The Eight Fold Path – Right Speech

Read the notes below or listen to the full session here –


Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. 

This group is often called the group of moral discipline. Today we will tackle right speech but first let’s explore the group together. Notice that they are being placed after right view and right intent. We are first setting the scene of the direction and then, with the moral group, we should see this as guidance to help us take our journey. With any journey that is going to potentially long and arduous we not only have to think of the direction we are heading and how we are going to get there, but also, what we should take with us and what we should leave behind. 

This is the way we should approach the morality group. What we take with us and what we leave behind. We can look again at what is wholesome for us and what isn’t. And of course, we approach this almost entirely from the mental aspect of the experience. 

Here in the West, morality and ethics are often seen as ways of behaving to adhere to rules, a higher power or perhaps a deity of some sort. But here this isn’t the focus. The focus is on what is wholesome for us and therefore takes us forward in our spiritual growth. It is a very important part and practice of the 8 fold path. Buddha said – first establish yourself in the starting point of wholesome states, that is in purified moral discipline and in right view. Then, when your moral discipline is purified and your view straight, you should practise the foundations of mindfulness.

Note also the word discipline here. Of course discipline happens in the mind. It implies concentration. We can see here how the different components of the path touch each other. Later we will of course be discussing right concentration. 

In a nutshell, the teachings can be summed as abstaining from the unskillful, cultivating the skilful and purifying the mind. 

So right speech, the first of these areas to examine. A way to understand the essence of right speech is to deliberately hold silence for 24 hours. Very difficult to do in this modern world, but not impossible. When we hold silence we find ourselves from time to time, having to bite back the words. When we do this, we actually notice the thought processes that are going on immediately prior to letting the words out. It is this that reveals to us the nature of the motivation, the intent, behind the words. What we find is elements of skilful and unskilful thinking at many levels. 

True or false speech. The connotations here are obvious but the motivations will always be more complex. Investigation what is driving our speech, in general, is key here. Then we can start to delve into the nature of the message and whether it is truthful. Of course this practice can be challenging. Our modern world sometimes places pressures on us to be less than truthful. I remember, in my previous career where my seniors were encouraging me to lie to the customers. When I challenged this their response was, “this isn’t lying, it is just spinning things a little”. It is also possible of course, to lie by not saying anything. By not speaking, we avoid telling the truth, when perhaps we should be. All of these challenges are real and again I would encourage an approach of examining the thinking behind the potential speech and a questioning of whether or not it is wholesome to yourself and or others. Keep things as simple as you can. Don’t over-complicate. Life is complicated enough. There is of course a deep implication for truth. We as human beings affect the world. We touch it and one way we do this is through speech. If our speech is unwholesome in some way shape or form, we are touching the world with that act. That unwholesome touch will permeate like oil poured in to a river. Potentially polluting and causing real harm. 

Harsh speech. This is speech which is uttered in anger and the unskilful side can clearly be seen. Again though, we must investigate the deliberate harsh speech and the harsh speech born out of a lack of care. In other words the words we utter that may case harm because we have spoken them without considering their consequences. We can’t see all the consequences of our thoughts, but we should at least try. 

Idle chatter. Interesting one this one. Here we often read that speech should only be used for matters which carry purpose or depth. Personally, I find this one hard to follow. Most marriages would soon grow stale if the couple could only discuss things which were of a serious, deep nature. However, there is one key area that I believe we can all look at here. Gossip. This definitely sits in here. We say things about someone who isn’t present to another person. Maybe because we believe it will put us in a position of power or maybe it is just to fill the silence. I love the story of Socrates here. 

“Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?”

“Wait a moment,” Socrates replied. “Before you tell me I’d like you to pass a little test. It’s called the Triple Filter Test.”

“Triple filter?”

“That’s right,” Socrates continued. “Before you talk to me about my student let’s take a moment to filter what you’re going to say. The first filter is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you are about to tell me is true?”

“No,” the man said, “actually I just heard about it and…”

“All right,” said Socrates. “So you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Now let’s try the second filter, the filter of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?”

“No, on the contrary…”

“So,” Socrates continued, “you want to tell me something bad about him, even though you’re not certain it’s true?” The man shrugged, a little embarrassed. Socrates continued. “You may still pass the test though, because there is a third filter – the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?”

“No, not really”

“Well,” concluded Socrates, “if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?”