Skillful Speech: Introduction/How do we speak the truth?

Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness (pp. 91-95)

How do we speak the truth?

Skillful (Right) Speech is the first step of the three virtues (or moral disciplines) in the Eightfold Path.  The other two virtues are right livelihood and right action.  While the content of these virtues may seem to consist of “do’s and don’ts”, the three virtues are really mindful practices from which we can gain insights.

Right Speech 

“And what is Right Speech?  Abstaining from false speech, abstaining from slanderous speech, abstaining from harsh speech, abstaining from frivolous speech. This is called Right Speech.”  – The Buddha

“And how is right view the forerunner?  One discerns wrong speech as wrong speech, and right speech as right speech. And what is wrong speech? Lying, divisive tale-bearing, abusive speech, & idle chatter. This is wrong speech.” –The Buddha

How is right speech related to other steps on the Eightfold Path?  “One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong speech & to enter & remain in right speech: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run and circle around right speech.” – The Buddha

Bhante G notes:  “Wrong speech causes us many problems.  We lie and then get caught in it; we say something nasty about a co-worker and get him into trouble; we speak inconsiderately and offend a client or friend; we spend a whole day in meaningless chatter and get nothing done.”

“Speech can break lives, create enemies, and start wars, or it can give wisdom, heal divisions, and create peace. This has always been so, yet in the modern age the positive and negative potentials of speech have been vastly multiplied by the tremendous increase in the means, speed, and range of communications.”  Bikkhu Bodhi

“As my teacher once said: ‘if you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.’ This is why right speech is so important in day-to-day practice.” –Thanissaro Bhikkhu

To summarize:  Skillful Speech has four qualities

  1. It is always truthful
  2. It is uplifting, not malicious or unkind
  3. It is gentle not crude or harsh.
  4. It is moderate, not useless or meaningless.

The Buddha noted that one who practices skillful speech will be trusted and respected.

The first quality:  Speak the Truth

The Buddha said, “Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king’s court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: ‘I know nothing,’ and if he knows, he answers: ‘I know’; if he has seen nothing, he answers: ‘I have seen nothing,’ and if he has seen, he answers: ‘I have seen.’ Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.”

There are other ways of not speaking the truth:

  • You can lie by remaining silent.
  • Your body language can give you away.

“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. Greed as the chief motive results in the lie aimed at gaining some personal advantage for oneself or for those close to oneself — material wealth, position, respect, or admiration. With hatred as the motive, false speech takes the form of the malicious lie, the lie intended to hurt and damage others. When delusion is the principal motive, the result is a less pernicious type of falsehood: the irrational lie, the compulsive lie, the interesting exaggeration, lying for the sake of a joke.”  –Bikkhu Bodhi

“It is said that in the course of his long training for enlightenment over many lives, a bodhisatta can break all the moral precepts except the pledge to speak the truth.” –Bikkhu Bodhi

Practice

  • See for yourself this week when you speak if you are speaking the truth.  Be nonjudgmental as you look.
  • If you find that you were not speaking the truth, what was your intention?

Next: Skillful Speech: Abstaining from slanderous, harsh, and frivolous speech
Previous: Skillful Thinking: Dealing with Unskillful Thoughts