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Ask A Buddhist: Buddhism and Right Speech

Ask A Buddhist: Buddhism and Right Speech


Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online

What does Buddha think about an individual that says hurtful things that are not the truth of another individual that harms them?  

House-Ad_SPO_Ask-a-Buddhist_0521131The Buddha addressed the topic of speech very directly and specifically. The context of his teachings on speech is that we have three avenues of producing kamma, actions for good or ill in the world: thought, action and speech. Meditation and mindfulness are our guardians. One of the great benefits of sitting in meditation is that, at least for a time, you can’t act or speak. It’s a time of voluntary self-reflection and restraint.

There’s an old Zen story in my book, “Kindness“, of a rather puffed-up governor of a province in China who makes a big deal out of going to see a famous hermit for the best spiritual advice. When he finally meets Birdsnest, the sage perched in a tree that he sought, Birdsnest had this advice for him: “Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. This is what all the Buddhas taught.”  The governor became furious with the spare advice, wisdom that “every child knows,” so Birdsnest added, “Sure it’s simple, but very hard to do.”

Because he explicitly targets Right Speech both in the basic Five Precepts as well as in the Eightfold Path, we can infer that speech is perhaps the trickiest of these three doors of kamma. This lines up with experience: it is easier to restrain oneself from harming another person by bodily action (i.e. a slap in the face) than to refrain from voicing a critical aside or a bit of gossip. Looking back at how hearing a single comment has colored my view of another person—sometimes for years—I’ve come to see that speech is dangerous terrain from any angle. I’m far from perfect, but I can’t fool myself that careless words won’t have repercussions.

Buddha specifies these interactions with others as harmful speech: lying, harsh speech, divisive speech, gossip, and idle chatter. We think we know what lying is but it can manifest subtly. A 2010 article in Human Communication Research found that 40 percent of the general population had knowingly lied in some form within the last 24 hours. The study cast a wide net, counting as lying, for example, such things as promising a commitment that can’t be kept, slight exaggerations, telling the truth but filling in some details. Under the divisive speech category any speech which creates an us-versus-them dynamic or seeks to put one person above another has elements of divisiveness. The history of politics and warfare scream the evidence of the power of words to harm and dehumanize. We all recognize — from seeing its effects on others or feeling its effects on ourselves—what harsh speech is. Personally, if I’m engaging in gossip, I immediately feel it in my body as a squirmy unease. I know it when I do it, and I know it when I hear it.

I’m assuming each of the above makes sense to one and all except perhaps “idle chatter.”  Why would the Buddha categorize neutral idle chatter as contrary to Right Speech? A particular memory of my Dharma teacher at a small dinner party years ago has been my koan, riddle, which needed solving for me to understand. I thought we were all having a swell time, talking about this and that, eating fine food and chatting amiably around the large oak table. After some time, wordlessly, my teacher took his chair and moved it from the dining room to the middle of the living room, sat down, and closed his eyes. If he’d been silent at the table, I hadn’t even noticed — my first clue to the heedlessness of idle speech. When I asked if there was something wrong he responded that he was choosing not to engage in the conversation. The moment felt weird and antisocial, but he didn’t seem the least bit angry.

I’ve thought about that memory a lot over the years, and I understand it now. It took some time. As my teacher, a former monk, was demonstrating with his unconventional separation from the group, you must consider that idle chatter could be a waste of precious time. What would you talk about if you knewfor certain you’d die at the end of the week, or tomorrow, or in an hour? How would you want to be present with friends and family?

Front and center to a Buddhist worldview is, as the Buddhist poet Gary Snyder said, “the teacher we are all apprenticed to: reality.” We have no idea when we’ll meet our death. As a 50-something, I’m more and more aware that life can change with the next visit to a doctor’s office. It has for a number of my friends. The synonyms for idle chatter paint a fuller picture: trivial, vain, minor, petty, frivolous, shallow, superficial, insignificant. It’s hard to keep the fragility of life in moment-by-moment awareness: for most of human history (pre the internet), idle chatter was our most accessible distraction for whittling away the small arc of a human lifespan.

If you frame the elements of Right Speech in positive terms — what to do instead of what not to do — it becomes clear that Right Speech takes attention and intention, consideration and care. The Buddha certainly believed that we don’t fall into it without training and awareness. His teachings in the Samaññaphala Sutta, Kevatta Sutta and Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta elaborate:

  • Abandoning false speech… (a wise person) speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.
  • Abandoning divisive speech… What (a wise person) has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here…Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord.
  • Abandoning abusive speech… (a wise person) speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large.
  • Abandoning idle chatter… (a wise person) speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dharma, and the Vinaya (monastic precepts). He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal…words that are factual, true, beneficial, endearing and agreeable to others.

Every word has a ripple effect. Is there such a thing neutral speech?  Maybe, but perhaps more seldom than we’d guess. I hope you investigate the question for yourself over time.

Sarah Conover

About Sarah Conover

Sarah Conover is a writer and teacher who, despite a fierce wanderlust, calls Spokane home. She has an MFA in poetry, and is the author of seven books on world wisdom traditions and spirituality. She and husband Doug Robnett are parents of two remarkable children long-ago nicknamed: “Swaminathan and the Material Girl.” Conover, getting old now, has enjoyed multiple careers. The best one yet is the latest: teaching creative writing, a course called “Making it Matter," to the eldering through Spokane Community College ACT 2 program. She hosted the Ask a BuddhistFāVS column for several years.

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