To cultivate Right Speech means to avoid four kinds of Wrong Speech:
- Lying—particularly the kind that causes suffering or loss of another, e.g. slander, unjustified character assassination or deliberate false accusation.
- Divisive speech—words meant to break up parties by telling or reporting on each other. In many companies, ‘office politics’ occurs and people who are too eager to climb the corporate ladder try to kill off potential competitors through divisive speech. Sad to say, this occurs even in Buddhist organisations, especially those that are long established and have grown quite rich.
- Abusive speech—words meant to hurt another.
- Idle chatter—any kind of useless speech, like coffee-shop gossips, mamak-stall yaks, aimless Internet chats. Generally, people are inclined to (in the words of a teenager girl) talk crap. On reflection, a wise man will realise that idle chatter is actually a waste of time and energy. Furthermore, it messes up the mind. It is not conducive to a clear and peaceful mind, and certainly not meditation.
For those serious in practising the Dhamma, an excellent way to cultivate Right Speech naturally occurs when they do not engage in unnecessary talk but rather observe Noble Silence. But of course in our normal daily life, there are many situations where we have to talk. When we do, we can mindfully choose to have Right Speech, which is the opposite of the above.
- Words that are reliable, spoken truthfully. In the words of the sutta, this means that one “does not consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward…. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”
- Words that help bring about concord, peace and harmony. Instead of breaking up others, such words mend damaged relationships and further cement existing ties. The ability to speak in such a manner is the hallmark of a good leader in any organisation or society.
- Words that are soothing, affectionate, a delight to hear and pleasing to people. Words like these are necessary to bring peace. However, sweet speech is difficult to utter when a person is angry or under stress. More often than not, in order to let off steam, harsh words are the order of the day. Then, regret comes later. We should learn to forgive in such instances.
- Words that are spoken in season, factual, according to the DhammaVinaya, and worth treasuring. Discussing Dhamma is a good example of this.
Apart from the above, there are 5 other key factors that define words as well spoken, blameless and not faulted by the wise. These words are spoken:
- at the right time
- in truth
- affectionately or gently (also called “air-con speech” and “cooling speech” by Ven Suvanno)
- with metta or a mind of goodwill
It is very common for people to just say whatever comes to the mind without prior reflection. When this happens, whatever comes out may not be Right Speech at all.
Buddhists in general should at least try to uphold the 4th precept, i.e., to abstain from lying, as part of the practice of Right Speech. Yogis who are more serious seek to practise all the 4 aspects. However, the Buddha practises what I call “Super Right Speech”.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. The Buddha had an excellent sense of the appropriateness of time and space when he wanted to say anything. Our Bhante Aggacitta also practises this. For example, whenever he wishes to admonish someone, he will choose the correct time and place to do so. Sometimes he would also say something nice beforehand to cushion what comes after that.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them. This refers to flattery, which is a form of deception. When we once visited Ven U Jotika, he told us a true story that happened in a zoo where Koko, a female monkey with a 1000-word vocabulary in sign language, stays. One day, a visitor told her that she was beautiful. In reply, Koko scratched her nose with her finger. In sign language, it means ‘You’re lying.’ Looks like even an animal can recognise deception for what it is. So, don’t think that your lies are going to work very well with humans.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them. This refers to pointless speech.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
[Note: Taken from a translation of Abhaya Sutta (MN 58) by Ven Thanissaro Bhikkhu]
The Buddha teaches us to always reflect on our words before and after saying them. We should try to put a hold on wrong speech if we have not started uttering it and should stop talking immediately even if we are half done once we are aware that we have said something wrong. After realising that we have said something out of line, it is still useful to reflect on it, so that we have a better chance of avoiding such mistakes in the future. We can further retract our words and genuinely apologise for them if we are able to do so. In accordance to the Vinaya, monks are required to confess their offences of wrong speech to another monk. Doing this will bring peace and harmony to oneself and the community.