By John Pendall
American Buddhists, well, we tend to botch Right Speech.
We tend to use our words carelessly, like casually dropping warheads into our neighbors’ swimming pools. Words are a powerful medicine, but like any medicine, they can also be poisonous. Right Speech is kind; it’s pleasing to hear, and it brings people together. We know it when we hear it, and we can know it as the words are fleeing between our lips. The point, though, is to know whether we’re engaging in Right Speech or not before we start speaking.
We rationalize our acidic words by saying that they’re, “Just the truth. They might be blunt, but they’re true,” as if that gives us a pass—it doesn’t. Truth isn’t enough to make our speech into Right Speech. Right Speech basically follows the T.H.I.N.K. acronym: Truthful, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind.
If what we’re about to say is truthful, helpful, inspiring and necessary, but not kind (pleasant/endearing), then it’s skillful to wait for the right time to say it. If it doesn’t meet even one of the first four conditions (if it’s truthful, helpful, inspiring but not necessary or if it’s truthful, helpful, necessary but not inspiring, etc.), then it is never Right Speech.
The B-Man said that before we speak, we should ask ourselves:
Is this the right time to say this or not?
Is this factual or not?
Is this gentle or harsh?
Is this beneficial or not?
Am I speaking with a kind heart or am I inwardly malicious?
Now that we know what Right Speech is, we can ask the big question: why is it important? Well, there are just a whole bunch of reasons, but I’ll narrow them down to the Bodhisattva’s reason and the Paccekabodhisatta’s reason since those constitute two different paths that have the same guidelines.
Right Speech is important to a Bodhisattva because everything is mutual; the effects of a person’s words, thoughts, and actions extend indefinitely into the world. This isn’t anything metaphysical; it’s just apparent. If I say to someone, “You’re a fucking idiot, you should just give up,” then, odds are, that’s going to affect them in some way.
Since 99.99999% of people are suffering from avijja (delusion/ignorance), your exasperated insult probably isn’t going to have beneficial results. The people we slight don’t usually just let it roll off of them, they carry it around throughout the day. Sometimes they hold onto it their entire lives. The things we say can change the way people feel, and that changes the way they view things. That, in turn, changes the way they interact with the world.
That’s how greed, hatred and ignorance—like a virus—perpetuate themselves from one person to another. Sure, how we respond to people is ultimately up to us. I can decide how someone or something affects my mind, my thoughts. But that’s only after I’m experientially enlightened to that fact. Prior to that, I am 100% the product of habits and conditioning.
The Bodhisattva knows this firsthand, so she or he lives accordingly: being gentle whenever possible; being kind and gladdening whenever possible. Because even though we’re really very small and insignificant, our actions extend beyond us and outlive us. Our actions are the way we come into contact with something greater than ourselves—Indra’s Net, the Web of Interdependence. As Buddhists, it’s our task to take back whatever minuscule amount control we have of ourselves and our lives; to shatter our karma and overturn all our preconceptions and projections so that we can live authentically in, and as, the world.
The Lone Bodhisattva uses Right Speech for another reason. The things we say, think and do in day-to-day life either help or hinder our ability to meditate. If I get pissed off at someone and tell them to, “Fuck off,” that’s going to stir up my mind which makes it difficult to concentrate. If I can’t concentrate, I can’t meditate and be mindful. If I can’t meditate and be mindful, I can’t cultivate wisdom.
If I can’t do that, I can’t free myself from suffering.
Words, thoughts and actions muddy the water when they’re unskillful, and clarify it when they’re skillful. Lao-Tzu said, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?”
This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to force ourselves to come to a grinding halt. It means that Right Speech and Right Action come from a “place” of stillness and clarity—a particular state of mind. But the relationship is mutual: clarity can lead to Right Speech, but Right Speech can also lead to clarity.
Now, I’m not perfect by any means. I struggle with Right Speech on a daily basis. I re-wrote this article probably five times to soften its edges and to add a little sweetness to the recipe. Right Speech is tough for us, for Americans. If you ask someone from another country to do an impression of an American, they’ll probably tilt their chins up, flail their arms around and start talking really loud. This stereotype isn’t too far off.
I don’t know why we have these issues with Right Speech, or with Buddhist Ethics in general. It seems like most of us would rather skip that part of Buddhism to get to the, “Good stuff.” But Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood are the good stuff. When it comes to practicality and utility, they might be the most beneficial aspects of the Path.
Not everyone can meditate or practice mindfulness, and not everyone can get a handle on the various Right Views. But anyone can learn to practice Buddhist Ethics and we can easily see how they influence our day-to-day lives for the better. I worry for us American Buddhists, at times. I don’t want to see us get stuck in the mud by skipping over essentials or diving into things before we’re ready.
Because, like Right Speech, Buddhism is a medicine. But, used unskillfully, it can be a poison. I think it’s vital that we practice with care, because practice can actually be harmful to ourselves and others if we get the dosage wrong.
If you want a more detailed description of what is and isn’t Right Speech, check this out.
Editor: Dana Gornall