The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Right speech (sammā vācā) is the third step on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path.
Speech is the ability to form and utter words, an ability unique to human beings. Because of its power to do good but also harm, the Buddha laid great stress on Right Speech.
He defined it as speaking words that are truthful (bhūta), useful (atthasaṃhitaṃ), spoken at the right time (kālena) and motivated by kindness and compassion (anukampa, M.I,395).
On another occasion he added to this list the quality of mildness (saṇha, M.I,126). In one of his most detailed descriptions of the skilful use of verbal communication the Buddha said:
‘Refraining from lying he becomes a speaker of the truth, one whose word can be taken, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Refraining from malicious speech he does not repeat here what he has heard there to the detriment of others.
He is a reconciler of those at variance and an encourager of those already united, rejoicing in peace, loving peace, delighting in peace, he speaks up in favor of peace.
Refraining from harsh speech he speaks words that are blameless, pleasant, easy on the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, pleasing and liked by everybody.
Refraining from useless chatter he speaks at the appropriate time, correctly, to the point, about Dhamma and discipline, words worthy of being treasured, seasonable, reasonable, articulate and connected to the goal.’ (D.I,4).
See Talking and Listening.
If a statement is ‘true’ but leads to harm, it is in fact false.
What is the real meaning of true and untrue? That which is helpful to others is true.
—Kambala, Alokamala v 37
Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. It is the commitment to use words skillfully, conveying peace, happiness, fearlessness, and hope, and bringing others closer to one another.
The importance of speech in the context of ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war, or create peace. Shakyamuni Buddha explained right speech as follows:
To abstain from false speech, avoiding deliberate lies and deceit;
To abstain from slanderous speech and using words maliciously against others;
To abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others; and
To abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.
Right speech is telling the truth, speaking gently, and talking only when necessary.
Five Keys to Right Speech
Do I speak at the right time, or not?
Do I speak of facts, or not?
Do I speak gently or harshly?
Do I speak profitable words or not?
Do I speak with a kindly or malicious heart?
Speak Only Words That Do No Harm
Speak only that by which you do not harm yourself or others.
Speak only pleasant words.
What you speak without bringing harm to others is pleasant. — Shakyamuni
Criteria for Deciding What Is Worth Saying
What one knows to be inaccurate, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others, one does not say.
What one knows to be factual and true, but unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others, one does not say.
What one knows to be factual, true, and beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, one must wait for the proper time to
What one knows to be inaccurate, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, one does not say.
What one knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing and agreeable to others, one does not say.
What one knows to be factual, true, beneficial, endearing, and agreeable to others, one must wait for the proper time to say.
Before speaking: Will these words lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Will it be an unskillful act, with painful consequences and painful results?
While speaking: Are these words leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful act, with painful consequences and painful results?
After speaking: Did these words lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful act, with painful consequences and painful results?