-defeating thought patterns. Reciting Grandmaster JinBodhi’s “Golden Words” every morning, and thinking them when faced with challenging situations, can help form a new habit of thought and speech that can usher in a more confident, successful way of life.
Fortune Flows From Frequent Utterance of Blessings
When the relationship between thought and choice of words is understood, and when that understanding is applied in a positive way, fortune and happiness result. A person who often blesses the world from the heart will walk a path lit by their inner brilliance.
Starting the day with a smile and a blessing for others sets a happy tone that attracts more happiness. Giving voice to positive thoughts amplifies their power. A Chinese proverb says: “The work for the year is best begun in spring.” If we utter blessings from the very first moment of the New Year, the positive energy of positive thinking will help to set a happy and successful trend for all the days that follow.
If we get up each morning and say to ourselves, “I will be kinder, more tolerant and more generous than yesterday,” we are more likely to cultivate a forgiving attitude toward others, and less likely to anger. Beginning the day with words such as “I am most confident, I am most capable, there is nothing that I can’t accomplish,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if we don’t start out feeling confident, the power of words is such that they become our truth when repeated. Courage breeds perseverance and wisdom.
Once we change our words, we change our thinking. The simple act of repeatedly using positive words has the power to create a happier life. Everyone can start building that life now.
The Legend of Oracular Words
The “Book of Genesis” describes how God fully utilized the power of words. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God said, “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear….Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth….Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth….”
Christians believe that all was created according to the word of God. Why not then take the magical creative power of words found in the Bible and apply it to human speech?
Does language really possess the power to turn words into reality? An ancient Chinese idiom tells us that “A golden mouth utters words of jade,” which describes the oracular power of the emperor, whose every wish must become true. A legend from ancient China also illustrates this concept. About 1,300 years ago, the one and only female emperor, Wu Zetian, was drunk during a snowy night and ordered all flowers to blossom: “Tomorrow morning I shall visit the garden. Inform Spring immediately that all flowers shall blossom throughout the night and do not wait for the morning breeze.” The next morning, all flowers had blossomed except for peony. Emperor Wu was very angry and ordered all peonies dug up and burned. From then on, peony was demoted from the capital city Changan to the city of Luoyang.
Perhaps the message we can take from Emperor Wu is this: Even if present circumstances seem impossible, the simple act of positive declaration can begin to alter reality. Such is the power of words, for such is the power of the spirit.
Spells were a part of many early primitive cultures; each tribe had its own shaman who would recite words believed to carry spiritual, creative resonance. Buddhist texts contain mantras. When translated into Chinese, the mantras were transliterated. Each has its meaning and sound integrated, and their utterance turns meaning into reality. They function like Alibaba’s magic words, “Open, sesame” – when the right sounds were uttered, the door to the cave would open.
Language is not simply the outward expression of thought. Words hold magical power that is beyond our current comprehension and awaits our exploration. As we work to understand this power more deeply, we would be wise to remember that “A golden mouth utters words of jade.”