The Noble Eightfold Path: Right Speech

Reading time: 5 minutes

I can still hear his voice. “You’re a loser,” he said with a sneer after I missed a shot at the basketball goal. “You really stink at this.” I was around nine or ten years old, playing basketball for perhaps the first time at the local park. His words stung. Shocked me, as I had never really had someone speak to me like that before. If only in a small way, I considered he might be right. If I can’t even throw that ball through the hoop like some of the other kids, I must be a loser. 

Sticks and stones may break my bones…

Yeah, true enough. But words really can hurt you. They dig under your skin. Plant a seed that, once watered and fertilized enough times, can grow into something massive.

Our words matter. They have lasting effects that can stick with us for years, even decades. The fact that I can still remember this childhood taunt confirms this. It’s easy to see how being subjected to verbal abuse is so harmful to children (or adults, for that matter). One phrase like this sticks with us. Hearing it every day, year after year can truly damage us.

This example points to the need for right speech, one part of the Noble Eightfold Path — the cure proposed by the Buddha in the Fourth Noble Truth. 

Although the Buddha introduces right speech as the third part of the path, it makes sense as a starting point. As mentioned in the last post, right speech falls under the category of “ethical conduct,” or cultivating moral discipline — training ourselves to behave in ways based on compassion and wisdom. Speech, in particular, is perhaps the most prevalent activity in our daily lives. We talk to many people every day in many ways. As such, we have limitless opportunities to observe and improve our ability to engage in right speech. And, in turn, to practice the path.

What is “right” speech?

So what does the Buddha mean by “right” speech?

On a basic level, we can ask ourselves a question at the heart of Buddhism:
“will this create more suffering — or less?”

More specifically though, we can consider a spectrum of speech, with “harmful” on one end, and “helpful” on the other. We also have “neutral” kinds of speech; although we might admit that we rarely bother with the neutral stuff. 

The harmful spectrum includes things like gossip, complaint, lying, slander, and verbal abuse. No doubt there are other nuanced ways of speaking in hurtful ways, but those are some common examples of “wrong” kinds of speech. The result of these kinds of speech, put simply, is to create suffering: jealousy, anger, disharmony, resentment, and even violence.

The helpful spectrum covers things like honesty, kindness, helpfulness, expressions of “sympathetic joy” (showing a legitimate appreciation for good things happening to people we encounter), and other kinds of beneficial speech. This kind of speech tends to produce well-being — even if only in small increments. While it’s not as exciting or satisfying to the ego, which often revels in drama, presumably we could all use just a little more kindness in our lives.

Another critical aspect of right speech pertains not to our words, but our ears: right listening. Truly hearing other people in a deep and connected way. Many of us undoubtedly feel that we’re not always heard by loved ones, colleagues, or friends. When we’re a person who listens with an open ear and an open heart, we offer a kindness that some people may not often receive. Right listening is thus a powerful aspect of right speech. 

All of us have within our minds seeds of kindness, seeds of apathy, and seeds of cruelty. The seeds that we cultivate will produce a corresponding fruit. If we plant an apple seed, we don’t get potatoes; we get apples. Right speech is one way to plant seeds of happiness in our lives and communities.

Getting to work on our words

These practices are not necessarily easy. (Check out this blog post in which I describe my not-always-successful efforts to abide in right speech for a month during Lent). But the value we derive will justify the effort. It’s also called a “practice” for a reason. We don’t get it right the first time, or the tenth, but we keep trying nonetheless. 

We also don’t practice any aspect of the path in isolation; every part feeds the other parts of the path. Right speech requires right understanding, which helps us to recognize the truth of suffering and its cessation. Right thought points out the seeds of both kindness and cruelty within our minds and guides us towards the former. Right effort encourages us to keep trying, even though the path is difficult and beset by doubt. Right mindfulness empowers us to cultivate awareness as often as possible, helping us notice the thoughts in our minds — and the words that tend to burst forth instantaneously when thoughts arise.

All parts of the path are interconnected, working together to help us live with more compassion, wisdom, and purpose.

This practice can be of great benefit in daily life, and like many aspects of Buddhism, doesn’t require any form of belief in a traditional religious sense. We simply need to practice, and examine the results: do I now have more suffering or less in my life?

Expanding our practice 

In what ways might this practice benefit the world beyond our immediate daily interactions? 

In some ways, we might argue that the way we conduct our daily interactions directly creates the kind of world we see. Countless millions of words are spoken or written every day, each bearing the weight of its speakers’ intentions. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’d wager that a large percentage of those words do not have “right speech”-esque intentions.

The world has been at a fever pitch these past several years, with 2020 reaching peak intensity on multiple fronts. Do we need more people shouting at each other? More derisive dismissals of the “other side” and heated arguments? Will more hate speech go away with more hatred?

There is no easy solution to any of the ills of society. Not least the kinds of verbal toxicity we’ve seen running rampant in the United States and elsewhere.

Right speech might not be a silver bullet, but it sure is worth practicing. 

We can experiment with the practice of right speech wherever we are: within our families, our workplaces, and in our communities. When we’re feeling confident and bolstered by right mindfulness and other parts of the path, we might even venture to have conversations with those who hold views we oppose.

Through this practice, we can help set an example of morally disciplined conduct — and the benefits it produces. The world could use a few more seeds of kindness planted far and wide.