Reflections on Right Speech

Recently I was following a debate between two meditators (yes, we do debate). It ended with one of the debaters, whose views had been soundly taken to task, accusing the other of “wrong speech.”George Orwell, I thought, could not have imagined a more ironic outcome.

For those who are not familiar, “right speech” is a Buddhist concept, and is one of the steps in the Buddha’s eightfold path. Although the intent behind right speech is to help people behave skillfully by being truthful and not hurting others with words, in practice it can be anything but useful. In fact, it can be used to squash dissent, shut out alternative views, and put the brakes on important and revolutionary ideas. Wrong thinking about right speech can be a hindrance to innovation and authentic sharing.

The Wrong Speech Accusation

Few things stop a person in their tracks faster than accusing them of wrong speech. For those protecting their attachment to a deeply held view, such an accusation can be a trump card, a way to hold off challenges to beliefs that have become an identity. This is especially true when the person accused of wrong speech is persistent, critical and direct. This is often when the wrong speech card gets played in Buddhist circles, and staying with right speech actually takes some guts.

Sometimes a person can be rough, or even harsh, but still be engaging in right speech. To some folks this might sound crazy, but it is totally true. In reality right speech can be both gentle and kind or strong and challenging. It can be encouraging or dissuading. It can comfort and it can push others out of their comfort zone. It can make you feel great and give you a boost, or it can challenge who you think you really are. The Buddha himself was extremely compassionate, but he also jumped into many heated debates to give his two cents, and even called people “stupid” when they made ridiculous assertions (MN 4.8).

How can this be so? Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is spoken. It can look divisive, harsh and anything but compassionate. But if it nudges the listener and the speaker in the direction of honesty, self-examination and awakening, then it is skillful.

(One caveat: if you’re reading this you’re not likely a Buddha (harsh, I know). So, be cautious with the name-calling and attitude when debating others. If the mythology around the guy was any indication, he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.”)

The Wrong Speech Cop-Out

Some people use right speech as a cop-out, as an excuse for not confronting bone-headed superstitious thinking or even injustice when it presents itself. For example, deciding not to tell a person that they are hurting others, when they clearly are, is an example of wrong speech. This is not at all academic. Consider for a moment the many scandals in Sanghas that began with a teacher verbally harassing and belittling students. The most common question after such scandals is: why didn’t anybody say anything? In such instances right speech would be considered harsh and divisive if it were done at the appropriate time.

Another example is not confronting a person when they are speaking or behaving in a bigoted manner, or staying silent while public figures espouse hateful views. We have all too many instances of this in our recent history.  Not openly disagreeing with these views when you have an opportunity to do so is not skillful. People who are genuinely on the fence about racism, homophobia, sexism and other social ills hear your silence as agreement – and that is absolutely wrong speech.

The point is that silence is likely the most common form of wrong speech.

How Do I Engage Socially, Politically, and Still Use Right Speech?

If you want to engage in right speech you need to think before you speak. In particular you need to consider a few things before you say something:

Is this false?

Am I trying to hurt this person?

Am I trying to serve my ego? To boost myself up in some way, to make myself look important, smart, or cool?

Is saying this just serving a favored identity of mine?

Am I confused and trying to hide it?

If you answered yes to any of these, then it’s best not to say anything. In other words, check your motivations for speaking. If it is selfish, hurtful, or comes from a place of confusion, then abstain. However, I would add one caveat. Before abstaining ask yourself this question:

Am I simply avoiding speaking up because it will be uncomfortable?

If you answered yes to this, then reconsider. Don’t let misguided ideas of right speech get in the way of doing the right thing.

Posted on November 17, 2012, in buddhism, Dharma, Morality, Uncategorized, Wisdom and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hi Ron –

    ‘Right speech’ is still confusing to me… At one place you write, “Right speech is not determined by how it looks to others. It is determined by the intent of the speaker.”, and then in the next paragraph you seem to contradict yourself when referring to the Buddha “…he was likely perceived as being compassionate even when calling a person “stupid.” which would indicate that in the latter ‘right speech’ is determined by how it looks to others?

    In my own experience calling someone stupid is rarely fruitful if I’m saying it to someone’s face, but can be fruitful if used as a factual description of someone’s behavior, then I often say person x is “silly/stupid/foolish” as in “lacking intelligence or common sense” (not that even just using words like stupid or foolish automatically provokes strong reactions in some people..)

    I like your attitude of generally rooting out stupidity within ‘dharma-discourse’ and i feel it has to do about recovering the value of judgment, as being “judgmental” is such a huge no-no in spirituality in general. In my experience if one practice being ‘non-judgmental’ you tie yourself up in endless knots, trying not to have opinions about things that are clearly better/worse than other things … ‘right speech’ is on the same level as ‘non-judgmental’ in terms of uselessness IMO. Wouldn’t a more useful distinction be between moral judgment (as in condescension) and merely judgment (as in preferring something over something else or just discernment) ?


    • Hey Ole,

      I didn’t mean to imply that because the Buddha was perceived as compassionate that it was right speech. Plenty of people say lulling and confusing things in a warm and compassionate manner. Saying things compassionately doesn’t make it right speech. Rather, since he was using such harsh language from a place of compassion (wanting the other person to wake up) it is that intention that makes it right speech. The thing is, he could be SO harsh and still help the person awake because, if the legends are true, he just oozed warmth and compassion. People felt it even in those harsh moments.

      But your comment points to a missing part of this essay – skillful delivery.

      This essay is about one aspect of right speech – being honest. But there are other skills to master, ones that are more subtle and difficult. And those skills are about delivery. If your intention truly is to help the other person wake up, then you should think about how harsh the words are and whether they will help or hinder that process. As with everything, there is a “middle way” here. Too harsh shuts things down. Too soft can make you appear to agree with confusion or hate. Find that sweet spot where you prod the person into wakefulness while not shutting them down.

      Most people in the dharma scenes today focus only on the delivery. They try to ooze the warmth and compassion, and avoid saying anything that could be perceived as harsh – even if it is true and the right thing to do. That is why I spent this essay on the importance of being honest, even if it is harsh.

  2. I’m dying to know where the precipitating conversation can be found, assuming it’s online. Must have been a doozy of an argument.

  3. The metta sandwhich:

    I think you’ve crossed the AP, but you stink of faux-enlightenment and your breath stinks and so does your samadhi.


    Nick 😉

  4. Interesting article. I haven’t considered before the extent to which silence can be wrong. Obviously one can’t lie while silent, but permitting people to think you agree when you really don’t is a form of deception.

    Stillis is hard to integrate with the old “if true and useful but not pleasant, a virtuous one has a sense of when it’s the right time to say it.” What if there is no right time? What if there doesn’t seem to be any actual use to saying something true? These sorts of questions are quite the struggle!
    Throw in a heavy dose of desensitization to the wrong speech I hear every day, and add more than a sight touch of desire to appear as charismatic as possible with minimal effort while still feeling like I’m a “food person” and a sizeable sh!tstorm of sila could be brewing!

    • Wow Adam – these are some really good points. This is what the struggle is like for a lot of people.

      Frankly, I wouldn’t put too much effort into knowing the right time. That sort of knowledge doesn’t really come with strong effort or cognizing. It happens more naturally after maturing on the path for some time and having some awakening (and even then the reception can be spotty). Rather I would focus on those other issues you bring up. They are far more fruitful to ponder. Unfortunately, the “right” answer may never be clear if you don’t stick your neck out and make some mistakes. Don’t stay silent. We all have to act a little foolish before we become wise.

      Sila is something that is never really perfected. It is the practice that never stops being a “practice”.

      • Yeah, having to make mistakes in order to improve can be quite the pain. I suppose nobody ever jumped directly from “beginner” to “master” while skipping over all the stuff in the middle.

        It seems that finding contentment with the (slow) process of progress is, at minimum, half of the entire practice. Perhaps it would make a far better practice than what I’ve done for the past few months, finding contentment with the status quo and quitting there? I mean, theoretically, staying satisfied with the way things already are WOULD be great, if they would stay that way. But entropy never sleeps, and even the best traits and behaviors are under constant erosion and require the nonstop rebuilding of right effort.

        On the topic of being slightly off-topic, I actually don’t need any reassurance to feel like a “food person” — that comes quite naturally!
        Being a “good person”… that’s the trap.

  5. For what it’s worth, it seems to me that right speech is characterized by both the intent before speaking and the mindfulness during speaking. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, the wrong words come out of the mouth or they have an unintended result. If we’re paying attention, we are likely to feel this wrongness in the same moment and then we’re able to do something about it — retract it, apologize, restate it, or admit that we just don’t know what we are talking about. So we don’t have to be perfect speakers with perfect intention before we speak. Life is too short for that! If we feel uncertain of our intent, we can qualify what we say “I haven’t thought this through completely but what I’m thinking is…” or “I’m not sure if what I’m saying makes sense but let me say that…” Basically, we need to pay attention (“be mindfull”) all the way through: our intention, how we are speaking, and the effect of our words. That’s how right speech can be part of the path, it’s another opportunity for applying mindfulness. Hope this adds something to the conversation!

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