41 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 4: Moon in a Dewdrop and Views of the Ocean
43 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 1: Paradox of Prayer in a Nontheistic Spiritual Tradition

Right speech is an essential part of Shakyamuni Buddha’s very first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path, his prescription for spiritual liberation and insight. This teaching can be very useful to us in daily life, and recommends we avoid lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle (unmindful) chatter. The Buddha also gave us five things to consider before speaking: Is what we’re about to say factual, helpful, kind (spoken with good-will), pleasant (“endearing”), and timely?

 

 

Right Speech Is an Essential Part of the Buddhist Path
Overview of Topics in This Episode
Abstaining from Lying
Abstaining from Divisive Speech
Abstaining from Abusive Speech and Idle Chatter
Five Things to Consider Before Speaking
Will What We Say Be Helpful?
Are We Speaking with Kindness and Good-Will?
Will What We Say Be Endearing? If Not, at Least Timely?
Not Getting Discouraged: Right Speech is Extremely Challenging!

 

Right Speech Is an Essential Part of the Buddhist Path

Right speech is part of Shakyamuni Buddha’s very first teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path, as I explained in Episode 36, was the Buddha’s prescription for spiritual liberation and insight. The path also includes right understanding, right intention, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

All of the elements of the Eightfold Path are typically translated as starting with the word, “right,” but this shouldn’t be taken as a judgmental moral injunction, or a suggestion that if you do something “wrong” in Buddhism you’ll be kicked out or disqualified from Buddhist practice. Instead, “right” has more of an objective meaning here: Basically, what actually works, in the sense of bringing about a positive result? As in, this is the “right” key to open the door. It’s very useful to keep this definition of “right” in mind when practicing right speech, because it points to how it isn’t just about acting in a way that makes you a “good” person, it’s about the most effective, compassionate, and authentic way to communicate and interact with other people.

The Buddha gave quite a number of teachings on right speech over the course of his 45-year teaching career. Clearly, he taught that paying attention to how you express yourself verbally was considered an essential part of practice. Obviously, our speech has an effect on other people, and unless we’re selfish or deluded, we care about that. On the positive side, our speech can convey love, and it can support or guide others in their own spiritual journey. Alternatively, our speech may trigger defensiveness or anger in others, or demoralize or confuse them. And that’s just the external effects of our speech! What we say aloud has a powerful influence on our own thinking, and can reinforce positive or negative patterns of behavior in us.

This is why, at times, Buddha talked about being “made pure” through appropriate verbal action. It’s a valuable – and challenging – spiritual practice to pay careful attention to what we say, recognize what kinds of speech leads to positive results, speak when it’s appropriate, and restrain our speech when that’s the wiser course. In order to practice right speech, actually, we need to develop and employ other aspects of the Eightfold Path, especially right mindfulness, right intention, and right effort. When we want to perform a verbal act, the Buddha said to use mindfulness to reflect, “would [this verbal act] lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?”[i] If we see our speech may cause harm, we align with right intention, which is the resolve to refrain from what causes harm and instead do what brings benefit to self and other. Finally, once we connect with right intention, we use right effort to do the – often hard – work of restraining or modifying our speech.

Overview of Topics in This Episode

In this episode, I’ll start out by discussing the four kinds of speech the Buddha said you need to abstain from if you want to practice right speech, namely, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle chatter. Then I’ll go into my favorite teaching about the five things you should consider before speaking.

Note: the Buddha’s teachings on right speech don’t go into great detail about why you shouldn’t lie, or gossip, or speak harshly, etc. Suffice it to say that “wrong” speech, if you don’t mind using the term, creates problems in your life that are not conducive to Buddhist contemplative practice: People get upset with you, or don’t believe you because they realize you’ve been less that truthful, or retaliate with their own wrong speech, or worse. Basically, you create agitation in your life just when – assuming you want to practice the Buddhist path – you should be calming your mind.

In addition, we’re generally motivated toward wrong speech by selfishness of one form or another. Part of Buddhist liberation is letting go of concern for “I, me, and mine,” and if you pay attention, its exactly concern for “I, me, and mine” that causes your speech to be less than honest, or to be judgmental, harsh, or inconsiderate. Practicing right speech requires us to work on our preoccupation with “I, me, and mine.” At the very least, when we just bite our tongue instead of indulging in wrong speech, we aren’t adding momentum to our self-concern.

From here on out, I’ll be focusing on what it means to actually practice right speech, not arguing for why we should do it.

Abstaining from Lying

It’s probably not surprising that right speech is incompatible with lying. In the Pali Canon sutta called “To Cunda the Silversmith,” the Buddha explains in detail how someone abstains from false speech. “If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward… He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”[ii]

Notably, a number of the Buddha’s teachings from the Pali Canon tend to describe right speech as both “factual” and “true.”[iii] I’d have to know the corresponding Pali terms in order to understand why the Buddha might have used two words to describe speech that isn’t false, but it occurs to me that in our own practice it’s extremely useful to examine whether our speech is both true and factual. For example, it may seem “true” to us at a given moment that someone we’re dealing with is rude and disrespectful. “You’re rude and disrespectful!” we might say. However, this kind of statement strengthens our sense of self-righteousness, triggers negative reactions in others, and isn’t factual. The facts are that someone did something, we didn’t like it, and we’re thinking that the other person’s actions were rude and disrespectful. Our expression will end up being more honest, accurate – and probably easier for people to listen to – if we stick to the facts. The facts can include what we’re thinking and feeling, as long as we report them as our thoughts and feelings and not as some kind of objective truth.

Abstaining from Divisive Speech

Abstaining from divisive speech is also described in “To Cunda the Silversmith.” The Buddha essentially says someone practicing right speech will not use speech to turn people against one another. Many of us commit this transgression of speech with regularity when we want to get people on our side against others. As the Buddha explains, it’s tempting to “tell here” something we learned “over there,” in order to affect the attitudes of our listeners. Later, we may “tell there,” what we heard here, and further stoke resentments, judgments, or righteous indignation.

Of course, at times we may need to tell people what’s going on, or verbally process our feelings and responses with others. At times it may be helpful to share our opinions or point out something we think is wrong or harmful. The best way to evaluate whether we are indulging in divisive speech is to be honest with ourselves about our underlying intention. If we try to keep our speech true and factual, and if we’re sincerely keeping in mind what’s best for all involved, maybe it’s okay to venture into potentially divisive speech. At times, however, we just want the gratification of others agreeing with us against some party we resent, look down on, or fear. If we leave a conversation feeling pleased that we’ve just managed to further divide people, we’re probably not practicing right speech according to the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha gives Cunda the Silversmith an even higher ideal regarding someone who abstains from divisive speech. He says, “Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.” So not only are we asked not to gossip, we’re asked to take delight in harmony and friendship between people – even people we don’t agree with or don’t particularly like. Quite a challenge.

Abstaining from Abusive Speech and Idle Chatter

Abusive speech is another thing the Buddha said we needed to avoid. While strong language may be necessary at certain times in order to get our point across, abusive speech is intended to make someone feel lesser, stupid, ashamed, scared, etc. Abusive speech may be aggressive and overt, but it can also be passive aggressive and more subtly cruel or unkind. The tricky thing is that when we lapse into abusive speech, it’s often because we’re angry or defensive, so at the moment of speaking we usually aren’t so aware of our intentions to hurt others (or we feel justified in doing so). Words that aren’t abusive, the Buddha explains to Cunda, are those that are “soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.”

The Buddha also says we should also avoid idle chatter. What does this mean? In the strictest sense, it meant for Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from any speech or conversations that weren’t directly connected with the goal of enlightenment. The idea was that life was short, and aimless conversations – described elsewhere in the Pali Canon as being about politics, gossip, relatives, vehicles, entertainments, even philosophical discussions[iv] – were distractions and a waste of time.

Of course, for those of us who aren’t engaged 24-7 in strict monastic training, conversation can a harmless pleasure and a way to connect with other people – even when, in a certain sense, a particular conversation can’t be said to be literally “useful.” Personally, I think we can examine the nature of our speech in order to know whether or not it’s idle in a negative sense. Are we sincerely enjoying conversation, or social connection, or are we letting our mouths flap without paying any attention to the topics we’re covering, the effects our speech is having on others, how long we’ve been going on, or whether our speech is appropriate to the circumstances?

We could call idle chatter “unmindful” speech – for example, speaking while oblivious, often just to fill the silence, fend off nervousness, impress people, or keep the subject focused on ourselves. When we find ourselves doing this, it helps to shut up for a while, practice mindfulness, and pay more attention to the people we’re talking to. Do they seem bored or uncomfortable? Do they speak up if you leave some space for them to talk? Do you actually have any curiosity about what the other person is thinking or feeling, or do you just want to be heard?

Five Things to Consider Before Speaking

Now we arrive at another of the Buddha’s teachings on right speech: The five things you should consider before speaking.[v] Is what you’re about to say:

  1. Factual and true
  2. Helpful, or beneficial
  3. Spoken with kindness and good-will (that is, hoping for the best for all involved)
  4. Endearing (that is, spoken gently, in a way the other person can hear)
  5. Timely (occasionally something true, helpful, and kind will not be endearing, or easy for someone to hear, in which case we think carefully about when to say it)

In the Pali Canon sutta “To Prince Abhaya,”[vi] the Buddha describes the six-step process by which he, the Tathagata (which is a title for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus gone”), decides whether or not to say something:

“[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

“[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, [but] unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

“[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

“[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

“[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.

“[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing and agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”[vii]

Note that the Prince Abhaya sutta doesn’t identify specifically that right speech should also be spoken with kindness or affection – perhaps because the assumption is the Tathagata, or Buddha, is naturally motivated by good-will for other beings. Elsewhere in the Pali Canon, though, the Buddha is explicit that right speech must be “spoken with a mind of good-will,”[viii] or with a “kindly heart” as opposed to being “inwardly malicious.”[ix]

Will What We Say Be Helpful?

We’ve already discussed the importance of our speech being factual and true. The second point to consider before speaking is whether what we’re about to say is likely to be helpful or beneficial. As I discussed earlier when I covered idle chatter, this doesn’t mean we should never say anything unless we’re sure it’s going to be useful or help someone. The instruction to consider whether something will be helpful or not applies more to things we want to say in the hopes of getting others to change their minds or behavior in some way. We may want to admonish someone, or complain about something they’ve done. We may feel the urge to give advice, or educate someone – overtly, or by telling them about how we think or do things.

If we practice honesty and mindfulness, we’ll discover that many times, when we want to speak in this way, our primary motivation is to build up our own sense of being right, capable, moral, noble, victimized, etc. It seems to be human nature to try get as many people on our side as possible, as if the more people who agree with or admire us, the more legitimate our behavior or positions. Speaking primarily in order to show we’re right doesn’t qualify as “helpful” or “beneficial” speech from the Buddhist point of view.

At other times, of course, we sincerely want to help, or feel the need to point something out. Then the question of whether our speech will actually be helpful becomes critical. Even if we’re right, even if someone would be better off if they took our advice, is it going to be helpful to speak up at this time? Are we instead likely to make someone angry or defensive, and perhaps even less likely to accept or act on what we have to say? Is our speech going to reinforce someone’s sense of inadequacy, perhaps, and encourage them to rely on us for guidance? Is someone ready to hear and accept what we have to say? (These are tough questions, and I discussed another Buddhist teaching on how to share our wisdom with others, called “skillful means,” in Episode 40.)

Basically, if it seems very unlikely our speech will be helpful or beneficial, no matter our intentions, the Buddha suggests we remain silent. Kind of makes you think about how much less we’d end up saying if we followed the Buddha’s guidelines on speech, doesn’t it?

Are We Speaking with Kindness and Good-Will?

The question of whether we are speaking with kindness and good-will – hoping for the best for all involved – is closely related to the question of whether what we want to say will be beneficial or not. Chances are, if we speak with good-will, it’s more likely someone will be able to hear and accept what we have to say, and will benefit from it. If we maintain a sense of good-will, we’re more likely to be motivated to speak what will be helpful (as opposed to what’s idle or self-serving).

In addition, considering our own attitude while speaking is another useful approach to evaluating our speech. What are we thinking and feeling as we contemplate saying something? Do we have judgments in our mind about the person we’re speaking to – that they’re stupid, weak, pathetic, inferior, deluded, stubborn, etc.? If so, chances are we’re feeling superior to them and our motivation to speak isn’t sincerely about their best interests. If someone has hurt or offended us and we’re speaking up about it, have we already categorized the other person as unreasonable, cruel, selfish, or irredeemable? If so, chances are our speech will be tinged with anger and a desire to hurt the person in return.

Sometimes we can remind ourselves of the importance of speaking with good-will, and we’ll be able to extend some warmth, patience, and benefit-of-the-doubt to those we’re speaking to or about. However, what about when we find our attitude toward others is still less than kind, affectionate, or based in good-will? Sometimes we may still decide it’s important to speak. But at least we can be aware that we’re coming from a biased place, and perhaps speak in a way that minimizes expression of that bias. In addition, it may help to consider the Buddhist premise that each person is doing the best they can and just trying to avoid suffering and seek happiness. Sure, sometimes, due to ignorance, people go about seeking happiness in deluded and harmful ways. But in general, people don’t set out to be evil. They see themselves as good, or at least as trying to be good. Your message will be more likely to get across if your speech in some way appeals to the other person’s better nature.

Will What We Say Be Endearing? If Not, at Least Timely?

As for whether our speech is endearing (that is, pleasant, polite, agreeable, and appealing to people), the Buddha says it’s not right speech if what we say is endearing but fails any one of the other tests. “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, he does not say them.”[x] This is a whole realm of wrong speech we haven’t even covered yet – speech that curries favor while divorced from sincere good-will or truth. This includes flattery, political machinations, divisive tale-bearing, etc.

Apart from manipulative speech, however, it’s interesting to me that the Buddha would ask us to consider whether what we’re going to say is endearing or not. Most of us feel that it’s more important to speak the truth, or speak up when something’s wrong, than it is to be endearing. Still, the Buddha explains his considerations about speaking by saying he “has sympathy for living beings.” He pays attention to how they are going to feel as a result of his words. Frankly, even if we’re convinced we should speak, failing to consider how our words are going to make someone feel shows either self-centeredness or folly. After all, why are we speaking? Do we just want make a point that we’re right, or do we actually want to communicate something to others? If we actually want to communicate, then we’d better think about how our words are likely to be received.

Of course, the Buddha makes it clear right speech may sometimes not be endearing. We can easily think of examples where this is the case – when we need to say “no,” or set a boundary with someone, or we need to point out harmful behavior, or say something that’s likely to make someone feel defensive or ashamed no matter how we put it. If we’re motivated by good-will, what we say is factual and true, and we think saying it will be beneficial, then we can say it.

But – and this always warms my heart as a prime example of the Buddha’s wisdom and sympathy for all beings – we should have “a sense of the proper time for saying” what we want to say. Maybe we should bite our tongue and speak to someone in private instead of blurting our message out at the dining room table, surrounded by guests? Maybe we should let our teenage son or daughter cool down after an argument before explaining to them why they need to change their behavior?

All of the different aspects of right speech are, of course, interdependent. Finding the proper time for saying something may determine whether or not it will end up being beneficial. (In fact, the Prince Abhaya sutta says the Buddha looks for the proper time to speak even when what he says is true, beneficial, and endearing![xi]) If we try speak with kindness and good-will, we’ll look for a time to say something that will minimize another person’s potential embarrassment or discomfort. If we limit our speech to what’s really factual and true, it will be more likely to be endearing.

Not Getting Discouraged: Right Speech is Extremely Challenging!

If you want to practice right speech in the Buddhist sense, it’s important not to get discouraged. Most people find right speech to be one of the most difficult aspects of practice – second only to having some degree of control over our thoughts. There are many reasons for this. It can be difficult to be mindful in the course of conversation and interaction with others, especially when things are moving quickly. Our sense of self-versus-other is usually particularly accentuated in social interactions, making it difficult to let go of our own agendas and fears. Many of us have spent a lifetime speaking without being particularly mindful of the content, purpose, or effect of our speech, and that’s a hard habit to break. The desire to get a word in edgewise, correct someone else’s error, overcome the awkwardness of silence, or express humor, can easily overwhelm our intention to practice right speech.

The best we can do is keep trying, though, and encourage ourselves by keeping in mind that the realm of speech can be one of the last areas of our practice to yield to our efforts to change. However, change is possible, and the rewards of learning to speak more mindfully, beneficially, honestly, and kindly can be great.

For example, I noticed early on in my practice that in conversations with people, I really wanted to connect with them. I wanted intimacy and friendship, but I was also worried, at some deep level, that the person I was talking to didn’t feel the same way. In an effort to connect, I’d guess about the other person’s experience from limited information and jump into a story about my life I thought they’d relate to. It was affirming to see them nod, implying that our experiences were similar and they appreciated my insightful sharing. At some point, however, with more mindfulness, I realized I was blathering on about myself an awful lot, and not actually hearing much from the people I was talking to. I was making a lot of assumptions, and ironically experiencing less intimacy and connection because of it.

At some point (it took a while), I was able to refrain from jumping into my story-which-proves-I-understand-what-your-experience-is-like. Instead, I left a little silence, or even asked the other person a question about their experience. How’s that for radical? It was a little nerve-wracking, because part of me was worried the person would respond by saying, “This conversation is boring, let’s end it.” Instead, however, I found myself delightfully surprised by receiving more of what the other person had to give… and much more of a sense of real intimacy as well. I see my work around speech in this area as learning to be more mindful instead of just engaging in idle chatter, finding how to say what would actually be beneficial, and having more of an orientation of good-will toward others rather than just acting on my own agenda of wanting intimacy.

So, with patience and gentleness, you may want to keep in mind the Buddha’s advice to refrain from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, and idle (non-mindful) chatter, and to consider five things before speaking: Is what I’m about to say factual, helpful, spoken with good-will, endearing, and timely?


Endnotes

[i] “Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone” (MN 61), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.061.than.html.
[ii] “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith” (AN 10.176), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an10/an10.176.than.html.
[iii] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
[iv] “Samaññaphala Sutta: The Fruits of the Contemplative Life” (DN 2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.02.0.than.html.
[v] “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html.
[vi] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
[vii] Ibid
[viii] “Vaca Sutta: A Statement” (AN 5.198), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 3 July 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an05/an05.198.than.html.
[ix] AN V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.); “Right Speech: samma vaca”, edited by Access to Insight. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html.
[x] “Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya” (MN 58), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.058.than.html.
[xi] Ibid

 

41 - Dogen’s Genjokoan Part 4: Moon in a Dewdrop and Views of the Ocean
43 - The Value of Buddhist Prayer Part 1: Paradox of Prayer in a Nontheistic Spiritual Tradition
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