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Right Speech

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by Sangharakshita

... our understanding, even our spiritual insight to a great extent, is derived directly or indirectly from the word, from speech and from utterance. So it is natural - even it's inevitable - that we should give as much consideration in the moral and in the spiritual life to speech as we do to thought, and as we do to action. Most of you know there are three great phases in the development of Buddhism - Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana - and in the Vajrayana, the Adamantine path or way, the third of these three, the body, speech and mind are associated respectively with three `psychic centres', as we may call them, not attaching too much importance by the way to the word `psychic'. The body is associated with the head centre, speech with the throat centre and the mind with the heart centre. And this is why, just to digress a little, when we, say, salute the Buddha Image or our teacher, very often we touch these in succession, we salute by joining our hands here and then here and then here, and this signifies that we salute with body, speech and mind, in other words with our whole being, completely, fully, without holding anything back. And there are many other correlations of these three - body, speech and mind - for instance, with the three corresponds on its own plane to our emotional life. Or in other words very briefly and very simply, with Perfect Speech or in terms of Perfect Speech we give expression both to Wisdom and also to love and compassion. We'll see how this works out in detail in a moment. But we may say, just very broadly or very briefly, that Perfect Speech represents that transformation of the speech principle or the principle of communication, transformation by both Perfect Vision, the first step or stage of the Path, and Perfect Emotion, the second step or second stage of the Path.

Now let us go a little more in detail into this and see what then is Perfect Speech.

In the texts, in the discourses, the sutras which deal with this subject, Perfect Speech is usually described as speech which is truthful, speech which is affectionate, speech which is helpful and speech which promotes concord, harmony, unity. And in the same way wrong speech or imperfect speech is described in precisely the opposite terms - as speech which is untruthful, harsh, harmful, and which promotes discord, disharmony, and disunity. Now one must confess that most - especially modern - Buddhist expositions of Perfect Speech, or Right Speech as it's usually termed, are rather superficial, not to say moralistic. They remain on the purely ethical level and usually no attempt is made to penetrate or explore the psychological and spiritual depths of Perfect Speech. In fact we may say that this is true of some people's approach to the whole teaching of the Buddha, especially to the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path. Sometimes people are misled by the apparent simplicity of the Buddha's teaching and they tend to dismiss it even if they're expounding it or professing to expound it, as something rather trite and ordinary. They don't try to penetrate below the surface and to see what the Buddha was really getting at. With regard to Perfect Speech therefore we may say that usually we think, we consider, that truthfulness and affectionateness and so on are sort of four separate qualities or attributes of Perfect Speech. As if to say you've got Perfect Speech here and that Perfect Speech has got these four qualities or attributes as it were stuck on to it. But if we go a little more deeply, if we examine more closely and carefully we shall see or we shall discover that these four so-called qualities of Perfect Speech, that is to say that it is truthful, affectionate, helpful, and promoting concord, really represent four different levels of speech, not qualities of speech but levels of speech, each one deeper than the one preceding - so much so that we may even speak in this connection of four progressive stages of communication. And it's in the light of these considerations that we're going to look at, we're going to examine, each of these four so-called qualities of Perfect Speech this evening. And this will give us at least a glimpse, at least some idea, not just of Right Speech, not just of Perfect Speech even, but some idea of the ideal of human communication, what human communication should be or at least could be according to the teaching of the Buddha. And we shall perhaps see how far short we usually fall of this Perfect Speech, this ideal communication.

We communicate, we talk, all the time, but practically all the time, if not always, we fall short of this ideal of human communication. But let us try to see this evening what according to the Buddha's teaching this Perfect Speech or ideal of human communication really is.

First of all as I've said Perfect Speech, ideal communication, is truthful. Now of course we all think we know exactly what is meant by that when we say that well, speech should be truthful, of course we should, we've been told since we were two years old not to tell a lie, like George Washington, that sort of ideal has been upheld, so what have we to learn? It's clear, it's obvious! But if we pause, if we consider, then the question arises - do we really know what is meant by being truthful? Do we really know what is meant by speaking the truth? Have we considered all the implications of that statement? Speaking the truth doesn't mean just adhering to factual accuracy, it doesn't consist in saying that this cloth is yellow and that is a microphone - the concept of truthfulness is not exhausted in that way. Factual accuracy is of course important, it's an element in truthfulness or in speaking the truth - we can't dismiss it, it's there but it's not the whole. Some of you may remember - those of you who know your Boswell - there's that famous remark of Dr Johnson about factual truthfulness. He says that if a child says that he saw something looking out of this window when in fact he saw it looking out of that, he should at once be corrected and made to say from which window really he saw whatever he did see, because, Dr Johnson adds, once the habit of untruthfulness begins there is no knowing where it may end. So factual accuracy, factual truthfulness, is important. We must recognise this, it's a sort of base, a sort of foundation. We should accustom ourselves, as Johnson also says, to what he calls accuracy of narration. This is very important. It's a sort of training ground for us in higher, more refined kinds of truthfulness. Usually we're very shaky and very shoddy, even on this level.

Very, very few people are really factually accurate - we usually like, in relating about things to make them a little bit different - we like to add, we like to exaggerate, or to minimise, or we like to embroider. It may be just a sort of little poetic streak in us which makes us do this but we do it, even in the best of circles, even at the best of times.

I remember in this connection once in India I attended a little Wesak celebration - celebration of the anniversary of the Buddha's Enlightenment - in a certain monastery and there must have been about 70 or 80 people present, and then I saw the write-up which appeared in the local Buddhist magazine speaking of a mammoth meeting with thousands of people present! Well, you might think that you're propagating the Dharma and stirring up faith and enthusiasm in this way, but really one is detracting from what one is supposed to be doing - one is not being truthful in the sense of not being factually accurate. So we all tend to twist and to distort or at least to bend slightly facts in the direction in which we want them or would like them to go, so we have to be very very careful here. If we say that for instance it was a lovely day, well, it must have been a lovely day, we mustn't exaggerate, we mustn't minimise. If we say that there were 10 people at the meeting well let's be sure that there were 10. If there were a thousand at the meeting, let's say that there were a thousand. But if there were only 50 let's not make it 150, or if somebody else's meeting had a thousand let's not make it 150 again. So strict attention to factual accuracy. But again we must emphasise truthfulness in the real sense, in the deepest sense, the fullest, the most spiritual sense, the real sense, is something very much more than this, very much more than mere factual accuracy, important as that is.

Truthfulness is also, we may say, psychological, also spiritual. Speaking the truth involves not just factual accuracy, accuracy of statement about things which happened or didn't happen, it also includes, it also involves, an attitude of honesty, an attitude of sincerity, it includes, it involves also, saying what we really think. You're not speaking the truth unless you speak the whole truth, unless you say what is really in your heart, really in your mind.

Say in other words what you really think or even what you really feel - if you don't do that you're not being truthful, you're not really communicating.

But then another question arises: do we really know what we think? Or do we even really know what we feel? Most people, we must admit, most of us if we're honest, live or exist in a state of chronic mental confusion, bewilderment, chaos, disorder, whatever else you may like to call it. We may repeat as occasion arises what we've heard, what we've read, we may regurgitate it when required to do so, whether at the time of examinations in the case of students or social occasions and so on in the case of other people, but we do all this without really understanding, without really knowing what we say. So how can we therefore really speak the truth? We don't really know what we think so how can we say what we think, how can we be truthful? So if ...

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