Gentle speech

After truthfulness and harmonious speech the Buddha specifically recommended gentle speech. We can associate this principle with the intention of good will, or mettā. There’s a direct line from anger to harsh speech and similarly from good will to gentle or kind words.

Ajahn Sumedho has some helpful instructions regarding mettā and hence gentle speech (from a published talk, “The Way of Lovingkindness”):

Somebody came to me just recently and said, ‘I have trouble feeling mettā for a certain person. Sometimes I just want to hit her; sometimes I just want to do her in. I can’t feel mettā for anybody like that and it’s driving me crazy!’ I said, ‘But you haven’t hit her yet, you haven’t killed her, have you?’ She responded, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Then you are practicing mettā.’ It’s as simple as that.

In the Buddha-Dhamma it’s vey clear that morality is based on correct bodily action and speech. Now, we recognize that we can’t always control what thoughts we will have in our minds. We can’t say, ‘I am only going to have kind, loving thoughts towards everybody.’ We can only try not to have bad thoughts or feel anger, jealousy and fear. But it’s different with bodily action and speech. We can vow right now not to kill anyone. We can take the Five Precepts.

We can also vow to be careful with what we say so that, even though we are thinking the most awful thoughts, we aren’t actually saying them to people.

Harsh speech includes cursing, shouting, sarcasm, and belittling speech. We are all familiar with these thoughts and the negative impact of expressing them in words, whether by ourselves or others.

Our right intentions of renunciation, good will and harmlessness can come into play here. When we have angry thoughts, we can practice patience (renunciation) rather than putting those thoughts into the world through speaking them out loud. We can take a breath and remember the big picture, in which we genuinely harbor good will towards others and do not wish them to be harmed.

When we appreciate someone or something, we can share that appreciation freely. Verbalized gratitude is another form of gentle, welcome speech, and the Thanksgiving celebrations of the past week have been invitations to express our thanks and appreciation.

If we notice when a generous or kind thought occurs to us, we can recognize it as something to be encouraged, nourished, and not neglected. We so often overlook our natural kindness because it doesn’t shout for attention the way negative emotions do. If we tune into the subtler movements of our mind, we may find that our true intentions are kinder than we suppose. Gentle speech will naturally flow from this source.

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