Uposatha Day Teaching

Noble Eightfold Path: Right Speech

To bring the new reader up to date, the Noble Eightfold Path is the Buddha’s master checklist on the path to the perfection of character. The eight folds fall into three groups or trainings, the Wisdom Group, the Ethical Conduct Group and the Cultivation of Mind Group. In the past two posts I have described the Wisdom Group, and today I will begin the Ethical Conduct Group.

On the Noble Eightfold Path we are acquiring skills, the skills to live a virtuous life. In analogy, a potter also needs certain skills. Among these are the actual actions to take in making a pot, for instance, shaping the pot on the potter’s wheel, adding an ornamental handle, firing, putting on the glaze, and there are skilled ways of doing these things and unskillful ways. These are like the Buddhist Ethical Conduct Group

In the last episode we discussed Right Resolve. Right Resolve is the factor of Wisdom that gives the character its basic shape. It is a character of Virtue, that is, of Renunciation, of Goodwill and of Harmlessness. This is one’s resolve. Ethical Conduct, also called the training in Virtue or Morality, is the steps one takes in actually fashioning the shape of one’s character, through Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood.

Under Right Speech one undertakes:

  • not to lies,
  • not to slander,
  • not to speak harshly and
  • not to chatter idly.

These are stated as abstentions. This is typical in teachings on Buddhist Ethical Conduct, but instead, out of kindness and compassion one tells the truth when someone needs to know it, one speaks well of others, one uses kind words, and one observes Noble Silence otherwise..

The Conduct Group presents in outline form a moral code. It should be understood that morality in Buddhism has a different foundation than morality in the Abrahamic religions, in which morality comes down from God, for instance, through the Ten Commandments given to Moses. In Buddhism morality is always a personal choice, it is a matter of vow. There is a recognition that one will continue to suffer and cause suffering for others to the extent that one’s character has yet to be perfected. But morality is not something imposed, but rather is a matter of personal commitment, and that is where the focus is, on one’s own actions, not on others’, which you cannot really control in any case. The world is not a battleground of Good and Evil, it is people doing what they can. Every person has the potential to be skillful or to be unskillful in conduct. If my resolve is to be a person of Renunciation, Goodwill and Harmlessness, then Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are how I manifest this. In practice this is surprisingly effective in producing virtuous behavior even without God or Santa Claus watching one’s every move: Buddhist counties tend to have very low crime rates. In Burma I was impressed by how safe you and your possessions are. There is very little violent crime, for instance, providing you don’t get in the government’s way. It is relatively safe to leave a bicycle unlocked, and that in a desperately poor country with little police presence.

It is important to appreciate how much emphasis he Buddha places on Right Speech: a lot. This is true in many of the Suttas and in the Vinaya, and this is probably why it comes as the very first in the Conduct Group. In is easy to think that speech is relatively harmless when compared to actions. We all know expressions like, “Sticks and Stones may Break my Bones but Words will Never Hurt me,” and “Actions Speak Louder than Words,” But consider that racism, sexism, nationalism and eventually war and ethnic cleansing are all driven by many acts of Wrong Speech. We use speech as vengeance, to turn one person or group against another, to deceive and manipulate, and get people to buy things. Lying in particular undermines our trust in each other, which a society requires to function. In this modern Communication Age Right Speech has become even more critical as it finds expression through so many media and the speech of each of us can easily reach mass audiences. Given a few advances in technology since the Buddha’s day, “Speech” now includes the written word, blogs, videos, radio broadcasts and maybe even pantomime. Speech can also be passive; watching talk shows generally constitutes being a party to idle chatter.

Unfortunately Right Speech in the Communication Age seems to be rarer than it should be. Lies, often quite blatant, distortions and exaggeration, slander and character assassination, harsh speech and insult, frivolous chatter and gossip are matters of daily consumption. There is a simple principle if you want to live in an environment of Right Speech: Turn It Off!

Throughout this uposatha day, the day of the full moon, I suggest you pay attention to your speech and the speech of others. If you are like most people you will begin to catch yourself speaking badly of others, really for no productive reason and with a bit of anger or hatred, or at least as an reflection of the endless chatter of a very busy mind.

6 Responses to “Uposatha Day Teaching”

  1. don Says:

    Dear Venerable Cintita,

    I know from what little practice I have had with right speech that the fruits are much greater than just being a good boy.

    I once worked with this woman. Not matter what I did or said she would find a hidden meaning in my words or actions and confront me. The confrontation was always about how I was nasty, belittling or self important.

    I hated this woman. To the point I was stressed every time I saw her. If she died I horrible death I can promise you I would be quite happy about it.

    A friend suggested every time I see her or think of her I close my eyes and just wish for that every happiness be fulfilled for her. It was hard at first but I kept at it. I would say after about six to eight months of wishing her the best ( she was in my head allot so a safe bet would be 2000 wishes for her) a big thing happened and I will never forget it.

    We both worked in food business at the time. After working together I went to the sink to wash my hands.
    She came over to the sink and said “am I so dirty that you have to wash your hands?”

    All of a sudden a thought as clear as day came to me. That thought was: this woman is really hurting, she hates herself. Every thing she has been saying is not personal to me but has to do with the way she feels about herself. IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME! I really wanted to hug her at that point. I felt so bad for her.

    I can’t say why she saw a change in me but after that day it was like that cancer between us was removed. I never had another bad day with her… In fact when I left the job she bought me a briefcase and we both hugged and cried.

    I have told this story to others and they always say it was a psychological shift but I don’t think it was because the idea came all at once and it quite surprised me. What burst the bubble? I don’t know but there is a tremendous shift of trust once this principle has been proven.

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  2. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Don,

    Thanks for this story. It is very moving.

    It teaches three things I can think of. First, a very common delusion people have is to think they know what people are thinking. This woman apparently habitually attributed bad thoughts about her to other people then responded to those bad thoughts. You perhaps more naturally attributed to her the thought, She does not like me personally. Words are easily misinterpreted in this way, especially when you cannot see facial expressions. (With email you have to be particularly careful.)

    Second, people who engage in Wrong Speech or Wrong Action, in other words, people who hurt others, are almost always in pain when they are doing it. What you discovered there can happen whenever you are being harmed by another, your heart can go out to them. If someone is speaking harshly to me, the pain they are feeling is much greater than any pain they are causing me. They say Virtue is its own Reward, well, Malice is its own Punishment. This is the Law of Karma. You can ALWAYS forgive if you see what is going on, this is compassion. By the way, read Shatideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life on such things.

    Third, the power of Right Speech is enormous. Speak gently, particularly when it is unexpected, particularly when someone is rude or abrupt with you. You will often notice their surprise and a lightening of their load. Back in the days when I could handle money if I had a waiter(ess) who seemed particularly fed up with customers I used to leave a BIGGER tip than the norm (money talks, so I guess this counts as an example of Right Speech too).

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  3. don Says:

    Venerable,

    Thank you.

    Before I had that experience I did try being nice. Bring in a small chocolate or a compliment or try to understand her or her interests. Of course I was doing that because I wanted her to like me. It was not out of any real concern for her.

    We both just sank deeper into the mud.

    So I assume intent is extremely important. I would think that a kinder purer person would have been able to do that. Not trying to say anything bad about myself here, that is just the reality.

    Obviously you are able to relate with me on this. That would lead me to believe that no matter what the experience the end result can be the same for everyone. I would then think that there is a law behind this that offers the result by using that law correctly.

    It is very logical for me to know that one who thinks the world is against them will lash out to protect themselves. There is nothing personal; they are trying to survive the best way they know how.

    But intellectually knowing that does not provide a deeper meaning.
    I went from thought to meaning in this one case.

    Christians call that Manna, meaning if one is on the path then supply is given that is necessary for their un-foldment. The term unfoldment is used because the path is about un-learning or peeling off layers.

    So if I am correct in thinking that the result is fruit of a spiritual law and if everyone can have the same results from practising what the Buddha has laid out, where is this law from? Is there one universal mind?

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  4. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Humans are simply fundamentally the same. Just as we have similar facial features (two eye, nose, nose above mouth, etc.) our minds have similar parts. This does not require a universal mind, and that would just be speculation in any case. Maybe I don’t understand your question.

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  5. Terasi Says:

    I am still thinking of Right Speech in terms of the Five Precepts. I think out of them, this one is extremely hard just because there are many more chances to break it in everyday life than the other precepts. The second hardest is taking what’s not given, especially in terms of those downloads on the Internet. I have both consciously and unconsciously broken Right Speech many times recently even after I learned what Right Speech is. One thing I still don’t understand is why idle chatter is wrong, is it something to do with setting a safe area just so we don’t slip into wrong speech just because we talk too much.

    Haven’t learned to speak gently, but at least there is now a brief space where I can restrain not to open my mouth, rather than saying harsh things. Yesterday I shopped for a trench coat, it’s rather out of season but I was freezing. This shop had a trench coat which looked like it’s been on the display too long. I didn’t point it out, but merely asking if I could get a discount, the shop assistant said harshly with flashing eyes “You wish!!”, he was almost yelling. I would have yelled back if this was a year ago, but recently I just lost the drive to speak harshly, so I just left the shop without saying anything. Probably if I was wiser I could have wished him well or happiness.

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  6. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Cath, Yelling back harshly would have done no good, only irritated him more, right? One thing you could try is to to imagine the reasons that he might have spoken harshly. Maybe he was having a bad day, maybe he had just experienced a customer who really did make life difficult for him, maybe his dog just died, maybe his business is doing poorly (maybe he is from New York City where everyone just behaves like that without thinking of it as being harsh). Probably none of those reasons involves you in any prominent way. On the other hand there is probably suffering behind his response. This exercise does two thinks, it helps you feel compassion rather than anger and it makes his reaction no longer personal for you. When I started doing this years ago, I found myself giving the biggest tips to the rudest waiters and waitresses.

    Idle chatter is in the same group as intoxicating oneself. It does not cause immediate harm to others, only to your own purity of mind, which will contribute to bad judgment, which will ultimately cause harm. It is the main way we distract ourselves, or was in the Buddha’s time, it fills the mind with thoughts that begin jumping here and there. In modern times we can consider watching mindless TV and the use of many other media to be idle chatter.

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