Right Speech

Only speak when it will improve the silence.

These lists are from The Gradual Sayings, the earliest scriptures of Buddhism, and seem as relevant for practice today as they were 2500 years ago! All twenty elements from the lists should, ideally, be practiced in our daily interactions with ourselves, our families, our colleagues and communities, and everyone with whom we interact. Right speech is one of the most important practices in the Buddhist tradition.


6 Elements of Right Speech

  1. Only speak when conditions suggest you should speak
  2. Only speak truthfully
  3. Only speak when you have something to say that will be of benefit
  4. Always speak in ways that can be understood
  5. Only say it once (if you said it truthfully, when conditions suggest is appropriate, and if it is beneficial, then saying it more than once is being argumentative)
  6. Never go on the battlefield (arguing is not right speech); being of benefit isn’t about winning


4 Elements of Wrong Speech

  1. Harsh, mean-spirited, threatening or angry words
  2. Falsehoods and slander
  3. Gossip and small talk
  4. Belittling others and especially belittling others to raise your own status


5 Qualities of Wrong Speech

  1. Flattery [complimenting a benefactor in hope of getting something in return]
  2. Hinting [at things you want to receive]
  3. Being verbally passive aggressive or bullying
  4. Using words to exert pressure [in order to get something from someone]
  5. Being on “one’s best” verbal behavior to deceive another [inauthentic speech]


5 Points To Be Borne in Mind When Wishing To Rebuke Another

  1. I will speak at the proper time, internally and externally
  2. I will state the truth
  3. I will speak gently
  4. I will speak for the other’s good
  5. I will speak from patience and compassion, not with enmity


Some Practices with Right Speech

Never go on the battlefield. If you have said it when conditions suggest it can be understood, and said it in a way that can be perceived as beneficial, then saying it once is enough. There is nothing to protect and defend if right speech is used.

For a week, commit not to speak about anyone who is not in the room. In other words, no gossip, small talk, or belittling of others.

For a week, commit not to flatter anyone. Note how all flattery has a wrong speech aspect, if not obviously, then covertly.

When in meetings or groups, remain the smallest person in the room. This encourages genuine modesty and reduces the possibility of wrong speech.



 Thanissaro Bhikkhu:

As my teacher once said, “If you can’t control your mouth, there’s no way you can hope to control your mind.’ This is why right speech is so important in day-to-day practice.

Right speech, explained in negative terms, means avoiding four types of harmful speech: lies (words spoken with the intent of misrepresenting the truth); divisive speech (spoken with the intent of creating rifts between people); harsh speech (spoken with the intent of hurting another person’s feelings); and idle chatter (spoken with no purposeful intent at all).

Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind. Before you speak, you focus on why you want to speak. This helps get you in touch with all the machinations taking place in the committee of voices running your mind. If you see any unskillful motives lurking behind the committee’s decisions, you veto them. As a result, you become more aware of yourself, more honest with yourself, more firm with yourself. You also save yourself from saying things that you’ll later regret. In this way you strengthen qualities of mind that will be helpful in meditation, at the same time avoiding any potentially painful memories that would get in the way of being attentive to the present moment when the time comes to meditate.

In positive terms, right speech means speaking in ways that are trustworthy, harmonious, comforting, and worth taking to heart. When you make a practice of these positive forms of right speech, your words become a gift to others. In response, other people will start listening more to what you say, and will be more likely to respond in kind. This gives you a sense of the power of your actions: the way you act in the present moment does shape the world of your experience. You don’t need to be a victim of past events.


Master Yin Shun:

There are three kinds of right speech:

  1. Comforting speech: We should communicate in a warm manner when seeing one another. When we meet people who are sick, or suffering or who live in fear, we should encourage and provide them with psychological support. Even though we might not give them great help, if we have gentle speech and a compassionate attitude, they will appreciate our efforts.
  2. Rejoicing speech: Every individual has his or her own strengths. Even a bad person has good qualities. Whenever we see good, we should rejoice, encourage and inspire them with our speech to do more good. If we want to teach others, we should start praising them in order to give them confidence in their strengths and virtues. They will not only be appreciative towards us but will soon be walking on the path of goodness.
  3. Inspiring speech: This helps others to progress. For example, for a person who is practicing giving, we should guide him to observe the precepts. We should not restrict the usage of our speech to those of pleasant and gentle words. Sometimes we may have to use firm 
and angry words to urge someone to progress. When we do, if it is to be accepted, we must do it with sincerity and selflessness.


Master Ji Ru:

What would happen if you changed “Right” to “Pure”?


Patricia Phelan:

In Returning to Silence Katagiri Roshi discusses Dogen’s teaching on Right Speech saying, “Kind speech is not merely speaking with an ingratiating voice, like a cat purring…[this] very naturally, consciously or unconsciously, is trying to get a favor by fawning or flattering. This is not kind speech. 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.” Here he expands the scope of kind speech to include that which gives a person a “chance to grow”.

I would like to focus on speech as practice and its relationship to concentration. The “Right” of Right Speech has the meaning of completed or perfected. Through Right Speech, by not indulging in or listening to such things as lying, back-biting, harsh speech or gossip, we can establish a link between our mental activity and our conduct or between Right Thought and Right Action, two other aspects of the Eight-Fold Path.

When Buddhism was established, communication was almost exclusively through the spoken word. But, in our culture Right Speech really means “Right Communication” and it includes all forms of communication such as television, movies, radio, newspapers, magazines, advertising and, of course, the internet. So, Right Speech means using communication as a way to further our understanding of ourselves and others and as a way to develop insight.

In addition to speech being linked to discriminative consciousness, speech is also an outflow. The Sanskrit word is ásrava, and Thich Nhat Hanh translates it as energy leak. When we begin to develop concentration during a longer sitting, our concentrative energy will leak through speech. Not that we should be clinging to our concentration, but you can watch it and feel it dissipate with chatter. This is also true in our daily activity. Speech requires energy.

Conscious speech is a rich practice, where we not only practice awareness of what we say and how we say it; but at a deeper level we can begin to notice the impulse, the driving force that propels us into speech and how our state of mind and our energy are affected before, during, and after speaking. This practice shifts the precepts from being a standard used to modify our behavior to a way of working with our state of mind, the source of all speech.


Norman Fischer:


Right Speech, as it is commonly interpreted, includes the obvious abstention against lies, slander, rude or harsh language, careless speech, useless speech, and gossip.

A more subtle aspect of Right Speech, an action resulting from incorrect thought, is the lie that refuses to accept reality as it is, was, or will be.  Buddhist scholar Archie Bahm writes:  “…any, assertion, or willingness to assert, that things are, or should be, other than they are, or are going to be other than they are, is a lie. Unwillingness to accept things as they are is the basis of lying, and any expression of that unwillingness is wrong speech….”

The direct result from Right Speech is meaningful communication that is naturally friendly and amiable towards others.  “If one cannot say something useful, one should keep `noble silence’.”  An example of “noble silence” is a story about a roshi (zen master) and his student enjoying a beautiful morning. The student says: “What a beautiful morning.”  The Roshi responds: “Yes, but what a pity to say so.”


The first three members of the eightfold path are right view, right intention, and right speech. These make right conduct possible and when there is right conduct there can be meditation practice and mindfulness, which leads to wisdom, reinforcing right view. So from the first, the Buddha saw that our language conditions our spirituality through our views, intentions, and uttered words, and that training in an increased awareness of this process had to be the starting point for spiritual practice.


In his discussion of right speech the Buddha similarly evidenced the subtle and nuanced understanding that words do not have fixed meanings and ought never to be taken at face value. The meanings of words depend on context: who is speaking and listening, the tone of voice employed, the underlying attitude evidenced, and the situation in which the words are spoken. The very fact that the Buddha did not recommend that his words be written down, that he allowed others to explain the teachings in their own words, and did not designate a special holy language for religious discourse, but insisted that ordinary common language be used, shows that he understood language to be a process, essentially a dialog, a dynamic experience, rather than a tool of exact description or explanation. Far from being a neutral conduit for the conveying of preexisting meanings, the Buddha saw that language is an ever-shifting vehicle for the self, and that the way to clarify the self, and the world, is to hold language in an accurate and sensitive way.


Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Right speech, right action, and right livelihood­ may be treated together, as collectively they make up the first of the three divisions of the path, the division of moral discipline. Though the principles laid down in this section restrain immoral actions and promote good conduct, 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. As a necessary measure for human well-being, ethics has its own justification in the Buddha’s teaching and its importance cannot be underrated. But in the special context of the noble eightfold path ethical principles are subordinate to the path’s governing goal, final deliverance from suffering. Thus for the moral training to become a proper part of the path, it has to be taken up under the tutelage of the first two factors, right view and right intention, and to lead beyond to the trainings in concentration and wisdom.


Sharon Salzberg:

The key to Right Speech is to know our intentions before we speak, and to know our intentions we need mindfulness. Right speech can be very subtle, it’s a ground we cultivate in meditation.


There are three aspects to every action or speech. There is the intention behind it, there is the skillfulness of the action, and there is the immediate response to the action. We tend to ground our identities only in the third aspect, and to ignore the first two.


Alan Senauke:

I try to ask myself, Are my words true, useful, and timely? All three conditions must be met when we speak to another. Our words represent karmic activity. They are action of a kind, and so generate a complexity of responses and effect. Considering what is true, useful, and timely, means recognizing what our own self-centered views might be. Then we try to sense if our words will help another person become free from their own self-centered views, or will they just help the self dig a deeper rut.