Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.
Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent. (Dionysius Of Halicarnassus)
If you want to stop suffering, says the Buddha throughout the Discourses, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end.
And what, monastics, is the noble truth of the practice leading to the cessation of suffering? It is precisely this noble eightfold path, that is, right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samādhi.
(The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, MN 10, tr. Bhikkhu Bodhi)
It is “eightfold” in the sense not of eight steps to be taken consecutively, but of eight branches to one trunk, or eight tributaries flowing into one river: each of these is essential to getting you there, but all eight have to be involved. Among the eight, some are more spiritually “glamorous” than others, and of the homely ones none seems plainer than “right speech.” Yet right speech turns out to be a powerful practice that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, transforming us both inside and out.
And what is right speech? Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech. This is called ‘right speech’.
The terse statement seems so innocuous and unobjectionable, but let’s see how the Buddha unpacks it.
In one of the shorter suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha engages Cunda the Silversmith in a discussion of Hindu rituals of purification, and then describes what purification means for a follower of the new path. Quite simply, the Buddha undertakes “purification” of three things: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action. If these are “impure,” all the rituals with water and fire will do us no good; and if these are “pure,” the rituals with water and fire will be redundant. In other words, attending to what we do — physically, verbally, and mentally — is a sufficient practice for “purification.” “Right speech” gives us n excellent example of the kind of thing the Buddha means by “purification.”
It is often remarked that if you cannot control your mouth, you have no hope of controlling your mind. Most people spend the first decade of their lives learning Elementary Right Speech: how to interact politely, respectfully, inoffensively, when to speak, when not to speak, and so on. Then we spend another decade on Intermediate Right Speech, which involves techniques of argumentation and presentation, the expression of more complex feelings and ideas, the heuristic and forensic uses of language. Some of what we study at these two levels is bottomless; even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak cannot be determined by formula, and the knowledge of “when” is refined over a lifetime. But are we ever taught that we can use language in such a way as to improve ourselves or harm ourselves? Here we begin to enter on Advanced Right Speech, in which we become more consciously skilled with our words. Each act we commit feeds and waters a sprout that can grow into a habit; insofar as thoughts and statements are also actions, they too have the power to grow into habits and thus change us. When we become aware of the effects of our words, both on ourselves and on others, we realize that every word we utter makes a mark, and nothing we say can be deleted. The Buddha points out that our own speech can make us “impure” — confused, muddy, self-evading, increasingly unable to separate truth from untruth. He elaborates:
“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”
The four ways are: 1) telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately loosen our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves; 2) saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust — and at the same time turning into the kind of spiteful little creature who delights in dragging other people down; 3) uttering words designed to hurt and upset, sowing internal strife in those around us and undermining their capacity for contentment; and 4) filling precious silence with babble that can matter to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. This fourth impure way is the hardest for a modern to understand, so accustomed are we to our sound-realms constantly being filled with “entertainment” or commentary; silence disturbs us, it is “awkward.” Just from a single day’s experience with social media posts, I can cull dozens of examples of each of the “four ways”: posts that are careless of truth and factually reckless, posts that are sure to turn some group of people against another and drive them both farther into contention, posts that we know will hurt and anger someone, and posts that are just for posting’s sake, for “fun.” The effect of all of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.
When we become more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, the opposite happens, and we find ourselves becoming better people:
“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”
Here we are introduced to the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who nonetheless never speaks in such a way as to cause discord, and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; who is always to the point, and always worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being — one that we can all aspire to become.
The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced, for at the beginning of each day we can actually articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of right speech with regard to the particular people and situations of our daily lives; and at the end of the day we can reflect, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice, and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook? Underlying all of these questions is the bigger question about motivation: Why did I speak, what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions.
A habit of self-reflection tends to make us more moderate and judicious, but minding our mouths develops the special kind of intelligence that is attuned to the intricate mysteries of language. We are never done with the work of Right Speech; it becomes more challenging and more interesting the better we become at it, and it is work that never stops expanding our minds and hearts. I still think about ways I could have said things better fifty years past, and the good or bad effect of things that were said to me long ago — for every utterance is a seed that cannot be prevented from growing into something. The discipline of Right Speech has its focus on small, particular instances, but each of these instances is potentially fathomless in its reach. Because of this, Right Speech is a practice that will tend to make a person more grounded, attentive, observant, present — and at the same time, imaginative, far-sighted, open to other people and to other possibilities. Minding the mouth is a richly rewarding practice for a thoughtful person, and a valuable discipline for a less thoughtful person.
The wonder is that we can all do this; every human being is capable of undertaking Right Speech and of self-reflection, and even if in certain situations objective clarity is hard to attain, we can always consult our friends. In the Pali Discourses, the Buddha’s gift is twofold: a vision, and a practice. He always gives us something we can do — indeed, that we can start doing now, wherever we are, by ourselves. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.
The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith (tr.Thanissaro, Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176) can be found here:
The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation (tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) can be found here: