Friday, September 2, 2011

Dragon's Breath: Right Speech

Zensquared (, 8-31-11, edited for clarity by Wisdom Quarterly)

Breathe. Follow your breath. The practice is easy (

Watch what you say. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

After right view and right intention, which concern wisdom, the next three factors in the Noble Eightfold Path are right speech, right action, and right livelihood -- all of which concern moral discipline.

In his text about the Noble Eightfold Path, [American Buddhist scholar-monk] Bhikkhu Bodhi points out that this “morality” is not so much “Thou shalt not...” as it is a mental purification we undertake.

Instead of uttering harmful words, we should keep [nobly] silent. When we speak, we speak to help others. We speak to spread happiness. We speak to comfort. We speak kindly.

Buddhism, with its nontheistic framework, grounds its ethics not on the notion of obedience, but on that of harmony.

Being mindful about the words we say becomes a practice that benefits others -- as well as keeping one out of trouble.

Bhikkhu Bodhi further points out that right speech has two sides -- avoidance and performance. So while we work to avoid false speech, at the same time we are also working to perform correct speech.

What is “correct”? Here Bhikkhu Bodhi uses the familiar English word wholesome. The Buddhist use of this word steers clear of a moral judgment in favor of emphasizing something that is healthy, not sick.

When the opposite word is used -- unwholesome -- it refers to something that will make us ill. Buddhism [recognizes many gradients exactly in accord with the heart's intention, but it often sounds] somewhat [like a] black-and-white view of good and ill: If it’s going to harm anyone, it’s probably unwholesome. And that’s sick.

The Buddha divides right speech into four components, abstaining from: false speech, slanderous [divisive] speech, harsh speech, and idle [useless] chatter.

No lying. No dividing. No cruel words. No mindless gossip. That sounds like “Thou shalt not,” doesn’t it? No, says Bhikkhu Bodhi.

He quotes the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, stating that it’s really about being honest, being devoted to the truth, being reliable, and being worthy of confidence.

The determinative factor behind the transgression is the intention to deceive. If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent. Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, be it greed, hatred, or delusion.

The venerable monk goes on to explain how lies corrupt and injure the liar, and how

the commitment to truth has a significance transcending the domain of ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the domains of knowledge and being. More