Right speech, again

The notion of “right speech” is something that comes up in Buddhism a lot, but it’s a nice, practical topic to explore. Speaking from experience, I can certainly use some improvement. This latest post was inspired by my continued readings of the 13th-century Japanese classic, Essays in Idleness, which I have mentioned a number of times on the blog.

Kenkō the author delves into the subject of exaggeration and gossip:

[73] Is it because the truth is so boring that most stories one hears are false? People tend to exaggerate even when relating things they have actually witnessed, but when months or years have intervened, and the place is remote, they are all the more prone to invent whatever tales suit their fancies, and, when these have been written down, fictions are accepted as fact…Things known by report always prove quite different when one has actually seen them.

There’s no escaping it—the world is full of lies. It is safest always to accept what one hears as if it were utterly commonplace and devoid of interest.(trans. Donald Keene)

Later in the same passage, Kenkō then quotes this passage from the Analects of Confucius:

[7:21] The master [Confucius] never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder or ghost stories. (trans. by Charles A.C. Muller)

Confucius felt that virtue involved self-cultivation and avoiding base or frivolous behavior, so gossip and idle chatter were certainly things he would have avoided. Meanwhile, Kenkō continues later in a related section:

[78] I find it insufferable too the way people spread word about the latest novelties and make a fuss over them. I am charmed by the man who remains unaware of such fashions until they have become quite an old story to everyone else.

The Buddha also warned against frivolous speech and idle chatter.2 It is included in the 10 Good Deeds, which are not like the moral precepts per se, but a kind of extension that ensures favorable rebirth, freedom from problems in this life, and much good merit and self-respect. The 10 Good Deeds are:

  1. Taking life
  2. Stealing
  3. Illicit Sexual Behavior1
  4. Telling Falsehoods
  5. Divisive Speech
  6. Harsh Speech
  7. Frivolous chatter (re: this post)
  8. To abstain from greed
  9. To abstain from hatred
  10. To abstain from ignorant of false views

The Five Moral Precepts of a lay person cover the most egregious acts, but the 10 good deeds (the first 4 overlap with the precepts) are more comprehensive and clearly intended to avoid harming others, but also make one’s life much easier in the process.

Between Confucius and the Buddha, Kenko has every good reason to warn people to avoid gossip or stupid conversations, let alone exaggeration. :)

1 Anything that would harm others, or just anything that society would deem overtly “illicit”. Pretty common-sense and straightforward, and no gay-marriage doesn’t count as illicit here. Being with strange woman after work, when your wife thinks you are just working late, would be.

2 For the Pali canon, see the Vipaka Sutta or the Mangala Sutta, for the Mahayana and Pure Land Path, see the Immeasurable Life Sutra:

The Buddha continued, “The fourth evil is this. People of the world do not think of doing good. They incite each other to commit various kinds of evil — uttering harsh and abusive words, telling lies, and engaging in idle talk. They slander others and cause contention.

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6 Comments on “Right speech, again”

  1. Dhammagevesi says:

    It is easy to commit random acts of kindness More difficult to remember to refrain from wrong speech when hitting the thumb with 2 1/2 lb lump hammer :D

  2. Doug says:

    Believe me, I’ve been there. Recently my little girl hit me very hard in the nose with her head (too excited), and I had to really restrain myself from swearing, and not lose my temper. Thankfully I passed, but talk about a challenge. :p

  3. Dhammagevesi says:

    The thumb is still in the bandage !!
    At times like this we really get tested and it always amazes me how easy it is to succumb

  4. Doug says:

    Ouch, sorry to hear that. I know what you mean though. :-/

  5. Kendall says:

    Is it because the truth is so boring that most stories one hears are false?

    This is something I think about a bit. Especially with voting coming up and listening to all of these campaign ads. The news is also very bad about this. I don’t think I’ve ever known a politician who comes close to abiding by right speech. Though they aren’t generally Buddhist, I don’t think any religion praises their behavior.

    I feel I do pretty well with right speech, but I have to be sure to think before I speak to ensure I don’t regret something. Forums are where I have to use the most restraint and take amount to really appreciate the context and measure my response.

  6. Doug says:

    Hi Kendall,

    This is among the reasons why I stopped watching TV years ago (partly by accident). I just don’t want to be bombarded with such negativity all the time, when it could be better spent pursuing other things and keeping my sanity a bit more. :)

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