What Is Right Speech?
Not speaking divisively. For example, talking about this person to that person so as to give rise to misunderstandings leading to a falling-out between the two.
Not speaking harsh or vulgar words. That is, casting aspersions on a person’s family, race, or occupation in ways that are considered base by the conventions of the world.
Not speaking idly. That is, in ways that are of no benefit to the listener. For instance, criticizing or gossiping about the faults of other people in ways that don’t serve to remind our listeners to correct their own faults. Grumbling, that is, complaining over and over about something until our listeners cannot stand it any longer; the way a drunkard grumbles repeatedly without saying anything worthwhile. Speaking extravagantly, even if what we say may be good, if it goes over our listeners’ heads it serves no purpose. Babbling, that is, speaking excessively without any aim: Talking at great length without really saying anything serves no purpose at all, and fits the phrase, “A waste of words, a waste of breath, a waste of time.”
First, don’t speak anything bad or untrue.
Second, speak only things that are good and true, that will give knowledge to our listeners or bring them to their senses. Even then, however, we should have a sense of time, place, and situation if our words are to qualify as Right Speech. Don’t hope to get by on good words and good intentions alone. If what you say isn’t right for the situation, it can cause harm. Suppose, for instance, that another person does something wrong. Even though you may mean well, if what you say strikes that person the wrong way, it can cause harm.
There’s a story they tell about a monk who was walking across an open field and happened to meet up with a farmer carrying a plow over his shoulder and a hoe in his hand, wearing a palm-leaf hat and a waistcloth whose ends weren’t tucked in. On seeing the monk, the farmer raised his hands in respect without first putting himself in order.
The monk, meaning well, wanted to give the farmer a gentle reminder and so said, “Now, that’s not the way you pay respect to a monk, is it?” “If it isn’t,” the farmer replied, “then to hell with it.” As a result, the gentle reminder ended up causing harm.
Source: Adapted from “The Path to Peace and Freedom for the Mind”, by Ajaan Lee Dhammadharo, translated from the Thai by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 1 December 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/lee/pathtopeace.html
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As my teacher once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.’ This is why right speech is so important in day-to-day practice.
Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).
Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. This helps get you in touch with all the machinations taking place in the committee of voices running your mind. If you see any unskillful motives lurking behind the committee’s decisions, you veto them. As a result, you become more aware of yourself, more honest with yourself, more firm with yourself. You also save yourself from saying things that you’ll later regret. In this way you strengthen qualities of mind that will be helpful in meditation, at the same time avoiding any potentially painful memories that would get in the way of being attentive to the present moment when the time comes to meditate.
In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don’t need to be a victim of past events.
For many of us, the most difficult part of practicing right speech lies in how we express our sense of humor. Especially here in America, we’re used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness — all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse. Actually, there’s enough irony in the state of the world that we don’t need to exaggerate or be sarcastic. The greatest humorists are the ones who simply make us look directly at the way things are.
Expressing our humor in ways that are truthful, useful, and wise may require thought and effort, but when we master this sort of wit we find that the effort is well spent. We’ve sharpened our own minds and have improved our verbal environment. In this way, even our jokes become part of our practice: an opportunity to develop positive qualities of mind and to offer something of intelligent value to the people around us.
So pay close attention to what you say — and to why you say it. When you do, you’ll discover that an open mouth doesn’t have to be a mistake.
©1999 Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
The text of this page (“Right Speech”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. To view a copy of the license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions. Transcribed from a file provided by the author. Last revised for Access to Insight on 8 March 2011.
Source: “Right Speech”, by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 8 March 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/speech.html .