Right Speech

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Joseph Goldstein

Having established ourselves to some degree in Right View, and having cultivated the discernment and practice of Right Thought, we can explore what the Buddha lays out as the consequences of these in how we live our lives. These are the next three steps of the Eightfold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

As we examine our commitment to awakening, we might notice a tendency to make these steps lesser endeavors, not quite on the same level as our meditation practice. But if we hold these steps in this way, we are fragmenting our lives and weakening essential elements of the Path. Seven of the ten unwholesome actions the Buddha said to avoid are purified by these three steps of the Path. Each one requires mindful attention, and together they become the foundation for deepening concentration and wisdom. 

Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes this point in his book The Noble Eightfold Path:

Though the principles laid down in this section restrain immoral actions and promote good conduct, their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical as spiritual. They are not prescribed merely as guides to action, but primarily as aids to mental purification. As a necessary measure for human well-being, ethics has its own justification in the Buddha’s teaching, and its importance cannot be underrated. But in the special context of the Noble Eightfold Path ethical principles are sub- ordinate to the path’s governing goal, final deliverance from suffering.

The first of this triad of path factors is Right Speech. Speech is such a powerful influence in our lives because we speak a lot. Speech conditions our relationships, conditions our minds and hearts, and conditions karmic consequences in the future.

 

The Most Basic aspect of Right Speech is truthfulness, refraining from saying that which is untrue. Although this principle seems so obvious and straightforward, it may not be as easy to practice as we assume. There are many kinds of false speech, from slight exaggerations and humorous untruths to falsehoods whose motivation might be self-protection or the protection of others. Sometimes deliberate lies are spoken with the malicious intent of causing divisiveness and harm. It’s interesting that during political elections, we now have programs devoted to fact-checking, to noting when candidates are saying things that are patently false.

In any situation where we say what is untrue, what is the motivation? Is it greed for something, a desire for recognition or self- aggrandizement? Is it a fear of rejection or jealousy? Telling untruths becomes very com- plicated. After we tell one lie, we then need to tell other lies to bolster the first, and then we need to remember them all. Mark Twain pointed this out when he said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”

Lying is a great corrosive force both in our relationships and in society. It under- mines our ability to trust. The German philosopher Nietzsche highlighted this when he wrote, ‘’I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” The Buddha spoke very bluntly against lying:

Thus one should never knowingly speak a lie, either for the sake of one’s own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.

In the Bodhisattva’s long journey to Buddhahood he committed many misdeeds, at different times breaking one or another of the precepts. But it’s said that in all that time he never knowingly spoke an untruth, so central is truthfulness to the path of awakening. We can reflect on this as an inspiration for our own commitment to truthfulness in our lives.

But what seems so simple can be surprisingly difficult. Sometimes little lies just seem to tumble out. During one three-month retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, a staff member was getting something out of the big walk-in refrigerator. On opening the door, he saw a meditator inside the walk-in taking a handful of dates. When the staff person asked if he could help, the meditator said, “Oh, I’m just looking for the maintenance person.”

There might also be lies of omission, where we cover or withhold something of critical importance. As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “Lying is done with words and also with silence.” We might also operate under the illusion that we would never lie, in any form, and this could make it harder to see or acknowledge lying when we do.

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian

Photo by Stephen Melkisethian

I had one very powerful, painful, and ultimately freeing experience in my practice with Sayadaw U Pandita. In one interview during my first retreat with him, in 1984, I was caught up in some idea of where my practice was, and I presented my experience in the light of this idea. When I finished my report, Sayadaw just looked at me and said, “That isn’t true.” I was devastated by the truth of his comment, and it took me many days to recover my equilibrium. When I finally worked through all the feelings of shame and self-judgment, I came to the place of recognizing, “Yes, my mind can dissemble.” There was a great freedom in that recognition, a let- ting go of the previously unnoticed pretense that I would never tell a lie, particularly to my teacher. When we’re willing to see our- selves more honestly, it becomes much easier to recognize those impulses, which gives us more opportunity to refrain from them.

There was a great freedom in that recognition, a letting go of the previously unnoticed pretense that I would never tell a lie, particularly to my teacher.

Truthfulness as the first aspect of Right Speech has profound implications. Our goal in practice is to see what is true and to live in accordance with it. As Bhikkhu Bodhi observes in The Noble Eightfold Path, “Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our Inner being and the real nature of phenomena…. Thus, much more than an ethical principle, devotion to truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on reality rather than illusion…”

The Buddha expressed the overriding importance of truthful speech in a conversation he had with his young son, Rahula, who was a novice monk at the time. The Buddha pointed to a bowl with a little water at the bottom of it, saying so little is the spiritual achievement of one who is not afraid to tell a deliberate lie. The Buddha then spoke in a similar way about the water being thrown away and the bowl empty. Finally, the Buddha turned the bowl upside down and said, “Do you see, Rahula, how this bowl has been turned upside down? In the same way, one who tells a deliberate lie turns his spiritual achievements upside down and becomes incapable of progress. Therefore one should not speak a deliberate lie, even in jest.”

Given this emphasis on truthfulness of speech, it’s helpful to sensitize ourselves to even small falsehoods. Mindfulness can be like a warning bell that goes off to remind us “this isn’t true,” and in that moment we can then realign ourselves with Right Speech.

 

The Second Aspect of this step of the Eightfold Path is refraining from speech that is slander, gossip, and backbiting. These types of speech cause disharmony and loss of friends. The Buddha gave very explicit advice in this regard:

What he has heard here he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here. Thus he unites those who are divided; and those who are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words.

But given the strong tendency to gossip about others, a question arises about why we find it so enjoyable. When we’re gossiping, does it reaffirm some sense of self? Is there some ego gratification? Soon after I began teaching, someone interviewed me for a book about spiritual practices in the West. He was a very skillful interviewer, and I was somewhat flattered that he was interested to know what I thought about various teach- ers. Fortunately, mindfulness came to the fore, and I remembered these teachings on Right Speech. When the book came out with everything I had said in the interview, I was so grateful that I had refrained from this kind of gossip.

I first became interested in Buddhism when, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, I conducted an experiment that proved very revealing. I decided that for a period of some months, I would not speak about a third person; I would not speak to someone about someone else. There were some striking results. First, a large percentage of my speech was eliminated. I was surprised to realize how much of my speech revolved around this kind of talk. Second, as I stopped verbalizing my vari- ous thoughts, comments, and judgments of other people, I saw that my mind became much less judgmental, even about myself. This care with speech resulted in a much more peaceful mind.

But even if we loosen the parameters a bit, we can still take great care when we’re speaking of other people. Is it our intention to divide or to bring people together? Just paying attention to this one question would change our lives.

On another level, our speech may also be a kind of gossip about ourselves. Is our talk overly self-referential, always bringing the conversation back to ourselves? If this is the case, it would be insightful to explore the motivation. Or we might have the opposite conditioning; rather than always taking center stage, we might obsessively stay behind the scenes, hardly ever giving voice to our thoughts and feelings. In a less obvious way, this type of speech too is a manifestation of conceit. Speech can be such a powerful mirror for our motivations, both wholesome and unwholesome. When we have the interest and alertness to look at it, we see that speech is a mirror of our minds.

 

The Third Aspect of Right Speech has to do with the emotional tone in our minds and hearts, and how it conditions and flavors the words we use. The practice of this step on the Path is refraining from harsh, angry, and abusive speech. As the Buddha said, “One should speak such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.”

We need to be conscious of the energy behind our words. How do we feel when angry words are directed at us? We probably would feel hurt or defensive, and often our own anger arises in response. Anger is not the best environment for open communication, and at its most basic level, open communication is what Right Speech is all about. The intent here is not to suppress whatever feelings We may have, but to communicate them in a way that fosters connection rather than divisiveness.

 

Right Speech Also has implications for how we listen. The Buddha outlined a practice for staying mindful of how another person is addressing us, without getting caught up in our own reactivity. And even more than that, he enjoins us to abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of lovingkindness:

Bhikkhus, there are five courses of speech that others may use when they address you: their speech may be timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, or spoken with a mind of lovingkindness or with inner hate …. Herein, Bhikkhus, you should train yourself thus: “Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of lovingkindness ….We shall abide pervading that person with a mind imbued with lovingkindness; and starting with him, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind… abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility, without ill will.”

Listening with compassion and lovingkindness even when harsh or untrue words are addressed to us is a tremendously challenging aspect of mindfulness, and it is a good example of what it means to be mindful externally as well as internally. Although such listening may seem very difficult to accomplish, in fact, many parents demonstrate it easily with their young children. Children, in moments of frustration or upset, will yell at their parents, “I hate you.” And yet, for many parents, at least much of the time, the response remains loving. This practice would transform the world if people would begin to apply it throughout their lives.

 

The Last Aspect of Right Speech is refraining from useless or frivolous talk. The Pali word for this type of speech is a good example of onomatopoeia–that is, it sounds just like what it is–samphappalapa. We see this kind of speech very often in social situations, where we say things just to be heard, rather than for any meaningful purpose. When we pay attention to this tendency, we find that these rather useless words are enervating and worthless. Over time, this kind of speech often results in an unspoken loss of respect from others. When we stop to consider these social interactions, don’t we find that we hold in high regard those people whose speech is both kind and useful?

The Buddha expressed it this way:

One speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the Dhamma…one’s speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by reason, moderate and full of sense.

Here, the Buddha is speaking to the monastic community and so suggests guidelines appropriate to that situation.

Photo by Christian Weidinger

Photo by Christian Weidinger

Bhikkhu Bodhi, in The Noble Eightfold Path, expands on these suggestions with regard to laypeople, acknowledging that laypeople will have more need for affectionate small talk with friends and family, polite conversation with acquaintances, and talk in connection with their work. But even with this more-expanded understanding of Right Speech, there is great room for the restraint of samphappalapa. As a practice, when I’m with friends or family and I see the impulse to say something completely useless, I’ve found it tremendously helpful and strengthening for mindfulness and wise attention to refrain from doing so. Such restraint feels like a little victory over Mãra.

Because Right Speech is such a powerful part of our practice, we can understand why the Buddha gave so much emphasis to it. Right Speech, as the third step of the Noble Eightfold Path, cultivates abstinence from unwholesome mind states; gives expression to the beautiful motivations of lovingkindness, compassion, and altruistic joy; and, most importantly, aligns us with what is true.

Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of lovingkindness.

 


Joseph Goldstein co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in 1975 where he is a resident guiding teacher and also helped establish the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in 1989.

From Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening. Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Goldstein. Reprinted by permission of Sounds True Inc.

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