Defining Right Speech: Four Dos & Don’ts
Traditional approach = ‘Abstinence from unwholesome bodily and verbal actions’
Traditionally Right Speech is presented as a form of ethical discipline in which we refrain from the Four Negative Speech Factors. The motivation for doing so is given in terms of karmic retribution and future rebirth and great precision is given to determining the exact amount of negative karma accumulated. This comes across as a rather abstract prescription for prohibited oral behaviour that is likely to be far from motivating in this day and age, especially for the sceptics among us. What’s more likely to be useful is establishing a more conscious and explorative relationship with our speech within the simple framework provided.
Early Buddhism loves lists and these can be very useful if we are willing to play with the language a little so that they resonate with our own experience. They remind us to make sure that we are including an array of elements into practice and for those happy doing their own thing, it can be useful to take such rudimentary reminders that perhaps there is a little more work to do, and in the case of speech, additional areas to bring into our practice. This list advises us to cut out the following Negative Speech Factors;
1. False speech
2. Slanderous speech
3. Harsh speech
4. Idle chatter
At first glance these four may actually seem doable, relatively easy to nail. We might even have the impression that apart from a few white lies, we are generally on the right track as far as speech is concerned, and of course we haven’t committed any major transgressions of late, in fact, in ages. Well, if that is the case, then great. But do know that this area of practice runs deeper than mere conjunctions to avoid bad behaviour. Speech is intimately bound with our ability to be authentically present (More on this later).
Meanwhile, for the rest of us, exploring our own inclinations to lie, speak shit about others, be unduly nasty, and chit chat away the hours of the day can be both revelatory and disappointing.
‘Create space from the dynamic of negative action and speech’
Traditionally then Right Speech is a list of Dos and Don’ts. As a starting place and a basis for relating to how we communicate, they are excellent principles to follow. Lying clearly causes all manner of problems in intimate relationships, at work and between friends. Speaking badly about others increases misunderstanding and divisiveness. Unloading our anger and being abusive of others is cruel and hurtful. Idle chatter keeps us in circles of delusional nonsense, distracted and focused on frivolous entertainment.
Reducing our participation in these modalities of speech is advisable and balancing. With any negative behaviour there is a hidden gain though and success with addressing these four arenas of poor speech will depend in part, in the long-term, on recognising the hidden gain and either releasing it, or finding a healthier and more constructive way of addressing it. This is an aspect of maturity.
What unifies these four forms of unhelpful speech is not a forced morality that we should carry about on our person as a point of pride. Instead what we find is that the basic principles of presence and harmony are essential to speaking in a more balanced manner and that this can only emerge if we are willing to take responsibility for the impact our speech has on the world around us and own that impact. This is another aspect of maturity.
Our ability to be present in any given moment is dependent on multiple factors; one of these is coming into harmony with what is present, which is entering into alignment with what is taking place. It means seeing the situations in our life as workable and of enough importance to warrant our presence and active participation.
Working with the four areas of speech can help us see more directly into why they need to be changed. Bringing mindfulness into our speech can give us direct insight into the dispersive nature of much of our communication so that we can decide for ourselves what adjustments are important and a priority.
Right Speech offers simple guidelines for us to examine the quality of how we are putting our energy and influence into the world and the spaces we occupy.
The four factors can be accumulative. For example, lying creates separation. In important relationships it creates structures of falsity that consume energy. Lying has a habit of compounding and as our structures of falsity become challenged by the incursion of reality we can get aggressive, defensive and use slander and harshness to try to keep up the walls of our eroding edifice. As we find ourselves maintaining myths, we engage in superficiality to avoid plumbing any depths and opening to others in a way that may challenge the delicate structure of our fictional world.
Buddhism, as pragmatic as ever, provides a counter-list to set us straight. The four above are counteracted by their opposites, which I will define as the Four Positive Speech Factors;
1. Truthful speech
2. Speech that promotes harmony & friendship
3. Kind speech
4. Constructive speech
And I’m going to add a fifth of my own
Truthful speech is concerned with discipline and is in part an act of honestly evaluating what we can and cannot do, what we do and do not know, which has as much to do with how we present ourselves to the world as a package as it does with verbal discipline. Exaggerating our abilities is falsification, but so is underrating our natural talents. Claiming non-existent abilities is falsification, yet so is denying our talents and keeping them hidden from the world. For truthful speech to become a consistent reality we have to be clear about who we are as best we can. Truth as a modality of communication should exclude exaggeration, hiding things for personal gain, and attempting to manipulate.
We often have difficulty telling the truth consistently because we are confused, or distracted. We don’t know ourselves well enough and are unclear about where we are going and what we want. A consistent approach to expressing the truth requires a certain degree of precision in our communication and precision requires clarity and stability. From this we can start to see how Right Speech necessarily must arise out of the development of meditative practice. In order to stabilise presence of mind, awareness, and an understanding of where we are placing our attention, we need to have developed a certain mental capacity otherwise there is very little space for us to catch glimpses of what remains when we live outside of reactivity.
Truth emerges from clearly seeing what is unfolding and has little to do with preconceptions and beliefs. Truth emerges from an honest assessment of what we know, what we have done, where we are at and where we wish to go. This is clean, honest speech grounded in integrity. I am this. I am not this.And yes, this does fit into a view of ourselves as ultimately lacking a fixed-self. We are, excuse the phrase, multi-dimensional beings that is to say not that we exist contemporarily on multiple planes (it might be the case, I have no idea), but that we have multiple aspects that make up our being that need to be negotiated.
Speech that promotes harmony and friendship is fairly self-explanatory. Using speech divisively undermines relationships and encourages conflict. Hold on though, because avoiding necessary confrontation would be a failing here too. Confrontation is an essential element of balanced human communication. Typically Buddhists get confused into thinking that Right Speech is all about being nice and friendly and that harmony is based on smiles and politeness. This is total nonsense of course. Healthy adult relationships feature confrontation as an essential element of developing clarity and ongoing negotiation of the roles we inhabit. Confrontation is a meeting in a space of charged energy. Healthy confrontation establishes a space where we can address issues, iron out agreements, work through friction and address misunderstanding. This type of communication brings vitality and renewal into relationships. Confrontation can be scary for most, it challenges expectations, assumptions and shakes up the seemingly solid ground that we are stood on. Confrontation can take place though within clear set agreements and in a format that leads to growth, even when it is uncomfortable. Righteous anger has its place and is valuable fuel in motivating us to fight injustice and speak up for ourselves and challenge dis-empowering relationship dynamics where we accept the role of victim.
It important to make it explicit that following a code of Right Speech does not entail curtailing our natural proclivities to express ourselves. And in our fullness, expression takes on the full array of potential emotions and forms of speech. Right Speech should not be a linguistic prison that we lock ourselves into. We take the code and we use it to guide our relationship with speech as an ongoing process of developing awareness and choosing responsibly how to proceed.
On a more mundane level, creating harmony can imply simply smiling at an angry driver on the road instead of shouting back. It can mean meeting aggression with a question or invitation rather than an angry retort. It can also mean being willing to discuss what needs to be brought up to ensure movement towards understanding and harmony. Right Speech is not passive.
Kind Speech is a gift. To compliment. To teach. To share. To show the way. To ask after a person. To check in on a person’s well-being. To converse with another on a human level. To express patience. To express care in how we express our hurt, our anger, our needs. To listen. These are all acts of kind speech.
Constructive speech means building understanding. Being clear in what we are saying. Committing to discussing what is important. It means questioning too. We are part of the world, part of society, part of a family. Questioning to bring about constructive exchanges and develop mutual understanding and justice all sit here. These are acts of maturity.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Right Speech. Because speech is a form of action and brings us into direct contact with the world, it requires a little more exploration and explanation than some of the other elements of the Eightfold Path. Part two will explore the deeper meaning of authenticity and how we communicate with the entirety of our being.