Right Speech


This is a brief section from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism

Right Speech

(Pali – samma vaca)

The third factor on the Eightfold Path is that of Right Speech.

In this age of mass-media, social media and almost instant communication around the globe, we might sometimes forget that our words have meaning. The words we use and how we use them help convey our intent. Our words express our thinking process; clear, muddled or somewhere in between. The words we use have weight and when they are heard or read, people make judgements about us

When US president Abraham Lincoln (R) wrote to Messrs. H.L PIEROE, &c in 1895 and said, “This is a world of compensations, and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave. Those who deny Freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it.” We knew what he meant. He was not muddled. He was not unclear. He was speaking against owning slaves and denying freedom to others. His words had weight and continue to have weight today. His meaning was concise and we knew his intent.

In the Theravada Buddhist tradition, it’s simple enough and the advice is unambiguous;

  1. Abstain from telling lies or using words that deceive

  2. Avoid divisive language

  3. Do not participate in idle gossip

  4. Renounce uncivil, discourteous or insulting language

Right speech is more than simply using the “right” words, it’s also about being skillful in how you use them. Avoiding hurting others and speaking negatively behind people’s back. It’s about trying to bring light and civility to discourse, even when there is disagreement … especially when there is disagreement.

In his book Buddhism; One Teacher Many Traditions, the Dalai Lama comments on Right Speech;

"Wrong speech is the four nonvirtues of speech: lying, disharmonious speech, harsh speech, and idle talk. Mundane right speech is meritorious speech that abstains from those four. Cultivating right speech requires conscious effort and a strong resolution to speak truthfully, gently, kindly, and at the appropriate time."

It’s so easy to tear people down with words and actions. It requires little in the way of skill or effort. Unkind words, unkind looks and unkind actions can leave irreparable harm. It creates an environment of distrust. It’s often done without intent and that of course is at least as bad as when it’s being done intentionally. It means the person is being unkind without even giving it any thought! Creating an environment of distrust, in which people don’t want to speak openly, is not a wise action, for it stifles creativity, communication and engagement - those very things that are so important in any community.

This isn’t confined to local community of course, but extends to the subway car, busses, local coffee shops, trains, planes and out on the street. I hear people being uncivil and divisive all the time. It’s become all too common. Only an hour ago, sitting in an espresso bar, writing some earlier paragraphs, I overheard two grey hair women in their 70s talking about another woman in the shop - and not in hushed tones. They were saying how they’d never scar their bodies with tattoos like this other, much younger woman. They were going on about her hair and nose piercing. It was clear the younger woman could hear them, but she kept her cool, displaying a calm demeanour, and continued working on her laptop. She could have responded by giving the other women the finger, a sneer, some deeply hurtful words of her own, but she didn’t. She sat calmly, with focus and carried on with her work. Eventually the older women left, having exhausted their vitriol and victuals.

The wisdom is in recognizing when we are engaging in this behaviour and knowing how to cease. When we continue in this behaviour, our ego gets boosted and it wants more. It positively thrives on our being dismissive, discourteous, mean, insulting and backhanded with others.

The ego likes to keep busy with this type of activity. It’s always active, reacting with zeal to aversion, attachment, greed and hatred. The more appreciable our level of aversion and desire, the more alive we feel and the more tangible the ego seems. Who hasn’t enjoyed a good rant against a local or national politician? A couple of nights past, I found myself yelling at the TV over something a local politician was saying. My ego absolutely loved me! The greater the rant, the more alive the ego feels – the more alive we feel.

Yet, we don’t seem to recognize that when we talk poorly about people behind their back, we make ourselves look mean and small in the eyes of our audience. We demonstrate a lack of civility, discretion and seem egotistical and insensitive

  • Wisdom is speaking of people in a positive, supportive manner

  • Wisdom is using words to help others and make others look good

  • Wisdom is displayed when we hear divisive or insulting talk, and speak up to put an end to it, or, at the very least, do not participate ourselves.

Poorly chosen words can easily hurt others, misrepresent them and even reflect poorly on us.

But is there a time for harsh talk? I’ve come to conclude that there is. When people misbehave, it would be wise to correct them. They should hear in words that are not uncertain, that their behaviour is poor, disruptive, unwanted, harmful, undesirable or inappropriate to those around them. The words chosen should not be about the individual offending, but about the behaviours that should be corrected - it should not be a personal attack. The words should be delivered in a kindly manner and not in such a way that would imply insult. You do not want to do harm to the offender, but rather, in correcting, you offer them an opportunity to alter their behaviour and their karma to better effect their life. Should the individual improve their behaviour and they become kinder because of your words, then they will have a beneficial effect on those they come in contact with.

In her most recent book, Standing at the Edge, Roshi Joan Halifax writes of the Five Gatekeepers of Speech. She tells us the Buddha suggested that before we speak, we consider:

1. Is it true?

2. Is it kind?

3. Is it beneficial?

4. Is it necessary?

5. Is it the right time?

When correcting people, do so with kindness backing your intent, not malice. Do not correct someone simply for the sake of correcting them. Use compassion as a guide when corrective words are required. Be light, but be clear.

Use words wisely.

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