Right Speech by Thanissaro Bhikkhu © 1999–2012 Alternate format: A printed copy is included in the book Noble Strategy.

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. Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person's feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all). Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. This helps get you in touch with all the machinations taking place in the committee of voices running your mind. If you see any unskillful motives lurking behind the committee's decisions, you veto them. As a result, you become more aware of yourself, more honest with yourself, more firm with yourself. You also save yourself from saying things that you'll later regret. In this way you strengthen qualities of mind that will be helpful in meditation, at the same time avoiding any potentially painful memories that would get in the way of being attentive to the present moment when the time comes to meditate. In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don't need to be a victim of past events. For many of us, the most difficult part of practicing right speech lies in how we express our sense of humor. Especially here in America, we're used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness — all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse. Actually, there's enough irony in the state of the world that we don't need to exaggerate or be sarcastic. The greatest humorists are the ones who simply make us look directly at the way things are. Expressing our humor in ways that are truthful, useful, and wise may require thought and effort, but when we master this sort of wit we find that the effort is well spent. We've sharpened our own minds and have improved our verbal environment. In this way, even our jokes become part of our practice: an opportunity to develop positive qualities of mind and to offer something of intelligent value to the people around us.

1964) (.. Much trouble and misunderstanding could be avoided if only people would be more thoughtful and gentle in what they say and more accurate and sincere in what they write.) Let us now consider Right Speech. but 'truth is one. Such a person. When you do. Colombo. for just a word can change a man's whole outlook towards good.' [5] The Master is also known'as Saccanama. speaks harsh and idle words.' [4] 'Because he speaks as he acts and acts as he speaks. selfishness and so on. it can play havoc. pride. and after death is reborn in an evil state of existence. Are we not really fortunate in this gift which is denied to animals? Yet how few of us care to use it for our own and others' welfare. and evil. He may seem strict. But if the tongue. [6] seems to have been on the worthlessness of falsehood (we know that children of tender age. The Buddha was so emphatic with regard to this evil of lying. often speak falsely). Speech is a gift of great value since through it we can express thoughts and ideas which can be shared with others." [1] 1. 'he whose name is Truth'. or to please another. Says the Buddha: "Monks. upright and dependable. He does not stray from the truth to win fame. there are these five disadvantages and dangers in garrulous speech: the glib talker utters falsehoods. and a glib tongue leads to all four types of wrong talk. 'The Buddha did not say one thing one day and the contrary the next. would not the world be a far better place to live in? Speech should not be dominated by unwholesome thoughts -. . he is called Tathagata. Much talk certainly prevents calmness and right thinking. you'll discover that an open mouth doesn't have to be a mistake. slanders. the first virtue is to abstain from falsehood and speak the truth. What a wonderful thing is speech. jealousy. as the Metta sutta says. for there is no second" [3]. nay transparently straight (uju. is allowed to become unruly. which is boneless and pliable..So pay close attention to what you say — and to why you say it. wittingly or not. is straight. the seven-year-old novice.by greed. Right Speech Piyadassi Mahathera (in "The Buddha’s Ancient Path". anger. He is sincere. that his first lesson to little Rahula. Is it not responsible for much strife and trouble from squabbles between families to wars between nations? If man could but tame his tongue. suju) [2]. In the context of right speech.

he says what is false because his report is untrue and then he back-bites. . empty? . I say that there is no evil that he cannot do. having poured a little water into a vessel. Rahula. Then the Master having uprighted the vessel addressed the novice: . venerable sir. void and empty is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to lie . Little Rahula paid obeisance to the Blessed One and sat at one side.Yes. Wherefore. this little quantity of water left in the vessel ? . indeed. Rahula. .Do you note. Slander or tale-bearing (pisunavaca) is the next evil that the tongue can commit.Even so.Even so. The Pali word means literally 'breaking up of fellowship'. should you train yourself: 'Not even for fun will I tell a lie.. Rahula. overturned. is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to lie. Then the Master having thrown away the water addressed the novice: . Rahula. see this water vessel that is void.Do you. .Even so. Rahula. Then the Master overturned the water vessel and addressed the novice: . The latter got a seat ready and water for washing the feet. see this vessel that has been overturned? . see.Do you. thus. indeed. is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to lie. To slander another is most wicked for it entails making a false statement intended to damage someone's reputation. The Master washed his feet and sat down. Rahula. . said: . that little quantity of water thrown away? . venerable sir. Rahula. The slanderer often commits two crimes simultaneously. indeed. Rahula. Then the Master. .Yes.. Even so. Rahula. Rahula (citing the simile of a king's elephant) of anyone who is not ashamed to lie. insignificant is the recluseship of those who are not ashamed to lie.Yes." [7] 2.Once the Blessed One visited little Rahula.Do you.Yes. venerable sir. venerable sir. discarded.Even so.

' said the Buddha. As the Buddha says: 'In man's mouth a hatchet grows With which fools will cut themselves When they utter evil words. friendship and. On the way a . 3. We should think twice before we speak ill of anyone. 'Be united. a friend into a foe. People would fling them a few coppers to be rid of them. we must learn to live together in peace. a crooked smile. "Concord alone is commendable' (samavayo eva sadhu) [9] was inscribed by Asoka on stone. for this does not lead to unpleasantness and heart-burning. Again the talebearer's words may be sweet as honey. Even friends. may turn a good-natured man into a criminal. good repute or ill. went to a park with his mother and retainers. draws blood and may. give you malaria. A gentle word can melt the hardest heart. when praising another. his good name. an unpleasant gesture. relatives. The next virtue is to abstain from harsh words and be pleasant and courteous. The devout followers of the Buddha besought the Master not to enter the city until the festival was over. but his mind is full of poison. Painful is vindictive talk. Then the Buddha said: 'Foolish and uninstructed dolts are offensive like that. [12] One of the past stories of the Bodhisatta tells how he weaned his otherwise good mother from harsh speech. wrangle not. misery or happiness. let us bring peace and friendship to those living in discord and enmity.harmony. did not want to hurt her by speaking too plainly. [10] In the Buddha's day a festival called 'Simpletons' Holiday (Balamakkhatta) was sometimes held in which only the simple minded took part.In Sanskrit poetry the back-biter is compared to a mosquito which though small is noxious. For those accosted will retort. For a week they smeared their bodies with ashes and cowdung and wandered about abusing and shouting coarsely at people. But it does not matter if. Instead of causing trouble let us speak words that make for peace and reconciliation. Since we depend on one another. while a harsh word can cause untold agony. 'Speak not harshly to anyone. What we say can bring gain or loss. who was then king of Benares. ascetics and monks were not spared. but the wise cultivate mindfulness and attain the Deathless Nibbana. One day the Bodhisatta. we slightly overpaint the picture. A harsh word. [11] Man's speech often indicates his character. It is said that she was rude and ill-tongued. aware of the weakness. It comes singing. but that her son. for it is an attempt to damage his character. You may receive blows in exchange.. which distroy friendships. praise or blame. Let us then avoid tale-bearing and slander. if a female. [8] Instead of sowing the seed of dissension. settles on you.

. The fourth and last virtue concerned with right speech is to abstain from frivolous talk or gossip which brings no profit to anyone. is always simple. of maliciously disparaging others. The papers in their gossip columns are just as bad. 'Better than a thousand sentences -. the language which couies from the heart. amusing themselves at the expense of others.blue jay screeched so discordantly that all covered their ears and cried: 'What a harsh call. (muni)" [20] In conclusion let us listen to the discourse on 'Good Speech': [21] . monks. 'silence is golden' so do not speak unless you are sure you can improve on silence.' Thus exhorted by her son." [16] A sage is sometimes called by the Pali word muni which means one who keeps silent.' [17] 'One does not become a wise man just by talking a lot. either talk about the Dhamma (the Doctrine) or keep nobly silent '. Through silence misfortune is avoided. frivolous and too often a dirty business in which neighbours are made enemies for life'..waiting. [15] The Buddha was very critical of idle chatter. Hollard says: 'Gossip is always a personal confession either of malice or imbecility. the Buddha also says: 'To keep silent does not turn a foolish ignoramus into a sage. The Buddha's golden advice is: 'When. anywhere. should be friendly and restrained. The talkative parrot in a cage is shut. therefore. calm and full of meaning. graceful and full of power. what a screech! Don't let us hear that again. the mother became refined in speech and elegant in manners. Men and women with time on their hands indulge in endless chatter. yet how often is beauty marred by rude talk. Yes. This was the moment for which the Bodhisatta had been. As J. the jay's cry was dreadful and we covered our ears rather than listen to it.is one sensible phrase on hearing which one is pacified.a mere jumble of meaningless words -. It is a low.' Now it happened later that when the Bodhisatta was strolling in the pleasance with his mother and retainers. He said: 'Mother dear. L. [18] neither is he versed in the doctrine (Dhammadhara) because he speaks much. 'The language of the heart. One's speech. While birds that cannot talk fly freely.. [13] Pleasant and courteous speech attracts and is an asset to society. you have gathered together there are two things to be done. No one delights in a coarse language. People are too fond of idle talk. 'Much talking is a source of danger. an Indian cuckoo called so sweetly that the people were happy and hoped that it would sing again. scandal and rumour for they disturb serenity and concentration. Though dark and without beauty the cuckoo won the love and attention of all with its pleasing call.' [14] 4.' [19] And lest one should misunderstand the silence of the muni.

can there be an alternative (dyejjham)?' [5] D. 26. a-dhamma is its opposite. 374 [15] M. [8] M.'The good say: 1. In truth. 12 verse 110: cf. p. 884 [4] Advejjhavacana Buddha. p. 259 [20] Dhp. 269 [14] C. it is an ancient law. 38 and passim. not unpleasant. iii. [16] Dhp. Such words are good indeed. [22] Dhamma here implies speech full of meaning and free from gossip. iii. 61. Sn. 31. i. 135. no. 403 'How. [9] Inscription. 12 [10] S. I. indeed. Speak the Dhamma not a-dhamma: [22] 3. Say what is pleasant. Noble speech is apt. 254 [2] See above. p. 115 [3] Sn. Boyee. A. sutta 29 [6] He joined the Order at the age of seven [7] M. N. Speak what is true. Bv. Com. 100. 2. 149 [11] Dhp. [12] Dhp. 61 [18] Dhp. iii. Speak only words that do not bring remorse Nor hurt another. no. p. p. Wisdom of the Ages. Ud. The Buddha's words of peace to Nibbana lead. 4. 27. . To suffering's end. Truth is immortal speech. 256. 268 [21] Subhasita-sutta. when I have definitely declared it. 133 [13] Jat. weal and Dhamma the sages are established. [17] See Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrine.' Notes: [1] A. not lies. That is good speech. 238 [19] Dhp.

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