Right Speech

"Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small." This is the Fourth Mindfulness Training and it offers a very good description of Right Speech (samyag vac).

In our time, communication techniques have become very sophisticated. It takes no time at all to send news to the other side of the planet. But at the same time, communication between individuals has become very difficult. Fathers cannot talk to sons and daughters. Husbands cannot talk to wives, nor partners to partners. Communication is blocked. We are in a very difficult situation, not only between countries but person to person. Practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is very important.

The classical explanation of Right Speech is: (1) Speaking truthfully. When something is green, we say it is green, and not purple. (2) Not speaking with a forked tongue. We don't say one thing to one person and something else to another. Of course, we can describe the truth in different ways to help different listeners understand our meaning, but we must always be loyal to the truth. (3) Not speaking cruelly. We don't shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred. Even those who have a good heart and don't want to hurt others sometimes allow toxic words to escape from their lips. In our mind are seeds of Buddha and also many fetters or internal formations (samyojana). When we say something poisonous, it is usually because of our habit energies. Our words are very powerful. They can give someone a complex, take away their purpose in life, or even drive them to suicide. We must not forget this. (4) Not exaggerating or embellishing. We don't dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don't say that he is furious. The practice of Right Speech is to try to change our habits so that our speech arises from the seed of Buddha that is in us, and not from our unresolved, unwholesome seeds.

Right Speech is based on Right Thinking. Speech is the way for our thinking to express itself aloud. Our thoughts are no longer our private possessions. We give earphones to others and allow them to hear the audiotape that is playing in our mind. Of course, there are things we think but do not want to say, and one part of our consciousness has to play the role of editor. If there is something we think we will be criticized for saying, the editor will censor it. Sometimes when a friend or a therapist asks us an unexpected question, we are provoked into telling the truth we wanted to hide.

Sometimes, when there are blocks of suffering in us, they may manifest as speech (or actions) without going through the medium of thought. Our suffering has built up and can no longer be repressed, especially when we have not been practicing Right Mindfulness. Expressing our suffering can harm us and other people as well, but when we don't practice Right Mindfulness, we may not know what is building up inside us. Then we say or write things we did not want to say, and we don't know where our words came from. We had no intention of saying something that could hurt others, yet we say such words. We have every intention of saying only words that bring about reconciliation and forgiveness, but then we say something very unkind. To water seeds of peace in ourselves, we have to practice Right Mindfulness while walking, sitting, standing, and so on. With Right Mindfulness, we see clearly all of our thoughts and feelings and know whether this or that thought is harming or helping us. When our thoughts leave our mind in the form of speech, if Right Mindfulness continues to accompany them, we know what we are saying and whether it is useful or creating problems.

Deep listening is at the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we'll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person. In the Lotus Sutra, we are advised to look and listen with the eyes of compassion. Compassionate listening brings about healing. When someone listens to us this way, we feel some relief right away. A good therapist always practices deep, compassionate listening. We have to learn to do the same in order to heal the people we love and restore communication with them. When communication is cut off, we all suffer. When no one listens to us or understands us, we become like a bomb ready to explode. Restoring communication is an urgent task. Sometimes only ten minutes of deep listening can transform us and bring a smile back to our lips. The Bodhisattva Kwan Yin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She has the quality of listening deeply, without judging or reacting. When we listen with our whole being, we can defuse a lot of bombs. If the other person feels that we are critical of what they are saying, their suffering will not be relieved. When psychotherapists practice Right Listening, their patients have the courage to say things they have never been able to tell anyone before. Deep listening nourishes both speaker and listener. Many of us have lost our capacity for listening and using loving speech in our families. It may be that no one is capable of listening to anyone else. So we feel very lonely even within our own families. That is why we have to go to a therapist, hoping that she is able to listen to us. But many therapists also have deep suffering within. Sometimes they cannot listen as deeply as they would like. So if you really love someone, train yourself to be a listener. Be a therapist. You may be the best therapist for the person you love if you know how to train yourself in the art of deep, compassionate listening. You must also use loving speech. We have lost our capacity to say things calmly. We get irritated too easily. Every time we open our mouths, our speech becomes sour or bitter. We know it's true. We have lost our capacity for speaking with kindness. This is the Fourth Mindfulness Training. This is so crucial to restoring peaceful and loving relationships. If you fail in this training, you cannot succeed in restoring harmony, love, and happiness. That is why practicing the Fourth Mindfulness Training is a great gift.

So many families, couples, and relationships have been broken because we have lost the capacity of listening to each other with calmness and compassion. We have lost the capacity of using calm and loving speech. The Fourth Mindfulness Training is very important to restore communication between us. Practicing the Fourth Training on the art of listening and the art of loving speech is a great gift. For example, a family member may suffer very much. No one in the family has been able to sit quietly and listen to him or her. If there is someone capable of sitting calmly and listening with his or her heart for one hour, the other person will feel a great relief from his suffering. If you suffer so much and no one has been able to listen to your suffering, your suffering will remain there. But if someone is able to listen to you and understand you, you will feel relief after one hour of being together.

In Buddhism, we speak of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Kwan Yin , a person who has a great capacity of listening with compassion and true presence. "Kwan Yin" means the one who can listen and understand the sound of the world, the cries of suffering. Psychotherapists try to practice the same. They sit very quietly with a lot of compassion and listen to you. Listening like that is not to judge, criticize, condemn, or evaluate, but to listen with the single purpose of helping the other person suffer less. If they are able to listen like that to you for one hour, you feel much better. But psychotherapists have to practice so that they can always maintain compassion, concentration, and deep listening. Otherwise, their quality of listening will be very poor, and you will not feel better after one hour of listening.

You have to practice breathing mindfully in and out so that compassion always stays with you. "I am listening to him not only because I want to know what is inside him or to give him advice. I am listening to him just because I want to relieve his suffering." That is called compassionate listening. You have to listen in such a way that compassion remains with you the whole time you are listening. That is the art. If halfway through listening irritation or anger comes up, then you cannot continue to listen. You have to practice in such a way that every time the energy of irritation and anger comes up, you can breathe in and out mindfully and continue to hold compassion within you. It is with compassion that you can listen to another. No matter what he says, even if there is a lot of wrong information and injustice in his way of seeing things, even if he condemns or blames you, continue to sit very quietly breathing in and out. Maintain your compassion within you for one hour. That is called compassionate listening. If you can listen like that for one hour, the other person will feel much better.

If you don't feel that you can continue to listen in this way, ask your friend, "Dear one, can we continue in a few days? I need to renew myself. I need to practice so I can listen to you in the best way I can." If you are not in good shape, you are not going to listen the best way you can. You need to practice more walking meditation, more mindful breathing, more sitting meditation in order to restore your capacity for compassionate listening. That is the practice of the Fourth Mindfulness Training — training oneself to listen with compassion. That is very important, a great gift. Sometimes we speak clumsily and create internal knots in others. Then we say, "I was just telling the truth." It may be the truth, but if our way of speaking causes unnecessary suffering, it is not Right Speech. The truth must be presented in ways that others can accept. Words that damage or destroy are not Right Speech. Before you speak, understand the person you are speaking to. Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is "Right" in both form and content. The Fourth Mindfulness Training also has to do with loving speech. Youhave the right to tell another everything in your heart with the condition that you use only loving speech. If you are not able to speak calmly, then don't speak that day. "Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I'm afraid I'll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day." Open your mouth and speak only when you are sure you can use calm and loving speech. You have to train yourself to be able to do so.

In the Lotus Sutra, a bodhisattva named Wondrous Sound was able to speak to each person in his or her own language. For someone who needed the language of music, he used music. For those who understood the language of drugs, he spoke in terms of drugs. Every word the Bodhisattva Wondrous Sound said opened up communication and helped others transform. We can do the same, but it takes determination and skillfulness.

When two people are not getting along, we can go to one and speak in a positive way about the other, and then go to the other and speak constructively about the first. When person "A" knows that person "B" is suffering, A has a much better chance of understanding and appreciating B. The art of Right Speech needs Right View, Right Thought, and also correct practice.

Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. As you read your words, you can visualize the other person receiving your letter and decide if what you have written is skillful and appropriate. Your letter has to water the seeds of transformation in the other person and stir something in his heart if it is to be called Right Speech. If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting, rewrite it. Right Mindfulness tells you whether you are expressing the truth in the most skillful way. Once you have mailed your letter, you cannot get it back. So read it over carefully several times before sending it. Such a letter will benefit both of you.

Of course you have suffered, but the other person has suffered also. That is why writing is a very good practice. Writing is a practice of looking deeply. You send the letter only when you are sure that you have looked deeply. You don't need to blame anymore. You need to show that you have a deeper understanding. It is true that the other person suffers, and that alone is worth your compassion. When you begin to understand the suffering of the other person, compassion will arise in you, and the language you use will have the power of healing. Compassion is the only energy that can help us connect with another person. The person who has no compassion in him can never be happy. When you practice looking at the person to whom you are going to write a letter, if you can begin to see his suffering, compassion will be born. The moment compassion is born in you, you feel better already, even before you finish the letter. After sending the letter, you feel even better, because you know the other person will also feel better after reading your letter. Everyone needs understanding and acceptance. And now you have understanding to offer. By writing a letter like this, you restore communication.

Writing a book or an article can be done in the same way. Writing is a deep practice. Even before we begin writing, during whatever we are doing — gardening or sweeping the floor — our book or essay is being written deep in our consciousness. To write a book, we must write with our whole life, not just during the moments we are sitting at our desk. When writing a book or an article, we know that our words will affect many other people. We do not have the right just to express our own suffering if it brings suffering to others. Many books, poems, and songs take away our faith in life. Young people today curl up in bed with their walkmen and listen to unwholesome music, songs that water seeds of great sadness and agitation in them. When we practice Right View and Right Thinking, we will put all of our tapes and CDs that water only seeds of anguish into a box and not listen to them anymore. Filmmakers, musicians, and writers need to practice Right Speech to help our society move again in the direction of peace, joy, and faith in the future. Telephone meditation is another practice that can help us cultivate Right Speech:

Words can travel thousands of miles.

May my words create mutual understanding and love.

May they be as beautiful as gems,

as lovely as flowers. 

You may like to write this gatha on a piece of paper and tape it near your telephone. Then, every time you are about to make a phone call, place your hand on the phone and recite these words. This gatha expresses the determination to practice Right Speech. Even as you say the words, your mind already becomes more peaceful and your insight more clear. The person you are calling will hear the freshness in your voice, and your words will bring her great happiness and not cause suffering.

 

As our meditation practice deepens, we are much less caught in words. Capable of practicing silence, we are free as a bird, in touch with the essence of things. The founder of one of the schools of Vietnamese Zen Buddhism wrote, "Don't ask me anything else. My essence is wordless." To practice mindfulness of speech, sometimes we have to practice silence. Then we can look deeply to see what our views are and what internal knots give rise to our thinking. Silence is a time for looking deeply. There are times when silence is truth, and that is called "thundering silence." Confucius said, "The heavens do not say anything." That also means, the heavens tell us so much, but we don't know how to listen to them. If we listen out of the silence of our mind, every bird's song and every whistling of the pine trees in the wind will speak to us. In the Sukhavati Sutra, it is said that every time the wind blows through the jeweled trees, a miracle is produced. If we listen carefully to that sound, we will hear the Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Right Mindfulness helps us slow down and listen to each word from the birds, the trees, and our own mind and speech. Whether we say something kind or respond too hastily, we hear what we are saying.

 

Words and thoughts can kill. We cannot support acts of killing in our thinking or in our speech. If you have a job in which telling the truth is impossible, you may have to change jobs. If you have a job that allows you to speak the truth, please be grateful. To practice social justice and non-exploitation, we have to use Right Speech.


From "Heart of the Buddha's Teachings"
by Thich Nhat Hanh
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