The Buddha taught there were five things to consider before speaking.[v] Is what you’re about to say:
- Factual and true
- Helpful, or beneficial
- Spoken with kindness and good-will (that is, hoping for the best for all involved)
- Endearing (that is, spoken gently, in a way the other person can hear)
- 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)
Will What We Say Be Helpful?
In the last post on right speech, we 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. 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?
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?
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).
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.
[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.
[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.