Virtuous speech

Sīla pāramī : virtue, morality, proper conduct

While bodily action reflects our morality (or shortcomings) at the grossest level, not far behind is our verbal behavior.

The Buddha was very specific about four factors of wholesome speech. The most important is truthfulness. It’s worth holding this goal up for daily scrutiny, because our habits are so deeply ingrained that we are likely not to be conscious of ways we might be stretching or circumventing truthfulness. This does not mean we need to say whatever we’re thinking; silence is often the best policy. We can (and usually should) keep our judgments to ourselves. But when asked, we need to search our hearts and speak plainly and factually, setting aside our prejudices and opinions.

Secondly, the Buddha warns against speech that divides people rather than brings them together. To accomplish this form of wholesome speech, we have to think about what our motives are and the probable effect of our words on the hearer(s), before we say anything.

The third type of “unvirtuous” speech is harsh speech, that is, swearing, putting people down, barking orders, snide comments and the like. For those of us who grew up in families where this was the norm, it is hard work to reform our habits, but it is worthwhile. The effect of a gentle word versus a harsh word is immediately apparent.

Lastly, the Buddha advises against useless speech. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say “hello, how are you?”, and establish a polite connection before launching into a difficult topic. It does mean we need to figure out when enough words are enough and we’re just filling the silence with nonsense.

In the Buddha’s words:
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 [the teachings and practices of the Buddha]. 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.
— from AN 10.176, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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Filed under Perfections, Speech

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