- Truthfulness (Sacca)
Having developed patience and forbearance, we are better able to develop an understanding of truth and speak truth. Truthfulness manifests in our determination to live honestly.
Buddha’s Test of Truth
What is the test of truth? The Buddha offers a simple formula: Test things in terms of cause and effect. Whatever is unskillful, leading to harm and ill, should be abandoned; whatever is skillful, leading to happiness and peace, should be pursued. Apply the test of skillfulness to all teachings in all your actions. Where is this testing taking you? Is it moving you in a direction that is wise and kind?
– Bhikkhu Bodhi
What is verbal conduct in accordance with the Dhamma? Here someone, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech; when summoned to a court, or to a meeting, or to one’s relative’s presence, or to one’s guild, or to the royal family’s presence, and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So good person, tell what you know,’ not knowing, one says, ‘I don’t know,’ or knowing, one says, ‘I know’; not seeing, one says, ‘I do not see,’ or seeing, one says, ‘I see’; one does not in full awareness speak falsehood for one’s own ends, or for another’s ends, or for some trifling worldly end. – Majjhima Nikaya 41.13
This statement of the Buddha discloses both the negative and the positive sides to the precept. The negative side is abstaining from lying, the positive side speaking the truth. The determinative factor behind the transgression is the intention to deceive. If one speaks something false believing it to be true, there is no breach of the precept as the intention to deceive is absent. Though the deceptive intention is common to all cases of false speech, lies can appear in different guises depending on the motivating root, whether greed, hatred, or delusion. Greed as the chief motive results in the lie aimed at gaining some personal advantage for oneself or for those close to oneself — material wealth, position, respect, or admiration. With hatred as the motive, false speech takes the form of the malicious lie, the lie intended to hurt and damage others. When delusion is the principal motive, the result is a less pernicious type of falsehood: the irrational lie, the compulsive lie, the interesting exaggeration, lying for the sake of a joke.
The Buddha’s stricture against lying rests upon several reasons. For one thing, lying is disruptive to social cohesion. People can live together in society only in an atmosphere of mutual trust, where they have reason to believe that others will speak the truth; by destroying the grounds for trust and inducing mass suspicion, widespread lying becomes the harbinger signaling the fall from social solidarity to chaos. But lying has other consequences of a deeply personal nature at least equally disastrous. By their very nature lies tend to proliferate. Lying once and finding our word suspect, we feel compelled to lie again to defend our credibility, to paint a consistent picture of events. So the process repeats itself: the lies stretch, multiply, and connect until they lock us into a cage of falsehoods from which it is difficult to escape. The lie is thus a miniature paradigm for the whole process of subjective illusion. In each case the self-assured creator, sucked in by his own deceptions, eventually winds up their victim.
Such considerations probably lie behind the words of counsel the Buddha spoke to his son, the young novice Rahula, soon after the boy was ordained. One day the Buddha came to Rahula, pointed to a bowl with a little bit of water in it, and asked: “Rahula, do you see this bit of water left in the bowl?” Rahula answered: “Yes, sir.” “So little, Rahula, is the spiritual achievement of one who is not afraid to speak a deliberate lie.” Then the Buddha threw the water away, put the bowl down, and said: “Do you see, Rahula, how that water has been discarded? In the same way one who tells a deliberate lie discards whatever spiritual achievement he has made.” Again he asked: “Do you see how this bowl is now empty? In the same way one who has no shame in speaking lies is empty of spiritual achievement.” Then the Buddha turned the bowl upside down and said: “Do you see, Rahula, how this bowl has been turned upside down? In the same way one who tells a deliberate lie turns his spiritual achievements upside down and becomes incapable of progress.” Therefore, the Buddha concluded, one should not speak a deliberate lie even in jest.
It is said that in the course of his long training for enlightenment over many lives, a bodhisatta 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 domains of knowledge and being. Truthful speech provides, in the sphere of interpersonal 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 real. Wisdom consists in the realization of truth, and truth (sacca) is not just a verbal proposition but the nature of things as they are. To realize truth our whole being has to be brought into accord with actuality, with things as they are, which requires that in communications with others we respect things as they are by speaking the truth. 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 desires.
Right Speech / Speaking Truth
What does it mean to practice ‘Right Speech’? Is it something as simple as saying kind words and avoiding obscenities?
As with most Buddhist teachings, ‘Right Speech’ is a bit more complicated than keeping your mouth clean. It’s something that you can practice every time you speak.
What is Right Speech?
In Pali, Right Speech is samma vaca. The word samma has a sense of being perfected or completed, and vaca refers to words or speech.
“Right Speech” is more than just “correct” speech. It is the wholehearted expression of our Buddhist practice. Along with Action and Livelihood, it is interconnected to the other parts of the Eightfold Path — Right Mindfulness, Right Intention, Right View, Right Concentration, and Right Effort.
Right Speech is not just a personal virtue. Modern communication technology has given us a culture that seems saturated with “wrong” speech — communication that is hateful and deceptive. This engenders disharmony, acrimony, and physical violence.
We tend to think of violent, hateful words as being less wrong than violent action. We may even think of violent words as being justified at times. But violent words, thoughts, and actions arise together and support each other. The same can be said for peaceful words, thoughts, and actions.
Beyond cultivating beneficial or harmful karma, Right Speech is essential to personal practice. Abbess Taitaku Patricia Phelan of the Chapel Hill Zen Group says “Right Speech means using communication as a way to further our understanding of ourselves and others and as a way to develop insight.”
The Basics of Right Speech
As recorded in the Pali Canon, the historical Buddha taught that Right Speech had four parts: Pali Canon, the historical Buddha taught that Right Speech had four parts:
Abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive.
Do not slander others or speak in a way that causes disharmony or enmity.
Abstain from rude, impolite, or abusive language.
Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.
Practice of these four aspects of Right Speech goes beyond simple “thou shalt nots.” It means speaking truthfully and honestly; speaking in a way to promote harmony and good will; using language to reduce anger and ease tensions; using language in a way that is useful.
If your speech is not useful and beneficial, teachers say, it is better to keep silent.
In his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.”
This reminds us that our speech is not just our speech. Communication is something that happens between people. We might think of speech as something we give to others. If we think of it that way, what is the quality of that gift?
Mindfulness includes mindfulness of what’s going on inside ourselves. If we aren’t paying attention to our own emotions and taking care of ourselves, tension and suffering build up. And then we explode.
Words as Nourishment or Poison
Once I took a cab ride with a driver who was listening to a talk radio show. The program was a litany of the host’s resentments and anger toward other individuals and groups.
The cab driver apparently listened to this poison all day long, and he was quivering with rage. He responded to the litany with foul expletives, occasionally slapping his hand on the dashboard for emphasis. The cab seemed filled up with hate; I could barely breathe. It was a great relief when the cab ride was over.
This incident showed me that Right Speech is not just about the words I speak, but also the words I hear. Certainly, we cannot banish ugly words from our lives, but we can choose to not soak in them.
On the other hand, there are many times in everyone’s life when someone’s words are a gift that can heal and comfort.
Right Speech relates to the Four Immeasurables:
Loving kindness (metta)
Sympathetic joy (mudita)
Surely these are all qualities that can be nurtured through Right Speech. Can we train ourselves to use communication that furthers these qualities in ourselves and others?
In his book “Returning to Silence,” Katagiri Roshi said, “Kind speech is not the usual sense of kindness. It can appear in various ways, but …we should remember that it must constantly be based on compassion… Under all circumstances that compassion is always giving somebody support or help or a chance to grow.”
Right Speech in the 21st Century
Practice of Right Speech has never been easy, but thanks to 21st-century technology speech takes forms unimaginable in the Buddha’s time. Through the internet and mass media, the speech of one person can be flung around the world.
As we look at this global net of communication, there are plenty of examples of speech used to inflame passion and violence and to separate people into sectarian and ideological tribes. It’s not so easy to find speech that leads to peace and group harmony.
Sometimes people justify harsh speech because they are speaking on behalf of a worthy cause. Ultimately, stirring up acrimony is planting karmic seeds that will hurt the cause we think we’re fighting for.
When you live in a world of acrimonious speech, practice of Right Speech requires Right Effort and sometimes even courage. But it is an essential part of the Buddhist path.
- What has been your history with truth? What did you learn about being truthful growing up in your family? What meaningful teachings have you received about truthfulness? What personal experiences have influenced your attitude toward being truthful? What is your attitude and beliefs about being truthful?
- How would you assess the strength of your commitment to being truthful? What are
the conditions that make it easier for you to be truthful? Under what circumstances is your commitment to truthfulness compromised or challenged? When do you believe it is ok to not be truthful?
- Make a list of as many benefits that can come with being truthful.
- Make a list of the areas where you could improve your truthfulness.
- For two days watch carefully over you speech and work hard to only speak what you are confident is truthful. Do your best to avoid 1) exaggeration, 2) repeating as if true things which you have heard or read but don’t actually know for yourself, and 3) the common lies of everyday conversation (e.g. saying ‘fine’ when you are not when some asks how you are).
- For three days spend ten minutes a day after a period of meditation considering if there is anything you have not really admitted to yourself. Are there any truths that you have been avoiding?
- Spend another day being as committed to truthfulness as you can be while not causing anyone any unnecessary hurt. Notice the effect this has on you, your conversations, and on others.
- Spend a day noticing when the tone of your voice is conveying a different message then your words. Are there ways that you could be more truthful so that your tone and words match?