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.
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]:
- Do I speak at the right time, or not?
- Do I speak of facts, or not?
- Do I speak gently or harshly?
- Do I speak profitable words or not?
- 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:
- 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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
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?
According to the Anguttara Nikaya 10.69:
“These are the ten topics of skillful conversation. Which ten?
- On Modesty
- On Contentment
- On Seclusion
- On Non-attachment
- On Arousing persistence
- On Virtue
- On Concentration
- On Discernment
- On Liberation from suffering
- 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.