This week in the Eagle Rock meditation group, we talked about Right Speech, the Buddha’s teaching on cultivating skillful speech as part of the path to awakening. In a nutshell, he instructs his monks to use speech that is useful, timely, and kind; to avoid gossip, slander, and idle chatter; and to tell the truth.
I worry about the way the instruction to be “kind” is received today, that we will interpret the word to mean conflict-avoidant and will assume we should never say something that will make another uncomfortable. I do not believe this was the Buddha’s intention, and I think it’s counterproductive to subvert truthfulness in service of “getting along”. The truthful thing is almost always more necessary than the pleasant one. What makes the Buddha’s teaching radical is that he was not concerned with maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain; it is a central point that this endeavor is fruitless and bound up in suffering. If we make someone feel bad by telling them something they don’t want to hear, it doesn’t mean that the speech was unskillful.
The Buddha emphasized truthfulness more than the other aspects of right speech, because its place in our practice is deeper and more fundamental than the elimination of, say, idle chatter or gossip. Bhikkhu Bodhi explains this deeper importance beautifully in his slim, sublime volume The Noble Eightfold Path:
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 desire.
We can know, as internal experience, what is true. And we can position our minds such that we align ourselves with what is true. The action of orienting toward truth when we speak is the same action we take on the cushion when we meet our experience with acceptance and clarity. In both cases, we reaffirm our commitment to truth, a commitment that is essential for wisdom to arise in the mind. We have to invite insight. Although we don’t control when it appears, we do create the conditions that make such appearance favorable, and even possible.
Of course, we should try to be kind, try for speech that is timely and useful, try for speech that sows harmony and not discord. But don’t forget how fundamental to practice is this one instruction: Tell the truth.
(Note: The image is the Vitarka Mudra, representing the discussion and transmission of the Buddha’s teachings — the ultimate in truth-telling.)