Right Speech

I’ve recently become acutely aware of the concept of “Right Speech.” My experience of it has Buddhist origins. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, laid out the Noble Eightfold Path, which, if followed, help lead the pracitioner to enlightenment. Right Speech is the first principle of ethical conduct on the Eightfold Path. The Buddha explained right speech as follows:

  1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully
  2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others
  3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others
  4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth

The first one, “to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully” to me is obvious on it’s face. Don’t lie. What it actually doesn’t say is that one should speak the truth. It rather simply says to refrain from false speech. I would hope there would be more of an encouragement to actually speak the truth. I call that forthrightness. I’ve noticed how difficult it can be for some people, myself included at times, to actually buck up and speak the truth, speak what is on our minds. We tend to get so careful about what we say, who we say it to, and when we say it, that the truth ends up sitting in our pocket like an old bus token waiting for just the right time. How about now? Seems like as good a time as any. It’s as if we feel that there is something to be feared from the truth. The truth seems the most wonderful thing around, well, next to Hanky Pankies and napping in a hammock at water’s edge between two palm trees on a tropical island.

The second part of Right Speech is really the one I want to talk about here: “to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others.” What I’ve noticed is how easy it is to talk about other people behind their backs, and how often we do it. The reason I’ve noticed it lately is that a Buddhist teacher not too long ago came to our Monday Night Sangha and during her talk complained about George Bush and all the things she didn’t like about him. She noted as she was saying it that “this is not right speech,” but she continued to do it anyway. I then had a good conversation with another Buddhist teacher and during that talk we both had things to say about other people which were clearly not classifiable as “right speech.” I mention these examples because even the people who are teaching about “right speech” are falling prey to not practicing it. If they have trouble with it, then what about the rest of us.

Since seeing that, I’ve been paying more attention to myself and my tendencies to speak in ways that can be disrespectful to others. A I explore, many reasons seem to come up for this:

  • wanting to feel superior
  • wanting to bond with another (as we talk about another together)
  • wanting to diffuse difficult emotions which may be arising (by shifting attention to another person)
  • self-righteousness
  • to justify my desire to not engage with someone who’s personality I may not like
  • to avoid having to feel my own superego by shifting the focus instead to another’s faults

I’m glad to be becoming more aware of this. Feels like the beginning of another shift in my life. I noticed how, once I stopped eating meat that it didn’t take long to realize that I can live fine without it and the desire for it actually goes away. In fact, I actually find that meat is becoming less and less palatable to me. I tried a grilled burger a month ago and could only eat half of it before getting grossed out. The same, I think, can happen with “wrong speech.” Once we stop partaking in it, I think we’ll see that it will take less and less effort to follow that path. In fact, my hunch is that uttering anything less than “right speech” may in fact become distasteful.

The third, “to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others,” is another one that feels obvious to me. Bite your tongue. No need to say things other might find hurtful or offensive. Simple as that.

The final one: “to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth,” is one that I struggle with. When I am in the mood for more serious discussion and others are “blah, blah, blahing” away, I can actually get frustrated. This happens in settings such as the Monday Might Sangha or on the monthly Saturday afternoon meditation and dinner I’ve been hosting. Last night (Monday) a wonderful teacher came and spoke on the “proliferation of the mind” and told a wonderful story about how she as able to watch her mind and not attach to its thoughts as she went through a stressful ordeal around her husband’s allergic reaction to a bee sting. This is the second talk in a row that I’ve gone to there where people seem all too eager to fall back into regular everyday conversation about what happened and when and who saw and what they think, etc. The mindfulness and control which we have seems so limited. I noticed I wanted to ask a question, but as I sat with that question, I realized that I simply wanted to ask it so that I might be perceived as being knowledgeable. I also wanted to be seen. Noticing those things, I simply withheld from asking as I realized that I really didn’t want an answer to my question.. That’s not necessarily my normal MO, but the more I see others in their mindless banter and discussion, the more I can’t help but see my own and want to refrain from it. It’s actually a very lonely feeling, when we start to realize how much of all of our conversations are actually trivial and designed to simply fill in gaps in our oftentimes empty lives.

So there, “right speech” really is about the truth, speaking it, and refraining from forms of speech which distance us from the beautiful reality waiting in truth right in front of us.

5 replies on “Right Speech”

Already, just several hours after writing this posting, I found myself having a long conversation with a friend of mine after our poker game this evening. We spoke a lot about our families. At come point, after he told me about his brother, I talked about mine and I have to admit I didn’t practice “right speech.” I think I enjoy painting a picture of my brother as my polar opposite, as someone not as together or mature as myself. It definitely felt wrong but I spoke anyway. Good to notice. hard habit to break, but awareness is a good first step. Sorry Steve.

Do you think Buddha’s mother used to say, “Now Buddha, if you don’t have anything right to say, don’t say anything at all.”I like some of this – I have tried to not say anything negative about someone that I haven’t already said directly to that person. And it’s tough. And when I am talking about people I love, the “negative” things aren’t really negative at all. For example, I once told you how I used to get put off when I would ask if you wanted to do something and you often would immediately say “No.” That bugged me. But the Travis (I do this too) always says, “Maybe.” And then Jack Johnson came along and sang that it seems to him “that maybe pretty much always means no.”Anyway – those things are just part of you and me and Travis, you know?Also, there are times when I LOVE idle conversation. I spend so much time alone that I actually forget how much fun I have talking with people and making them laugh and being silly. And I sort of forget how to talk. And it takes me a while to get back in practice.And I love talking with you, so please refrain from taking a vow of shutting the hell up.

BTW, a couple of years ago I joined MySpace because simply everyone was doing it around the time of my 20th HS reunion. This is the intro to my profile…I’m just trying to practice right mindfulness, right behavior, right livelihood and whatever the other five are. But I can’t help thinking bad thoughts and flipping people off in traffic. And that can be dangerous around here. I got myself a little plastic Buddha on my keychain, but when I’m driving, it hangs below the dash out of sight.And what do you do with truths that you feel bad about, guilty about even, and wouldn’t want anyone else to know?

Eric, you ask: “And what do you do with truths that you feel bad about, guilty about even, and wouldn’t want anyone else to know?”I guess in my life, I try to cultivate relationships where I can give voice to those things. Internalized shame is a very destructive energy, a kind of gnawing away at oneself from the inside out. So I guess I do my best to give a voice to those things and also work hard at trying to notice when I am having any form of intense negative feeling toward myself, oftentimes for me, just the noticing of the feeling helps to take it’s edge off and gives more space for self acceptance or forgiveness.

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