A Dharma Chat: Right Speech
- By Fa Gong, OHY
- Jul 01
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Right Speech is not just about morality, or even limited to wisdom teachings. It is also about Right Mindfulness and contemplative discipline, about identifying, labeling, and being mindful of thoughts -- all of the ego's chit-chat. We can, in fact use Right Speech as the bedrock and cornerstone of our entire moral and meditative practice, a complete "spiritual technology" in its own right.
Sometimes, one can look at the elements of the Eightfold Path and reflect on what seems to be their relative gravitas. Right Understanding and Right Thought, for instance, appear to lend themselves well to meaty discussion, and Right Livelihoodcertainly seems to provide much room for speculative moral musings. And certainly, considerations on Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness can send us on a seemingly unending journey through the more profound contributions of Buddhist metaphysics.
But Right Speech? Well - what can we say? How many times can you say "don't lie," or "don't gossip?" Anything after that can appear a little like we're trying to expand on the principle for its own sake.
Certainly, many respected Buddhist scholars have demonstrated that Right Speechis, in its own right, a directive of great value outside of the "don't lie or gossip" simplicity that it often seems limited to. Nonetheless, it is still an element of the Noble Eightfold Path easily glossed over. Perhaps it is, to some, just another example of a spiritual "technology:" not worthy of much attention.
I would like to offer my considerations regarding Right Speech, and hopefully demonstrate that it contains all the power, profundity and subtlety required to be an extraordinarily valuable tool in not only developing moral strength, but also wisdom and contemplative achievement.
Consider the Ten Grave Precepts as enunciated by the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun;
6. Non-denigration (abstaining from denigrating others)
7. Non-pompous (abstaining from elevating ourselves above others)
8. Non-penurious (abstaining from stinginess or miserliness)
10. Non-vacillant (vowing to be unwavering in spiritual pursuits, and abstaining from speaking ill of the Three Treasures.
There is immediately a point of important reflection to be noted here: four of these ten relate directly to the ordered, responsible and compassionate use of speech!
Typically, the Eightfold Path is categorized into the three divisions: "morality," "wisdom" and "meditation/mental discipline." Right Thought and Right Understanding constitute the "wisdom" component, Right Action, and Right Livelihood and Right Speech the "morality" aspect. Right Effort, Right Mindfulnessand Right Concentration/Meditation complete the "meditation/mental discipline" trilogy.
That Right Speech is categorized as being a part of the "morality" instructions of the Eightfold Path makes obvious sense. To lie, deceive, mislead, distract, demoralize or confuse others clearly constitutes an assault on their right to attain peace and wisdom in their lives. And to use speech maliciously, ignorantly or frivolously can seriously divert our focus and energies away from the hard work required of Zen.
Buddha spoke of four types of "unwholesome" applications of speech: lying, telling tales, harsh speech, and frivolous talk.
In regards to lying, 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'". Speech is not to "gild the lily" of reality, it is not to add or subtract from the experienced reality. Right Speech is about using words to reflect and relay, not distort.
Buddha also exhorted against "telling tales." He said, " 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."
In relation to harsh speech, Buddha advised we be "friendly and full of sympathy...with heart full of love and free from any hidden malice" and that our words and our communications reflect this.
Perhaps most difficult for us is trying to live up to Buddha's reflection on avoiding frivolous talk in our daily lives. Buddha advised us to be like the person who "speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful." Words should be "like a treasure, uttered at the right moment...moderate and full of sense."
We all know our words can have very significant effects on others. Not simply because of the damage and "disinformation" they can cause in the hands of politicians, media, demagogues and the like, but in the way they can cause harm in smaller, more "local" ways; the sense of hope or hopelessness they may cause, the sense of confidence or dismay they may elicit, and the sense of value or worthlessness they may cause us to apply to the measure of our lives.
Further, our words can mislead even where we have the best intentions. Hsu Yun related this story about Chan master Pai Chang who liberated a wild fox.
One day, after a Ch'an meeting, although all his disciples had retired, the old master Pai Chang noticed an elderly man who remained behind. Pai Chang asked the man what he was doing and he replied: "I am not a human being but the spirit of a wild fox. In my previous life I was the head-monk of this place. One day, a monk asked me, 'Does a man practicing self-cultivation, still involve himself in retribution?' I replied, 'No, he is free from engaging in retribution.' Because of this exchange I got involved in retribution and have now been the spirit of a wild fox for five hundred years, and am still unable to get away from it. Will the master be compassionate enough to enlighten me on this?'" Pai Chang said to the old man: "Ask me again the same question." The man then said to the master: "I wish to ask the master this: Does one who practices self-cultivation still get involved in retribution?" Pai Chang replied: "He is not blind to cause and effect." Thereupon, the old man was greatly awakened; he prostrated himself before the master to thank him and said: "I am indebted to you for your reply to the question and I am now liberated from the fox's body. I live in a grotto on the mountain behind here and hope you will grant me the usual rites for a dead monk." The following day, Pai Chang went to the mountain behind the monastery where, in a small grotto, he probed the ground with his staff and discovered a dead fox. The usual funeral rites for a dead monk were held.
Here we have an example of speech used without malice, but equally without wisdom, for which the speaker and the hearer were impelled into a further deepening of ignorance and karmic repercussion.
The law of karma, such as it is, is "no respecter of persons." Nor is it a respecter of intentions. The unskillful use of speech often leads to harmful consequences, and it pays to keep our counsel until we know exactly what we want to say, and what our motivations are for saying it.
Jesus reportedly said "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who trusts in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck."
Consider also the typical opening stanza to many Buddhist sutras, the phrase "Thus have I heard." Those who compiled the sutras were careful to ensure that all they were doing was reporting teachings that were heard, to the best of their ability. These compilers recognised their responsibility, and wanted to ensure they misled no-one, and that they did not seek to arrogate to themselves the position of "authority." There is not necessarily an indication here of willful misinformation, but there is a recognition that there are repercussions to unskillful language. Right Speech carries with it moral responsibility.
Consider too, a typical introduction to a lecture by Hsu Yun when he prefaced his teaching with: "I, Hsu Yun, feel really ashamed of my incompetence in religion and lack of virtue. I am not qualified to give instruction and can only pick up a few sentences left behind by the ancients in reply to your questions."
Hsu Yun further elaborated on the problems of using speech to teach when he said "A good teacher is better than the most sacred books. Books contain words, and Chan cannot be transmitted by mere words. I suppose you will think, 'Well, if this old man says that words are useless why does he talk so much?' Religion has many mysteries and why teachers say that words can never suffice and then talk and talk until their students' ears turn to stone is perhaps the greatest mystery of them all." Certainly, it is a hallmark teaching of both Taoism and Chan that the Truth which can be spoken, cannot be the Truth.
And so, not only for august teachers, but for all who seek to communicate truthfully regarding any matter, it is well to remember that Right Speech contains particularly important lessons and significant responsibilities relating to moral behaviour and self-examination.
Upon further reflection, we can also see that Right Speech impacts well beyond the basic requirements for moral behavior. It also provides an extraordinarily fruitful avenue for developing wisdom, and goes hand in hand with Right Understandingand Right Thought.
Throughout my life, I seem to have been a source of great mirth, and sometimes consternation, to family and friends due to my tendency to become animatedly involved in in-depth discussions with the television. Although I increasingly tend to question the value of my own opinions, it is still my nature to express my opinions forthrightly. My passionate explanations to politicians on the television regarding precisely why they might be hypocrites, and explaining (to the television) in detail my reasons for arriving at this opinion, I suppose might seem a little odd. (Even more odd, I suppose, was yesterday when England beat Australia in the Cricket Finals. I spent a good 10 minutes explaining to the English captain how and why this particular sporting travesty wouldn't be repeated at the World Cup next month! If it's not obvious, I'm an Australian.)
Now, until such time that my television starts answering me back, I am more than happy to tolerate this little foible without thinking I'm beginning to lose my grip. But, like all areas of our lives, this particular foible can be instructive. Perhaps you, the reader, are also a "tele-talker?" Or perhaps you just swear at the lawnmower and denounce the vacuum-cleaner when it misbehaves? Do you find yourself talking out loud sometimes, muttering over perceived grievances, or happily outlining future plans … all when there's nobody else around?
I'm sincerely hoping there are a readers out there answering "yes;" if not, my foible is a little more of a worry!
So, who, precisely, are we talking to? There's no-one there! What we do have, for want of a more clinical term, is a "projected witness."
When we preen in front of the mirror, or even without a mirror, not only do we look at ourselves, we seek to please this "projected witness." I wonder, did Jim Carrey's movie "The Truman Show" resonate with so many people because they can relate to that tiny little fantasy in themselves that perhaps there's an entire audience out there watching our guilty pleasures, or our petty crimes? Could we even go so far as to say that the creation of an external judge, or "God", who can see our every move is our own "projected witness" writ large? Anyway, enough of the speculation, it is enough to be able to point to this human tendency to perform to an audience, even when there is no-one there.
So where is the relevance here to Right Speech? If I were to say that my attempts to persuade others regarding my views and opinions were, in reality, a reflection of my wanting to project and communicate with an "ego image," then those familiar with Buddhist psychology might understand the point I was making. However, why do I do much the same thing when no-one is around? After all, don't we require an audience in order to create and maintain our contrived ego-image? "Labeling theory," popular with sociologists and psychologists, suggests that this "I", this ego-image, is a result of the interaction between ourselves and people around us. Famously, "I am not who I think I am, I am not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am."
But why do we do much the same thing, even when we're alone? Because, simply, the ego doesn't need an audience of "others" to do its work! We need "otherness" in order to create a sense of separation, of distinction, of ego - but our ego is canny, and its need to exist is powerful. And so, even in the absence of others, it will project this witness as an external audience. An interesting portrayal of this tendency is when Tom Hanks' character in the movie "Castaway" develops an entire and meaningful relationship with a volleyball he names "Wilson".
In the absence of any other people, we talk to ourselves. We try to convince ourselves. We try to persuade ourselves. We even try to make ourselves look good to ourselves. All this is done in order for the ego to avoid dealing with one of the fundamental truths we approach with Right Understanding, and that is that we have no permanent, abiding persona.
Next time you watch television, or read the opinions of someone that you disagree with, consider who it is you are convincing or attempting to persuade with your thoughts and comments, or what opinions or ego-state you are trying to reinforce - even when there is no-one there to hear you.
Right Speech then becomes a significant issue that can either enhance Right Understanding or it can severely undermine it. For instance, going on a retreat for ten days in order to benefit from the temporary isolation from others and the world, with its opinions and its confusions, can be of enormous benefit. Certainly, this time alone can help us get in touch with that silent, quintessential Self that resides behind opinions and viewpoints. But this solitude can be rendered entirely ineffective if we don't also address the "internal chatter" that the ego keeps going, incessantly. This internal chatter continues to express opinions, fears and anxieties, and in so doing, further establishes its own identity. Right Speech then applies not only to how we speak to others, but by regulating and being mindful ofwhat we say to ourselves.
Certainly, Right Speech has profoundly moral implications with how we communicate with others, and it has the power to either encourage or undermine self-awareness, cultivation, and the development of a still mind.
Further to our reflections upon Right Speech and its relevance to not only morality, but also to wisdom, we can benefit greatly from realising that Mahayana scholars and sages, in particular, have provided us with centuries worth of insight into how profound vistas of meaning can be found in even the most simple instructions.
Still, when confronted with Precepts as apparently simple as "Non-Lying" or exhortations to Right Speech, I believe it is important to examine what else may lie behind such apparent simplicity. Consider, for example, the commentary of both Bodhidharma and Dogen Zenji in relation to the Precept of "Non-Lying".
Bodhidharma said "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the inexplicable Dharma, not preaching a single word is called the Precept of Not Lying".
Dogen Zenji said "The Dharma Wheel turns from the beginning. There is neither surplus nor lack. The whole universe is moistened with nectar, and the truth is ready to harvest."
There is certainly more we can learn from the Precepts and the Eightfold Path than simply instructions on how to behave.
Pondering on issues such as this, we also have to consider the extent to which an unspoken thought is still an expression of speech. I may say a "metta" prayer before meditation, and I may say it either out loud, or inside my own head. All the implications of Right Speech, in the context I briefly raised above, apply equally to either method of prayer. And so it clearly follows that our thoughts can also be regarded as speech - speech to ourselves, to our gods, or to our "projected witness".
In such a way, Right Speech not only overlaps significantly with Right Thought, but also with Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration/Meditation. Anyone who practices meditation and mindfulness regularly knows full well that the mind won't shut up, it won't leave you alone. But, as the great meditation masters regularly point out, having thoughts isn't the problem, it's the "pursuit" of, or engagement with, arising thoughts that is the problem. It is not the having of thought, but rather the identification with thought, that causes the attachment between the Buddha-nature and conditioned awareness, creating the "expulsion" from pure Nirvanic awareness. Being able to watch our thoughts as they arise and disappear is an important marker of success on our Zen journey.
The mind that chatters is not the "mind of enlightentment." It's the mind not conscious of itself that chatters: it is the "ego process" which draws from the storehouse of our subconscious and creates the thoughts and opinions and beliefs and values and promotes them with the incessant chatter of the "monkey mind".
So, Right Speech is not just about morality, or even limited to wisdom teachings. It is also about Right Mindfulness and contemplative discipline, about identifying, labeling, and being mindful of thoughts -- all of the ego's chit-chat. We can, in fact use Right Speech as the bedrock and cornerstone of our entire moral and meditative practice, a complete "spiritual technology" in its own right.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be free from suffering.