Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Right Speech

You will likely recall that the last of the Four Noble Truths points to the path leading to the cessation of suffering – the Noble Eightfold Path. You might also recall that the three “steps” along that Path referred to as right speech, right action, and right livelihood pertain to moral conduct, whereas the others pertain to either wisdom or meditation, as the case may be. Implicit, then, within the practice of Buddhism, is the understanding that the cessation of “our” suffering is only possible within the context of our relationship with “others” and the world. One simple way to think of how these steps of the Path might link together is to consider how difficult it is to act morally without at least a little bit of wisdom guiding our behavior. Likewise, it is difficult to settle deeply into meditation when our life is fraught with conflict due to the improper nature of our conduct. Furthermore, without the ability to settle deeply into the stillness of meditation our ability to discern true wisdom is impaired. The “steps” of the Path all impact each other in ways such as this.

Of these three components of moral conduct, right speech is perhaps the most subtle and difficult to master. The oft-repeated aphorism about the pen being mightier than the sword resonates with us for a reason. We intuitively grasp the fact that wounds of the flesh, though painful and debilitating, often heal more quickly than wounds of the psyche, which might leave emotional scars that last a lifetime. We must also grasp that our words, or the lack thereof, have the power to save a person’s life or sentence them to death, to put food in the mouths of children or leave them to go hungry, to prevent pain from being inflicted or perpetuate the dynamics of abuse. In that regard our mouths, our pens, and the keystrokes with which we project our minds out into cyberspace have the potential to do great deeds or inflict great harm.

How are we to decide, then, what constitutes right speech? This very topic is expounded upon in one of the Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha – the Abhaya Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 58). According to the Abhaya Sutta, there are four criteria to consider when deciding whether and how to speak: Is what I am about to say truthful? Is it beneficial? Is it timely? Will the hearer welcome it? According to this teaching, one should always speak truthful and timely words that are beneficial to the world. However, though it is always worthy of consideration, speech need not always be welcome to the hearer. Sometimes difficult things need to be said, regardless of how they might be received. But even when difficult words need to be spoken, they can still be spoken with a spirit of goodwill (e.g. The Patimokkha, as quoted in Right Speech). The specific inclusion of goodwill strikes me as a bit redundant in that a desire to be of benefit to the world would seem to presuppose such a spirit. On the other hand, I suppose we can also believe that we are benefitting the world by taking other people down a notch or two, can’t we? Thus, it seems appropriate to let that fifth criteria hover in the back of our mind – just in case.

I bet I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, aren’t you, whether there’s any room in right speech for “the little white lie” – the falsehood uttered for the sake of the greater good? In fact, something akin to “the little white lie” does surface in the Lotus Sutra – a later teaching that enjoys varying levels of esteem depending upon whether you lean in favor of the Mahayana or the Theravada tradition. In the Lotus Sutra, Shariputra (he of the Heart Sutra) realizes that what the Buddha has just taught does not quite coincide with what his earlier teachings convey. In response, the Buddha tells a story – which I will shorten considerably – of a man whose children are playing in a house that is about to be consumed by a great fire. The man knows that the children are engrossed in their play and will not heed his cries for them to go outside at once. Instead he tells them that there is a cart full of their favorite toys outside the front gate waiting for them (Watson, 1993, pp. 55-62).

From the Mahayana viewpoint, this metaphor relates to the Buddha’s use of skillful means in order to save all beings by providing teachings that are appropriate to the hearer, even if those teachings might appear to convey a lesser truth to someone else. It seems then that this example of right speech encompasses most or all of the aforementioned criteria depending upon your point of view. It is beneficial, timely, welcome, and delivered with goodwill. The truthfulness of the metaphor, on the other hand, depends upon your point of view. In worldly terms, a “white lie” is indeed an untruth, but one delivered for the sake of some overarching good. In the realm of ultimate truth, however, the Buddha’s teachings and the means used are considered to be truth – truth that manifests differently depending upon circumstances. I’m reminded of a quote by one of the great physicists exploring the, then, strange new world of quantum mechanics:
[There are] two sorts of truth: profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. (Niels Bohr via Wikiquote)
I will let the reader decide for herself or himself just how often such an example of right speech might be applicable in everyday life for those of us who are not so skillful (or intelligent) as the Buddha (or Bohr)!

Let me end this discussion here for the time being. In my next post I’ll explore how we might use these criteria for right speech to evaluate some of the discussion that has taken place in the media these days. In the meantime, I hope you experience all of the joys that right speech may impart and none of the sorrows that tainted words can unleash.

Nanamoli Thera (2005). Right speech: Samma vaca. (Translated from the Pali by Nanamoli Thera and edited by Access to Insight.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,
Thanissaro Bhikkhu (1997). Abhaya sutta: To Prince Abhaya (MN 58). (Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.) Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013,

Watson, B. (1993). The Lotus Sutra (tr. Watson, B.). Columbia University Press, New York.

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