In the Pali canon, right speech has four parts: (1) truthfulness, (2) harmonious (not divisive) speech, (3) gentle (not harsh) speech, and (4) meaningful (not useless) speech.
Often the first type of right speech is used as shorthand for all four categories, and as we saw in the previous post (but one) truthfulness is the first principal; if words are not truthful, the Buddha would not speak them.
Right speech is a key to continuous mindfulness: we watch our words for their truthfulness (or un-) with as few lapses of attention as possible. As with doing anything with great care, it’s difficult to maintain awareness, but it sharpens the mind wonderfully.
Truthfulness is the foundation of integrity. Often it’s the first thing we look for when assessing character in other people. If we know that someone is careless with the truth, we are not drawn to them, even if they’re entertaining. When we hear someone say one thing to one audience and then the opposite to another audience, distrust is created.
Being truthful with others helps us to be honest with ourselves. We can get caught up in deluded thinking, justifying ourselves and blaming others, until our perceptions start diverging from consensual reality. If we use right speech, truthfulness in particular, as our guide with others, we may also find ourselves correcting our inner self-talk. When we discover this happening, we know we are on the right track.
Lastly, there is a type of comfort available to us, a confidence, if we have committed to truthfulness in all our dealings with others. When things go spectacularly wrong, here is a raft we can cling to – our own ability to tell the truth, to ourselves and others. It’s not a destination, but can be a home.