The Eightfold Path Pt. 3: Right Speech

Right Speech would seem like the easiest part of the Eightfold Path, but for me, it’s probably the hardest. The words that come out of my mouth are so attached to habitual profanity, often I have to reflect on the words I’ve said, because they come out quicker than I can be mindful enough to stop them.

So, what is Right Speech? Here’s a quick list I’ve “borrowed” from The Big View

Buddha explained right speech as follows:
1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully
2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others
3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others
4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth

Seems simple enough right? Yeah, you try it!

Let’s get into them a little deeper.

The first part can be whittled down a bit and we can generally say it means, do not lie. Whether it’s a blatant, in your face lie, a small embellishment to flavor a story or a tine white lie the fact of the matter is, they are all untrue. As practitioners are all seeking the truth, so why tarnish that path with untruths? It’s not helpful to us and is not helpful to those we are engaged with.

I can remember when I was a kid, WAAAAAYYY before even knowing Buddha beyond the fat guy statue at the local Tiki Port Chinese Restaurant, my parents always told me this not to lie thing. They always told me, telling the truth was always the best course of action. Yeah, like many of you, I didn’t listen to them and was constantly in trouble for making stuff up. There was this one time though I had to put this whole thing to a test. My mom would say, “you’ll get in far less trouble if you tell the truth.” I never believed her until I came home one night, after getting myself caught stealing a Door’s cassette from a local K-Mart.

I was late getting home, past my curfew, so my parents were already heated. I had to diffuse the situation a bit and what better way, I was going to tell the truth. It probably helped a bit that the cop that came to K-Mart to talk to me threatened he would be calling my parents that night*, but alas, I was going to tell the truth anyway. And I did. My parents smiled, maybe they were getting through my thick skull after all is probably what they were thinking. But then, of course, the punishment was doled out, grounded for two weeks. It sucked, but I told the truth and it made my parents proud of me for doing so. I was never so happy to be grounded, in more ways than one.

Parts 2-4 are very similar, but have minor differences, such as not speaking slanderous of someone. This could include going to our boss and saying something this is not helpful, or untrue, about another employee. It could also be something like going to a rally and holding up a sign that gives others the wrong idea of what someone’s viewpoint is. Slander could very well be summed up as lies the defame someone and their character.

Other circumstances of slander stem from people’s perception of events they witness. We may be somewhere and see someone we work with at a restaurant for instance. This person has had problems with alcohol in the past and we see them with a glass of beer on the table. We assume it is alcoholic beer and tell all of our co-workers the next day the John Doe has fallen off the wagon. People start talking to him, telling him how disappointed they are in him. He feels low and is hurt by the fact someone is spreading false rumors about him. What we didn’t know was that John has been drink free for two years now and the beer was a non-alcoholic one.

The use of harsh words can be the most harmful and hurtful part of Right Speech. If I were to say something like  “Hey you, yes you reading this, what if I told you that I thought you are ugly? And to top of it, your not very bright either!” That might have hurt if I was being serious, but I’m proving a point that not using nice words can inflict an instant rush of emotion. Whether that emotion is sadness, anger or even confusion.

Harsh words are very painful. Not just name calling like the last example though, there are many other variants in the harsh speech realm. Such as cussing unnecessarily. While the cussing may not be directly pointed toward someone, more often than not, people within earshot can here this filth. I do cuss, on occasion, and it’s been seen on this blog, but I know that two and three year old children aren’t reading my blog. It drives me nuts when I’m out at some public event and there are others nearby when feel the need to incessantly cuss every other word. They see the children, not only mine, but still continue with the drivel that is spilling out of their mouths. To me this falls under the harsh speech realm as they are harsh words a child not only doesn’t need to hear, but learn and repeat. Some may think it’s flavoring a conversation, or stressing a point to drop an f-bomb, and at this point I’m questioning my own use of cuss words and their necessity.

And finally, we get to the last part, idle chatter. Idle chatter is prevalent in our society, especially in such avenues as television, specifically “reality” shows. There is so much trash talking going on, it’s a wonder if anyone has anything nice to say anymore. So what that Billy had a little dirt on his pants, maybe he had to change a tire on the way over. Instead, some people need to rag on the fact Billy is a little dirty and start spreading rumors about Billy’s hygiene and cleanliness. This of course gets back to Billy, and lacking any sort of restraint, he gets angry, maybe even sad that the people he thought were his friends would be so malicious they would talk like this about him behind his back.

Idle chatter is not only hurtful, it is dishonest for the most part. We all have engaged in it, I am sure of that. We tend to embellish some of the chatter, the story has to sound better right? So now, we are adding in lies and fabrications just to make our story more interesting. This type of talk is unnecessary and detrimental not only to ourselves, but the poor person we have targeted for this idle chatter.

Maybe this isn’t the best description of “Right Speech” but it’s helped me understand it, so hopefully someone else will as well.

Simply put, like we’ve all been told, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. To add another cliché quote to that, sometimes “silence is golden”, and a heck of alot less painful.

* The cop never called my parents!


  1. The only one I would rally have a hard time with is “to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth”. I would really like for this to be my life, where everything is deep and has meaning but small talk is about 80% of the conversations I have. When you meet someone, a stranger, it is difficult to begin a greeting with “Do you believe in God.” I love in depth conversation but most of the people I come into contact with are either very defensive with meaningful conversation or cannot comprehend what I am trying to express. I’m slowly learning how to speak to different people in alternate ways but still very difficult.

  2. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “Mouth #1 problem gate.”

    When some had a “problem gate,” he would sometimes put them on a period of extended silence – six months or even three years. It changed some folks!

    Because the mouth is not actually the problem, it’s the mind that spews forth through that gate.

    Thanks, Nate!

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