The Buddha on Right Speech
by Visu Teoh
“Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.” – Robert Fulghum
How true are the words above! Words spoken in anger and with the intention to hurt can truly break the heart of the person towards whom those words are directed.
What is said in the heat of the moment cannot be taken back and the damage is done. A relationship can be irreparably impaired.
The Buddha cautioned against harsh speech in this verse from the Dhammapada:
“Speak not harshly to anyone.
Those, thus spoken to, might retort.
Words in exchange may bruise you.
Painful, indeed, is angry speech.
“But if you remain silent
like a broken gong.
You are like a person who has attained Nibbana.
For no vindictiveness is found in you.” (Dhp 133, 134)
Restraint is needed when anger arises. One sharp retort and one may regret not having curbed one’s tongue. It is better to keep silent than to say a wrong word. It is best to calm down oneself and speak from a heart of goodwill.
Kindly speech is best. The Buddha recommends speaking with a heart of lovingkindness. Abstaining from harsh speech, we should utter words that are “gentle, pleasing to the ear, endearing and touching the heart.” Our speech should be "courteous, agreeable and gladdening" as opposed to words that are “rough, hard, hurtful and offensive to others, bordering on anger and unconducive for the attainment of meditative calm.” (Majjhima Nikāya, Sutta 51)
If we happen to be the recipient of harsh, rude or offensive speech, the Buddha asks us to bear it with patience and not give vent to anger. On the contrary, we should still try to radiate goodwill towards the difficult person and not let the taint of anger pollute our mind.
Malicious speech, too, is detrimental and to be avoided. We should not speak with any ill intent. For example, we should not slander another or cause division and discord. We should, the Buddha said, “not repeat here what we have heard elsewhere in order to divide people.” Rather, our words should promote harmony and concord. We should be “promoters of friendship, reuniting those who are divided, fostering understanding and unity among people.” We should take delight in harmony and concord.
And, naturally, truthful speech is sacrosanct. The Buddha said, “Abandoning false speech, one abstains from false speech; one speaks truth and adheres to truth; one is trustworthy and reliable; and one is no deceiver of the world.” (MN Sutta 51)
However, the Buddha also qualified that even if a thing is true, it is better not said if it is not beneficial. And even when it is beneficial, there is a proper time to say it. This is how the Buddha puts it:
“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter.
“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to utter such speech.
“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, but which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter.”
“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathāgata does not utter.
“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to utter such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has compassion for beings.” (MN Sutta 58)
From the above, we can see that a speech that is true, correct and beneficial can be welcome and agreeable or unwelcome and disagreeable to others. In both instances, one has still to consider the proper time to utter it.
Tathāgata (lit., Thus-Gone) is an epithet which the Buddha used to address himself. In his translation to the above discourse, Ven Bhikkhu Bodhi commented that the Buddha did not hesitate to rebuke and admonish his disciples when he saw that such speech would promote their welfare.
While we generally adhere to the truth, there may be some exceptions to the rule when a person may not only just abstain from stating an untruth but may be compelled to state a falsehood. I can think of the case when a person was hiding a Jew in the time of Nazi Germany. When questioned by the Nazis it would be obviously ethically correct and incumbent on the house owner to deny he was hiding anyone in order to save an innocent life. Precepts laid down by the Buddha are guidelines and a follower has to exercise discretion by giving due consideration to the prevailing circumstances when following them.
When it comes to truth speaking, the Buddha gave, as an example, the bearing of true testimony in court. “When summoned to a court, or to a meeting, or to his relatives’ presence, or to his guild, or to the royal family’s presence, and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know,’ not knowing, he says, ‘I do not know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I do not see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I see’; he does not in full awareness speak falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end.” To say otherwise, i.e., to bear false witness, would be “unrighteous conduct, not in accordance with the Dhamma.” (MN Sutta 41)
In another discourse, the Buddha spoke about speech being “well spoken, blameless and beyond reproach when it is possessed of five factors, namely, 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 loving-kindness.”
“Possessing these five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” (Anguttara Nikāya, 5.19)
It would appear that the question of timing is an important consideration when speaking. We should consider in some instances, “Is this the right time to say this? Might it be better for me to say it at another time?” Perhaps at a time or place when the message would be better received. We might pause and consider whether what we are about to say is useful or helpful. Does it serve a purpose? Is it meaningful? Might it provoke an unnecessary negative reaction? Would it spoil or dampen a mood? After such consideration, one might in some instances hold back one’s tongue or choose to say something else instead.
While we want to speak in a tone that is gentle, kind, warm and friendly, there are occasions when we may have to speak in a serious and stern manner, such as when we are admonishing a child or subordinate for some lapse or misdeed. Adopting a serious stance at such times is understandable and appropriate. However, at all times we speak from a heart of goodwill and with the best of intentions. This is especially so when we have the unpleasant and unenviable task of having to admonish someone.
Another type of speech to be avoided is gossip and frivolous talk or idle chatter. The Buddha puts it as follows, "Abandoning gossip, one abstains from gossip; one speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks on what is good, speaks on the Dhamma and the Discipline; at the right time one speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.” (MN Sutta 51)
Gossip is idle talk or rumour, especially about the personal or private affairs of others. We should be careful not to form a habit of gossiping about people. If we see that such conversation is useless and serves no purpose, we should refrain from it.
How about some light banter, small talk and jokes that we crack to liven up our day? It is human to need some of this in our daily life. A sense of humour and the ability to see the lighter side of things can help tide us through the stress and difficulties we encounter in life. Of course, there is a time for banter and a time for solemnity. We should know where to draw the line and find the balance.
For monastics, who have given up the household life, the Buddha provides a stricter code of speech. Much of the talk that lay people might engage in would not be suitable for them. The Buddha advises his monks and nuns to confine their conversations to what is relevant to their spiritual life. He mentioned ten topics of conversation suitable for monastics, namely, "talk on fewness of desires, on contentment, on solitude, on not being bound up with others, on arousing energy, on virtuous behavior, on concentration, on wisdom, on liberation, on knowledge and vision of liberation.” (Anguttara Nikaya 10.69).
Talk apart from these topics would be pointless, irrelevant and a distraction for monastics. We should remember that the goal of the renunciate life is to attain enlightenment by uprooting greed, hatred and delusion and, thereby, making an end of rebirth and suffering. However, even for lay practitioners, it is good to practise the spirit of contentment, renunciation or letting go, and restraint. We, too, can practise skilful speech, focusing on the wholesome and reducing the unwholesome. We can speak more on the Dhamma, discuss it and see how we can apply the Dhamma principles in everyday life so we can live more lightly, peacefully, and happily.
The gift of Dhamma
The Buddha extols a monastic or lay person who is able to "instruct, encourage, inspire, and gladden with a Dhamma talk those who approach him or her." (AN5.233) The gift of Dhamma is a gift par excellence. This is because the Dhamma shows the path to happiness. Verse 354 of the Dhammapada declares:
"The gift of Dhamma surpasses all gifts,
The taste of Dhamma surpasses all tastes,
The delight of Dhamma surpasses all delights.
The destruction of craving overcomes all suffering."
A Dhamma exponent never tires of "repeatedly teaching the Dhamma to one who is interested in it and listens with eager ears." He strives to "establish a person without faith in the accomplishment of faith, an immoral person in the accomplishment of virtuous behavior, a miserly person in the accomplishment of generosity, and an unwise person in the accomplishment of wisdom." (AN9.5)
A skilled speaker of Dhamma is one with "a good delivery, gifted with speech that is polished, clear, articulate, expressive of the meaning." (AN5.233) Sweet are the words of such a speaker.
"The monk who is restraint in his speech,
who speaks wisely and is modest
who explains the meaning of the Dhamma,
sweet are his words." (Dhammapada 363)
To recap, not speaking falsehood is the fourth of the five precepts prescribed by the Buddha for living a harmless and virtuous life. The other four precepts are to refrain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, and consuming alcohol and drugs which are harmful to the mind and body. Under right speech in the Buddha’s noble eightfold path is the abstention from (1) false speech, (2) malicious, slanderous and divisive speech, (3) harsh speech, and (4) gossip, frivolous speech or idle chatter. Right speech is the third factor of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path. The eight noble path factors are (1) right view, (2) right intentions, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration.
The power of speech
Our relationships will improve significantly if we are skillful in our speech. If we speak kindly and gently, we will elicit a positive response. A warm and friendly nature brings cheer to others. A heart brimming with goodwill and radiating lovingkindness does wonder and magic to relationships. Lovingkindness builds up and strengthens relationships while hatred and anger destroy them. Through wisdom that comes from experience, self introspection and a keen observation of human nature and body language, we become skilful in our speech, knowing intuitively what to say and how and when to say it.
Conversely, we also know what not to say. We know how to exercise restraint, checking and holding back our tongue from blurting out insensitive, thoughtless or hurtful words. We are tactful and discreet. We know how to encourage and give confidence, how to comfort and console, how to counsel and advise, how to cheer up and spread joy and happiness, how to express appreciation and pay compliments where they are due. Our wise and skillful speech will promote happy, harmonious, constructive, meaningful, beneficial, and healthy relationships.
Knowing the power of speech, may we exercise it for the greatest good. May we always speak from a heart of lovingkindness and goodwill, spreading good cheer and happiness wherever we go.
“Monks, 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 loving-kindness." - Buddha
"Pleasant words are the food of love."
"Talking is like playing on the harp; there is as much in laying the hand on the strings to stop their vibrations as in twanging them to bring out their music." - Oliver Wendell Holmes
"Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent."
"Every man may speak truly, but to speak methodically, prudently, and fully is a talent that few men have."
"Speech is the mirror of the soul: as a man speaks, so is he." - Publilius Syrus
"To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation."
- La Rochefoucauld