I undertake the training rule to refrain from false speech (the fourth precept)
Better than a thousand meaningless statements
Is one meaningful word
Which, having been heard,
– Dhammapada 100 (translated by Gil Fronsdal)
What is the most destructive organ in the human body?
What is the most helpful organ in the human body?
The tongue (along with the lips, lungs, teeth and vocal chords)
Talking is our primary mode of interacting with each other. Speaking with care is the most effective tool we have for cleaning up our inner life and making our relationships better.
Words can connect and heal people and can also alienate and harm people. Words often produce powerful, lasting effects on both the speaker and the listener. Sometimes those effects are unintended, but if your words are well chosen, they can bring peace to you and others.
Whether you are aware of it or not, every word you say has the potential to ease or afflict yourself and others. Spoken or written words, sign language, and non-verbal expressions – which are all forms of speech – shape our relationships with others. For the sake of efficiency, we often communicate by rote. “Good morning” can be a helpful shorthand to say, “Hello, everything’s basically OK over here”. “Rats!” (or something similar) expresses frustration.
The physical cues that come with speech often communicate more than the words themselves. Physical posture, facial expression, and tone of voice can make “hello” sound like a threat or a lover’s endearment or take on any of a variety of meanings. Most often, communication happens first and reflection about the words comes later or never.
You receive and interpret the words and non-verbal communications of others, and they do the same with yours. Even if you say nothing, something registers. An impression is usually created within the first few seconds of meeting. People who are kindly may be recognized as kindly. Angry people may be recognized as angry; depressed as depressed; confused as confused; exhausted as exhausted; happy as happy and so on. It’s hard to hide. You can fake it for a short period of time, but your true feelings are apparent to anyone who’s paying attention.
There is no shortcut. If you want the events in your life to improve, you have to do something differently from how you are doing it now.
Developing wise speech
An American Buddhist monk in the Theravada Thai forest tradition talks about wise speech in this way:
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).
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.
(end quote) (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Right Speech [article posted on AccesstoInsight.org])
Note especially that the author affirms that we shape our world of experience with our words: we create harmony or discord, meaning or nonsense, trust or distrust. How we can direct this process of “world-making” in a wholesome direction is shown in more detail below.
Before, during and after
Think before you speak. Before you speak, there’s a moment’s opportunity for reflection. If you set the intention to think before you speak, one positive side effect might be that you are better able to hear what the other person is saying, or to check whether they are really listening. Pause, even if only for an instant, before speaking or responding. In that short time, you can mentally check where you’re going, and interrupt yourself before the wrong thing comes out of your mouth.
When in doubt, go for kindness and postpone saying anything difficult. Silence is also a viable option in most situations. The response “perhaps” can suit many needs.
Listen while you are speaking. The mind is quick enough to revise a planned statement on the fly. Try to listen to yourself. Hear your tone of voice. Remember that you are having an effect on others, even with your posture and your attitude. Hear what words you choose as you speak. You may discover something about your mood or intention. Listen with an open mind and give a name (to yourself) to what you hear– is it kindness? Impatience? Boredom? Just by listening to yourself, you will come to know yourself better. Your understanding of how you affect others will deepen, and your sympathy for them will grow.
Notice the effects of your speech. It’s not too late to learn something from your words after they’ve been released into the world. Slow down and take the time to notice. Sometimes what you intended was clumsily presented or misinterpreted. Consider how you might phrase it better next time. Sometimes you might bring joy to someone else, or help them bring energy into the present. Notice how the good feeling generated is mutual, and affirm your intention to continue in this way.
So, to review, it is good to attend closely to your speech before you speak, while you are speaking, and after you have finished speaking. The following three questions can guide you in paying attention.
Is it true?
Ask yourself how you know that what you are about to say is true. Did you see it with your own eyes? Did you hear it from a forgotten source? Is it an assumption you’ve made? “Everyone says” is a poor source, and memory can be unreliable. (More on the importance of truth-telling below).
Is it helpful?
Think about it from the hearer’s point of view. Are you saying something she asked to hear? Are you trying to arrange an outcome you desire but the hearer may not? Do your words include an effort to make yourself look good, or important? Consider: is it helpful to the person you’re talking to? Would she agree that it’s helpful? If the subject of your talk is a third party, would that person agree that it’s helpful?
Is it the right time?
How do you know when the time is right? For one thing, be sure that you have the other person’s attention. If you don’t have that, it’s not the right time. In the current situation, does the hearer seem receptive to your words? What is your mood or mind-state? If you are speaking from a mood of irritation or impatience, it’s the wrong time — silence would be better. Is there time available to complete the conversation? Sometimes asking a question can help you know whether the time is right.
Talking comes naturally to most people. Sometimes it’s as if we don’t really know what we think until we’ve produced words on a particular subject – “thought out loud”. But how can we make sure our speech is worthwhile, and not just blather? Without a bit of silence woven into the conversation, there’s no time to think, to hear, or to connect. Filling our surroundings with continuous noise generates a nervous and uncomfortable urgency. It’s a way of blocking out reflective thinking, and it wears out both the speaker and the listener. Allowing for silence invites listening, thoughtful speech, absorption of what’s said, and contemplation.
Allowing silences has the added benefit of slowing things down. We’re likely to make fewer mistakes if we think and speak at a deliberate pace. We can take responsibility for what we say more easily if we’re not rushing.
For an extrovert, try moving in the direction of more silence. For an introvert, maybe the best way to develop right speech is by overcoming your reluctance to speak. If you listen closely to yourself, it will be easier to find the right balance.
Observe speech and silence in others. What do you see? Is the non-stop talker an admired person? Some quiet people are keen observers and listeners, others might just be tuned out. Notice the effects words have on the people hearing them. Is the speaker aware of how she’s being received? Who do you most enjoy listening to? What is it about their talk (or tone) that makes it welcome?
Words of the Buddha:
And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action?
There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, “Come & tell, good man, what you know”: If he doesn’t know, he says, “I don’t know.” If he does know, he says, “I know.” If he hasn’t seen, he says, “I haven’t seen.” If he has seen, he says, “I have seen.” Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.
Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. 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, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large.
Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya [the way to freedom from suffering]. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.
This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action. (AN 10.176, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
Some thoughts on each of these elements of wise speech follow.
In the Buddha’s teaching about wise speech, the first quality to be developed is truthfulness. This is the most comprehensive area for awareness to be honed. Most people are generally truthful, but will stretch or distort the truth for convenience. There may not be any conscious malice behind a distortion, but any carelessness with the truth is still a danger. It reveals an underlying belief that one’s speech, actions and thoughts don’t really matter. There are many forces that matter in the world, but your speech and actions (and thoughts) are the only things that you can use to directly affect any situation; and the most important thing you can do with your speech is monitor it for truthfulness. This is your area of responsibility. Truthful speech is powerful speech.
Consider whether your speech is generally truthful. Is there room for improvement? Are you prone to exaggeration or inflating facts to enhance a story? Are you willing to repeat news of dubious origin? Do you speak ill of yourself? (Self-denigration is not humility). Before, during and after speaking, reflect on the truthfulness of your words.
The Buddha’s instructions about truthfulness are very specific. If you know, say you know. If you don’t know, say you don’t know. Do not say anything you know to be untrue for your own ends or another’s. If your silence would convey a false impression in a legal or official setting, speak. (paraphrased from MN41)
Listening to yourself and checking for truthfulness can also improve your self-awareness. You may develop a clearer sense of your motivations, your moods, your gifts and foibles. It is a highly portable and flexible tool for creating more confidence and happiness.
Refraining from malicious or divisive speech
The second quality of wise speech to be developed is to forego malicious or divisive speech. This type of speech is recognized by the intention to put someone up or down, to set one person or group against another. “Isn’t he awful?” “I heard that she had an affair.” “This person said some very unkind things about you.” “Once a drunk, always a drunk.” “People of that faith (or nationality, or social class, or profession) are all stupid (or without scruples, or arrogant, or corrupt).”
Setting yourself apart from (or above) someone else is rarely beneficial. Setting others against each other can be a way of making yourself feel powerful, but it carries a lot of negative energy. Stirring up resentments can generate excitement – but only of a harmful type. Do you sometimes join in with general carping or criticism to feel part of a group?
When you hear yourself using (even moderately) malicious speech, see if you can stop, breathe, and reflect. If you can pause long enough to feel the impulse to use divisive speech before saying anything, just hold your tongue for the duration of three breaths. See how it feels afterwards. If you restrain the impulse often enough, the desire to speak maliciously will come up less and less frequently. Use what wisdom you have to interrupt this common but careless activity.
Refraining from harsh speech
The third area of practice is recognizing and abandoning harsh speech. Harsh speech includes both specific words and the tone of voice in delivering ordinary words. First on the list is cursing, which is a potent de-sensitizer. Saying “effing this and effing that” is a way of making everything uniformly distasteful, a way of hardening the heart. Where’s the space for joy? Or even for variety? All cursing does is reinforce your anger, even if you’re not angry every time you swear. Substitute either silence or gentle (but clear) speech. Treat yourself and others with respect by refraining from cursing.
Other types of harsh speech are angry speech, including sarcasm, belittling speech, and unnecessarily loud speech. When I was in grades seven and eight, a major form of social interaction was the “rank out”. We students competed to deliver the most elaborate and pointed public put-downs. At some level, the competition was funny. But inevitably, there was an object of the scorn, who was hurt, though they might not show it. It is not hard to find examples of people bossing each other around without any sensitivity or kindness. Is this you? Is it someone you know? It does matter what you do, not only to others, but to your own heart. Every time you speak harshly to another person, you are damaging yourself. Start to notice this process and it will help you restrain it. If you replace harsh speech with silence or kindness, you will be happier. You will have the contentment of knowing that you have taken responsibility for your verbal actions.
Refraining from useless speech
The fourth and last area of practice is useless chatter. This one is less clear-cut than the others, because human bonding often occurs through mundane conversation about weather, food, clothing, relatives and the like. The danger comes in two forms: (1) when the conversation is hurtful to someone, even if they are not present (gossip), and (2) when the words are truly empty chatter and are being used to prevent reflection or solely to keep attention on oneself. A useful reflection on this training rule is the list of questions posed earlier: is this speech true, helpful, and timely? Are you speaking purely to fill a silence that is making you uncomfortable? Can you reflect on the feeling of discomfort and its source? Maybe you are avoiding something.
The Buddha recommended reflecting before speaking, during speaking, and after speaking. If you are ready to focus on developing kind and wise speech, do it wholeheartedly. Really listen to yourself honestly. Listen to others, with commitment. Don’t be discouraged – it is challenging. Rejoice in your successes.
Words in Memory
It is a quirk of human nature that our memories of terrible moments can remain long after the memories of tender and happy moments fade.
Long ago, when I was fifteen years old, I had an argument with my mother. In the heat of it, I shouted at her, “I hate you!” The fight was over right there. Tears welled up in my mother’s eyes. I was shattered. It came as a shock to me that my words could hurt her (I was perhaps a slow learner). I felt deep remorse. I can’t remember if I ever apologized to my mother for those words, but the impression that moment made on me has lasted for decades. Developing kind speech is an ongoing practice for me. Every time I succeed, I feel good. When I fail, I feel bad, and often someone else does, too. The balance has shifted over the years, and I expect to continue my efforts to move towards the goal of all my words being motivated by, and communicating, kindness.
When you are the listener
Monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: “Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.” That’s how you should train yourselves. (from MN21, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
When you are far along the path to making all of your speech wholesome, you may arrive at the place described in the quote above. Your inner confidence is such that it cannot be rattled by the praise or blame of others. You understand that whatever you are confronted with, your security lies in responding with care and good will.
Meanwhile, you can remember that whatever others bring to you, it is theirs. Try to avoid taking it personally. If you can feel empathy for the speaker, let it show. Whether you respond or not, you can try to develop a steady, peaceful awareness.
One additional way to practice wise speech is to listen to your internal monologue. What tone of voice do you use within your mind? Is there a tendency to build yourself up or put yourself down? To complain? It is likely that your internal and external talk run in parallel tracks. Both can be heard and heeded. If you can hear and improve your internal monologue, it will benefit you and others.
It would be difficult to practice any of the activities recommended here without including the intention to speak truthfully; everything rests on the foundation of truthfulness. It will be worthwhile to at least review where you stand on truthfulness. How meticulous are you in telling yourself and others only what you know to be true? How often do you speak divisively or harshly? Are you satisfied with the current level of wholesomeness in your speech? If not, then this precept may be the most fruitful place to begin your work.
Recommended activity: memorize and reflect on the principles of wise speech:
a. Refraining from false speech (trustworthy speech)
b. Refraining from divisive or malicious speech (harmonious speech)
c. Refraining from harsh speech (comforting speech)
d. Refraining from frivolous or useless speech (speech that is worth taking to heart)
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