The Fourth Noble Truth: Insight 2 The Eightfold Path Step 3 Skillful Speech

Dancing with Life (DWL) Chapter 20 Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness:  Step One (pp.91-108)

“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

Step 3:  Skillful Speech

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 insight and purify the mind.

Goldstein notes that “speech is such a powerful influence in our lives because we speak a lot.  Speech conditions our relationships, conditions our minds and hearts, and conditions karmic consequences in the future.”  .  (Goldstein, Practical Mindfulness p 372)

Skillful Speech has four qualities

  • It is always truthful
  • It is uplifting, not malicious or unkind
  • It is gentle not crude or harsh.
  • It is moderate, not useless or meaningless.

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

False Speech

The Buddha stated:  “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 various ways of not speaking the truth:

  • You can lie
  • You can lie by remaining silent.
  • You can lie with your body language.
  • You can lie by withholding something of critical importance.

“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

Slanderous Speech

This is speech spoken to others rather than directly to the person slandered. Slander is to make a false spoken statement that causes people to have a bad opinion of someone. Slanderous speech “robs people of their good name and their credibility.”

Slanderous speech comes from hate and ill-will and is meant to create division.  Even if the statement is true, if the intent is malicious (to hurt), it is unskillful. Slanderous speech is Irretrievable.  Once it is out, you can never take it back.  As with an old Jewish folktale, it is like letting feathers out of a pillow.   Once you let them go you can never get them all back.

What is the antidote to slanderous speech?  Abstinence and silence

Harsh Speech 

This is speech spoken directly to another person. 

Harsh speech is words spoken in anger.  Examples include verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, blunt or belittling criticism.  Harsh speech can be called bullying with words.  The emotional tone with which the words are spoke is very important.  One strives for connection rather than divisiveness.

What is the antidote to harsh speech?  Patience and speaking gently and kindly. 

Frivolous Speech 

Frivolous speech is talk that lacks depth or purpose.  Gossip, if not slanderous. is a form of frivolous speech.  Engaging in frivolous speech can tempt the mind to engage in the other forms of unskillful speech, lying, slander, and harsh words.

The Buddha mentioned the kinds of speech to be avoided:

“Whereas some brahmans and contemplatives, living off food given in faith, are addicted to talking about lowly topics such as these — talking about kings, robbers, ministers of state; armies, alarms, and battles; food and drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, and scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women and heroes; the gossip of the street and the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity [philosophical discussions of the past and future], the creation of the world and of the sea, and talk of whether things exist or not — he abstains from talking about lowly topics such as these. This, too, is part of his virtue.”

In everyday life, these topics are hard to avoid as they come up in conversation with others.  That is why it is important to be mindful in conversation.

The antidote to frivolous speech: Be aware of frivolous speech and mindful of the consequences.

Reflection

  • Reread this talk and reflect on it.  Also review the recaps on Skillful Speech in the Eightfold Path.  As you go about life, be mindful of your speech.  Is it true, not slanderous, gentle and meaningful?

Meditation

  • Meditate as usual in your daily practice being mindful of what arises and falls away and how all have the same characteristics of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and selflessness.

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