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Ask A Buddhist: Skillful and Compassionate Speech

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By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Is there a Buddhist scholar which can inform me about what is skillful and compassionate speech?”

The Buddha gave many teachings on skillful and compassionate speech. It makes me wonder if people in the Buddha’s time were as skilled in verbal warfare as we are today. We can generate so much harm with our words.

My teacher, Ven. Thubten Chodron, speaks of our mouths being our own personal weapons of mass destruction. In a careless moment we can destroy a lifetime of friendship. On a larger scale, a few lies can bring fear to thousands and even spark global conflict. Thus your question is well considered.

Most of us have deeply ingrained communication habits, and some of them  are the direct opposite of skillful and compassionate speech. Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), asserts that we have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand and diagnose—to think and communicate in terms of what is “right“ and “wrong“ with people. According to NVC principles, these communication strategies create misunderstandings at best and can potentially lead to emotional or physical violence.

However, our speech is not doomed by our familial or social conditioning. Compassionate speech is a skill that we can learn and train in. It takes awareness, a strong motivation to change, and consistent effort, but it definitely can be developed.

Right Speech

In a 2014 “Ask a Buddhist” column, Sarah Conover clearly lays out Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech, identifying four specific types of faulty or non-virtuous speech: lying, divisive talk, harsh speech, and idle talk or gossip.

When the Buddha characterizes certain types of speech as faulty, it is because it creates suffering for the speaker and the recipient. In the Buddhist view of karma, our harmful speech comes back to us in the form of future unpleasant experiences. In addition, of course, it has the immediate effect of poisoning our relationships and hurting other people here and now.

Virtuous speech, on the other hand, directly opposes non-virtuous speech. It  seeks to speak truthfully, to choose words that heal and bring people together, to speak kindly, to speak of meaningful and appropriate topics, and to speak at appropriate times. We can examine our own speech habits and honestly assess which way we lean on these points.

In a famous section from the Anguttura Nikāya of the Pali Scriptures, the Buddha advises his disciples,

When speech possesses five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. When speech possesses these five factors, it is well spoken, not badly spoken, and it is blameless and irreproachable among the wise. (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/sources.html#wisdom)

1) “Spoken at a proper time” means when the speaker is in a calm state of mind and the listener is receptive to the message. We probably all have the experience of saying the right thing at the wrong time. What’s the result? Our well-intended words, however beneficial, are not heard and may even bring harm. Timing is important, and we need to cultivate the wisdom that helps us discern right timing.

2) “What is said is true,” means, of course, that we are not telling lies, including not exaggerating. This can be trickier than it sounds. In response to this point, a woman once told me that if she spoke the truth about her daughter being a lazy slob, the relationship would end. She’s probably right! But is the mother’s observation the truth or just her opinion? We may have strong ideas that we believe to be gospel, but are purely subjective judgments. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

3) “Spoken gently” or kindly are words that are spoken without blame or anger. That doesn’t mean we can’t speak forcefully when the occasion calls for it. Sharply calling a child out of a busy street is an unquestionable act of kindness. We need to be careful, though, not to later translate our own fear for the child’s safety into harsh words to or about the child.

4) “What is said is beneficial” means our words are useful, helpful, or meaningful. It’s good to learn to pause before we speak and check: Will what I’m about to say be helpful in this situation? I know from experience that this is not easy to learn, but it is extremely valuable to do so.

5) “Spoken with a mind of loving kindness” is last on the list, but is arguably the first factor of skillful and compassionate speech. If our speech comes from a heart of loving kindness, then truthful, gentle, beneficial speech will naturally follow in right timing.

Methods

Buddhists cultivate this mind of loving kindness through reflection and meditation on specific topics. For example, we reflect again and again on the kindness we have received from others—family and friends; teachers; strangers, like the farmers who grow the food we eat; and even difficult people who challenge us to grow— and focus on the feelings of gratitude and appreciation that naturally arise.

We also practice seeing that everybody is just like us in wanting happiness and not wanting problems, and so is equally deserving of our kindness. And we purposefully direct our minds to genuinely wish happiness for others, because we understand that when others are happy, it makes for a happier environment for everybody.

These are just a very few of the many methods of developing love, compassion, and the skills of kind speech in Buddhism.

If this is something you aspire for, I highly recommend the book An Open-Hearted Life: Transformative Methods for Compassionate Living from a Clinical Psychologist and a Buddhist Nun co-written by local psychologist Dr. Russell Kolts and Ven. Thubten Chodron. It offers many tools for developing compassion and each brief chapter concludes with a reflection for putting the ideas into practice.

Two of Ven. Chodron’s many talks on this topic might be especially helpful: Hurtful words, healing words  and Where do we draw the line between free speech and right speech? .

There is also much wisdom in Nonviolent Communication, a detailed, step-by-step secular method to retrain our entrenched habits of harmful speech developed by Marshall Rosenberg.

You can find many more video teachings on beneficial speech on the Sravasti Abbey YouTube channel.

Ven. Thubten Chonyi

About Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Ven. Thubten Chonyi is a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied with Sravasti Abbey founder and abbess Ven. Thubten Chodron since 1996. She received novice ordination at the Abbey in 2008 and full ordination in 2011 in Taiwan. Ven. Chonyi regularly teaches Buddhism and meditation at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane and other local locations.

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