Skillful Speech

By working with the lay precept on speech, we can learn to say the right thing at the right time.

Allan Lokos

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Years ago, when I began traveling the Buddha’s path, I was surprised by the emphasis placed on the practice of skillful speech. The Buddha considered the way we communicate with each other to be so important that he taught the practice of skillful speech alongside such lofty teachings as skillful view, thinking, action, and mindfulness as a pillar of the Ennobling Eightfold Way.

The Buddha saw that we are always engaged in relationships, starting with that most significant relationship: the one with ourselves. On the cushion we notice how we speak to ourselves—sometimes with compassion, sometimes with judgment or impatience. Our words are a powerful medium with which we can bring happiness or cause suffering.

Skillful speech begins by refraining from lying, slander, profanity, and harsh language. We should avoid language that is rude, abusive, disagreeable, or malicious, and we should abstain from talk that is foolish, idle, babble, or gossip. What remains are words that are truthful, kind, gentle, useful, and meaningful. Our speech will comfort, uplift, and inspire, and we will be a joy to those around us.

Jim Frazier / Getty ImagesThe pillar of skillful speech is to speak honestly, which means that we should even avoid telling little white lies. We need to be aware of dishonesty in the forms of exaggerating, minimizing, and self-aggrandizing. These forms of unskillful speech often arise from a fear that what we are is not good enough––and that is never true. Honesty begins at home, so the practice of skillful speech begins with being honest with ourselves.

The Buddha cautioned against gossip because he saw the suffering that this kind of unskillful speech causes. There is an old Hasidic tale of a villager who was feeling remorse for the harm his gossip had caused his neighbor. He went to his rabbi to seek advice. The rabbi suggested that he go to town and buy a chicken and bring it back to him, and that on the way back he pluck it completely. When the man returned with the featherless chicken, the rabbi told him to retrace his steps and gather every one of the scattered feathers. The man replied that it would be impossible; by now the feathers were probably blown throughout the neighboring villages. The rabbi nodded in agreement, and the man understood: we can never really take back our words. As the Zen poet Basho wrote:

The temple bell stops but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.

Gossip is defined as speaking about someone who is not physically present. It doesn’t matter whether what is said is positive or negative. If the person is not there, it is gossip. If we have to speak about someone who is not present, we should speak of them as if they were there. An exercise that I do once or twice a year is to designate a specific period of time—a week or a month—when I do not speak about anyone who is not present. I find that my voice gets quite a rest, and the part of my ego that believes I do not gossip gets quite a jolt. Every time I do the exercise I find that the effects of this awareness practice are with me for weeks, and even months, afterward. When I start to speak about someone, a little reminder beeps in my mind: “Don’t gossip.”

A word about teasing . . .

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