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Right Speech

Traditionally, Right Speech (Pali: samma vaca, Sanskrit: samyak vac) is the third element of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Saccavibhanga Sutta, the Magga-vibhanga Sutta, and the Maha-satipatthana Sutta are three different early Buddhist scriptures written in Pali. In each of them, Shariputra, one of the historical Buddha's foremost disciples, says of Right Speech:1

"And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech."

In the Majjhima-Nikaya, Sevitabbaasevitabba Sutta, a scripture in the Pali canon, there is some elaboration regarding Right Speech and its opposite:2

Right Speech: "Here someone abandons lying when summoned to a court or to a meeting or to his relatives' presence or to his guild or to the royal family's presence and questioned as a witness thus 'So, good man, tell what you know,' then, not knowing, he says 'I do not know,' knowing, he says 'I know,' not seeing, he says 'I do not see,' seeing, he says 'I see'; he does not in full awareness speak falsehood for his own ends or for another's ends or for some petty worldly end. He abandons slander: as one who is neither a repeater elsewhere of what is beard here for the purpose of causing division from these, nor a repeater to these of what is heard elsewhere for the purpose of causing division from these, nor a repeater to these of what is heard elsewhere for the purpose of causing division from those, who is thus a reuniter of the divided, a promote of friendships, enjoying concord, rejoicing in concord, delighting in concord, he becomes a speaker of words that promote concord. He abandons abuse: he becomes a speaker of such words as are innocent, pleasing to the ear and lovable, as go to the heart, are civil, desired of many and dear to many. He abandons gossip: as one who tells that which is reasonable, factual, good, and the Dhamma [Sanskrit: Dharma] and Discipline, he speaks in season speech worth recording, which is reasoned, definite, and connected with good.

Wrong Speech: "When he is cited and questioned as a witness before a council or a company or amid his relations or amid a guild or a royal family, and is told, "Now, my good man, say what you know," although he does not know, he says, "I know," and although he knows, he says, "I do not know"; although he has not seen, he says, "I saw," and although he has seen, he says, "I did not see." Thus his speech becomes intentional lying either for his own sake or for that of another or for the sake of some material gain or other. And he is a slanderer; having heard something at one place, he makes it known elsewhere for causing variance among those people... In this way he sows discord among those who were in harmony or foments those who were at variance. Discord is his pleasure, his delight, his joy, the motive of his speech.... If this kind of vocal conduct is followed, unskilled states of mind grow much, skilled states of mind decrease."

Basically, Right Speech can be described as our communication with other people which stems from Right Intention (also known as Right Thought or Right Thinking). To cultivate habits of Right Speech, we should also practice Right Mindfulness when communicating with others. That is to say, we should try to be aware moment-to-moment of exactly what we are saying and why we are saying it. Though we may often notice other people saying things that may unduly bring harm to another person's reputation or may needlessly hurt the feelings of the person being talked to, we might, out of habit, often do the same without being aware of it.

The book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (published by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services) makes note of gossip in its chapter about Step Six ("Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character."):3

"Gossip barbed with our anger, a polite form of murder by character assassination, has its satisfactions for us, too. Here we are not trying to help those we criticize; we are trying to proclaim our own righteousness."

Another book published by A.A. World Services, Daily Reflections has for its entry for October 15, under the title "My Checklist, Not Yours":4

"Sometimes I don't realize that I gossiped about someone until, the end of the day, when I take an inventory of the day's activities, and then, my gossiping appears like a blemish in my beautiful day. How could I I have said something like that? Gossip shows its ugly head during a coffee break or lunch with business associates, or I may gossip during the evening, when I'm tired from the day's activities, and feel justified in bolstering my ego at the expense of someone else.

"Character defects like gossip sneak into my life when I am not making a constant effort to work the Twelve Steps of recovery. I need to remind myself that my uniqueness is the blessing of my being, and that applies equally to everyone who crosses my path in life's journey. Today the only inventory need to take is my own. I'll leave judgment of others to the Final Judge-Divine Providence."

For an informative article about Right Speech and gossip written by Nancy Baker, see the webpage "The Buddhist Guide to Gossip" published by Tricycle.



2Majjhima Nikaya iii. 41-42, 47-48, Sevitabbaasevitabba Sutta. See Nanamoli, Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha (c. 1992), p. 238, and World Scripture—about "Slander, Gossip, and Foul Speech".

3Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (c. 1981), p. 67.

4Daily Reflections: A Book of Reflections by A.A. Members for A.A. Members (c. 1990), p. 297.


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