The Buddha on Right Speech – ancient wisdom for modern times
The “Buddhist Bible” – the Tripitaka – is nine times the length of the bible. Written down many centuries after the Buddha passed away, the teachings were recorded for oral transmission – committed to memory and recited like poetry, taken to heart, treasured, valued and passed down through the uncounted thousands and millions of the Buddha’s early disciples.
In those days, such teachings were rare and precious – the means of recording them tenuous and difficult. Even when, five centuries after the Buddha’s passing, the teachings began to be written down, there was no “breathing a sigh of relief”. Writing was a laborious act of hand copying, a private and maybe mind-numbing act, as opposed to the more reliable, public chanting and reciting together that occurs even today in Theravadin monasteries in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia, as well as many places in the west.
The words below come straight from the Suttas – these oral teachings. And in them we hear the Buddha encouraging us to be truthful, careful, circumspect, sensitive and considerate.
What good advice for these strange times!
And what is right speech?
Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter:
This is called right speech.
Five keys to right speech
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
— Anguttara Nikaya 5.198
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 she has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of her relatives, her guild, or of the royalty, if she is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, friend, what you know’:
If she doesn’t know, she says, ‘I don’t know.’ If she does know, she says, ‘I know.’ If she hasn’t seen, she says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If she has seen, she says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus she doesn’t consciously tell a lie for her own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward.
Abandoning false speech, she abstains from false speech. She speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.
Abandoning divisive speech she abstains from divisive speech. What she has heard here she does not repeat there to divide those people from these people here.
What she has heard there she does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there.
Thus reconciling those who are divided and supporting those who are united, she is a lover of harmony, delights in harmony, enjoys harmony and speaks that which creates harmony.
Abandoning abusive speech, she abstains from abusive speech. She speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people.
Abandoning idle chatter, she abstains from idle chatter. She speaks at the appropriate time, she speaks what is factual, she speaks what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma.
She speaks words worth treasuring, timely, reasonable, circumscribed, and connected with the goal.
This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action
— Anguttara Nikaya 10.176
How to admonish another skillfully
O monks, a monk who desires to admonish another should do so after investigating five conditions in himself and after establishing five other conditions in himself. What are the five conditions which he should investigate in himself?
- Am I one who practices purity in bodily action, flawless and untainted…?
- Am I one who practices purity in speech, flawless and untainted…?
- Is the heart of goodwill, free from malice, established in me towards fellow-farers in the holy life…?
- Am I or am I not one who has heard much, who bears in mind what he has heard, who stores up what he has heard? Those teachings which are good alike in their beginning, middle, and ending, proclaiming perfectly the spirit and the letter of the utterly purified holy life — have such teachings been much heard by me, borne in mind, practised in speech, pondered in the heart and rightly penetrated by insight…?
- Are the Patimokkhas [rules of conduct for monks and nuns] in full thoroughly learned by heart, well-analyzed with thorough knowledge of their meanings, clearly divided sutta by sutta and known in minute detail by me…?
These five conditions must be investigated in himself.
And what other five conditions must be established in himself?
- 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 heart, or inwardly malicious?
O monks, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a monk who desires to admonish another.
— Anguttara Nikaya V (From The Patimokkha, Ñanamoli Thera, trans.)
The Anguttara Nikaya (aṅguttaranikāya; literally “Increased by One Collection,” also translated “Gradual Collection” or “Numerical Discourses”) is a Buddhist scripture, the fourth of the five nikayas, or collections, in the Sutta Pitaka, which is one of the “three baskets” that comprise the Pali Tipitaka of Theravada Buddhism. This nikaya consists of several thousand discourses ascribed to the Buddha and his chief disciples arranged in eleven nipatas, or books, according to the number of dhamma items referenced in them.