Speech–Good and Evil

Perhaps with no other blemish is our civilization so much tarnished as with the sin of speech. Its potency, its creative aspect, is very little understood. The wastage of force and energy through bad words, false words, useless words and idle words, is immense. Not a sage-prophet but has warned and instructed people on the subject. "Not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of it" was regarded as of paramount importance. On the metaphysical side, in the Gospel According to St. John, Word, Verbum, was given as the designation of Deity itself: "the Word was God": "the Word was with God"; "the Word become flesh." In these and other similar phrases the potency of speech was taught.

We come across the same concept in Hindu Philosophy: the ancient teachers gave the concept of Shabda-Brahman. The Word, Shabda, is the primeval designation—the Attribute containing all other attributes by which the creative potency of God or Deity can be known. The knowledge of this creative aspect of the Word or of speech is absent from our school and college curricula and so the abuse and desecration of speech and its creative significance were stressed. Pythagoras insisted on his pupils learning the power of words, numbers, sounds.

Leaving metaphysics alone and coming to the subject of human evolution, we find that the birth of speech and the birth of mind were simultaneous. The dog barks, the cat mews, the ass brays, the horse neighs, the swallow chirps, but man alone speaks. There is sound, but not co-ordinated speech, till the human stage is reached. Self-consciousness is the power to distinguish our own self or soul from all others in the universe. Thought expresses itself in speech; mind and speech are aspects peculiar to the human kingdom. In the Chandogya Upanishad it is said:

If there were no speech, neither right nor wrong would be known; neither true nor false; neither good nor bad; neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Speech makes us understand all this. Meditate on speech. (VII, ii. 1)

Further, the human intellect can soar to lofty heights and convey to others the experience of celestial flights by the instrument of speech. Travellers' tales, records of the past, the passing on of knowledge, are all peculiar to humans and make possible intercourse with other humans and with Nature. Therefore it is said in the Aitareya-Aranyaka:

Verily by speech the Vedas are composed. Friends unite through speech; all beings unite through speech. Therefore speech is everything here. (III, i, 6, 13)

Many other texts could be quoted to show not only the importance of speech but its many and varied aspects, but it will suffice if we consider the injunction of the Upanishads wherein speech is given as a subject for meditation. It is said in the Chandogya Upanishad:

He who meditates on speech as Brahman, is, as it were, lord and master as far as speech reaches. (VII, ii, 2)

In passing, let us mention that in the Bhagavad-Gita the austerity of speech is taught. But let us pass on to the teachings of Lord Buddha on the subject.

Before we turn to the Buddhist Doctrine, the Dhamma, and the instructions offered us there, it will help us to pause for a moment and consider the example of the Teacher, the Buddha himself. As we ponder over the incidents in the life of the Master Gautama, we learn how he embodied within himself his own teachings. He practised what he preached. He never asked others to do what he himself had not already done. In the matter of speech too he set an example. Not only did he teach by the medium of speech, he also taught by his silence. His instructions, his sermons and his replies to questions put to him were magnificent in sweep and rich in illustration, but there were occasions when the Tathagata, urged to explain some point, remain silent. Silence is sometimes more eloquent than speech. Though words were not spoken, yet minds were touched by his peace, and hearts were flooded by his knowledge. When asked about God, Deity, Brahman, silence was his answer, for silence is the symbol of Deity in its transcendental, absolute sense. His silence implied: "Measure not with words the Immeasurable."

On one occasion, when challenged by the wandering monk Vachhagota to say if man's soul was a real and permanent entity or not, he answered not. Later, he explained the reason for that silence to his disciple Ananda. Those silences were charged with radiant wisdom; those who had eyes saw the radiance, those who had ears heard the wisdom. If we meditate on those silences of the Buddha we will understand why silence is called golden.

Because on certain occasions the Buddha observed silence, it does not mean that He did not give teachings about Deity and Soul. His doctrines of Nirvana and Nidanas define what God is; his teachings about Reincarnation and Skandhas teach the reality of the human individuality and the transitoriness of the human personality. But what has the Enlightened One to say to us on the subject of speech?

For ordinary people he gave simple, self-evident truths on all subjects including that of speech. His teachings recorded in numerous suttas, verses, are not abstruse but look true in fact to everyone, however difficult the practice of their principles. The Tevigga Sutta mentions four types of speech that we are called upon to give up: (1) lying, (2) slander, (3) bitter words, (4) foolish talk. In the Subhasita Sutta of the Mahavagga, not only are we told what not to speak but further what kind of speech we should use. Again four maxims emerge: (1) truth, not falsehood; (2) well-spoken language, not ill-spoken; (3) pleasing speech, not unpleasing; (4) Right Doctrine (Dhamma), not false doctrine (adhamma).

This simple classification is profound. Let us combine the two and examine the four steps:

  1. Lies to be avoided; truth, not falsehood to be spoken.
  2. Slander to be avoided; well-spoken words, not ill-spoken words.
  3. Bitterness to be avoided; pleasing speech, not unpleasing speech.
  4. Foolishness to be avoided; Right Doctrine, not false doctrine.

This way the examination of Buddhistic teachings prepares a kind of a staircase. The two classifications of the two suttas are not exactly the same; they mark an ascent, an evolution. Let us look at them a little more closely.

(1) Lies to be avoided; truth, not falsehood, to be spoken. It is not even necessary to expound on the weakness or wickedness of lies. All recognize it in principle, yet most err about it in practice. But there are two ideas we might note here. (a) We may desist from speaking falsehood, but on many an occasion we also desist from speaking the truth lest we offend somebody or get into trouble. (b) It does not mean, however, that on every occasion we have to speak. Let us ask ourselves every time we have to speak the truth if our duty calls upon us to interfere. If we begin to admonish and correct every time we have to speak the truth if our duty calls upon us to interfere. If we begin to admonish and correct every small falsehood or white lie spoken by another, we will make many enemies. Speak no falsehood, avoid white lies as black lies, set an example of probity in speech, and the first rule will be observed.

(2) Slander to be avoided; well-spoken, not ill-spoken words. Many a time people say that "for the sake of truth" they have to speak harsh words and offer criticism of others. This second rule cuts the ground from under the feet of such self-righteous people. It does not stop at saying "lie not," but goes further and says, "slander not." A person may be at fault, he may be wrong and wicked, but that does not justify our reporting him or slandering him. Slander often implies speaking behind a person's back—though there is such a thing as public slander, as libel suits well bear out. Both types are to be avoided, for slander is slander, indulged in one way or another. While in the interests of truth it is often necessary that we speak, we are called upon to observe the third rule.

(3) Bitterness to be avoided; pleasing not unpleasing speech. Truth can and should be spoken pleasantly. People well know how to do this. The flatterer knows it; the social success knows it; the sycophant knows it; but their pleasing speech is not well-spoken, is not on the side of truth. In our civilization people are taught to be pleasing before they are taught to be truthful, and so we have veiled ways of saying inpleasant things—innuendos, sarcasms, insinuations, etc., all hiding bitterness. Just as there are sugar-coated pills and we prefer them to avoid the bitter taste of drugs, so also in modern society sugar-coated bitterness is distributed very freely. All forms of bitter speech are to be avoided. Truth must be spoken; and it must be well spoken, i.e., clearly, unequivocally, not hesitatingly but couched in a pleasant form. No one indulging in lies can avoid bitter speech. On the other hand, falsehood leads to slander, slander begets bitterness. The blunder of falsehood and slander produces personal animosities, personal rancours, personal rivalries; and bitterness is the natural outcome. But how does this personal talk arise? We get it in the fourth rule—from the practical point of view the most important, and in our civilization, the most neglected.

(4) Foolishness to be avoided; Right Doctrine (Dhamma), not false doctrine, must be promulgated. We find all around us that people are not wicked as much as they are foolish. The wicked are few, but the foolish are many. Foolishness leads to wickedness. Bitterness arises in social circles by foolish talk. Gossip and slander are rooted in foolishness. To make things lively at a social gathering, to add zest and make that gathering a "success," people indulge in exaggeration, in talk about the personal lives of others, and in a short time this foolishness which looks harmless, begets bitterness and slander and falsehood. it is a curse of modern civilization that when people meet they feel that they must talk something, anything. A social success is one who talks glibly, engagingly—has subjects of talk ready at the lip! This is a form of hypocrisy. To talk for the sake of talking is wrong, and here the law of necessity needs consideration. This fourth rule teaches us to avoid foolish talk. But note the supplementing phrases: Right Doctrine, not false doctrine, should be the subject of talk. When the necessary formalities and exchange of greetings are over, the talk must proceed on the basis of principles, not personalities. Current events and happenings, even proceedings of police courts and the like, have some underlying principles; good or bad examples of people mutually known also spring from certain principles, and our fourth rule is indicative of that. People would avoid foolishness in conversation if they had Right Doctrine at hand. Let them know Right Doctrine or Dhamma and they are safe on the path of speech. By knowledge of Dhamma we avoid foolishness; avoiding foolishness we avoid bitterness; avoiding bitterness we avoid slander and gossip; avoiding slander we stay away from falsehood. That is the negative half. Note now the positive aspect: By Dhamma, Right Doctrine, we learn how to have pleasing speech, how to speak well, and how to utter truth efficaciously and without causing hurt.

Therefore if we desire to practise the Shila virtue, the precept which says, "lie not," and which culminates in the truth of Right Doctrine or Dhamma, we must see the connection between mind and speech, between thoughts and words. If we begin to analyse the pitiable condition of most men and women of our modern civilization, not their wickedness but their foolishness is seen as widely prevailing, and we find that it springs mainly from a disconnection between thoughts and words. People speak thoughtlessly; say at once whatever comes to their lips. The wagging tongue wags on and not all our retractions can alter what it has already spoken. Sharp words are like arrows which cannot be retraced. The harm they do is immense. "A harsh word uttered in past lives is not destroyed but ever comes again."

We need to begin with the mind and see the connection between thought and word, mind and speech. It is here that the last or the fourth of our rules reveals its profound truth. "Foolishness to be avoided"—how? By Right Dhamma. By mental effort we must learn to distinguish between false and correct Dhamma—right and wrong Doctrine. A daily study of the Dhamma purifies both mind and speech; further, such study illuminates the mind and brings to our awareness the right words to be expressed all through the day. People read newspapers the first thing in the morning when they should be reading texts like the Gita, the Dhammapada, The Voice of the Silence. These books give us guidance in the struggles of the day. They offer aid to the housewife in her home, to the man in the office, to the lawyer in court, to the doctor on his rounds.

But mere study without the remembrance that purification of speech should be undertaken will not help. One other aid may be suggested: there are many moments in the day when there is a lull in work and people immediately begin to indulge in foolish talk. That is a slip. Let us keep with us the thoughts we have gathered in the morning study, memorize them, and repeat them; and thus keep intact the current of peace and enlightenment all through the day.

Speech and silence are a pair, like day and night, waking and sleeping. Therefore let us not talk, talk, talk all the time. Let us remain silent, at least for a while, and give Nature and our own Soul within us a chance to influence us, to speak to us. Then we will notice that foolishness is wedded to self-esteem; people talk about themselves—till others are bored or tired or fatigued or exasperated. Subjects of impersonal conversation are plenty and evil speech will vanish and pure speech will arise, as we remember Right Doctrine—teachings of the Dhamma.

SELFISHNESS is the chief prompter of our age; Chacun pour soi, Dieu pour tout le monde, its watchword. Where then is the truth, and what practical good has it done that light brought to mankind by the "Light of the World," as claimed by every Christian? Of the "Light of Asia" Europe speaks with scorn, nor would it recognize in Ahura Mazda a divine light. And yet even a minor light (if such) when practically applied for the good of suffering mankind, is a thousand times more beneficent than even infinite Light, when confined to the realm of abstract theories. In our days the latter Light has only succeeded in raising the pride of Christian nations to its acme, in developing their self-adulation, and fostering hard-heartedness under the name of all-binding law. The "personality" of both nation and individual has thrown deep roots into the soil of selfish motives; and of all the flowers of modern culture those that blossom the most luxuriously are the flowers of polite Falsehood, Vanity, and Self-exaltation.

—H. P. Blavatsky

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