What would the Buddha say?

One of the most useful roles of hiri and ottappa (conscience and concern – see previous post) is in protecting our speech. While we might think long and hard before committing a deliberate act, our words sometimes flow out in a torrent with no filtering gates. There are a few different ways in which the Buddha described Right Speech, but let’s start with a checklist. In the canonical text quoted below, the Tathagata is a name for the Buddha, approximately “thus gone”. He frames his lesson to a prince by covering every variant of speech being true or untrue and beneficial or unbeneficial, and then goes on to consider whether the words to be spoken will be welcomed by those who hear.

[1] …such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect, and unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[2] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is also unwelcome and disagreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[3] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech.

[4] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be untrue, incorrect and unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[5] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true and correct but unbeneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: such speech the Tathagata does not utter.

[6] Such speech as the Tathagata knows to be true, correct, and beneficial, and which is welcome and agreeable to others: the Tathagata knows the time to use such speech. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has compassion for living beings.
– from the Abhaya Sutta, MN 58, translated by Venerables Nanamoli and Bodhi

If we all used these guidelines, we might not speak very often! In four of the six cases, the Buddha doesn’t speak. The only times when he does speak are when his words will be true and beneficial. Give these two conditions, he will still not blurt out his thoughts, but will choose the appropriate time to say something. Appropriateness of context and the listener’s willingness to hear come into play. For example, if we want to say something true and beneficial to a friend, but we know it will be difficult for them to hear it, we can choose a quiet, private time when complicating factors are absent. If we have something true and beneficial to say that we believe will be welcomed, we can still choose a time when the listener can focus on and appreciate these words.

It’s also worth noting that in items 4 and 5, flattery is identified as unskillful speech. Telling people what they want to hear is a temptation to be carefully weighed.

The shorthand checklist we can use is:
— is it true?
— is it beneficial?
— is it the right time?

The Buddha’s 8-fold Path
1. Pañña (Right View and Right Intention)
2. Sīla (Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood)
3. Samādhi (Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration)

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Filed under Causes and results, Speech, The 8-fold path

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