Right Speech

by on Apr 11, 2017Zen Master Bon Shim

Words do not have a fixed meaning. The meaning of words depend on the context: who is speaking and who is listening, the underlying tone. Let’s go back to the roots and remind ourselves what Buddha taught about right speech.

            Buddha divides correct speech into four elements:


  • Refraining from false speech
  • Refraining from harmful talk
  • Refraining from unkind, rude talk
  • Refraining from gossip


Telling the truth

            One who is speaking the truth is dedicated to it, reliable, trustworthy, not deceiving other people. Such a person never consciously lies for self or others’ gain, or any other reason. He teaches his son, the young monk Rahula: “Rahula, do you see the remaining water in the bowl? This is the spiritual achievement of someone who deliberately lies.”

            Pouring out the remaining water from the bowl, Buddha said, “In this way, the one who lies is erasing all of his spiritual achievements. Do you see now this empty bowl? Like this bowl, the one who lies without feeling ashamed is just spiritually empty, without any moral ground.”

            Then Buddha flipped the bowl upside down and said to Rahula, “Do you see this bowl now? In the same manner the one who lies flips his spiritual achievement upside down cannot grow.”

            It is said that in training toward enlightenment one can break any vow except that of telling the truth.

            The vow of correct speech (telling the truth) is simply about relying on what is real, not delusional, about relying on the truth gained by wisdom and not about fantasies that emerge from desires.


Refraining from harmful talk

            Harmful talk is one of the most serious moral misbehaviors and it creates damaging karma, so it is extremely important to refrain from unkind, rude and sarcastic talk. 

            The opposite of harmful talk is speech that comes from a caring and compassionate mind. It elevates the spirit of connection and oneness. We ought to pay attention to how we speak and communicate with more patience for the weaknesses of others, keeping in mind our own imperfections and respecting different opinions and views.


Refraining from gossip

            Gossip has the power to destroy relationships. It has the power to tear a community apart. Speaking idly may not cause harm. However, the habit of being thoughtless about speech can lead to indulging in gossip.

            There is a story from Buddha’s time about this. It is in one of the oldest sutras, the Hemavata Sutra. In it, the deceitful minister Vassakara goes to the Vajji kingdom at the direction of King Ajatasattu, who wanted to overthrow the kingdom. There, Vassakara befriends the ruling Licchavi princes, whose strength was their harmony. After gaining their trust, he slowly broke their bonds of friendship. He did this by whispering harmless phrases into their ears, for example, “Have you taken your meal? What curry did you eat?”

            When other princes saw this, they would ask what Vassakara whispered. Each prince told the truth about what Vassakara said. However, none of the other princes would believe it because it had no real meaning. Why would Vassakara whisper that? Each thought the others were lying. Eventually, they began to speak ill of each other and then to mistrust each other. When the harmony was broken, Ajatasattu was able to conquer the kingdom.

            Our practice leads us to speak what is appropriate and beneficial. This natural harmony arises from sincere practice. Then it’s possible to perceive our own mind and then see others’ minds. Strong practice supports clear vision and guides clear speech.