DT-Eightfold Path-Right Speech

Tonight, we’ll continue our series of dharma talks based on Gil Frondsdal’s book, Steps to Liberation: The Buddha’s Eightfold Path. The third step on that path is Right Speech. Along with Right Action and Right Livelihood, Right Speech is considered to be a practice of virtue. 

Those of you who have taken a vow of silence on meditation retreats know how that vow protects our practice. It allows us to focus our energy inward and promotes deep states of concentration. At the end of retreats, one of the biggest challenges is to stay embodied and grounded while talking.  

Well aware of the pitfalls of verbal interaction, the Buddha gave various instructions for practicing Right Speech. Instead of rigid regulations or laws, these instructions are more like guidelines for living consciously, compassionately and harmoniously. 

In one of his discourses about wise speech, he declared, “A statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken, blameless and not faulted by wise people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken politely. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” 

Right Speech means to speak skillfully and to abstain from unskillful speech. Unskillful words include lying, slander and harsh or pointless speech. The Buddha outlined very specifically what lying entails: “Not knowing, [a man] says, “I know” or knowing, he says, “I do not know;” not seeing, he says, “I see,” or seeing, he says, “I do not see;” in full awareness he speaks falsehood for his own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end.”

Besides giving instructions to avoid lying, the Buddha cautioned his disciples not to repeat slander or to speak with an intention to cause discord, because such malicious speech creates divisions among people. Aside from pointing out the consequences of slander, the Buddha described how a person who speaks harshly, “utters such words as are rough, hard, hurtful [or] offensive to others, bordering on anger, [or] not conducive to concentration.”  

Even more prevalent than harsh speech is the unwholesome behavior of gossiping. According to the Buddha, a gossip “speaks at the wrong time, speaks what is not fact, speaks what is useless, speaks contrary to the Dharma…, speaks such words as are worthless, unreasonable, immoderate, and unbeneficial.” Just as they did when the Buddha was teaching 2600 years ago, all of these unskillful forms of speech tend to cause suffering for ourselves and for others. 

As we review how many ways our words can be harmful, we might feel intimidated by the challenges of speaking wisely. The goal is not to attain perfection in our speech, but to be increasingly conscious of what motivates our words and how they impact people around us. Gil reassures us that when we do use unwise speech, we have opportunities to gain valuable insight into ourselves. Instead of being discouraged or beating ourselves up, we can grow in awareness about alternative, wiser choices of words.

Gil suggests that we take time to investigate the conditions that lead to unskillful speech. We can examine why we speak in certain ways at certain times. Do greed, aversion or fear underlie our words? When I feel stressed or rushed or tired, I tend to complain or to make critical remarks. This kind of speech is a clear indication that I need to slow down, rest, and take care of myself. You may notice that when you feel needy or impatient, it’s harder to monitor your words. 

*Take a moment to consider which form of unskillful speech you are most apt to use—lies, slander, harsh words, or gossip…. Reflect upon conditions that motivate that type of speech. One of my current practices is to refrain from gossiping about people who are not present. I recognize my tendency to gossip if I’m bored or restless or if I’m with someone else who starts gossiping. 

As Gil says, “If [our] inner life is well cared for, it is much easier to speak wisely.” 

When we are at peace inside, we are likely to use words that are truthful, timely, useful, and friendly. Such words promote social harmony. Gil calls honest speech “mindfulness out loud.” Our truthful words create an atmosphere of trust and ease among those who listen to us. 

Yet even when we have something true and important to say, it is best to wait for an appropriate time to speak so that our words can be received and understood. For instance, I’ve learned not to address any serious issues with Mark until he has finished his morning routine of drinking coffee and reading The Houston Chronicle

Polite speech expresses respect for others and is part of treating them with dignity. If we say only what is beneficial or useful, we avoid having to make amends for careless words that may cause harm. By speaking in a friendly way with good will, we convey kindness and concern for the welfare of others. 

I’ll give you an example: Just after I had a booster shot for protection from covid, a dear friend warned me to avoid what she called “those dangerous vaccinations.” I realized that we were listening to different narratives about the pandemic. 

Instead of reacting by asking her to mind her own business, I expressed thanks for her concern about my health. Assuring her that I want her to be healthy too, 

I admitted that I was already fully vaccinated. My only request was that we respect each another’s choices. She accepted my words gracefully, and together we honored our long friendship more than our differing viewpoints. 

There is a powerful connection between what we say and how we feel inside. As Gil states, “The inner well-being that supports skillful speech is strengthened by skillful speech.” When we speak skillfully, we create conditions for peace and happiness. Our words can unite those who are divided and encourage those who are united. 

Practicing Right Speech goes beyond following a set of rules and cultivates awareness on many levels. In order to speak mindfully, we can observe what is happening in the body. For example, if someone criticizes me, I may notice my stomach clenching and my chin jutting forward as an urge arises to speak in my own defense. With mindful speech, I’m aware of how I’m feeling emotionally—whether I’m calm or turbulent inside. 

Mindfulness helps us to be aware of the impulse to speak before we verbalize. Right speech is intimately connected to Right Intention. If we pause and take a moment to realize what we intend to say, we may be able to refrain from speaking words that we might regret. 

In situations when it is difficult to speak skillfully, at least we can try to avoid causing harm with our speech. Although it can be challenging to hold our tongue, sometimes it is the wisest practice. 

Last weekend Mark and I visited my 95-year-old father and his caregiver in New York. At this advanced stage of life, Dad likes to reminisce about the past. Sometimes he loses his train of thought and halts for long periods in the midst of telling a story until he gets back on track. Although I was tempted to prompt him to continue, I refrained from interrupting. When he has enough time to follow his own rhythm, eventually his stories come to a conclusion. 

Mark and I practiced being patient listeners, especially since my father often forgets to wear his hearing aids, and we must raise our voices to be heard. 

During most of our stay, instead of engaging in conversations, we were witnesses to monologues. Before we departed, Dad expressed gratitude for our visit with him. I learned what a gift it can be to serve as an appreciative audience—another dimension of Right Speech.  

*Let’s take some time for reflection. 

Consider where your attention tends to be when you speak. 

Are you focused on your words? 

Are you aware of your body sensations as you talk? 

Do you pay attention to the people you are addressing, noticing their facial expressions, and giving them space to respond?  

Now consider what motivation lies behind what you do and don’t say.

Recall a time when you had a very strong impulse to speak.

Did that strong impulse result in wise speech? 

Recall a time when you consciously held your tongue.

When you are mindful of your motivation and impulse to speak, how does that affect what you say and what you keep to yourself? 

Truthful speech entails two parts: listening well and speaking honestly. Let’s reflect about each part:

When you listen to other people talk, are you aware of your own inner dialogue? 

Do you comment to yourself about what you are hearing? 

Do you tend to rehearse your responses?
Are you easily distracted by unrelated thoughts?

Take a moment to recall a time when you were not honest in your speech….

How did you feel when you were avoiding telling the truth? 

What motivated that avoidance? 

What did you learn about the value of speaking truthfully?

Now let’s set some intentions for using Right Speech in the coming week:

May I pause and relax before speaking. 

May I be unrushed when I contribute to conversations. 

May I speak in a way that promotes social harmony.

May I avoid speaking badly about anyone. 

May I speak words that are pleasing, heartwarming, and meaningful.