Lately I have been thinking a lot about Right Speech (samma vaca), which is the third step along the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. It is absolutely essential to the practise of Buddhism, but it is also amongst the most difficult of spiritual disciplines. Controlling your speech is a lot like dealing with a food addiction - you simply have to do it every day, so it's harder to control it when it gets out of hand.
Right Speech is hard because wrong speech can be so much fun and infinitely satisfying. It feels great to gossip about our friends, criticise and condemn those people we disagree with and bitch and moan about the difficult conditions in our lives. Let’s face it, everyone does it. But the Buddha points out that that doesn't make it right. Spiritual discipline calls for us to carefully control, and even censor, our speech. And every time we want to give rein to the negative tendencies in our daily talk we need to bring our minds - and our hearts - to bear and remind ourselves: will this next sentence be for everyone's ultimate good? If not, it's best we zip our lips.
Australian-New Zealand spiritual teacher Maggie Hamilton, in her superb book Coming Home, writes about it:
Right speech and right action and right thoughts (meaning 'good' speech, actions and thoughts) are all cornerstones of Buddhist teachings, not just because these are appropriate things to do but because they positively impact on our soul vibration and on our progress towards lightness of being.
I think that in Western culture it has become kind of OK to give vent to some bad speech. We tell ourselves: "that person is wrong, so they deserve my condemnation," or "I'm just being realistic here - not everything is rosy, you know." All well and good, but if we stop and really examine our motivations we often find that they aren’t so pure. And even if we can, in all honesty, stand up and say we are saying cruel things from the very most compassionate grounds, we must then pause and think about the effects our harsh words have on others. How will we make someone feel when we ‘put them right’ ? How much might we wish people to exercise patience and understanding towards us if we say something stupid or ill-considered or unknowingly offend someone?
We do have a moral obligation to be kind towards others, and the most common way that kindness manifests is in our way of speaking and interacting with each other. Buddhism is very clear on this, as are many other of the world's philosophies. If we make kind, loving and wise speech the cornerstone of our own personal ethics it will make it very difficult indeed to go far wrong.
The American religious philosophy of New Thought teaches that our entire world is established from the words we choose to speak and the thoughts that they reflect. Our words are in fact creative, and those that we choose to give voice to have a very real impact on our life, health, career and relationships. One does not have to practise Right Speech for very long to see how true that that is.
We only have to look at the other extreme to see how quickly unconsidered speech can have a negative effect on people's lives. Tearing apart families, marriages and friendships, getting us in trouble with the authorities and making other people judge us as lesser (or less intelligent) human beings are all the results of unbridled speech. Yes, we are free to say what we want, but we also free to bask in the consequences of such speech - and often they are not pleasant. How often have you heard another person speak and thought to yourself: "Oh but I wish you wouldn't have said that..."? Now pause and think of how often you have allowed yourself the leeway to speak in anger, spite or violent frustration.
Once upon a time our societies were governed by strict codes of speech and conduct which, for the most part, served us well. In a more permissive era we are regularly encouraged to speak our minds, but we are less regularly encouraged to examine the contents of our minds before we let them out into the world via our voluble tongues. It is best to pause with a thought and ruminate on it for a while and wonder about just how important it is that it be expressed. Chances are the rewards of silence might more often be greater than the satisfactions of self-expression.
We cannot allow our perceptions of offense, hurt or hatred to be given voice too easily. To do so is unwise and, ultimately, harmful to ourselves and our culture. To rein in our tongues is an enormous act of goodness and wisdom. The Buddha expresses it best in the Dhammapada (quoted here the classic Juan Mascaro version):
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: Our life is a creation of our mind.
If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.