An interpretation of The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Three, Right Speech (part 4/10)

This is the second in a ten part series on my interpretation of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path…. or ‘eight things you should do to realise enlightenment’.

The Noble Eightfold Path: Aspect Two, Right Intention


Aspect three – Right Speech

Speech here refers to anything we do to communicate something to other people. Thus it incorporates face to face speech, body language, phone calls, letters, emails, videos, even our social networking sites. We should not underestimate the power of communication especially in our contemporary society in which we have the facility to communicate with millions of people simultaneously through modern communications technology.

The Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth (Austin 1988).

As with Right Intention, each of these modes of speech to be avoided has its positive counterpart which we should endeavour to cultivate.

  1. False speech can be countered by telling the truth/ being truth.
  2. Slanderous speech can be countered by speaking with kindness, or in a friendly manner.
  3. Harsh words that offend or hurt others can be countered by practising patience in order to not speak out of anger/ hurt.
  4. Idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth can be countered by silence.

 Abstaining from false speech and telling the truth/ being truth

To abstain from false speech means to abstain from lying, or knowingly deceiving or misleading people about what you know to be true. Scarily, by today’s moral standards, The Buddha’s original text seems to suggest that this is absolute (Austin 1988).

Where speaking the truth is concerned, making the effort to be factually accurate is generally regarded as good practice, but truthfulness in the deeper sense is also psychological and spiritual, and being truthful means approaching all interactions with others in an attitude of honesty and sincerity and saying what we really think, speaking the whole truth, what is really in our heart and mind, what we really think and feel. All of this makes speaking the truth extremely difficult.

In order for us to do this, we need to really know what we think and feel, which may not so be easy when most of us exist in a state of mental confusion. If we wish to speak the truth, in the deeper sense of the word, then we need to inject some kind of clarity into our lives and be intensely aware of our motivations and our ideas. This in turn involves penetrating into the depths of ourselves through constant awareness, and thus relates to aspect one (knowing oneself), aspect six (right effort) and aspects seven and eight (right mindfulness and concentration) of the N8P.

Abstaining from slanderous speech and speaking with kindness

Slanderous speech is when we speak ill of others for our own gain, and is typically related to feelings of harm or ill-will. The most overt examples would be where you paint a deliberately slanted picture of a person in order to gain something for yourself. Examples here include children lying about who broke the decorative vase, a student signing out sick from college just because they are tired, someone bad-mouthing a competitor in a job-selection day, or paedophiles posing as young boys on the internet.

Slanderous speech also means engaging in gossip that paints others in a bad light for the purpose of gaining a few seconds or minutes of titillation. Revelling in the fall from grace of a celebrity would be a good example of this, or bitching about someone’s dress sense or cellulite.

The antidote to harsh speech is to cultivate kind, affectionate and loving speech which means speaking with complete awareness of the person to whom one is speaking. This means being aware of the being of another person, of really knowing them and what they really need for their personal spiritual development. This is different to communicating with someone based on our own mental projections of and emotional responses to who we think ‘they’ are in relation to ‘me’. Quite often the better we know someone in the conventional sense the less well we know them in the spiritual sense as we just end up with communication between mutual projections rather than real communication leading to real mutual understanding.

Kind speech could also involve speaking in such a way as to promote the spiritual growth of the person to whom we are speaking. This involves always seeing the positive side of the person, and avoiding being overly critical. There is of course a place for constructive criticism, but we should make the primary effort to see the good within a person and exhaust this first.

Abstaining from harsh words and practising patience

Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000) suggests that harsh speech falls into three categories – abusive speech which involves speaking out anger and instils fear, insulting people, which means picking up on people’s negative traits, or traits that you know that they think are negative so as to insult their dignity and bring down their self-esteem, and sarcasm, where one is essentially using irony to suggest someone else is ignorant.

All of these are seen as detrimental to spiritual development because they stem directly from negative intentions and are designed to spread these negative intentions to others.

Bodhi suggests that the antidote to harsh speech is to practice patience. This implies that harsh speech arises from us not being in control of our negative emotions, and if you reflect for a moment, you will find that harsh speech is typically accompanied by a certain flaring of emotions. Practising patience involves watching our emotions as we listen and engage with other people and making the effort to not say things out of negative intentions. What is especially notable here is that this aspect of right speech requires that we make the effort to listen to people and watching our reactions.

Abstaining from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth and being silent

Speech in Buddhism is regarded as something precious. We should see speech more like food, something that we prepare and then do occasionally. The deepest expression of right speech doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in verbal communication at all; rather a deeper expression of this aspect of the path involves us simply being ourselves, giving expression to who we really and truly are rather than acting out a role. If we are practice sincerely this will mean acting selflessly, acting with compassion, and promoting harmony.

Finally, one of purest expressions of perfect communication is actually silence. Given that any attempt to communicate anything about self-transcendence will fall short of the mark, it is logical that silence is the truest expression of our true nature. This is certainly the point of view adhered to in Zen Buddhism, or as Shunryu Suzuki (1998) expresses it: ‘…the best way to communicate may be to just to sit without saying anything. Then you will have the full meaning of Zen…. The best way is to just sit.’


In terms of realising happiness this aspect incorporates all other aspects of the path. If you are honest with yourself and others about the true nature of reality, and reflect on the truth of this in your communication with others, then this should be conducive to peace of mind because everything is in harmony. Contrast this to the means whereby most of us communicate with each other: lying to ourselves and others as we strive to communicate through the expression of our social-identities which are based on delusional notions of who we really are.


Please see part two (link at top) for the bibliography.

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