Right Speech in Buddhism – The Third Spoke of the Wheel

Right Speech in Buddhism

right speech in buddhism


Now that we’ve gone over the first part of the The Eight-fold path, we move on to the next category which is Ethical Conduct and is made up of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood.

White Conch Buddhist symbol of Right Speech by Flickr user Nagarjun Kandukuru

White Conch Buddhist symbol of Right Speech by Flickr user Nagarjun Kandukuru

This post builds from the last post when I recommended that we think before we speak and not to speak unless we have something true, helpful, inspiring, necessary and kind.

In the Buddha’s instructions to his disciples which was the monastic community, he said the following about those disciples who admonish one another as found in Anguttara Nikaya V:

“Five Conditions must be investigated in himself [before criticizing another’s actions]:

  1. Do I speak at the right time, or not?
  2. Do I speak of facts, or not?
  3. Do I speak gently or harshly?
  4. Do I speak profitable words or not?
  5. Do I speak with a kindly heart or inwardly malicious?

I think this is something that it would be good for everyone to practice, but what constitutes Right Speech in Buddhism?

In the Buddha’s own words:

“And what is Right Speech?  Abstaining from false speech, from malicious speech, from harsh speech, and from idle speech.  This is called Right Speech.”

So the essence of Right Speech means to abstain from the four types of harmful speech:

right speech in buddhism

Ceremonial Buddhist Conches

  1. False Speech
    “Abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech; when summoned to a court, or to a meeting, or to his relative’s 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 I know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I do not see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I see’; he does not in full awareness speak falsehoods for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end.” (Anguttara Nikaya X. 176)Simply put, don’t lie or bend the truth to suit your own needs or the needs of others.
  2. Malicious (Divisive) Speech
    “Abandoning malicious speech, he abstains from malicious speech; he does not repeat elsewhere what he has heard here in order to divide [those people] from these, nor does he repeat to these people what he has heard elsewhere in order to divide [these people] from those; thus he is one who reunites those who are divided, a promoter of friendships, who enjoys concord, rejoices in concord, delights in concord, a speaker of words that promote concord.” (Anguttara Nikaya X. 176)
  3. Harsh (Abusive) speech
    Abandoning harsh speech, he abstains from harsh speech; he speaks such words as are gentle, pleasing to the ear, and loveable, as go to the heart, are courteous, desired by many, and agreeable to many. (Anguttara Nikaya X. 176)
  4. Idle speech
    “Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter; he speaks at the right time, speaks what is fact, speaks on what is good, speaks on the Dharma and the Discipline; at the right time he speaks such words as are worth recording, reasonable, moderate, and beneficial.” (Anguttara Nikaya X. 176)

Practicing Right Speech in Buddhism

So it seems from the above that it’s better to say nothing at all.  So what did the Buddha advise us to talk about?

right speech in buddhism

Right Speech by Flickr user Moyan Brenn

According to the Anguttara Nikaya 10.69:

“These are the ten topics of skillful conversation.  Which ten?

  1. On Modesty
  2. On Contentment
  3. On Seclusion
  4. On Non-attachment
  5. On Arousing persistence
  6. On Virtue
  7. On Concentration
  8. On Discernment
  9. On Liberation from suffering
  10. On the Knowledge & Vision of Liberation from suffering

These are the ten topics of conversation.  If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the Sun and Moon, so mighty, so powerful…”

That being said, I would just like to make it clear that this doesn’t mean that you can never talk about anything with friends and family. These are more strictly observed  by monks and nuns than by lay people, but if you do engage in frivolous speech stay mindful and watch what happens to your sense of self when you do.


So Right Speech in Buddhism  boils down to “think before you speak”, and allows us to cultivate mindfulness of our thoughts and mindsets.  Sometimes we slip into negative mind-states without really noticing, and we feel that we have this “self” that is in that mind-state.


Please leave any comments or questions below, I’d love to hear from you.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and words.

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10 Responses to Right Speech in Buddhism – The Third Spoke of the Wheel

  1. bioelectrobot says:

    Pausing and thinking before verbalization is really an incredibly wise thing to do. However, doing this is also incredibly challenging. It is natural to speak without thinking. I guess that’s the problem, the naturality of it. We are here to overcome the natural human tendencies. I like this concept of “Right Speech” in Buddhism. Reading this article marks the commencement of my knowledge of this principle. I suppose Shakespeare would say, “to speak or not to speak, that is the question”. And a very good question, indeed, William.
    Very interesting topic.

    • Ian H says:

      Yes it is difficult but the gist of it is that we can train ourselves to be mindful of our thoughts, actions, and behaviors and by doing so we train ourselves to be able to respond wisely to situations in our lives instead of simply reacting to circumstances which is our tendency when we let ourselves be ruled by our amygdalas.

  2. Margaret says:

    If we all followed the Buddhist teachings and philosophy this would be a much better world. Just reading your article mad me feel there might be hope for mankind. It is a beautifully presented page and it gave me a sense of peace when I was reading it. These teachings would benefit many young people who have lost their way. I have book marked your site so I can follow your posts and will be sending the link to my family. It is beautiful.

    • Ian H says:

      Yes, I agree it would be a much different world for sure. Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad that I’ve helped you, and the best part is you don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice the teachings. Love and compassion are the core teachings. 🙂

  3. Philip Monrean says:

    This is wonderful! I have practiced zen Buddhism for many years and I really like your description of right speech. I like that you quote the Buddha and other great sources on the way of right speech! Your writing is very simple and clear and it clarifies the ways of right speech. I also like how you review what was said at the end. This short description allows us to think about right speech and practice it throughout the day.

  4. Derek Marshall says:

    Hi there,

    Very timely article, I was listening to an audio course on mindfulness and the right speech topic came up.
    You have captured the essence of right speech brilliantly in this article.

    Unfortunately, easier said than done, requires practice

    I really love this site. keep up the good work.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Derek,

      That is good timing! or as I like to call them “synchronicities”. Thanks for the feedback on the article and it does require practice since most of the time we don’t think before we speak.

  5. J-Money says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article, I have recently been studying buddhism for an english project that I have been doing.

    It would be great if you could help me answer some questions about buddhism to help me gain the full understanding. I really liked the way you displayed your media and content.

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