Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Qualities of correct speech

(5.79) I should speak truthfully, coherently, and to the point,
Making my meaning clear in a pleasant manner.
I should speak gently and in moderation,
Without a selfish motivation.

The quality of our speech is important if we’re going to accomplish the aims of a Bodhisattva.  It is primarily through our speech, both written and verbal, that we communicate with others.  We may wonder what is wrong with the way that we speak.  We need to check.  Just as there are the extremes of not caring about our body or caring too much about our body, so too it is the same with our speech.

To speak truthfully means to never deceive others motivated by delusion.  Sometimes we think telling “the truth” is a virtue in and of itself, even if the truth we wish to speak is harmful.  It is not enough that our words be conventionally true, we should only speak that truth which is beneficial for others to hear.  Normally we grasp at their being an “objective” truth, and of course we grasp at our own perspective as being that objective reality.  According to Dharma, truth is established not objectively, but rather by what is beneficial for people to believe.  Sometimes people misunderstand this to mean we can lie to people if the lie is beneficial.  But it is not beneficial to believe something that is conventionally false.  Therefore, the middle way is speak only those parts of the truth that are beneficial to believe.

To speak coherently means what we say must make sense and not contradict other things we know to be true.  Sometimes people fall into the extreme of being afraid to utter any Dharma that is not verbatim from the books or teachings.  Other people fall into the extreme of inventing their own lineage.  There are three lineages, the lineage arising from listening, the lineage arising from contemplation and the lineage arising from meditation.  How do we know whether our understandings derived from contemplation and meditation are reliable Dharma?  We do three things.  First, we request Dorje Shugden to sabotage any wrong understandings we may have of the Dharma.  Second, we test our new understanding to see if it contradicts any known instruction we have received from listening.  Third, we test to see if our new understanding is consistent with all known instructions.  If we satisfy these three tests, then our new understanding is sufficiently reliable to move forward.  To speak coherently means to satisfy these three tests with our speech.

To speak to the point means we should communicate directly our meaning in as concise a fashion as possible.  If our speech is complicated, it is because we are complicating things.  A clear, concise mind will naturally produce clear, concise speech.  Often times, the fewer words we use to communicate our idea, the more effective our speech will be.  We should not beat around the bush or get side-tracked into secondary topics, instead we should go straight for the heart of the matter.

We need to be clear with our speech so that the listeners are left with no ambiguity as to our meaning.  We shouldn’t leave people guessing and we should make things as simple as possible.  It is easy to use jargon and specialized vocabulary, it takes a master to communicate the same meanings with language our eight year old son and eighty year old grandma alike can easily understand.  What gives speech its clarity is the precison of the distinctions it draws.  The way we know anything is through distinguishing one object from another, thus it is our ability to draw clear distinctions that leads to clear understanding.

We should always speak in a pleasant, friendly manner.  If we are aggressive, attacking or judgmental in our approach others will become defensive and reject what we have to say, even if we are right.  Our speech then becomes counter-productive – it would have been better to say nothing.  The key to pleasant speech is the genuine love we feel in our heart for whomever we are speaking with.  If we feel love and gratitude, our speech will naturally be pleasant.

To speak gently means to let go of any attachment to the other person agreeing with or listening to what we have to say.  Normally when we speak we are trying to manipulate others into thinking or doing what we want them to do, usually for our own selfish purposes.  There is an attachment in our mind to them agreeing with us, and when they don’t we become upset.  People are not stupid, they know when they are being manipulated.  They sense our ulterior motive and therefore reject what we have to say, even if it is exactly what they need to hear.  When we speak, it shouldn’t matter – at all – whether others accept what we have to say.  We leave people 100% free to take or reject our words as they wish.  Paradoxically, it is only when we let go of needing others to take on board our words they begin to do so.  This is especially true when giving Dharma teachings or advice.

To speak in moderation means we should really only speak when we have something beneficial to say that others are happy to receive.  If what we have to say is of no value, we should keep silent.  If others are not open to our point of view, we shouldn’t offer it.  If others are not asking for our advice, we shouldn’t give it.  The reason for all of this is simple:  if these conditions are not met, then people will actively reject what we have to say.  Instead of helping them, we will be giving them an opportunity to grasp more tightly onto their wrong views.

To speak without selfish motivation means our only objective in speaking should be to help others for their sake.  Normally our speech has no purpose other than an aversion to silence or an attachment to our own views.  The implication of our every criticism of others is we are somehow better.  When we speak nicely, it is usually because we are trying to get something.  Selfless speech is free from all of these and wishes only to help others find happiness through wisdom and virtue.  Selfless speech seeks to create harmony and heal division; it softens the heart and opens the mind.

If we train consistently in improving our speech in these ways, it will naturally become very powerful and there is hope we can bring great benefit to others.  Ultimately, the entire bodhisattva path is about gaining realizations to be able to share with others.  We share our realizations primarily through our speech.  If our realizations are profound but our speech unskillful then our realizations are useless.

4 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:  Qualities of correct speech

  1. “According to Dharma, truth is established not objectively, but rather by what is beneficial for people to believe. Sometimes people misunderstand this to mean we can lie to people if the lie is beneficial. But it is not beneficial to believe something that is conventionally false. Therefore, the middle way is speak only those parts of the truth that are beneficial to believe.”

    Please could you give an example of this?

    Thank you


    • I think it depends entirely upon the mental context of the listener. For example, when I first started practicing Dharma, my in laws were very opposed, creating all sorts of obstacles. I thought it was the truth that I was doing all of this and their creating obstacles was creating bad karma for them, so surely I should resist. I wrote Geshe-la and asked what I should do. His basic answer was they don’t need to know everything, Dharma practice is internal, and they wouldn’t have a problem with me being a good person. The rationale being forcing them to confront my practice when they are not ready to just causes them to grasp even more tightly onto their wrong views, so it is more beneficial for me to not make manifest the truth of my practice.

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