Family Dharma: Right Speech Reconsidered

Beth Roth

The Buddha was unequivocal about the importance of how we employ our human capacity for speech and verbal interaction.  Right Speech, also called Wise Speech or Virtuous Speech, is speech that gives rise to peace and happiness in oneself and others.  Right Speech is one of the Five Precepts for ethical conduct, along with protecting life and not killing, taking only what is freely offered and not stealing, using one’s sexual energy in ways that do not harm oneself or others, and refraining from the use of intoxicants to the point that they cloud the mind.  The Buddha taught that ethical conduct is the foundation of meditation practice, and is also the ground upon which our life and our spiritual journey rest. The Buddha called these precepts for ethical conduct ”The Five Gifts,” because by undertaking these trainings we offer a supreme gift to other beings and to ourselves:  the gift of freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.

In addition to being one of the Five Precepts, Right Speech is also one of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path, along with Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.  Here again the word “Right” is not a moral judgment to be contrasted with bad or wrong, but means “leading to happiness for oneself and others.”  The Noble Eightfold Path is a path to liberation, which is described as happiness, inner peace, and freedom from suffering in this lifetime.  It is also the path that releases us from future rebirths into realms of suffering.

The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech.  He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”  In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip.  Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.

Right Speech is a mindfulness practice.  By undertaking this practice, we commit to greater awareness of our body, mind, and emotions. Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it.  With mindfulness, we see that the heart is the ground from which our speech grows.  We learn to restrain our speech in moments of anger, hostility, or confusion, and over time, to train the heart to more frequently incline towards wholesome states such as love, kindness and empathy.  From these heart states Right Speech naturally arises.

The practice of Right Speech requires that we attend to karma, or the law of cause and effect.  We repeatedly observe that different kinds of speech create different kinds of results.  Using speech in certain ways assures suffering, while speaking in other ways creates happiness. There is a Tibetan prayer that says, “May you have happiness and the causes of happiness.  May you be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.”  When we understand the workings of cause and effect, we can appreciate how profound this prayer is.

The teaching about Right Speech assumes imperfection.  Our “mistakes” are a vital part of our learning.  We need to lie, exaggerate, embellish, use harsh and aggressive speech, engage in useless banter, and speak at inappropriate times, in order to experience how using speech in these ways creates tension in the body, agitation in the mind, and remorse in the heart.  We also discover how unskillful speech degrades personal relationships and diminishes the possibility of peace in our world.

Because Right Speech figures so prominently in the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, we know that what we might call Right Listening, as the complement to Right Speech, is also very important.  But what exactly is Right Listening? 

Webster’s dictionary defines ‘listen’ as “to pay attention to sound” and “to hear with thoughtful attention.”  Yet effective listening means paying attention to more than just sound, and therefore requires that we use more than just our ears.  As we are increasingly able to bring mindfulness to ordinary human interaction, we find that listening means attending to our physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions, as well as to the voice, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, underlying meanings, and rich nuances that accompany the spoken words of others.  This type of listening is what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening.”  It is what physician Rachel Naomi Remen calls “generous listening,” what Buddhist teacher and Hospice trainer Joan Halifax calls “listening from the heart,” and what the Quakers call “Devout Listening.”  Like any other mindfulness practice, Right Listening is both a skill and a way of being.  In her book The Zen of Listening, Rebecca Sharif writes, “Listening is one of our greatest personal natural resources, yet it is by far one of our most undeveloped abilities.”

Right Speech has been, for me, the most difficult of the Five Precepts, and the trickiest aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path.  Everyday life, whether at home, at work, or in the community, offers endless opportunities for bringing mindfulness and compassion to the arena of verbal interaction with others.  And despite many years of practice, it remains a formidable challenge to have Right Speech and Right Listening prevail in our family environment. 

When my children Emilio and Claudia were little, we successfully used communication tools that I had encountered doing group work and conflict resolution with adults. Family meetings, a talking stone, and the commitment not to interrupt one another facilitated our communication.  However, as my children grew, both speaking and listening became increasingly challenging, especially when we attempted to address unskillful behaviors or conflicting points of view.  I realized that we had to more consciously create the conditions for Right Listening, for without the capacity to listen deeply, all the Right Speech in the world was of little use.

About the time Emilio entered sixth grade, a combination of influences, including what he aptly named “raging hormones,” converged at once.  Suddenly it was much more difficult for him to listen to what I wanted to say.  It became equally difficult for me to tolerate his unwillingness to listen.  And of course, the more conflicted our points of view, the more impossible was our communication.  The patience, respect, and mutuality we had enjoyed for years disappeared.  The speaking and listening skills we had so carefully cultivated were replaced by mistrust, impatience and defensiveness.  Time after time, I would approach him in what I thought was an open and friendly way, employ what I thought was Right Speech, and find myself face-to-face with a being I barely recognized.  Within seconds, I would be left staring at my son’s back as he stormed out of the room, arms flailing in the air and a stream of incomprehensible sounds pouring forth from his mouth.

I consulted other parents, as well as professionals, and was assured that my son was exhibiting normal adolescent behavior.  I was told that our relationship was undergoing normal developmental changes.  Yet I experienced my son’s behavior, my own frustration, and the deterioration of our relationship as acutely painful.  I was certain that something far more skillful and productive was possible.  I was determined to search until I found it.  Thus began a long process of experimentation in Right Speech and Right Listening, a challenging and creative process that continues to evolve, always yielding a combination of frustrating setbacks and fruitful rewards.
A pivotal realization came to me a few months after this destructive pattern first appeared.  Emilio’s behavior was so reactive and extreme, I felt like I was being attacked.  Thus, it had to be a response to him feeling attacked.  Clearly, we had to address this underlying problem.  I needed his help to figure out how to change my approach so that he felt safe and not threatened.

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David Stark's picture

This is really interesting i completely agree with the information. Thanks for guiding me through a lot of things. It was really a eye opener for a lot of people.

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