An Introduction to Right Speech on the Eight Fold Path
By: Adam Katzen
November 25, 2016
I am not a violent person. I go out of my way to celebrate and protect life. I feel my heart drop if I accidentally step on a bug. If there’s a spider in my house I carefully collect it in a box and put it outside. But I’m not perfect… sometimes I want to kill my brother.
Now, I would never actually kill him (my mom would be super disappointed in me)… but god, that kid can get under my skin.
Usually I’m pretty even keel. I try not to let other people affect me. I fail. Often.
But I can probably count on one finger (guess which one) the number of people that can make me angry. Well, its actually me making myself angry… but you get the point.
Sometimes I just want to explode on my brother. Yesterday was one of those times. But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
On Mondays I lead Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism. Last Monday, since its Thanksgiving week and many of us will be spending lots of time with family, I decided to talk about Right Speech. Why?
Because I don’t know about you, but extended time with my family is not exactly a trip to Disneyland. But the Holidays are a great opportunity to practice many Buddhist teachings.
One is Right Speech.
It’s not easy. If your family is anything like mine, they have plenty of opinions about everything… and they feel compelled to share, which is awesome. And educational. Especially when it comes to where I’m falling short.
Now, I don’t want to paint an inaccurate picture. I love my family. I’m incredibly grateful to have such amazing people in my life – people that love and support me unconditionally.
I know, because I’ve created a lot of “conditions” and they’re still around. Another blog post.
Every once in a while we have deep, meaningful conversations. We get honest and vulnerable, listen to each other, share our thoughts and experiences… But it’s rare.
In fact, it’s rare with everyone in my life. Can you relate? Let me ask you a question.
How often – or, in what percentage of your daily conversations do you feel like the person you’re talking to is totally present and focused on what you’re saying?
Is it 80%, 50%, 30%, 10%, 2%…?
For me it’s probably about 2%. That’s not to say I don’t have lots of interactions where people stay quiet while I’m speaking, maybe ask questions, engage in a conversation. But most of the time it’s not a dialogue, it’s what I call intersecting monologues.
It’s one person patiently waiting for the other to stop talking so they can say what they want to say. I’m no different, I do the same thing. And how could I not, I’ve got some profound shit to say.
But these normal conversations are not what I’m talking about.
What I’m asking is how often do your feel deeply listened to? Like someone is truly trying to understand who you are and where you’re coming from? Someone who’s fully present, not concerned at all with what they’re going to say.
I ask because the foundation of Right Speech is deep listening. It’s a rare thing, but you know it when it happens. How does it make you feel when someone is totally focused on you, practicing deep listening? It’s a pretty amazing feeling, no?
Right Speech is part of the Eight Fold Path. It is a roadmap for what to say and how to say it so that you don’t cause suffering in yourself or others. So what is Right Speech?
Well, let’s start with the basics. Abstaining from lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, gossip and idle chatter are all components of right speech. The Buddha also gave some clear guidelines for deciding what to say.
In the discourse to Prince Abhaya, the Buddha provided us the criteria for when to speak. He said:
- In the case of words that the Tathagata (a title for the Buddha) knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
- In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.
So what does that mean?
Well, for one it means we should probably talk a lot less than we do. Silence is not only often a great response; it can also speak volumes.
Based on these guidelines, the only time we should speak is if we know something to be
- Factual – a statement that is accurate, supported by evidence
- True – most people know not to lie. That part is easy. Where it gets challenging is that our opinions masquerade as truth a lot
- Beneficial – will help, or reduce suffering in another
- Endearing – the words come from a place of love, compassion and ground in empathy
- Agreeable – only speaking if the person is open to, and will actually hear what you have to say.
And even if what we have to say meets the criteria, we still need to say it kindly and at the right time.
That’s a pretty high bar. I fail to clear it on a daily basis, but I try. I got a great opportunity right after the discussion on Monday.
This week my brother and I are staying at my mom’s. On Tuesday I get a text from him. It said, “Just letting you know, I’ll be in the kitchen all day. And I’ll be playing loud music.”
Now, I work from home. At my mom’s I usually set up at the kitchen table. He knows that. Still, this text shouldn’t have bothered me. There are a million places I can work.
But being that it’s my brother, my mind immediately got a little crazy.
I mean, how dare he. Doesn’t he know who I am? Perhaps if he had come to me on bended knee, with a tribute, and asked permission to slightly elevate the decibel level, I might have granted the request. But he came at me all wrong.
Yeah, I know… just stay with me.
I couldn’t help myself from firing off a text. Before I even knew what was happening I had hit send on, “maybe you could try asking a question sometimes versus making a statement or giving ultimatums.”
Not condescending at all.
And I got back, “I wasn’t making a request. I’m just letting you know it’s going to be loud. If you have somewhere else to go to work, I suggest you do that.”
My thumbs kicked into overdrive. This little !@#$%^&. He clearly doesn’t know who he’s talking too. But he goin lern da-day!
I quickly composed a real gem to put him in his place, but stopped before hitting send. The right speech guidelines we had talked about the previous night entered my mind. I deleted it.
I proceeded to write out and delete half a dozen texts… none of which qualified for right speech. In the end, I said nothing.
Instead, I took a look at my view and my thinking (two other components of the eight fold path). My view was delusional. He was just giving me a heads up that he was going to be cooking so I could plan accordingly. I was adding a tone of malice and an intention of spite that didn’t exist (outside of my head, that is).
My thinking… that was even worse. I’m not the emperor (although I like to think I am). He doesn’t need to acquire my approval to make noise. We were both sharing space at my moms. And he had to cook.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had continued to practice wrong speech and escalate the situation. Maybe nothing. Maybe we would have been in a blood feud by Thanksgiving dinner.
Either way, continuing to speak in an unkind, unbeneficial way… from a delusional perspective… certainly wouldn’t have nurtured wholesome roots. It would have undoubtedly caused suffering in him, and me… perhaps our family too.
As you’re spending time with family over the Holidays – or just as a good practice in all of your interactions – maybe ask yourself if you’ve practiced deep listening before saying anything. Are you seeking to be understood or are you really trying to understand.
And before you speak, maybe bump that profound nugget you’ve got queued up against the Buddha’s criteria.
Want to learn more about Buddhism? Join us every Monday at 7pm for Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism. It’s a donation based class. For more info, visit our Events Page on Facebook
Adam Katzen is just as unenlightened as the rest of us. He writes a little bit, has meditated for a while and studied Buddhism from time to time. Adam leads our Introduction to Meditation and Buddhism class Mondays at 7pm. Word on the street is he also helps grow businesses, build organizational culture of trust and innovation, and coaches executives on mindful leadership. To get in touch you can email him at email@example.com.