The Eightfold Path, part 3
This article is the third in an eight-part series on the Eightfold Path, a core teaching from early Buddhism. I introduced the Eightfold Path in the first article in the series, so go back and check that out if you haven't heard of it before. (You can find links to all the articles in this series on the index page in the 'Buddhist theory' section.)
This week we're going to take a look at the third aspect of the path: right speech.
Sometimes the Eightfold Path is divided into three subsections - sīla (ethics, morality), samādhi (meditation) and pañña (wisdom). We've already covered the wisdom section - right view and right intention. Right speech is the first of three aspects which make up the ethical component of the path, along with right action and right livelihood. We can look at these as offering suggestions for how to put into practice the intention of harmlessness, as discussed in the article on right intention.
Why should we be concerned with Buddhist ethics?
Before we go any further, I should say that my intention in writing these articles is not to 'preach Buddhism' or to tell you how to live your life, and I'm sorry if it comes across that way at any point. I regard each aspect of the Eightfold Path as something to explore for myself, in my own way and in my own life. Personally, I've found each of the eight aspects to be very rewarding both to contemplate and to put into practice, so I'd like to offer these to you as possibilities for you to do the same. Even if your primary interest is meditation practice, however, there can be great value in taking the ethical teachings on board.
On one level, as I noted above, Buddhist ethics is about the intention of harmlessness - living a life which minimises the suffering that we cause to others and to ourselves. The various aspects of the ethical teachings thus give us lenses to examine our behaviour and relationships. As we examine these closely, we may find more than just the obvious sources of suffering - we may start to notice ways in which we have unintentionally been causing harm, for example. We may also start to appreciate more the wider ramifications of our actions, and ultimately the interconnected nature of all things, which can open up perspectives on dependent origination.
On a practical level, we may also notice that taking the ethical teachings on board actually helps our meditation practice. Intentionally causing harm often weighs on our minds and bubbles back to the surface when we sit in meditation, causing us great discomfort. By comparison, leading a blameless life tends to leave us with fewer regrets and worries, provided we have a relaxed attitude to it rather than a puritanical, self-punishing one.
So now let's take a look at each of the four aspects of right speech mentioned by the Buddha above. Speech is immensely powerful, and we can cause great harm if we aren't careful - in a moment of careless, hurtful speech we can severely damage a relationship that took months or years to build up. So it's in our interest to wield its power carefully!
Lying ('false speech')
First in the Buddha's list is lying, often translated as 'false speech'. Lies come on a spectrum, from large, malicious falsehoods intended to deceive and manipulate for significant personal gain (we might think of certain politicians, Ponzi schemes and so on), all the way down to 'little white lies' intended to smooth over a social situation. Most of us have a sense that some lies are worse than others, and we each have a degree of tolerance for where we draw the line and start to feel like we're doing something wrong, or at least risky, when we tell a lie.
There's a lot to be said for telling the truth. As Mark Twain said, 'If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.' And studies have shown that people who lie a lot actually have more memory problems in the long run, presumably because their heads are full of so many different versions of events that they can't keep track of them all any more.
Personally, I don't like the feeling that telling an overt lie gives me, so I tend not to do it that much, but I've noticed that I'll often bend the truth to present myself a certain way in social situations, especially if I'm meeting someone new - it's surprisingly common that someone will say 'You've heard of X, right?', and if their tone of voice suggests that of course I should have heard of it because everyone who's anyone has heard of it, I'll almost certainly smile, nod and say 'yup', generally while making a mental note to look it up later and hoping that the conversation isn't going to get too much into the fine details of whatever the heck it is.
Routinely telling the truth has the advantage that people are likely to come to trust your word - when you say something, you'll be taken seriously, because you have a proven track record of speaking the truth. You also don't need to worry about being 'found out'. Conversely, if do tell lies then you have to live with the fear of the truth coming to light (which is the sort of thing that can easily disturb your meditation sessions!), and if you're caught out in a lie even a few times, other people will rapidly lose respect for you, and you'll have a harder time persuading people of something unlikely even when it really is true, because they've grown used to taking your words with a pinch of salt.
Next we have divisive speech - back-biting, gossip, propaganda, pitting 'us' against 'them'. This kind of speech is pretty horrible to be on the wrong end of, but it can exert a strong appeal if we have the chance to be the ones in control. Humans are social animals, and our brains have a hard-wired sense of our 'in-group' - so if we can use our speech to define that in-group, we have a lot of social power. However, it comes at a cost. Even 'harmless' gossip can upset someone if they subsequently find out that you were talking about them behind their back. Betraying a confidence or exposing someone's embarrassing secret can cause severe or even irreparable damage to a relationship. Plus, it's not cool.
Another dark side to this kind of speech is that, although it may make us feel powerful in the moment as we casually demonise someone on the fringes of a social group, in the long run it may actually undermine your relationships with the people who you're gossiping or complaining to, since they may begin to wonder if you similarly talk about them when they're not around.
Yet another potential issue with this kind of situation is that you might not be the only one engaging in divisive speech - if it’s normal within your social group to do this, then others might be talking about you behind your back, as well. Again, this is the kind of thing that could easily lead to disturbance in the mind when you’re trying to meditate, worrying what other people might be saying about you in your absence.
As with lying, harsh speech is something where we each have our own threshold for what’s OK. I have friends who won’t tolerate any kind of profanity at all, and I have other friends who use profanity as naturally as breathing. For me personally, intent is more important than the words themselves, but if I notice that someone else is more careful with their language then I’ll try to do the same in their presence.
Harsh speech isn’t just about swearing, though - it’s about how we speak to people more generally. In the era of the Internet we’ve all seen seemingly minor disagreements blow up into angry screaming matches with apparently very little provocation.
I’ve heard a variety of arguments in favour of anger. In particular, I’m aware that, for people who have been raised and socialised in such a way as to deny or suppress their anger, learning to reclaim and express that anger can be a necessary and even healthy part of overcoming their conditioning. As a day-to-day strategy, though, my observation is that yelling at someone rarely achieves the outcome you want - and even if it does, the other person doesn’t comply because their mind has changed or because they suddenly want to do it, but simply to make your anger go away.
Anger - like many other negative emotions - can also have a self-reinforcing quality. As we spend more and more time feeling anger, our world view changes, becoming harder and more critical - and giving us more causes for anger. Needless to say, quite apart from making you a more challenging person to be around, an excess of anger can also have a profoundly destabilising quality on your meditation practice. That’s not to say that we should try to suppress it when it arises - it’s better to let it come and go without getting caught up in it - but in the context of right speech it’s certainly worth inquiring as to whether yelling at people when they’ve annoyed us is really having the effect we want it to.
Talking nonsense ('idle chatter')
The final category is nonsense, also known as idle chatter. This is the kind of speech where people are speaking just to hear their own voice. It isn’t necessarily harmful but it isn’t meaningful either. The Buddha cautioned his followers against this kind of speech as being a waste of energy that could more usefully be applied in other directions.
In modern life, I think we need a bit of balance here. Sometimes the function of conversation is about connecting with people, maintaining our relationship without necessarily communicating important information. For me, that’s still worthwhile. But there’s a balance to be found. The more we talk just to fill the silence, the more people grow accustomed to the idea that usually we aren’t saying anything worth listening to. And if we feel compiled to fill social silences with noise, we’re likely to do the same with our mental silences in meditation too.
One very powerful off-cushion practice that we can use to explore our speech is to look at the intention behind what we're saying. What are we trying to achieve? Are we imparting useful, timely information? Are we connecting with a friend? Are we trying to make someone like us? Are we trying to persuade someone to do what we want? Are we exaggerating for effect, and does the other person know that? And so on. I won't say too much more about this because I'd rather you explored for yourself rather than having me tell you what to look for, but I will say that closely examining the intentions behind your speech can tell you a great deal about yourself.
Going in a totally different direction, a meditation practice which can help if we experience a lot of harsh self-talk (or just a lot of internal idle chatter) is the use of a mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase which we deliberately repeat, over and over.
My teacher Leigh Brasington first introduced me to the use of the mantra 'Buddho' (which means 'knowing') as an aid to concentration practice - you silently say the first syllable, 'bud', on the in-breath, and the second syllable, 'dho', on the out-breath.
I've also sat a retreat with another teacher, Jason Bartlett, who suggested using it differently - beginning by speaking the mantra aloud if you like, and going quickly enough that there's no gap for other thoughts to sneak in. As the practice stabilises, you may find that you intuitively shift to saying the mantra silently rather than aloud, and you might find that the speed changes. Go with it - trust the practice to take you where you need to go.
The use of a mantra can be a great help in settling the mind because it fills up the mental 'channel' which would otherwise be open for wandering thoughts and internal chatter to come along. As the mind settles, the mantra can also turn into an insight practice - we can turn our attention to whatever it is which is silently saying the mantra in our own mind, and study that, while simply allowing the mantra to continue in the background.
Give these practices a go and see how you get on! I hope that you find some value in the principles and practices of right speech in your own life.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!