Right speech is at the start of the sila or ethical trainings portion of the 8-fold path. This may be the most powerful leverage point in our practice. Because we spend so much of our days talking, if we train ourselves to speak wisely, many wholesome thoughts and actions will naturally follow.
Right speech depends on having the right aim, as described in the first two path factors, right view and right intention. The Buddha gave us four specific guidelines to right speech:
1) Truthfulness, or refraining from lying/deceiving
2) Harmonious speech, or refraining from divisive speech
3) Gentle speech, or refraining from harsh talk
4) Meaningful speech, or refraining from idle chatter/empty talk
Recently, a group of friends spent a week or so monitoring our speech. It was surprising to check in at the end of that week because each of us had noticed different things; one person found truthfulness difficult because it might require saying things another person (she thought) didn’t want to hear; another person noticed a pattern of subtle condescension in talking to a particular family member; one of us (me) found that it was hard to discern when someone else had finished speaking, and so interrupted. One person said that keeping some awareness in the body while talking kept her grounded in truthfulness.
The only way to know if we’re practicing right speech is to really listen to ourselves when we talk. We can listen with our ears, our eyes and our body sensations. What are the effects of our words on ourselves and others? What is the feeling in our body? What is our tone of voice? Is the listener listening? If so, what can we observe about their reactions? Is the meaning we’re trying to convey necessary? Is it helpful? Would silence have been better?
Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with a mind of loving-kindness. Possessing these five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.
AN 5.198, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The factors of the eight-fold path are:
1. Right View (of the ownership of action)
2. Right Intention (renunciation, goodwill, harmlessness)
3. Right Speech (truthful, harmonious, gentle, meaningful)
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration