The first of the three ethics trainings is Right Speech. The point of Right Speech is to continually bring ourselves back to the present moment, for ourselves and for others. Right Speech helps us realize what leads us out of confusion and bondage. It helps us see what’s really going on; see what will lead us and others into hatred, confusion, difficulty and suffering; and, see what words and actions will lead us into peace, harmony, understanding, and compassion.
Our intention and the speech or actions that arise from that intention is the bottom line. The intent is that we all become free of our confusion and suffering so right speech includes everything – the whole picture. Then we can speak and act in a way that’s conducive to awakening. We must observe our own intentions, so that we know when we’re speaking out of a desire to bring about a certain end or if we’re speaking the truth.
Another thing about Right Speech to remember is that when Buddhism was established, communication was almost exclusively through the spoken word. But, in our culture Right Speech really means “Right Communication” and it includes all forms of communication such as television, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertising and, of course, the internet. So, Right Speech means using communication as a way to further our understanding of ourselves and others and as a way to develop insight.
The Buddha gave us five keys to Right Speech:
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”— AN V.198
- Frivolous Talk. The Buddha recognized the importance of speaking in a wholesome and productive way. What we say should benefit ourselves and others: He said, “He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful.” Speech,should be “like a treasure, uttered at the right moment…moderate and full of sense.”
- Speak the Truth. Tell no lies. We are told it is best to tell the truth, to avoid deceiving another with our speech, and to be trustworthy. He said, “called upon and asked as a witness to tell what he knows, he answers if he knows nothing: ‘I know nothing’, and if he knows, he answers ‘I know’.” The Buddha also said, “For the person who transgresses in one thing, I tell you, there is no evil deed that is not to be done. Which one thing? This: telling a deliberate lie.”
- Avoid harsh abusive language; speak kindly. This is speech that is designed to hurt others. In stead he said we are to be gentle and polite in our speech, “friendly and full of sympathy…with heart full of love, and free from any hidden malice.” Jesus said that it isn’t what we put into our mouths that defiles us, but rather what comes out.
- Use words to help, not harm. Right Speech reminds us to refrain from using speech that is decisive or disruptive, judgmental or self-righteous.
- Don’t gossip or tell tales. Telling tales creates distrust. The Buddha’s teaching is: “What he has heard here, he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there, he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here.”
Cynthia Kane wrote, “gossip creates a sense that you are either “better than” or “worse than” those you gossip about (typically the former). I believe that most gossip stems from envy, as at some point in the past we have been envious of the person we are now gossiping about. This is fairly obvious when it comes to celebrity gossip, as when famous people are shown to have normal human issues and shortcomings, we rejoice in the fact that they aren’t so “special” after all. When we see our gossiping as a product of envy, we can instead challenge ourselves to replace it with one or two of the other four immeasurables… sympathetic joy and compassion.”