Saturday, August 15, 2009

Right Speech

So much of our dukkha is caused by wrong speech that it is a beneficial practice to set aside some time periodically for examining right speech, contemplatively and in practice.
Here are some notes I culled from the web on Right Speech (samma vacca) by three American Buddhist teachers, followed by two exercises developed in our classes that have proved to be of significant benefit to our students in understanding ourselves on a deeper level by using right speech. The dark-red colored text, which I added, were ideas that were used in class for discussion relative to our own practices of Right Speech.
From a book on The Noble Eightfold Path by Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Right speech is
  • No lying
  • No slandering (damaging, divisive, demeaning)
  • No harsh speech (angry or vulgar)
  • No idle chatter (gossip or small talk)
There is both a negative and a positive side to each. The negative side is abstaining from the “offense,” the positive side is speaking its opposite: so not lying but speaking the truth. The determinative factor behind a “transgression” is the intention.

(1) Abstaining from false speech (Speaking the truth)
Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people.
If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent.
Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, whether greed, hatred, or delusion. Greed as the chief motive results in the lie aimed at gaining some personal advantage for oneself or for those close to oneself -- material wealth, position, respect, or admiration. With hatred as the motive, false speech takes the form of the malicious lie, the lie intended to hurt and damage others. When delusion is the principal motive, the result is a less pernicious type of falsehood: the irrational lie, the compulsive lie, the interesting exaggeration, lying for the sake of a joke.
(2) Abstaining from slanderous speech (Avoiding malicious talk)
He avoids slanderous speech and abstains from it. …he unites those that are divided; and those that are united he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words.
Slanderous speech is speech intended to create enmity and division, to alienate one person or group from another. The motive behind such speech is generally aversion, resentment of a rival's success or virtues, the intention to tear down others by verbal denigrations. Other motives may enter the picture as well: the cruel intention of causing hurt to others, the evil desire to win affection for oneself, the perverse delight in seeing friends divided.
The root of hate makes the unwholesome kamma already heavy enough, but since the action usually occurs after deliberation, the negative force becomes even stronger because premeditation adds to its gravity. When the slanderous statement is false, the two wrongs of falsehood and slander combine to produce an extremely powerful unwholesome kamma.
The opposite of slander, as the Buddha indicates, is speech that promotes friendship and harmony. Such speech originates from a mind of lovingkindness and compassion. It wins the trust and affection of others.

(3) Abstaining from harsh speech (Gentle, comforting and supportive speech)
He avoids harsh language and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.

Harsh speech is speech uttered in anger, intended to cause the hearer pain. The three main types are:
  • Abusive speech: scolding, reviling, or reproving another angrily with bitter words.
  • Insulting: hurting another by ascribing to him some offensive quality which detracts from his dignity.
  • Sacrasm: speaking to someone in a way which ostensibly lauds him, but with such a tone or twist of phrasing that the ironic intent becomes clear and causes pain.
The main root of harsh speech is aversion, assuming the form of anger. Since the defilement in this case tends to work impulsively, without deliberation, the transgression is less serious than slander and the karmic consequence generally less severe.
The ideal antidote is patience -- learning to tolerate blame and criticism from others, to understand their suffering, to respect differences in viewpoint, to endure abuse without feeling compelled to retaliate.
The Buddha calls for patience even under the most trying conditions:
Even if, monks, robbers and murderers saw through your limbs and joints, whosoever should give way to anger thereat would not be following my advice. For thus ought you to train yourselves: "Undisturbed shall our mind remain, with heart full of love, and free from any hidden malice; and that person shall we penetrate with loving thoughts, wide, deep, boundless, freed from anger and hatred."

(4) Abstaining from idle chatter (Remaining Silent)
He avoids idle chatter and abstains from it. (1) He speaks at the right time, (2) in accordance with facts, (3) speaks what is useful, (4) speaks of the dharma and the discipline; his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, (5) accompanied by reason, (6) moderate and full of sense.

Idle chatter is pointless talk, speech that lacks purpose or depth. Such speech communicates nothing of value, but only stirs up the defilements in one's own mind and in others.
The Buddha advises that idle talk should be curbed and speech restricted as much as possible to matters of genuine importance. We should be mindful not to let the conversation stray into pastures where the restless mind, always eager for something sweet or spicy to feed on, might find the chance to indulge its defiling propensities.

The traditional exegesis of abstaining from idle chatter refers only to avoiding engagement in such talk oneself. But today it might be of value to expand our understanding to avoid exposure to the idle chatter constantly bombarding us through the new media of communication which, naively accepted as "progress," threaten to blunt our sensitivities to what is right, including sources of amusement and needless information like social networking, geographic cell phone check-ins, and inconsequential texting.
From a dharma talk on right speech by Pat Phelan
In Returning to Silence Katagiri Roshi discusses Dogen’s teaching on this saying, "Kind speech is not merely speaking with an ingratiating voice, like a cat purring...[this] very naturally, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to get a favor by fawning or flattering. This is not kind speech. Kind speech is not the usual sense of kindness. It can appear in various ways, but ...we should remember that it must constantly be based on compassion.... Under all circumstances that compassion is always giving somebody support or help or a chance to grow."

Katagiri went on to say, “In working with the precepts, Mahayana Buddhism tends to emphasize this spirit of compassion rather than adhering to the literal meaning of the precept.”

By not indulging in or listening to such things as lying, back-biting, harsh speech or gossip, we can establish a link between our mental activity and our conduct or between Right Thought and Right Action, two other aspects of the Eight-Fold Path.
When Buddhism was established, communication was almost exclusively through the spoken word. But, in our culture Right Speech really means "Right Communication" and it includes all forms of communication such as television, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertising and, of course, the internet. So, Right Speech means using communication as a way to further our understanding of ourselves and others and as a way to develop insight.

In Seeking the Heart of Wisdom, Jack Kornfield suggests practicing with Right Speech by trying to speak from the heart, and by avoiding gossip both negative and positive. This means not talking about people or talking behind their backs, but speaking directly to them. Sometimes this is called as no third party information. If you are irritated or having a problem with someone or even when you have something positive to express, the practice is to speak directly with the person involved, not to talk about it to someone else. [Not speaking about people who are not in the room.]

I think one of the characteristics of speech is that by talking to others about someone else, we have a tendency to reduce the fullness of that person to a category. So, the person becomes "that" kind of person. You know, "what would you expect from someone like that?" It is sort of like taking one frame from a movie and using the picture of that instant to be the whole person, freezing both our opinion of them as well as the way we respond to them. I think the more we talk about someone with a third party, the more our opinion becomes solidified, and we mistake this solidity for reality. So, speech can be a conditioning agent whereby we lose our freedom of both perception and response. We, ourselves, become fixed and unable to grow out of a particular opinion of and response to another person. I think this is how our long-term relationships become so conditioned and predictable.

Of course, speech takes place in the field of relationships. Another way to work with speech is to try to express your feelings or experience in such a way that doesn't assign blame or judgment. For example, instead of saying something like, "you made me angry" or "that makes me angry or sad or depressed or whatever" which almost carries the assumption that whatever was done, was done with the intention of making you feel a certain way; instead this can be expressed as, "when you do such and such or when such and such happens, I feel hurt or angry" which communicates how you are feeling. This way you can express what you are experiencing without holding others responsible for your state of mind. When we are able to do this, something shifts–there is a kind of independence from our emotional states. They are still there but not so dominating because their source no longer seems like something external or outside our control.
Another meaning of right speech is speech which is free of dogmatic assertions or hypnotic suggestions (which actually sounds like a good description of advertising).
I don't know if it is actually harder to maintain Right Speech, or if I make less effort in that area. So much of speech is unconscious or a continuation of our stream of thought. I find that I use speech more than anything else to justify my actions and elicit support for my point of view.
The Lankavatara Sutra was a popular text in 6th century China at the time of Bodhidharma when Zen was first taking form. According to the Lankavatara Sutra, words rise with discrimination as their cause. I'd like to emphasize this, words come into being with discrimination as their basis. Language or words arise with conceptualization or discrimination. This means that anytime we are engaged in language whether thinking, speaking, reading, writing or hearing others talk, our discriminative consciousness is automatically engaged. And language can never be separated from discrimination. I think this is one of the reasons we have the guideline during sesshin prescribed 10-day retreats twice a year]of no reading, no writing, and no unnecessary talking. During sesshin when we sit period after period of zazen, we have a greater opportunity to disengage from discursive thinking; and thinking, reading, speaking, or hearing others talk immediately brings us back to discrimination. This is why it is so important to maintain silence during sesshin both for ourselves and for others.
Several years ago, my mother-in-law died at her home in Virginia. Although she had been deteriorating both mentally and physically for more than two years, it seemed that she suddenly got worse. When we heard that she was dying, we went to be with her. At that point, she was already "out of her senses," by that I mean that I had no idea what she was seeing and hearing and feeling except it was clear to me that it wasn't what I was seeing and hearing. I sat with her on her last afternoon through the night until she died the next morning.
In addition to speech being linked to discriminative consciousness, speech is also an outflow. The Sanskrit word is ásrava, and Thich Nhat Hanh translates it as energy leak. When we begin to develop concentration during a longer sitting, our concentrative energy will leak through speech. Not that we should be clinging to our concentration, but you can watch it and feel it dissipate with chatter. This is also true in our daily activity. Speech requires energy.
Conscious speech is a rich practice, where we not only practice awareness of what we say and how we say it; but at a deeper level we can begin to notice the impulse, the driving force that propels us into speech and how our state of mind and our energy are affected before, during, and after speaking. This practice shifts the precepts from being a standard used to modify our behavior to a way of working with our state of mind, the source of all speech.

From Thanissaro Bhikkhu
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.
From The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we'll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.

This reminds us that our speech is not just our speech. Communication is something that happens between people. We might think of speech as something we give to others, and if we think of it that way, what is the quality of that gift?


ONE: Cover caller ID on your phone and cell phone for a week. It won't take long to notice how this stops your defiled, discriminating mind from wrong speech, both in your words and tone. And your family and friends will notice too.

TWO: Choose one full day to practice not saying "I," "me," "my," or "mine." It's suggested that you not do this on an "office day," if you work in an office. Students who were able to maintain a full day of no I-me-my-mine noticed a significant reduction in their dukkha because of the lack of appropriation and identification, which is how we actuate the fifth skandha.


  1. As Xianyang stated at the beginning, much of our dukkha is caused by wrong speech and this is reflected in the various sets of precepts, both Mahayana and Theravada.

    Is there anytime when what appears to be "wrong speech" is actually "right speech"?

    Yes... as also stated above, the determinative factor behind a “transgression” is the intention.

    A perfect example can be found within the sixth major precept of Bodhisattva practice:

    "A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns -- nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly."

    There are actually cases when one must "broadcast" a misdeed, for if through our silence we have allowed others to suffer or be abused, then we have likewise become willing participants in that suffering or abuse.

    In this case we would be dealing with the issue of right/wrong speech within the context of violating a precept by recognizing the written letter of the precpt, but not the spirit in which it was first given.

    Unfortunately, it's just as easy to violate a precept by ignoring the spirit it was first given in as it would be to just toss it out the window in its entirety, so the determinative factor behind a “transgression” is always the intention.

  2. A friend and teacher used to talk about things like gossip as "delicious, guilty pleasures." And that it takes great discipline in not giving into the temptation, especially when we think just one little "Taste" won't do any harm. And then we turn around one day and we have put on ten pounds and don't know how it happened.

  3. In my past corporate environment, a motivational consultant spoke about gossip as "the cancer of the workplace." Carl's posting gets to the heart of things: gossip destroys relationships, but, more destructively, it erodes compassion down to nothing.