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Is Buddha relevant for us? Part 6


Right Speech

We discussed earlier that Right View leads to Right Determination, and this should translate into a righteous way of life. Right determination must help us transform our body and mind into perfect instruments capable of experiencing Nirvana. Thought, speech and deed must become pure, truthful and harmonious. Until we achieve this no headway can be made in spiritual life.
Sila is the second stage in the scheme of Buddha’s spiritual disciplines. Sila is ethical, moral and harmonious conduct in life.

There are many people in this world who do not care for spiritual life. However, even they seek only happiness. Buddha’s teachings are meant to help both the worldly and spiritual people. Even those who aspire for worldly happiness cannot bypass Sila or the moral path. For Sila is harmony, without harmony there is no security and without dharma (ethics) there is no happiness. Dharma is happiness. We think we can cheat life and still obtain happiness by hook or by crook. The law of Karma is inexorable and extracts its toll.

For those who wish to follow the spiritual path Sila is a must and it manifests through thought, word and deed. The practice of Sila helps us develop a spiritual attitude towards life. According to Lord Buddha every spiritual aspirant must develop a spiritual attitude or a way of looking and interacting with the world. Without this special attitude one can hardly make any spiritual progress. Such an attitude involves developing Loving kindness, Compassion, Joy at the happiness of others,  and Equanimity. The practice of Sila helps in developing this special attitude. Sila primarily consists of three aspects: Right Speech , Right Livelihood, and Right Action. In this editorial we will discuss about Right Speech.

What is Right Speech? It is communicating information truthfully; It is a way of communicating to further our understanding of ourselves and others, and as a way to develop deeper insight into truth.

The Basics of Right Speech

As recorded in the Pali Canon Buddha taught:

a. Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.


b. Do not slander others or speak in a way that causes disharmony or enmity.

c. Abstain from rude, impolite or abusive language.


d. Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.

In practice these four aspects of Right Speech work out in a positive way. It means speaking truthfully and honestly; speaking in a way to promote harmony and good will; using language to reduce anger and ease tensions; using language in a way that is profitable to all in every way. Speaking rightly is a form of austerity. Sri Krishna teaches us: “Speaking only words that are inoffensive, true, pleasant and beneficial, as also regular recitation of scriptures, constitute austerity pertaining to speech.” (Bhagavad Gita, 17:15)

Thanks to the tremendous progress in telecommunications, ours has become an age of incessant talk and chattering. How much we talk and disturb both ourselves and others is indescribable. The harm we do thus to ourselves and others is immense. Truly we create noise pollution through TV, radio, phone, internet etc. One of the characteristics of a great man is the measure of his words. The great ones can communicate effectively more through silence than talking. We are living in an age where pleasure and profit (or lust and gold as Sri Ramakrishna puts it!) are often the only goals of life. Lying and cheating have become consummate arts, practised by politicians, business men, and all of us, often, in the name of etiquette and culture. He who can lie smoothly can achieve power and position.


Speech is very often employed to cloak ulterior motives. We lie to ourselves and cheat others, often without being aware of it!! If we look around we see plenty of this lying and cheating right at this very moment. The recent events illustrate this amply. Speeches are made to inflame passions and violence, to separate people into sectarian and ideological groups and to justify wars. How often do we hear a speech that leads to peace, communal welfare and harmony? Can a harsh speech justify a worthy cause? Can a lie ever bring peace? Even more damaging than these hypocritical speeches is the art of turning them into highly enjoyable sensationalism. (Our leaders routinely employ highly skilled writers to write their speeches!) As a general rule we tend to think of violent, hateful words as being less harmful than violent actions. Violent thoughts, words and actions are harmful to our own peace of mind quite apart from danger to others.

One of the requisites of Right Speech is the art of listening with love and attention. In one of his books, the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says,


“Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.”  


Practice of Right Speech

The Buddha lays down five conditions of Right Speech. He says: “These five conditions must be investigated in oneself. And what five conditions must be established in oneself?”
1) Do I speak at the right time or not?
2) Do I speak of facts or not?
3) Do I speak gently or harshly?
4) Do I speak profitable words or not?
5) Do I speak with a kindly heart, or am I inwardly

“O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in oneself and the following five must be established in oneself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another.”

How to admonish another skilfully

“O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another should do so after investigating five conditions in himself. What are the five conditions which he should investigate in himself?”
1) Am I one who practises purity in bodily action, flawless and untainted...?
2) Am I one who practises purity in speech, flawless and untainted...?
3) Is my heart of goodwill, free from malice, established in me towards fellow-farers in the holy life...?
4) Am I or am I not one who has heard much those teachings which are good alike in their beginning, middle, and ending, proclaiming perfectly the spirit of the purified holy life?
5) Are the Patimokkhas, (rules of conduct for monks and nuns) fully learned by heart, well-analyzed with thorough knowledge of their meanings, and known in minute detail by me?
Mindfulness is one of the requisites of Right Speech. We should be mindful of what’s going on inside ourselves. If we aren’t paying attention to our own emotions and taking care of ourselves, tension and suffering can build up.

If we are incapable of Right Speech it is better to remain silent. Silence is golden. True silence is much more than keeping quiet. It is creative, pure and harmonious. From pure, insightful, compassionate and deep thoughts come words of truth, wisdom and comfort.

Control of speech also helps us control the mind. A great Buddhist teacher, once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there is no way you can hope to control your mind. Those who talk too much will become restless. That is why right speech is so important in spiritual life.”

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When we make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, our words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what we say, and are more likely to respond in kind.

According to Shankara restraint of speech is the first step to Yoga, to Self-knowledge. Through Right Speech we grow in sattva which leads us to God.



Vedanta Magazine May - June 2011 


(to be continued) Swami Dayatmananda