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.
Right speech is on of the elements of the Eightfold Path, all of which are typically translated as starting with the word, “right.” The use of this word 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 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.
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 Buddhaexplains, 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?
In next week’s post, I’ll cover the Buddha’s teachings on the five things to consider before speaking.
[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.