Phrased in the positive, the goal recommended by the Buddha is to make our speech trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart.
Let’s talk about words that are trustworthy. If we only say things that are true, others will come to trust what we say. It’s not the words that are trusted, but the source (us) and the intention and care we use when we speak.
I feel compelled to distinguish truthfulness from comic actor Stephen Colbert’s recently coined word “truthiness”. What a genius! Truthiness is something that sounds plausible and might be true in some situations, but really – no. Actually, it’s the opposite of truthfulness.
Truthfulness is not always easy to recognize, in our own speech or others’. Sometimes there’s a shorthand that creates ambiguity, sometimes just sloppy grammar or word use can lead to misunderstandings. Fuzzy intention on the part of the speaker will also cause problems.
Like all the practices recommended here, speaking truthfully requires that we give special attention to our actions, in this case, verbal actions. As conversations zip along, we may repeat something we heard, often not remembering the source. Do we know it’s true? If not, do we present it as an idea or possibility and not necessarily factual?
Many times I will get in trouble here because I feel compelled to fill in the blanks in a story, even if I’m speculating about connections or motives. I actively work on resisting the urge to complete a story when I don’t have facts. Often people will ask, “why?” when they hear of a situation. My speculator response kicks into gear, imagining possible reasons. When I catch myself, I just say, “who knows?”.
In the instructions below, the Buddha addresses the case of public speech.
Words of the Buddha:
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. (from AN 10.176, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
Most of us would recognize that if we are in a court of law or other “official” situation, there is no wiggle room with the truth. It becomes murkier when we’re in a private conversation, and no one is going to object if we embroider, exaggerate or mis-remember stories.
More on that next time…