Snake Oil

June 9, 2014
Next week I’ll be attending a retreat focusing on the Buddha’s teachings on Wise Speech. The Buddha taught that wise speech is truthful, useful, kind, appropriate, and avoids gossip. In anticipation of this retreat, I’ve been thinking about the enormous power of language and its effect on our lives, and in particular, the consequences of stretching or distorting the truth, and outright lying.
Emerald City Laundry is a big busy neighborhood laundromat in Arcata, the town where I live in northern California. It’s the kind of place that buzzes with action every day; lots of people with lots of laundry. As one of the owners of the store, it’s my job to keep the store in top operating condition, and periodically we replace large numbers of washers all at once. This takes a lot of organization and coordination to remove old machines and install the new ones with as little disruption as possible.
On our most recent washer replacement day, everything was in especially good order. It was a Wednesday (our quietest day of the week), the weather was beautiful, and the extra staff we’d hired was ready to work. The truck arrived right on time from Los Angeles, about a thousand miles away, unloaded eight large heavy washers, and promptly left. As soon as we uncrated the first one, we realized the shipment was not the one we ordered.
Many phone calls ensued to the long list of people involved in this purchase and delivery. Tempers were short, no one knew how such a big error occurred, and no one wanted to take responsibility. We just wanted to know when the trucker would return to pick up the mistaken load and deliver the correct one.
Sometime during the day, we found out that the equipment company dispatcher knew the wrong machines had been loaded on the truck, allowed them to leave the warehouse and be transported and delivered to our store so very far away. This same dispatcher also had the correct washers loaded on a different truck slated for delivery the very next day, but without telling anyone. We looked at each other is dismay.
After coming to the obvious conclusion that there was nothing we could do about this fiasco, I sat down at my desk to get some other work done. In my email was a slick full color solicitation from a person offering business development seminars. Among the many things this program promised was “delirious contentment.”  What a fabulous oxymoron! I tried to imagine being delirious and contented at the same time.  Snake oil. 
When I got home at the end of this same day there was a particularly large black glossy envelope in the mail. I was intrigued enough to open the package, and it turned out to be yet another credit card solicitation. Inside and across the top of the sleek black invitation it said in large white letters “Luxury without Limits.” More snake oil.  
The day seemed like a joke. Eight incorrect commercial washing machines shipped a thousand miles on purpose, the promise of delirious contentment and luxury without limits. I think the Buddha would just slowly shake his head.

Wise speech asks us to find the courage to tell the truth even when we’re embarrassed. It also reminds us that just because something is enticing and promising, it may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and it certainly won’t last forever.

“You should know that kind speech arises from kind mind, and kind mind from the seed of compassionate mind. You should ponder the fact that kind speech is not just praising the merit of others; it has the power to turn the destiny of a nation.”

 – Zen master Dogen