The Buddha’s Guidelines for Speech

Adapted from How Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Survival Guide for Modern Life by Craig Hase and Devon Hase © 2020 by Craig Hase and Devon Hase. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

[[pg. 85-90]]

THE BUDDHA’S GUIDELINES FOR SPEECH

The Buddha recommended that we be careful with our speech. In fact, he devoted a substantial portion of his substantial teachings to advising people about how to speak to each other.

     There could be whole books on the topic, in fact. (And there are.) But for our purposes we can sum up the Buddha’s advice in four simple questions. Questions you can ask yourself just before you open your mouth to say something—anytime, to anyone.

IS THIS TRUE?

Is what I’m about to say true? Am I speaking the truth? Is what I’m saying clear and honest? Or am I bending things in some way? Am I spinning, pushing the truth a bit, massaging the facts to get something I want out of this interaction? 

     If the answer to any of these questions is anything but “Yup, this is true,” then the Buddha advises that you don’t speak. Instead, take a moment, hold your tongue, and consider other options.

IS THIS KIND?

Is what I am about to say kind? Is what I am about to fire off in this text or email considerate? Is this heated missive in an online forum caring? Is it taking into account the other person’s inner world? Even when that other person might be a loved one who has seriously pissed me off, or a total stranger who so obviously seems to deserve a whopping verbal punch in the proverbial face?

     Again, if the answer to any of these questions is anything other than “Yes, what I am about to say is kind,” then the Buddha advises silence. Take a minute. Think things through. Is there a way to say this that’s kind? Or at the very least, not unkind?

     Ninety-nine out of a hundred times there is a way. You just have to find it. And once you start to realize how much less your life feels like it’s spinning out of control when you start to interact this way, you’ll be more and more motivated to try.

IS IT TIMELY?

Is what I am about to say timely? Is this the right time to say this?

     If it’s eleven o’clock at night and your boyfriend/girlfriend/significant other is about to fall asleep, is this the right time to bring up that thing that happened at eleven o’clock this morning and has been kind of troubling you, but not really that much, but actually, well, kind of a lot?

     I’m not saying it would definitely be the wrong time. But you could think it through. Might there be another time to bring this up honestly and kindly that would better serve the conversation?

IS IT HELPFUL?

So these words are about to leave my mouth. Quick check: Are they actually helpful? Are they going to move the situation forward in the way I want? How will they land for the person (or people) in front of me? 

     Sometimes, for sure, it’s hard to know what’s helpful and what’s not. And it’s definitely tough to know just exactly how something will land for the people in our lives. But one surefire way to get it right a lot more of the time is to at least make sure your intention is to be helpful.

SKILLFUL SPEECH

There are people out there—and I’ve met a lot of them now—who follow these guidelines of True, Kind, Timely, Helpful beautifully. And they all have some things in common: they have good friends, stable community connections, a sort of quiet confidence, and they kind of glow. 

     There are, therefore, a lot of great examples I could offer. But the one I know best is my wife, Devon. Devon beams goodness at everyone she meets. When we go jogging together, for example, she smiles at every person we pass. Not in that awkward, socially conventional, I’m-smiling-because-I’m-supposed-to kind of way. It’s more like she’s saying, I’m so glad we share this planet together. 

     And you should see people’s reactions. I’ve seen strangers do a double take. They’ve stopped walking and just stood, basking in that sunlight. Nearly everyone smiles back. And when they do, it’s a real smile, the smile of recognition and connection.

     For another instance, a while back I worked on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, three days a week, for a year. 

Moloka’i is known as an outer island. It’s small, with a population of about 7,500, about 60 percent Native Hawaiian.

     To say the community there is tight-knit would be an understatement. Folks hold an air of skepticism; outsiders are treated as just that—outsiders. So when, after three months, I had been pretty well accepted into the community as a therapist, I felt relieved and happy.

     Then Devon came for a visit from where we were living on O’ahu. Within days she was a local favorite. The woman in the coffee shop, who had only warmed up to me after months, warmed up to Devon within minutes. The food-truck folks, the bartender at the restaurant, random people on the street—within days people knew Devon and treated her like a welcome friend. 

     The thing is, though, this level of radiant presence doesn’t just come naturally. Or part of it does. But the other part has to do with training.

     Devon has been refining her own mind, day after day, year after year, on and off the meditation cushion. She has been paying careful attention to her interactions with others, checking in again and again to see how things go whenever she turns herself to the world.

     Also, I know for a fact that she’s always asking herself the same elementary questions I listed above: True? Kind? Timely? Helpful? And this allows her to show up and be more fully attuned to the range of people in her life.

     Now, of course, I’m not saying Devon never stumbles. In the ten years we’ve been together I’ve seen her make hardcore social errors, embarrass herself, embarrass others (including me), step on people’s toes, and even occasionally tick off the innocent bystander. So what we don’t want to do is make this into some rigidly unattainable goal of theatrical smoothness.

     Devon is a work in progress; me, too; you, too: everybody’s just stumbling through together, trying to figure it all out. The key is to start checking your mind. What are you thinking? Could it be slightly truer, kinder, and the rest? Then check the words that are about to leave your lips.

     The more you say what’s true and kind and timely and helpful, the more the world will begin to become a friendlier place.

A SHORT MEDITATION

Let’s try to bring some awareness to how you communicate with others.

     By recognizing times when you’ve been honest and upright in speech, you gain confidence in your ability to hone this skill. It’s really possible, though not always easy. And while it can take time, the payoff is totally worth it.

     So let’s practice this with a little formal meditation.

     Get comfy. Breathe deeply a few times and let your nervous system relax and settle. Spend a few moments just feeling the moment and being okay as you are.

     Now think of a time when you really spoke skillfully. A time when you were honest and kind, and your speech was timely and useful.

     Maybe you spoke truth to power. Or you confessed something to your significant other and it deepened your intimacy. Or you wrote a clear email at work. It doesn’t have to be blown-away amazing speech, just a time when you felt good about how you communicated. Maybe it wasn’t easy to tell the truth, but you did anyway.

     Once you’ve picked your moment, spend some time remembering it as if it’s happening right now. Remember your words and how your body felt as you spoke them or emailed them or texted them. You don’t have to feel all glowy here; just stay curious about how wise speech feels when you do it. 

     Okay, great. Now let go of the reflection and relax for a few moments. Simply be with your body and your mind as they are. Nice work. You’re done.

     Feel free to come back to this exercise from time to time. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve done something like this every day for a week or two, just to get a handle on the stuff that’s coming out of my mouth.

     Now that you’ve reflected on talking with honesty and heard about my wife (yes, by the way, I know I’m highly biased), I’m hoping you’re inspired to try following the Buddha’s guidelines for speech: True, Kind, Timely, Helpful.

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