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.