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Ken Ward's Thoughts on Buddhism

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Path 3: Right Speech

Right speech avoids harming, lacks ill-will, is helpful and isn't idle chatter. It is not, always, pleasing speech and does not always have the stated qualities.

On this page:

  1. Specific Advice
  2. What are these unskilled words
  3. Speaking to others
  4. Listening to others, or mentally verbalising
  5. Right Speech and pleasing speech
  6. Other Steps on the Path and Right Speech

Skilled speech can reduce suffering, while unskilled speech can increase suffering. Learning to use speech verbally or in writing in a skilled way leads one to less suffering. This is true whether speaking to another or others, and when speaking to oneself, mentally or out loud. Right Speech is called Step 3 of the Noble Eightfold Path.

Right speech is important morally, and it is also important in developing the path. For instance, we seek to truthfully know our own minds. So, thinking, I do not crave, when I haven't closely meditated on it (it might be true), stands in the way of progress.

In general, when we do not follow Right Speech, we upset ourselves and others by quarrelling and speaking harshly, so our minds are disturbed. Because we aren't calm, spiritual practice is more difficult. Habitually behaving like this makes progress impossible, because our minds are charged with emotional thoughts and scenes. Clear thinking is hampered. The remedy is Right Speech.

This page begins with some specific advice given by Gotama, and gives an explanation of unskilled words. Next it examines speaking to others, and listening to others and to ourselves mentally verbalizing (or meditating). Then, it mentions that any specific advice is not absolute, and depends on the circumstances (whether it reduces suffering). Finally, the links with other path factors is mentioned.

On this page:

  1. Specific Advice
  2. What are unskilled words
  3. Speaking to others
  4. Listening to others, or mentally verbalising
  5. Right Speech and pleasing speech
  6. Other Steps on the Path and Right Speech

Specific Advice

The following is specific advice on Right Speech:

  1. To abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully,
  2. To abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others,
  3. To abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and
  4. To abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.

In general, "One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken." [from Thag 21]

What are these unskilled words (unskilled speech)?

But what are these words that torment ourselves or harm others? After all, learning to use speech skilfully is what this step is about.

"... words that the Tathagata knows to be un-factual, untrue, unhelpful (or: not connected with the goal), un-endearing and disagreeable to others, he does not say them." [based on MN 58]

Speaking to others

When considering what to say to another, ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. factual?
  3. Is it helpful (does it reduce suffering?)
  4. Is it pleasing?
  5. Is it timely?

If it isn't true, do not say it. If it might be true, it isn't true, so don't say it.

If it isn't factual, do not say it. If it might be factual, it isn't factual, so don't say it.

If it isn't helpful, do not say it. If it might be helpful, be careful about saying it.

If it is helpful, true and factual and pleasing, then you may say it. If it is not pleasing, but helpful, true and factual, you would choose the right time to say it.

Listening to others, or mentally verbalising

Regard the speaker, or the inner speech with friendliness and compassion. Avoid judging the other person or thought. With thoughts, you can use Right Effort to push them aside, if now isn't the time to deal with them. Or Right Mindfulness, that is, allow any verbalisations or body feelings to be and observe how they increase and eventually decrease or disappear. Always with the Right Intention ? friendliness and compassion, welcoming them as friends. Also, use Right View. Note how they are impermanent, and like parts of a wave, rising, falling and disappearing.

When listening to others, or mentally verbalising ? when worrying, feeling upset, or when pressing thoughts arise during meditation, ask:

  1. Is it true?
  2. factual?
  3. Is it helpful (does it reduce suffering?)
  4. Is it pleasing?
  5. Is it timely?

Depending on the answers, note the words as below.

If the verbalisation in the mind or utterance by another isn't true, note it isn't true. If it might be true, it isn't true, so note it isn't true, or in meditation explore it further, if appropriate.

If it isn't factual, note it isn't factual. If it might be factual, it isn't factual, so note the thought isn't factual.

If it isn't helpful note it isn't helpful. If it might be helpful, consider it further, or put it aside for later.

If it is helpful, true and factual and pleasing, then note this. If it is not pleasing, but helpful, true and factual, you would choose the right time to explore it.

Right Speech and pleasing speech.

"... each of these practices is to be judged, not categorically as good or bad, but as to

whether it is conducted in a way that yields beneficial or unbeneficial results." Thanissaro Bhikku

Gotama once said:

"Devadatta is headed for destitution, Devadatta is headed for hell, Devadatta will boil for an eon, Devadatta is incurable".

From MN 58

As a result, Devadatta was upset and disgruntled.

Clearly, what the Buddha said was perhaps the most awful thing he could have said. However, he said it to the monks with the intention of reducing suffering. Devadatta was leading the monks away by attracting them with worldly gain and power, and practising magic. The Buddha believed that this would cause great suffering. For this reason, he spoke as he did. There are several other occasions when he spoke harshly, too. 

Thanissaro Bhikku, in Skill in Questions, says that the distinction between skilful and unskilful speech is not the same as the distinction between pleasing and displeasing speech. Pleasant words are not always wise, nor are unpleasant words always unwise. It always depends on the speakers motivation. The Buddha's words were not always pleasing to others. But speech should always be true, factual, helpful and timely. And be said with a good motive.

Of course, above all, we should seek to reduce suffering. Any specific advice given is

Other Steps on the Path and Right Speech

"And how is right view the forerunner [of Right Speech]? One discerns wrong speech as wrong speech, and right speech as right speech [using mindfulness]. And what is wrong speech? Lying, divisive tale-bearing, abusive speech, and idle chatter. This is wrong speech ...

"One tries to abandon wrong speech and to enter into right speech: This is one's right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong speech and to enter and remain in right speech: This is one's right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities right view, right effort, and right mindfulness are the circumstances of right speech."

MN 117

Right intention figures strongly, too, because Right Speech should be kind and loving.

"He [the enlightened person] speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large."