Power of the spoken word
By Alec Robertson
|“Pleasant speech is sweet as honey,
truthful speech is beautiful like a flower, and wrong
speech is unwholesome like ”.
- The Buddha
We often tend to underestimate the power of speech and
we exercise very little control over our faculty of
speech. This should not be so. We have all been very
greatly hurt by someone’s words at some time of our
life. And similarly, we have been encouraged by the
words of another. In the sphere of politics, we can see
how those who are able to communicate effectively are
able to influence people tremendously for better or for
worse. Hitler, Churchill and Martin Luther King were all
accomplished speakers who were able to influence
millions with their words.
It is said that a harsh word can wound more deeply than
weapons. A gentle word can change the heart and mind of
the most hardened criminal. Probably more than anything
else, the faculty of speech differentiates man from
animals. So, if one is to develop a society in which
harmony, well being, communication and co-operation are
goals which are to be realised, one must control,
cultivate and utilise one’s faculty of speech
All the rules of good conduct involve respect that is
founded upon an understanding of equality. In this
context, right speech involves respect for truth and
respect for the welfare of others. If one speaks with
these criteria in mind, one will cultivate right speech
and through this one will achieve greater harmony within
Buddhism speaks of four aspects of right speech. Right
speech means to avoid lying, to avoid back biting or
slander, to avoid harsh speech, and to avoid idle talk.
The Buddha explained lying is intimately associated with
one’s practice of wholesome actions, with one’s good
conduct, with one’s character, once we are confident
that we can act in one way and speak in another, then we
will not be afraid to act badly, because we will be
confident that we can cover up our evil actions by
lying. Lying therefore opens the door to all kinds of
unwholesome actions. Slander, it creates rift between
friends. It creates pain and discord. So just as one
would not want to be divided against one’s friend by
slander, one ought not to slander another.
So one ought not to abuse others with harsh words, but
on the contrary should speak courteously to others as
one would like to be spoken to oneself. Regarding idle
talk, often you hear of people saying we cannot even
indulge in a bit of idle talk. It is no doubt that it is
bad. Here the kind of idle talk that is particularly
indicated is malicious gossip, diverting oneself,
entertaining oneself recounting the faults and failings
The Buddha once said “pleasant speech is sweet as honey,
truthful speech is beautiful like a flower, and wrong
speech is unwholesome like filth”. So let us try for our
own good and that of others to cultivate right speech,
respect for truth, and respect for others welfare. It is
said that a Bodhi Satta can break all the moral precepts
except the pledge to speak the truth. The reason for
this is very profound, and reveals that the commitment
to truth has a significance transcending the domain of
ethics and even mental purification, taking us to the
domain of knowledge and being. Truthful speech provides
in the sphere of Inter-personal communication, a
parallel to wisdom in the sphere of private
understanding. The two are respectively the outward and
inward modalities of the same commitment to what is
Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our
own inner being and the real nature of phenomena
allowing wisdom to rise up and fathom their real nature.
Thus, much more than an ethical principle devotion to
truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on
reality rather than illusion, on the truth grasped by
wisdom rather than the fantasies woven by desire.
Slanderous speech is intended to create enmity and
division, to alienate one person or a group from
another. The motive behind such speech is generally
aversion, resentment of a rival’s success or virtues.
The intention to tear down his image in the mind by
verbal denigrations. Other moves may enter the picture
as well: the cruel intention of causing hurt to others
the evil desire to win affection for oneself the
perverse delight in seeing friends divided.
The opposite of slander, as the Buddha indicates, is
speech that promotes friendship and harmony. Such speech
originates a mind of loving kindness and sympathy. It
wins the trust and affection of others, who feel they
can confine in one without fear that their disclosures
will be used against them. Beyond the obvious benefits
that it brings in this present life, it is said that
abstaining from slander has as its karmic result the
gain of a retinue of friends who can never be turned
against one by the slanderous words of others.
Harsh speech uttered in anger intended to cause pain.
Such speech can assume in three different forms. One is
abusive speech: scolding, reviling, or reproving another
angrily with bitter words. A second is insult: hurting
another by ascribing to him some offensive quality which
detracts from his dignity. A third is sacrasm: speaking
to someone in a way which ostensibly lauds him but with
such a tone or twist of phrasing that the ironic intent
becomes clear and causes pain.
Idle chatter is pointless talk, speech that lacks
purpose or depth. Such speech communicate nothing of
value but only stirs up the defilements in one’s own
mind and in others.
The Buddha advises that idle talk should be curbed and
speech restricting as much as possible to matters of
genuine importance. In the case of a monk, his words
should be selective and concerned.
Lay persons should be more affectionate and have polite
conversations with acquaintances, and to talk in
connection with their line of work. But even then they
should be mindful not to let the conversation stray into
pastures where the restless mind, always eager for
something sweet or spicy to feed on, might find the
chance to indulge its defiling propensities.
The traditional exegesis of abstaining from idle chatter
refers only to avoiding engagement in such talk oneself.
But today it might be of valid to give this factor a
different slant made imperative by certain developments
unknown in the days of the Buddha and the ancient
commentators. This is the angle of avoiding exposure to
idle chatter, constantly bombarding with through the new
media of communication created by modern technology.
An incredible array of devices-television, radio,
newspapers, pulp journals, the cinema-turns out a
continuous stream of needless information and
distracting entertainment the net effect of which is to
leave the mind passive vacant and sterile.
All these developments, naively accepted as “progress”,
threaten to blunt our aesthetic and spiritual
sensitivities and deafen us to the higher call of the
contemplative life. A services aspirant on the path to
liberation has to be very discerning in what he allows
himself to be exposed to.
He would greatly serve his aspirations by including
these sources of amusement in the category of amusement
and needless information in the category of idle chatter
and making an effort to avoid them.
|(This article was
written by late Deshabandu Alec
Sent by Mrs: Alec Robertson for publication)