Watch what you say. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?
After Right View and Right Intention, which concern wisdom, the next three factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood — all of which concern moral discipline.
In his wonderful text about the Noble Eightfold Path, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that this “morality” is not so much “Thou shalt not” as it is a mental purification that we undertake. Instead of uttering harmful words, we should keep silent. When we speak, speak to help others. Speak to spread happiness. Speak comfort. Speak kindly.
Buddhism, with its non-theistic framework, grounds its ethics not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony.
Being mindful about the words I say becomes a practice that benefits others — as well as keeping me out of trouble.
Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that Right Speech has two sides — avoidance and performance. So while we work to avoid incorrect speech, at the same time we are also working to perform correct speech.
What is “correct”? Here Bhikkhu Bodhi uses the familiar English word wholesome. I like the Buddhist use of this word because it seems to steer clear of a moral judgment in favor of emphasizing something that is healthy, not sick. When the opposite word is used — unwholesome — I think of something that will make me ill. Buddhism does take a somewhat black-and-white view of good and bad; if it’s going to harm anyone, it’s probably bad. And that’s unwholesome.
The Buddha divides right speech into four components: abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, and abstaining from idle chatter.
No lying. No cruel or hurtful words. No gossip. That all sounds like “Thou shalt not,” doesn’t it? But Bhikkhu Bodhi quotes directly from the Anguttara Nikaya, telling us it’s really about speaking the truth, being devoted to truth, being reliable and worthy of confidence.
The determinative factor behind the transgression is the intention to deceive. If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent. Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, whether greed, hatred, or delusion.
He goes on to explain how lies corrupt and injure the liar, and how
the commitment to truth has a significance transcending the domain of ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the domains of knowledge and being.
In discussing slanderous speech, Bhikkhu Bodhi points to our motives (our intentions) when we seek to slander someone. We are trying “to create enmity and division, to alienate one person or group from another.” Catching ourselves in this intention before we speak can prevent many kinds of suffering.
Harsh speech similarly grows out of the root of anger and hatred. No good fruits can grow from that.
The caution against gossip (“idle chatter”) seems less weighty, but as Bhikkhu Bodhi explains it, in so many cases no good can come from this kind of speech, so it’s best to just pay attention to the meaning and purpose of what we’re about to say. He even takes it further:
An incredible array of devices — television, radio, newspapers, pulp journals, the cinema [and the Internet] — turns out a continuous stream of needless information and distracting entertainment, the net effect of which is to leave the mind passive, vacant, and sterile. All these developments, naively accepted as “progress,” threaten to blunt our aesthetic and spiritual sensitivities and deafen us to the higher call of the contemplative life. Serious aspirants on the path to liberation have to be extremely discerning in what they allow themselves to be exposed to. [My italics.]
This goes back to the ideas of mental purification and wholesomeness. What are you inviting into your mind today? What are you putting into the minds of others when you are speaking?
The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Published by Access to Insight, 16 June 2011.