Week 48 - The Eightfold Path - Right Speech

This week, Joseph begins addressing the Morality Factors of the Eightfold Path. It is important to recognize, as Bikkhu Bodhi says,  “their ultimate purpose is not so much ethical as spiritual. They are not prescribed merely as guides to action, but primarily as aids to mental purification.”

The first of the morality factors is Right Speech, obviously important as speech is such a major part of our lives and of our relationships.

Five aspects of Right Speech are discussed:

1.   Truthfulness – This is the most basic aspect of Right Speech. Joseph discusses the various ways untruthfulness manifests, as well as the negative effects that accompany lying in its various forms.

2.   Slander and gossip – Joseph invites us to be aware of our motivation when we talk about others. He also points to the benefit of a more peaceful mind when one is cautious about this kind of speech.

3.   Emotional Tone – “The practice of this step on the Path is refraining from harsh, angry and abusive speech.”

4.   Mindful Listening – “Listening with compassion and lovingkindness even when harsh or untrue words are addressed to us is a tremendously challenging aspect of mindfulness, and it is a good example of what it means to be mindful externally as well as internally.”

5.   Useless and Frivolous Talk – This kind of speech often occurs in social situations. Again, recognizing the motivation for speech is useful.

Joseph’s conclusion brings our attention to the value of Right Speech:

“Because Right Speech is such a powerful part of our practice, we can understand why the Buddha gave so much emphasis to it. Right Speech, as the third step of the Nobel Eightfold Path, cultivates abstinence from unwholesome mind states; gives expression to the beautiful motivations of lovingkindness, compassion, and altruistic joy; and most importantly, aligns us with what is true.”

Questions

1)      It seems so simple.  Just tell the truth.  Yet it can be surprisingly difficult when we are really paying attention to what we say (i.e., slight exaggerations, humorous untruths, motivations to protect someone else or downright malicious intent).  Why is this practice often so difficult in our everyday lives?

2)      Gossip seems to be one of America’s favorite past-times.  What are we getting from this?  Is it in some way reinforcing our sense of self?  Is there some kind of ego gratification derived from engaging in gossip?

3)      Often times in conversation we may tend to bring the conversation back to our selves (self-referential).  Or, we may tend to do the opposite by staying behind the scenes and never expressing what we think and feel.  Does this behavior sound familiar to anyone?  If so, what do you think is the motive behind this? 

Practices

1)      Gossip is probably much more prevalent than we realize in our day-to-day lives.  Try your best to not engage in any gossip for one day.  This includes conversationally as well as through any other means such as reading tabloids, watching TV programs that specialize in chatter or through social media.  How hard was this to do?  How did you feel at the end of the day by not succumbing?

2)      When Joseph joined the Peace Corps in Thailand in the mid-60s he underwent a 3 month experiment in which he did not speak about anyone in the 3rd person (speak to someone about someone else).  After this he noticed his mind was much more at peace, that he had a lot less judgment of others and also had a lot less judgment of himself.  The opportunity I present to you is to engage in this same experiment for a period of 3 days.  Note if you experienced some of what Joseph experienced and if so, consider continuing this practice as best you can.

3)      Next time you feel an impulse to “throw something in the middle” of a conversation that really has no value, try your best to not give in to this impulse and see if you experience a mental peacefulness.