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The Buddha-s Philosophy of Right Speech

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by Sangharakshita

The Buddha's Philosophy of Right Speech

Venerable sir and friends, Most of those who have been acquainted with Buddhism for any length of time, even for a very short time, know that Buddhism contains a prodigious quantity of scriptures, or sacred writings. We have got an enormous collection in Pali, some 40 thick volumes.

We have in Tibetan no less than 100 or in some editions 108 very massive xylograph volumes of scriptures, and then in Chinese there are some 50 very, very thick volumes indeed - Chinese characters are fat, double columns and all the rest of it, comprising some 1660 something independent works. There are lots of odd or loose or scattered Sanskrit sutras uncollected and so on, so sometimes a newcomer is rather bewildered by all this variety, if not confusion, this richness of Buddhist sacred literature, but fortunately for us there are just a few texts which we find here and there, embedded in this vast mass of literature, which give us the essence of the whole thing in just - I was going to say a few words but that would be an exaggeration - in just a few pages. For instance with regard to the Perfection of Wisdom sutras we have the famous Heart Sutra, which gives us the heart of the Perfection of Wisdom in just one page of writing. And in the same way, for the Pali scriptures, the Pali Canon, we've got a little work called the Dhammapada, which gives us the gist of all the Buddha's teachings in the Pali Canon in a very, very short compass indeed.

This Dhammapada consists of some 423 verses arranged subject-wise in 26 chapters - there's a chapter for instance on the mind, there's a chapter on the wise man, a chapter on the enlightened man, there's a chapter on flowers, there's a chapter on the pairs, there's a chapter on the monk, on the Brahmin, on sin, on anger, and so on, 423 verses arranged subject-wise in 26 chapters. And this Dhammapada is one of the most famous and popular of all the Buddhist scriptures and it has the honour and the distinction, we may say, of being the first Pali text to be published and translated in Europe. Pali, by the way, is one of the ancient Indian languages which is canonical for the Theravada School of Buddhism. The first Pali text to be translated - to be published and translated - in Europe was, as I have said, this Dhammapada, and it was published and translated by the great Danish scholar [Hasbul] in 1855. And it's rather interesting to note that [Hasbul] translated the Dhammapada not into any modern language - he translated it into Latin, and that Latin translation is still available. And this Dhammapada, this little work, though so short and handy and convenient, does enable us to get at the content of the Buddha's teaching very easily and very simply.

Now this evening I'm going to talk about one of the verses of the Dhammapada. I'm going to take a verse from Chapter 8 which is the [Sahassavagga], or the Chapter of Thousands. [Sahassa] is thousand, and [Vagga] is simply chapter. And this chapter, the Chapter of the Thousands, is so called because most of the verses make mention of one thousand things. I should also perhaps mention that the verses are arranged in the chapters, not in any sort of real order, but sort of strung together and illuminate in this way different facets of the subject. So the verse that we're going to consider this evening, the verse that we're going to take up for a little study, runs as follows:- "Better than a collection of a thousand meaningless words is one word full of meaning, on hearing which one becomes peaceful." This verse we may say deals with what may be called the Buddha's philosophy of Right Speech. And this is also our topic for this evening, the Buddha's philosophy of Right Speech.

Now I've said that this verse, which I've quoted, is taken from the Chapter of Thousands, and that most of the verses in this chapter make mention of one thousand things - a thousand offerings, and a thousand coins and so on. And in each of these verses we find that a thousand, or sometimes a hundred things of less value, are contrasted with one thing which is of greater value, compared with all those thousand or a hundred other things. And this is basically the theme of the whole chapter - the comparison, the contrast between a hundred or a thousand things of less value and one thing of greater value. In other words this whole chapter gives expression to the contrast - even we may say the conflict - between quality on the one hand, the one thing of greater value, and quantity on the other, the many things, the hundred or even the thousand things of less value, on the other, so that the whole chapter may be viewed as one long exhortation to us to discriminate between the two, the one thing of greater value, the many things of less value, and to prefer the former to the latter.

Now this sort of exhortation - to prefer the one thing of great value to the many things of less value, quality to quantity - is very, very necessary, especially nowadays necessary.

The majority of people - most of us, we may have to admit - are unconsciously very much impressed by sheer size or by sheer number. We tend to be automatically impressed by things when they're very, very big or when they're very, very numerous. There's a book of which some of you may have heard by [Guinnell] called `The Rain of Quantity in Contemporary Philosophy' - rather an imposing sort of title, one wonders what it's all about, but one could very well refer to, one could very well speak of the rain of quantity in contemporary life, because it's to quantity that we tend to attach importance and not to quality. And this emphasis that we give to quantity rather than to quality shows itself in many ways, both big and small.

Supposing for instance in a few days' time someone comes up to you and says, "In the course of the ten days of the retreat I read twenty books," now you'd be quite impressed by that. You'd be more impressed by that than if someone came up to you and said, "In the course of the retreat I've read one book." You'd be more impressed by the twenty books than by the one book. You wouldn't stop to enquire or to ask about the comparative value of those books. The twenty books might have been, might have been almost anything - might have been novels, detective fiction, Agatha Christie and all the rest of it, and the one work might have been a work, a dialogue by Plato, or it might have been a Buddhist sutra, but whatever it may have been, the tendency is for us to be impressed more by the twenty than by the one, more by the quantity than by the quality.

And it's just the same with regard to things like, say, length of life. We tend to assume that it's a very good thing to live to be about eighty, or ninety, or a hundred, and rather bad, to say the least, to die at twenty - we think that's a tragedy, most unfortunate. But what we don't enquire into is the quality of the life lived. Your eighty years may have been eighty useless years, they may have been eighty wicked years, harmful years, and your twenty years may have been years full of creativity, full of promise, like the life of Keats. Keats died at the age of twenty-five and practically all his major creative work was packed into one single period of twelve months. So this is the sort of standard, this is the sort of scale that one has to adopt, but usually we don't, we think in terms of quantity rather than quality, of size, of number, we're impressed by these things. So this is the reason for the Buddha's exhortation in this chapter of the Dhammapada, the Chapter of the Thousands, to think not in terms of quantity but in terms of quality, to value the one thing of greater price more than the hundred or even thousand things of lesser price. Now among other things the Buddha in this chapter applies this principle to the question of speech and hence the statement, the verse, with which we're concerned this evening, which I've already quoted, "Better than a collection of a thousand meaningless words, is one word full of meaning, on hearing which one becomes peaceful." So you see that the Buddha here contrasts a thousand meaningless words with one word full of meaning. There's a little humour here, a touch of irony. The Buddha was rather fond of a touch of irony. He suggests as it were that speech, our speech, is usually meaningless. And he suggests or delicately hints that the ratio of meaningless words to meaningful words is about a thousand to one! This is what he seems to be getting at in this particular verse. And the ratio is, we may say, perhaps a little bit on the generous side! The Buddhist scriptures go into not less than 32 kinds of idle and useless talk - there's a great list given in many passages in the Buddhist scriptures - 32 kinds of useless and idle talk. And we may say that nowadays, well if they started 2,500 years ago with 32 kinds, well you can imagine how many kinds they have at the present day! And we have to admit that our conversation usually, generally consists of a selection of these 32 or more kinds or varieties of idle and [useful] speech. And if we reflect, and if we're very serious with ourselves and honest with ourselves we have to admit that very, very rarely, very occasionally indeed among our friends and acquaintances, in the course of the ordinary contacts and communications of life, do we ever hear a really meaningful word which sinks deep into our consciousness and which we remember for a long time afterwards, a meaningful word which gives one peace.

Now meaningful speech is the same thing as what is elsewhere called Right Speech, and meaningless speech corresponds to wrong speech. And Right Speech, or Perfect Speech, as I expect you know many of you, is the third step of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path, and abstention from false speech is the ...

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