Right speech is one of the steps on the Eight-fold Path in Buddhism. The path is the way to end suffering, which is one of the Four Noble Truths. While contemplating the new year, I have been thinking about this step and about working to be more conscious of my speech (both verbal and written) before it impacts others. Here’s an extended definition and here’s a lecture on right speech by the Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan of my local zen center.
The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows:
1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully,
2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others,
3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and
4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth.
Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.
I never knowingly speak anything other than the truth, and I don’t enjoy small talk so I feel that my focus should be mostly on the second and third rules above. That is: to refrain from speech that can be harmful to others. There are times when you must criticize bad ideas to accomplish a good outcome. The challenge is to attack “positions, and not people” (as they say in Carrboro Town Hall). But what if opponents criticize you (and not just your ideas)? How do you remain productive and positive when you must state that someone is being unfair or untrue, often knowingly.
In 2005, I was personally attacked and slandered by political opponents. Being maliciously lied about is very painful, as you might imagine. I have spent months considering the appropriate response. I also struggle with healthy communication in challenging personal situations.
I have already seen myself trying to cut down others as away to reject their ideas, so I know it will be a challenge. Here’s to a year (and more) of right speech!