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Right Speech

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path

Lecture 49: The Ideal of Human Communication: Right Speech Mr Chairman and friends, At present, as most of you know, week by week we are pursuing, treading in imagination if not in actual fact, the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. And each week we are considering, we are discussing, even at the end asking questions about, one step or one stage or one aspect of that Eightfold Path. We've already dealt with the first stage or the first aspect, the beginnings of the path in terms of Perfect Vision, and we've also dealt with the second stage, the second aspect - Perfect Emotion, usually known as Right Resolve. We've seen and I think by this time we've understood quite clearly, quite definitely, that Perfect Vision with the arising of which entry upon the Eightfold Path takes place, is not just an intellectual understanding, however clear, however profound, of Buddhism, it's something much more than that, it really consists, we may say of an insight into, an experience of the true nature, the real nature, the ultimate nature of existence itself. In fact though we speak in terms of Perfect Vision we may say that this term covers something which is more of the nature of a spiritual experience - it may be momentary, it may come, as it were, in a sort of flash of insight, but it's something much more real, something much more direct, more intimate, more personal, more true than an intellectual understanding. This experience, this Perfect Vision, we can express and even communicate in various ways, principally in two ways - in terms of pictures, in terms of images, and in terms of concepts. And we saw that traditionally in Buddhism the Buddha's and his followers' vision of the nature of existence is communicated, is expressed, in terms of the great images of the Wheel of Life, of the Mandala, the sacred circle of Buddhas or images of Enlightenment, and the Path, the way which lies between, leading from the one to the other. Conceptually speaking in terms of ideas, in terms of thought, in terms of philosophy, that Perfect Vision finds expression in such well-known formulae as the Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of all conditioned existence, and so on. I don't want to go into all this again, I don't want to have to recapitulate in detail, I just want to refresh the memories of those who did hear these two earlier lectures.

But whether we speak of, whether we express our Perfect Vision of the nature of existence in terms of images which appeal to the imagination or in terms of concepts which appeal to the intellect, both reveal in one way or another, through their respective medium, a glimpse, an actual insight, or as I've said also an experience of ultimate reality, however brief, however momentary, however as it were evanescent that may be. But that isn't enough, as we also saw, it's not enough just to have this vision, it's not enough that it should arise and transfigure us just for a moment or two, it has to descend into each and every aspect of our lives. It has to penetrate, as it were, into every limb. It has to not only transfigure, it has to transform our entire living, every level, every aspect. This is incidentally - I didn't touch upon it in previous weeks but it occurs to me just now - the significance of what we call mudra in Buddhism. A mudra is a gesture made with the hand or a certain position taken by the fingers, and very often in Buddhism we speak in terms of three things, we speak in terms of samadhi, we speak in terms of mantra, we speak in terms of mudra. So samadhi represents the inner realisation, mantra the expression of that in terms of speech, and mudra the expression of that same thing, that same realization, right down as it were to the very tips of one's fingers. In other words the outermost ramifications of one's being in terms of mudra, or manual sign as it's sometimes called, or magic gesture. It isn't anything magical at all, it's something quite spiritual or transcendental. But it conveys the same sort of idea - that our Perfect Vision, our spiritual realisation, is not to be kept or not confined, to the heights but it's got to descend into the depths of our being and transform and transfigure every aspect, every department, every compartment even of our lives. And when our lives are transformed in this way, at every level, in every aspect, in accordance with that Perfect Vision - that insight into our experience of the truth - then comes what we call Enlightenment.

Now Perfect Emotion, as we saw last week, the second step or stage or aspect of the path, represents the descent of this Perfect Vision into our emotional life. It represents the transformation - if you like the sublimation - of our crude, unrefined emotional energies into something much more delicate, much more rarefied, something, if we may use the term, much more spiritual. Negatively, this Perfect Emotion consists in complete freedom from attachment, from hatred, from cruelty. And positively it consists, as we saw in some detail last week, in emotions, positive emotions such as generosity, the impulse to give, to share; love, compassion, sympathetic joy, in fact happiness in general; and finally faith and devotion. Transfigured by Perfect Vision our emotional life assumes this sort of complexion, this sort of colouring.

Now today we come to the third stage or the third aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, and that is Right Speech - that which is complete, that which is integral, fully developed, perfect. So we shall therefore speak of samyag-vaca in English not just as Right Speech but as Perfect Speech. This is what it really is, this is what it really means. And it is very significant, we may say, if we think about it that this - speech - Perfect Speech is regarded as, is treated as, an independent stage or independent aspect of the Eightfold Path. One might well have thought that speech isn't so very important, it's a sort of action, why not include it under Right Action or Perfect Action which comes next? But no. In the Buddha's teaching and in the Eightfold Path, Right Speech or Perfect Speech gets a whole step, a whole stage, a whole aspect of the spiritual life to itself. And this indicates in fact the very great importance, the very great place which Buddhism does give to speech in general and especially to Perfect Speech.

Not only is Perfect Speech the third step or aspect of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, but abstention from its opposite - false or imperfect speech - constitutes the fourth out of the five precepts binding upon every lay Buddhist follower. So from little things of this sort we can understand the very great importance, the very great significance that attaches to speech, to Perfect Speech especially, in the Buddha's teaching. After all if we reflect upon it, as our chairman remarked, speaking, talking, communicating is something which we do, which in a sense we have to do all the time. You may take up meditation or you may not, as you wish, but when it comes to speech, you've hardly any choice - whether you like it or whether you don't like it you've got to speak, you've got to talk, you've got to communicate, you can't always be silent, even if you want to, and most of us anyway don't want to be silent, not very much of the time anyhow, so it's inevitable that some consideration should be given to this whole question of speech in any complete systematic programme of spiritual life and training and culture. Speech also has to be brought within the purview, within the influence, even under the control, of the spiritual life.

So therefore speech must be considered, it must be given a place. It's even more interesting, perhaps, to observe that in Buddhism there's a threefold classification of man. In the West we've a classification into body and mind - sometimes as in St.Paul's epistles into body, soul and spirit. But in Buddhism what do we find. We find a threefold classification into body, speech, and mind. And this is surely very significant indeed. It's one of those little things which are so common, in a sense so ordinary that we pass them over. Throughout Buddhist literature we see references to body, speech and mind, body, speech and mind, but we usually pay no attention, though it does have, as I've said, a very great significance. It means that speech is given in Buddhism the same importance as mind, the same importance as body. These are a sort of co-equal trinity - body, speech and mind. After all, if we think about it, if we reflect, it is speech which distinguishes man from the beasts. We do know that birds utter cries and we know that monkeys, some of them, seem to have some sort of primitive speech, and apparently dolphins can communicate, but not quite as the human being. Speech in the full, in the distinctive sense, seems to be as far as we know a prerogative of human beings, perhaps of angels, but we have knowledge only of human beings.

So this is something which is special, something which is extraordinary, something which really does distinguish us, as it were, from the rest of the creation. If we think, if we reflect, we shall see, we shall realise, how great a part of our culture depends directly or indirectly upon speech. Through speech the mother educates the child, through speech the teacher educates the child, from books which are, as it were, frozen, crystallised speech, we get information, we get knowledge, we may get even Enlightenment. If all books were abolished, if all the literature of the world were burned, if it all went up in flames in one great conflagration then what would we know? We would know hardly anything, we would know just a few facts of immediate sense observation and nothing more.

So all our culture, our knowledge, ...

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