chapter five

Right Speech & Right Action

Right speech and right action are the first two virtue factors on the path. Both are based on the principle of non-affliction, developed through right resolve, in that they involve abstaining from specific types of behavior that cause harm. Because these two path-factors parallel each other in many ways, they are best discussed together.

The suttas provide general definitions for, and a few specific examples of, right and wrong speech and action. The Vinaya also contains training rules covering most of the types of behavior that these factors abstain from, which it discusses in great detail. Our discussion here will draw from all these sources.

Right speech. Right speech is defined as abstaining from four types of wrong speech: lies, divisive tale-bearing, harsh speech, and idle chatter.

Lies are statements that intentionally misstate the facts of a case. The Vinaya’s discussion of its training rule against lying shows that the intention defining a lie here is not so much the intention to deceive as it is the intention to misrepresent the truth (Pc 1). The distinction is a fine one, but it’s important. In §170, the Buddha states that there are cases where a truth should not be told if it gives rise to passion, aversion, and delusion in the speaker. This does not mean, however, that you can misstate the facts of the case in such instances. It simply means that you need not tell the whole truth about an issue. You avoid speaking about the facts that would provoke harm, even if this would cause your listener to misunderstand the situation. AN 4:73 (§172) provides an example relevant to this principle: To maintain your integrity, you speak as little as possible of your own good points and of the faults of other people.

Of the four types of wrong speech, the telling of lies is the only one that has a corresponding precept in the five lay precepts. This means that it’s the only aspect of wrong speech that is absolutely to be avoided in all situations. As AN 10:165 (§165) says, one should not tell a lie for one’s own sake, for the sake of another, or for any reward.

Of the various forms of wrong speech and wrong action, the Buddha regarded the telling of lies as the most serious and most destructive—perhaps because if you cause your listeners to misunderstand the truth, it can cause them to act unskillfully not only in this lifetime, but also in future ones as well. Furthermore, as he said in §169, if a person feels no shame at telling a lie, there is no evil that that person will not do.

This is a principle with far-ranging implications: Even a seemingly sober attempt to justify the telling of a lie in certain situations would count as feeling no shame around lying. In addition to showing that one is untrustworthy, a lack of shame around telling lies would severely hamper one’s ability to learn the Dhamma. After all, as we noted in Chapter 2, truthfulness is one of the basic qualities that the Buddha looked for in a student, and it’s absolutely necessary for examining one’s actions for the sake of progress on the path.

Divisive tale-bearing is the act of telling A about the misbehavior of B so as to win favor with A or to provoke a rift between A and B. Divisive tale-bearing also covers all sorts of speech intended to promote factionalism between individuals and groups of people. This type of wrong speech is sometimes translated as “slander,” but that’s a mistranslation. Slander is a form of lying. Divisive tale-bearing is not. You simply report the unadorned facts of another person’s behavior, and if the intention is to create a rift, it still counts as divisive tale-bearing.

The Vinaya’s discussion of its training rule against divisive tale-bearing shows that the intention is the crucial factor in determining whether the act of reporting A’s misbehavior to B would come under the rule (Pc 3). In line with the discussion there, it would not count as wrong speech if you tell A about B’s misbehavior for other reasons—as when A is responsible for B’s behavior and can put a stop to it, or if someone, A or C, could be hurt by B’s behavior. It’s for this reason that the Buddha would criticize the teachings of contemporary teachers, although he was careful to mention those teachers by name only when speaking to his monks. When speaking to outsiders, he would criticize opposing teachings but without mentioning the teachers by name.

Harsh speech is speech that is meant to be rough and repellant. AN 10:165 describes it as, “words that are insolent, cutting, mean (or: bitter) to others, reviling others, provoking anger and destroying concentration.” The Vinaya focuses on the “cutting” aspect of harsh speech with a rule against insults, which it defines as remarks based on the desire to jeer or to scoff at someone, or to make that person feel abashed (Pc 2).

In its discussion of that rule, though, it recognizes that there can be times when a teacher (or a parent) has to use harsh language to get the attention of the person he or she is teaching. For this reason, it states that harsh or even insulting terms do not count as offenses when used for the purpose of conveying the Dhamma.

The suttas and the Vinaya in general recognize this principle when they show the Buddha using strong words to criticize wayward students. In MN 22 and MN 38, for instance, two monks, in his presence, attribute pernicious views to him, and in response he calls them “worthless men,” a term that he also uses to address monks who act in ways that will inspire him to set forth a Vinaya rule. In Cv VII.3.1, when Devadatta asks to take over the Saṅgha, the Buddha calls him a lick-spittle—apparently to warn Devadatta that his desire will lead to his ruin, or to warn the monks in general that Devadatta has embarked on a seriously wrong course and so should not be followed.

At times, the Buddha could also be cutting and satirical in his humor when it served the purpose of the Dhamma. In AN 5:191, for instance, he compares brahmans with dogs, and the dogs come out on the better end of the comparison, in that dogs still observe some of the fine aspects of old brahmanical traditions that many brahmans have abandoned:

“In the past, brahman males mated only with brahman females and not with non-brahman females. At present, brahman males mate with brahman females and with non-brahman females. At present, male dogs mate only with female dogs and not with female non-dogs. This is the first ancient brahmanical tradition that is now observed among dogs but not among brahmans.… In the past, brahmans did not make a stash of wealth, grain, silver, or gold. At present, brahmans make stashes of wealth, grain, silver, & gold. At present, dogs do not make a stash of wealth, grain, silver, or gold. This is the fourth ancient brahmanical tradition that is now observed among dogs but not among brahmans.”

The Buddha’s rationale for this sort of speech is stated in §175, where he notes that he has a sense of time and place for when to use pleasing words and when to use displeasing words. To explain his motivation for using displeasing words, he cites the analogy of a young boy who gets a sharp object in his mouth: You have to do everything you can to remove the object, even if it requires drawing blood. Otherwise, the boy will swallow the object and suffer even greater harm. This analogy shows that—contrary to a common misunderstanding—people are not necessarily harmed by offensive speech or by having their feelings hurt. But because you harm yourself by speaking wrong speech, it’s in your interest to be sure of your motivation and of the situation before using strong language or cutting humor with others.

Idle chatter is defined as speaking “out of season, what isn’t based in fact, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring.” Examples would include frivolous chatter and idle gossip. As the above example indicates, though, humorous speech does not come under idle chatter as long as it serves a useful purpose. Human behavior can be so absurd that the best humor is often that which simply states the facts of the case. The Canon contains enough examples of the Buddha’s sense of humor in exposing human foibles to show that humor can be an effective tool on the path.

The Vinaya contains no training rule against idle chatter, although its narratives contain a list of topics that would count as idle chatter among monks, a list that is also found in the suttas (§173). The list is interesting in covering everything from village gossip to topics that are currently studied in academic philosophy and science, such as speculations on the origin of the cosmos. Most of the list, though, is composed of topics—such as politics, battles, women, heroes, food, and places—that provide the standard fodder for the public media.

In light of the fact that right speech should be timely, §139 provides a particularly interesting example of applying the Dhamma in an untimely way. Ven. Udāyin tries to use the perception that all feelings are stressful to argue, in response to a question on the consequences of action, that all action results in stress. The Buddha, however, rebukes him for applying the wrong teaching to the question, showing that this type of speech also counts as idle chatter. This principle would then apply to any discussion of a point of Dhamma that is not appropriate to the question asked or the person asking it.

AN 10:165, in addition to listing forms of wrong speech to be avoided, also lists corresponding forms of right speech to be developed: Above and beyond avoiding lies, for example, one should be one who “holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.” Beyond avoiding divisive speech, one should reconcile “those who have broken apart or cement those who are united… love concord, delight in concord, enjoy concord, speak things that create concord.” In addition to avoiding harsh speech, one should speak “words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large.” In addition to avoiding idle chatter, one should speak “words worth treasuring, timely, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal.” In this way, right speech is not just a matter of avoiding harmful speech, but is also a matter of engaging in speech that gives benefit all around.

Right action. Right action is defined as abstaining from three types of wrong action: taking life, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Like the telling of lies, all of these types of wrong action have corresponding precepts in the five lay precepts, which means that they are to be absolutely avoided in all situations.

Taking life means intentionally killing any animate being: human beings, animals, even insects. The Vinaya’s discussion of its training rules against killing human beings and animals show that, to count as wrong action, the act of taking life would have to involve knowing that the being was a being and that your act would kill it (Pr 3; Pc 61). In other words, if you stepped on an ant, thinking that it was a spot of dirt, that would not count as taking life. The Vinaya also shows that, to qualify as an animate being, the being would have to be big enough to see with the naked eye. For this reason, intentionally killing bacteria would not count as wrong action. The motivation for killing, however, is not a mitigating factor here. This means that acts of euthanasia and “putting animals out of their misery,” even though motivated by a misguided sense of compassion—misguided in the sense that you don’t really know what awaits the person or animal after death—would count as wrong action, too.

The firmness with which the Buddha regards the need to abstain from killing is illustrated in §183, where the question gives him the opportunity to allow for exceptions of any sort to the principle against killing, but he responds simply by saying that the one thing whose killing he condones is anger.

Stealing means taking objects for one’s own, in the manner of theft, knowing that they have an owner who has not given permission to take them. The Vinaya’s discussion of its training rule against stealing shows that it does not cover borrowing with the intent to return, nor does it cover taking things from nature or the environment in general (Pr 2). The owner has to be a specific person or group of people, with “person” meaning human being or an inhabitant of the higher realms.

Sexual misconduct is defined in the texts from the man’s point of view, and covers having sexual intercourse with those who are protected by their families (i.e., minors), those protected by their Dhamma (i.e., those who have taken a vow of celibacy), those with husbands, those who entail punishments (i.e., members of a king’s harem), and even those who are “crowned with flowers by another man”—i.e., those who are not formally married but who are going steady or in a committed relationship. From this list, it is possible to extrapolate similar standards for women.

In one of the descriptions of the noble path (§46), the phrase, “abstaining from sexual misconduct” is replaced with “abstaining from sexual intercourse.” None of the suttas explain this discrepancy, although as §178 states, if you’re incapable of celibate behavior, then at least don’t transgress with the spouses of others. In other words, celibacy is ideal for the path. Sn 4:7 (§220) points out that in one who practices sexual intercourse, the teaching is muddled—but not so muddled that it prevents awakening, as witnessed by the large number of lay people who became arahants on listening to the Buddha’s teachings. What is clear from these cases, though, is that awakening will not occur in the midst of sexual intercourse, regardless of what later traditions claim.

Guidance from right view. Right view provides guidance to right speech and right action on many levels. To begin with, it points to the importance of intention in determining the kammic consequences of your actions. This is why the definitions of wrong speech and wrong action apply only to acts done knowingly and deliberately.

In describing the good and bad consequences of various actions (§82; §166; MN 135), right view also shows specifically why wrong speech and wrong action are wrong, and why their right counterparts are right.

It also warns of the synergy of bad kamma. As §181 points out, if a person obsessed with gaining power wrongly inflicts punishments on others, he will then find it harder and harder to learn the truth, putting himself in a position where he removes himself further and further from the Dhamma.

Right view, as we noted above, also teaches the principle that you harm others by getting them to engage in wrong conduct. For this reason, right speech and right action require that you not only refrain from wrong speech and wrong action yourself, but also that you refrain from getting others to engage in such behavior, and even from condoning them for engaging in it. So, for example, arguing that war can be morally justified, even if you don’t participate in the killing yourself, would count as wrong action, as would a recommendation to others that, in times of poverty, they should steal from those who, in their eyes, are inappropriately wealthy.

It’s because of this principle against getting others to engage in wrong action that, even though abortion was legal in the Buddha’s time, he forbade his monks and nuns from recommending abortion.

The multi-lifetime perspective offered by right view, along with its explanation that the results of actions sometimes take more than one lifetime to ripen, serves to remind you that even in times of difficulty and hardship—when it seems that holding to right speech and right action would put you at a disadvantage in terms of your wealth and survival—it’s better to sacrifice your current well-being for the sake of long-term well-being. Especially during times of hardship, when you’re threatened with death, it’s important to be mindful of three passages from the Canon:

1) the Buddha’s statement in §144 that loss in terms of relatives, wealth, and disease do not lead to rebirth in the lower realms, but that loss in terms of view and virtue do;

2) his statement that you protect yourself by following right action and right speech (§187), whereas if you steal and kill you leave yourself unprotected; and

3) his statement that, in observing the principles of right speech and right action in all situations, you give universal safety to others—at least from your quarter—and will ultimately share in that universal safety yourself (§81).

These reflections show why rebirth is such an important part of the working hypothesis provided by mundane right view: Without this multi-life perspective, it’s all too easy to rationalize engaging in wrong speech and action if you feel that your survival depends on it. With this perspective, you can maintain your resolve to stick with right speech and right action all the way to the end of life.

The values flowing from this perspective are particularly difficult to remember in times of verbal and physical conflict, which is why right view offers specific advice on how to maintain right action and right speech in such situations. In terms of action, it reminds you that victory over your own defilements is greater than victory over a thousand-thousand others (§185). Even if you are in a relative position of strength over your enemy, it’s best to show restraint (§186)—which means that it’s better to lose a battle if winning it entails engaging in wrong action. The Vinaya gives a specific example of this principle in allowing monks to strike back in self-defense when attacked, but not to do so with the intent to kill (Pc 74).

In terms of verbal conflict, the Buddha encourages the monks not to get involved in useless debates, but his own behavior shows that, under certain conditions, debates can actually be helpful. This is why §176 sets the conditions for which kinds of people are worth engaging in discussion. The conditions come down to two sorts: The other person (a) should know proper procedure in how to engage in a reasonable debate and (b) should have the integrity to conduct the debate in a fair manner. These conditions, of course, reflect back on you: If you’re going to engage in a debate, you have to meet these conditions as well. If either side lacks the requisite conditions, it’s better to walk away from the debate, even if other people regard that as a defeat. As §176 points out, the purpose of discussion should be to lead to the mind’s liberation. A discussion that does not serve that purpose is best avoided.

In addition to debates, verbal conflict can also take the form of accusations of misbehavior. Here again, the Canon offers advice to both sides, the accuser and the accused, as to what qualities they should bring to the accusation if it is to serve as an aid to both sides’ liberation from defilement (§177).

Guidance for concentration & discernment. In addition to receiving guidance from the discernment factors of the path, right speech and right action also exercise qualities of mind that are conducive to developing the path-factors that come under concentration and discernment.

In terms of concentration, §202 mentions that following the principles of right speech and right action leads to lack of remorse, which in turn fosters two of the conditions needed for concentration.

The first condition is mindfulness, the ability to keep something in mind. If you have nothing to regret in your words and deeds, you’ll feel less need to block things from your memory. As a result, your mindfulness—and thus your concentration—will have fewer gaps.

The second condition is gladness. Lack of remorse promotes the skillful gladness that allows the mind to settle down with a steady sense of well-being.

Also—although the suttas don’t mention this point—the practice of right speech in particular makes you more and more sensitive to the verbal fabrications (directed thought and evaluation) that precede speech, at the same time giving you practice in how to control these fabrications so that your speech doesn’t wander into ways that are wrong. The practice of applying the three tests for right speech to your own speech—that it be true, beneficial, and timely—prepares you for applying the same tests to your thoughts as you try to bring the mind to concentration. In this way, right speech provides excellent preparation in exercising the sort of control over verbal fabrication that will be necessary to bring the mind into jhāna. Gaining control over your mouth gives you practice in gaining control over the chatter in your mind.

At the same time, the act of holding to right speech and right action helps to exercise the three qualities that have to function in right mindfulness: mindfulness, alertness, and ardency. To maintain right speech and right action at all times, you have to be mindful of—i.e., to hold in mind—the principles of what counts as right speech and right action; you have to be alert to make sure that your speech and actions are actually in line with those principles; and you have to be ardent in making the effort to stick with right speech and right action and to avoid their wrong counterparts. This is what MN 117 (§48) means when it says that right mindfulness and right effort—which is equivalent to ardency—circle around right speech and right action. This is also why SN 47:16 notes that virtue is one of the requisites for right mindfulness.

In addition to exercising the qualities of mind needed for concentration, the practice of right speech and right action also exercises your discernment.

• To begin with, it sensitizes you to your intentions in action. In this way, it takes the general principle of mundane right action—that actions are rooted in intention—and makes it more detailed and specific. You begin to see for yourself that honesty inside and out is necessary for genuine insight into your motives and intentions to arise.

• In a similar vein, it gives you exercise in learning how to develop the strategic wisdom needed to talk yourself into avoiding wrong speech and wrong action even when you want to engage in such things, and to talk yourself into engaging in right speech and right action even when you don’t want to (§204). We will treat this issue in more detail under right effort, but it’s important to realize that it’s a matter of right view and right resolve as well.

• Third, the practice of right speech and right action also exercises your ingenuity in using discernment in the areas where the principles of right speech allow for exceptions—i.e., in the areas of divisive tale-bearing, harsh speech, and idle chatter—and in the areas, such as the principle of truthfulness and all the areas of right action, where no exceptions are allowed.

In the areas where exceptions are allowed, you have to be honest with yourself about your motivations for taking advantage of the exceptions. For instance, with divisive tale-bearing, you have to know for sure that your motives are pure when telling A about B’s misbehavior, and that it really will be in A’s best interest to know. In the case of harsh speech, you have to discern your motivation clearly enough to be sure that your words are motivated, not by anger, but by the knowledge that harsh speech will be timely and effective in that particular case.

In the areas where no exceptions are allowed, you have to know how to minimize the immediate harm that may come from holding firmly to the principles of right speech and right action. SN 41:3 (§171) gives an interesting illustration of this point. Ven. Isidatta does not want to reveal his identity to Citta, for fear that Citta, on knowing that they are related, will give him preferential treatment that he has not offered to the more senior monks. This would damage his standing vis-à-vis the monastic community. So when Citta questions him about Isidatta’s whereabouts, he answers in a non-committal way so as not to reveal his true identity. Only when Citta presses him, and he cannot find a way to avoid answering the question, does he reveal who he is.

By forcing you to be ingenious and quick-witted in holding to the principle of not misrepresenting the truth, the principles of right speech in this area are an excellent exercise in discernment in action—much more so than the “discernment” that tries to decide when it’s all right to lie.

The principles of right action, because they are also meant to be followed in all situations, provide similar exercises in how to use your discernment in holding to your principles while at the same time doing the least immediate harm.

Transcendent virtue. MN 78 (§201) provides a definition of the transcendent level for all the virtue factors of the path when it defines what it means to be beyond skillful habits—“habit,” here, being a translation of the word sīla, which can also mean “virtue” or “precept.” Instead of dropping the precepts, a person beyond skillful habits is virtuous (sīlavant) but is not “made of virtue” (sīlamaya). What this means is that, on reaching this stage of the practice—which, apparently, follows the first stage of awakening—your behavior stays in line with the principles of right speech, right action, and right livelihood, but you do not define yourself around your virtue, and you neither exalt yourself for being virtuous nor do you disparage others for not. In this way, you avoid the dangers that come from clinging to habits and practices, at the same time enjoying the benefits that come from skillful words and deeds. In addition, you gain practice in becoming familiar with a state of mind that does not think in terms of “I” or “me,” thus preparing yourself to think more consistently in the terms that characterize right view on the transcendent level.

Some ancient commentators in non-Pāli Indian Buddhist traditions maintained that, because speech, action, and livelihood are not an issue when the mind is in meditation, the virtue factors of the path are not really involved as the mind approaches awakening. Thus they argued that the path just prior to awakening has only five factors. However, they missed the fact that the transcendent levels of virtue are still present in the mind, and so the path-factors at the threshold of awakening still number eight.

Readings

Right Speech

§ 165. “And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ’I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in harsh speech. He speaks words that are insolent, cutting, mean to others, reviling others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.…

“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ’I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he doesn’t tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he doesn’t tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning harsh speech, he abstains from harsh speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is based in fact, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, timely, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.” — AN 10:165

§ 166. “Telling lies—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from telling lies is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to being falsely accused.

“Divisive speech—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from divisive speech is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to the breaking of one’s friendships.

“Harsh speech—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from harsh speech is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to unappealing sounds.

“Idle chatter—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from idle chatter is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to words that aren’t worth taking to heart.” — AN 8:40

§ 167. Ven. Vaṅgīsa:

“Speak only the speech

that neither torments self

nor does harm to others.

That speech is truly well-spoken.

Speak only endearing speech,

speech that is welcomed.

Speech when it brings no evil

to others

is pleasant.

Truth, indeed, is deathless speech:

This is a primeval principle.

The goal and the Dhamma

—so say the calm—

are firmly established on truth.

The speech the Awakened One speaks,

for attaining unbinding,

rest,

for making an end

to the mass of stress:

That is the speech unsurpassed.” — Sn 3:3

§ 168. When gone to an audience hall or assembly,

or one-on-one, he should not tell a lie,

nor have it told, nor condone it’s being told.

He should avoid every untruth. — Sn 2:14

§ 169. For the person who lies,

who transgresses in this one thing,

transcending concern for the world beyond:

there’s no evil

not to be done. — Iti 25

§ 170. I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rājagaha in the Bamboo Forest, the Squirrels’ Sanctuary. Then Vassakāra the brahman, the minister to the king of Magadha, approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “I am of the view, of the opinion, that when anyone speaks of what he has seen, (saying,) ‘Thus have I seen,’ there is no fault in that. When anyone speaks of what he has heard, (saying,) ‘Thus have I heard,’ there is no fault in that. When anyone speaks of what he has sensed, (saying,) ‘Thus have I sensed,’ there is no fault in that. When anyone speaks of what he has cognized, (saying,) ‘Thus have I cognized,’ there is no fault in that.”

[The Blessed One responded:] “I do not say, brahman, that everything that has been seen should be spoken about. Nor do I say that everything that has been seen should not be spoken about. I do not say that everything that has been heard… everything that has been sensed… everything that has been cognized should be spoken about. Nor do I say that everything that has been cognized should not be spoken about.

“When, for one who speaks of what has been seen, unskillful dhammas increase and skillful dhammas decrease, then that sort of thing should not be spoken about. But when, for one who speaks of what has been seen, unskillful dhammas decrease and skillful dhammas increase, then that sort of thing should be spoken about.

“When, for one who speaks of what has been heard… what has been sensed… what has been cognized, unskillful dhammas increase and skillful dhammas decrease, then that sort of thing should not be spoken about. But when, for one who speaks of what has been cognized, unskillful dhammas decrease and skillful dhammas increase, then that sort of thing should be spoken about.”

Then Vassakāra the brahman, delighting & rejoicing in the Blessed One's words, got up from his seat and left. — AN 4:183

§ 171. Citta the householder [to the junior monk, Ven. Isidatta, after the latter had answered a question that monks senior to him couldn’t answer]: “Venerable sir, where does Master Isidatta come from?”

“I come from Avanti, householder.”

“There is, venerable sir, a clansman from Avanti named Isidatta, an unseen friend of mine, who has gone forth. Have you ever seen him?”

“Yes, householder.”

“Where is he living now, venerable sir?”

When this was said, the Venerable Isidatta was silent.

“Are you my Isidatta?”

“Yes, householder.”

“Then may Master Isidatta delight in the charming Wild Mango Grove at Macchikāsaṇḍa. I will be responsible for your robes, almsfood, lodgings, & medicinal requisites.”

“That is admirably said, householder.”

Then Citta the householder—having delighted & rejoiced in the Venerable Isidatta’s words—with his own hand served & satisfied the senior monks with choice staple & non-staple foods. When the senior monks had finished eating and had removed their hands from their bowls, they got up from their seats and left.

Then the most senior monk said to the Venerable Isidatta: “It was excellent, friend Isidatta, the way that question inspired you to answer. It didn’t inspire an answer in me at all. Whenever a similar question comes up again, may it inspire you to answer as you did just now.”

Then Ven. Isidatta—having set his lodging in order and taking his bowl & robes—left Macchikāsaṇḍa. And in leaving Macchikāsaṇḍa, he was gone for good and never returned. — SN 41:3

§ 172. “There is the case where a person of integrity, when asked, doesn’t reveal another person’s bad points, to say nothing of when unasked. And, when asked, when pressed with questions, he is one who speaks of another person’s bad points not in full, not in detail, with omissions, holding back. Of this person you may know, ‘This venerable one is a person of integrity.’

“And further, a person of integrity, when unasked, reveals another person’s good points, to say nothing of when asked. And, when asked, when pressed with questions, he is one who speaks of another person’s good points in full & in detail, without omissions, without holding back. Of this person you may know, ‘This venerable one is a person of integrity.’

“And further, a person of integrity, when unasked, reveals his own bad points, to say nothing of when asked. And, when asked, when pressed with questions, he is one who speaks of his own bad points in full & in detail, without omissions, without holding back. Of this person you may know, ‘This venerable one is a person of integrity.’

“And further, a person of integrity, when asked, doesn’t reveal his own good points, to say nothing of when unasked. And, when asked, when pressed with questions, he is one who speaks of his own good points not in full, not in detail, with omissions, holding back. Of this person you may know, ‘This venerable one is a person of integrity.’” — AN 4:73

§ 173. Then the Blessed One, emerging from his seclusion in the late afternoon, went to the meeting hall and, on arrival, sat down on a seat laid out. Seated, he addressed the monks: “For what topic of conversation are you gathered together here? In the midst of what topic of conversation have you been interrupted?”

“Just now, lord, after the meal, on returning from our alms round, we gathered at the meeting hall and got engaged in many kinds of bestial topics of conversation: conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state; armies, alarms, & battles; food & drink; clothing, furniture, garlands, & scents; relatives; vehicles; villages, towns, cities, the countryside; women & heroes; the gossip of the street & the well; tales of the dead; tales of diversity, the creation of the world & of the sea; talk of whether things exist or not.”

“It isn’t right, monks, that sons of good families, on having gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless life, should get engaged in such topics of conversation, i.e., conversation about kings, robbers, & ministers of state… talk of whether things exist or not.

“There are these ten topics of (proper) conversation. Which ten? Talk on modesty, contentment, seclusion, non-entanglement, arousing persistence, virtue, concentration, discernment, release, and the knowledge & vision of release. These are the ten topics of conversation. If you were to engage repeatedly in these ten topics of conversation, you would outshine even the sun & moon, so mighty, so powerful—to say nothing of the wanderers of other sects.” — AN 10:70

§ 174. “There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical answer [qualified by defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside.” — AN 4:42

§ 175. I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Rājagaha in the Bamboo Forest, the Squirrels’ Sanctuary.

Then Prince Abhaya went to Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta and on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta said to him, “Come now, prince. Refute the words of Gotama the contemplative, and this admirable report about you will spread afar: ‘The words of Gotama the contemplative—so mighty, so powerful—were refuted by Prince Abhaya!’”

“But how, venerable sir, will I refute the words of Gotama the contemplative—so mighty, so powerful?”

“Come now, prince. Go to Gotama the contemplative and on arrival say this: ‘Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others?’ If Gotama the contemplative, thus asked, answers, ‘The Tathāgata would say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others,’ then you should say, ‘Then how is there any difference between you, venerable sir, and run-of-the-mill people? For even run-of-the-mill people say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others.’ But if Gotama the contemplative, thus asked, answers, ‘The Tathāgata would not say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others,’ then you should say, ‘Then how, venerable sir, did you say of Devadatta that “Devadatta is headed for destitution, Devadatta is headed for hell, Devadatta will boil for an eon, Devadatta is incurable”? For Devadatta was upset & disgruntled at those words of yours.’ When Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you, he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up. Just as if a two-horned chestnut were stuck in a man’s throat: He would not be able to swallow it down or spit it up. In the same way, when Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you, he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.”

Responding, “As you say, venerable sir,” Prince Abhaya got up from his seat, bowed down to Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta, circumambulated him, and then went to the Blessed One. On arrival, he bowed down to the Blessed One and sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he glanced up at the sun and thought, “Today is not the time to refute the Blessed One’s words. Tomorrow in my own home I will overturn the Blessed One’s words.” So he said to the Blessed One, “May the Blessed One, together with three others, acquiesce to my offer of tomorrow’s meal.”

The Blessed One acquiesced with silence.

Then Prince Abhaya, understanding the Blessed One’s acquiescence, got up from his seat, bowed down to the Blessed One, circumambulated him, and left.

Then, after the night had passed, the Blessed One early in the morning put on his robes and, carrying his bowl and outer robe, went to Prince Abhaya’s home. On arrival, he sat down on a seat made ready. Prince Abhaya, with his own hand, served & satisfied the Blessed One with fine staple & non-staple foods. Then, when the Blessed One had eaten and had removed his hand from his bowl, Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others?”

“Prince, there is no categorical yes-or-no answer to that.”

“Then right here, venerable sir, the Nigaṇṭhas are destroyed.”

“But prince, why do you say, ‘Then right here, venerable sir, the Nigaṇṭhas are destroyed’?”

“Just yesterday, venerable sir, I went to Nigaṇṭha Nāṭaputta and… he said to me… ‘Come now, prince. Go to Gotama the contemplative and on arrival say this: “Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are unendearing & disagreeable to others?”… Just as if a two-horned chestnut were stuck in a man’s throat: He would not be able to swallow it down or spit it up. In the same way, when Gotama the contemplative is asked this two-pronged question by you, he won’t be able to swallow it down or spit it up.’”

Now, at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the prince’s lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince? If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”

“I would take it out, venerable sir. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have sympathy for the young boy.”

“In the same way, prince:

[1] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial [or: not connected with the goal], unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathāgata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has sympathy for living beings.”

“Venerable sir, when wise nobles or brahmans, householders or contemplatives, having formulated questions, come to the Tathāgata and ask him, does this line of reasoning appear to his awareness beforehand—‘If those who approach me ask this, I—thus asked—will answer in this way’—or does the Tathāgata come up with the answer on the spot?”

“In that case, prince, I will ask you a counter-question. Answer as you see fit. What do you think? Are you skilled in the parts of a chariot?”

“Yes, venerable sir. I am skilled in the parts of a chariot.”

“And what do you think? When people come & ask you, ‘What is the name of this part of the chariot?’ does this line of reasoning appear to your awareness beforehand—‘If those who approach me ask this, I—thus asked—will answer in this way’—or do you come up with the answer on the spot?”

“Venerable sir, I am renowned for being skilled in the parts of a chariot. All the parts of a chariot are well-known to me. I come up with the answer on the spot.”

“In the same way, prince, when wise nobles or brahmans, householders or contemplatives, having formulated questions, come to the Tathāgata and ask him, he comes up with the answer on the spot. Why is that? Because the property of the Dhamma is thoroughly penetrated by the Tathāgata. From his thorough penetration of the property of the Dhamma, he comes up with the answer on the spot.”

When this was said, Prince Abhaya said to the Blessed One: “Magnificent, venerable sir! Magnificent! Just as if he were to place upright what was overturned, to reveal what was hidden, to show the way to one who was lost, or to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see forms, in the same way has the Blessed One—through many lines of reasoning—made the Dhamma clear. I go to the Blessed One for refuge, to the Dhamma, and to the Saṅgha of monks. May the Blessed One remember me as a lay follower who has gone to him for refuge, from this day forward, for life.” — MN 58

§ 176. “Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as fit to talk with or unfit to talk with. If a person, when asked a question, doesn’t give a categorical answer to a question deserving a categorical answer, doesn’t give an analytical answer to a question deserving an analytical answer, doesn’t give a counter-question to a question deserving a counter-question, doesn’t put aside a question deserving to be put aside, then—that being the case—he is a person unfit to talk with. But if a person, when asked a question, gives a categorical answer to a question deserving a categorical answer, gives an analytical answer to a question deserving an analytical answer, gives a counter-question to a question deserving a counter-question, and puts aside a question deserving to be put aside, then—that being the case—he is a person fit to talk with.

“Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as fit to talk with or unfit to talk with. If a person, when asked a question, doesn’t stand by what is possible and impossible, doesn’t stand by agreed-upon assumptions, doesn’t stand by teachings known to be true, doesn’t stand by standard procedure, then—that being the case—he is a person unfit to talk with. But if a person, when asked a question, stands by what is possible and impossible, stands by agreed-upon assumptions, stands by teachings known to be true, stands by standard procedure, then—that being the case—he is a person fit to talk with.

“Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as fit to talk with or unfit to talk with. If a person, when asked a question, wanders from one thing to another, pulls the discussion off the topic, shows anger & aversion and sulks, then—that being the case—he is a person unfit to talk with. But if a person, when asked a question, doesn’t wander from one thing to another, doesn’t pull the discussion off the topic, doesn’t show anger or aversion or sulk, then—that being the case—he is a person fit to talk with.

“Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as fit to talk with or unfit to talk with. If a person, when asked a question, puts down (the questioner), crushes him, ridicules him, grasps at his little mistakes, then—that being the case—he is a person unfit to talk with. But if a person, when asked a question, doesn’t put down (the questioner), doesn’t crush him, doesn’t ridicule him, doesn’t grasp at his little mistakes, then—that being the case—he is a person fit to talk with.

“Monks, it’s through his way of participating in a discussion that a person can be known as drawing near or not drawing near. One who lends ear draws near; one who doesn’t lend ear doesn’t draw near. Drawing near, one clearly knows one dhamma, comprehends one dhamma, abandons one dhamma, and realizes one dhamma.[1] Clearly knowing one dhamma, comprehending one dhamma, abandoning one dhamma, and realizing one dhamma, one touches right release. For that’s the purpose of discussion, that’s the purpose of counsel, that’s the purpose of drawing near, that’s the purpose of lending ear: i.e., the liberation of the mind through lack of clinging/sustenance.” — AN 3:68

Note

1. According to the Commentary, these dhammas are, respectively, the fourth, first, second, and third noble truths.

§ 177. Five dhammas to establish in oneself before leveling a charge:

1) “I will speak at the right time, not at the wrong time.”

2) “I will say what is factual, not what is not factual.”

3) “I will speak gently, and not harshly.”

4) “I will say what is connected with the goal [or: the matter at hand], not what is unconnected to the goal [the matter at hand].”

5) “I will speak with an attitude of goodwill, and not with inner aversion.” —Cv IX.5.2

Five dhammas to attend to inwardly when leveling a charge: compassion, seeking (the other’s) welfare, sympathy, removal of offenses, esteem for the Vinaya. — Cv IX.5.7

Two dhammas to remain established in when being charged: the truth and unprovocabilty. — Cv IX.5.7

Right Action

§ 178. Laying aside violence toward all living creatures,

both the firm & unfirm in the world,

one should not kill a living being, nor have it killed,

nor condone killing by others.

Then the disciple should avoid

consciously (taking) what’s not given,

—anything, anywhere—

should not have it taken,

nor condone its taking.

He should avoid all (taking of) what’s not given.

The observant person should avoid uncelibate behavior

like a pit of glowing embers.

But if he’s incapable of celibate behavior,

he should not transgress with the wife of another. — Sn 2:14

§ 179. “And how is one made impure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person takes life, is brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. He takes what is not given. He takes, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. He engages in sexual misconduct. He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made impure in three ways by bodily action.…

“And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his rod laid down, his knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. Abandoning the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given. He does not take, in the manner of a thief, things in a village or a wilderness that belong to others and have not been given by them. Abandoning sexual misconduct, he abstains from sexual misconduct. He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. This is how one is made pure in three ways by bodily action.” — AN 10:176

§ 180. “Monks, the taking of life—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from the taking of life is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to a short life span.

“Stealing—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from stealing is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to the loss of one’s wealth.

“Sexual misconduct—when indulged in, developed, & pursued—is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry ghosts. The slightest of all the results coming from sexual misconduct is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to rivalry & revenge.” — AN 8:40

§ 181. “Because of having wrongly inflicted suffering on another person through beating or imprisonment or confiscation or placing blame or banishment (with the thought), ‘I have power. I want power,’ when told what is factual, he denies it and doesn’t acknowledge it. When told what is unfactual, he doesn’t make an ardent effort to untangle it (to see), ‘This is unfactual. This is baseless.’” — AN 3:90

§ 182. Four things befall the heedless man

who lies down with the wife of another:

a wealth of demerit;

a lack of good sleep;

third, censure;

fourth, hell.

A wealth of demerit, an evil destination,

& the brief delight of a

fearful man with a

fearful woman,

& the king inflicts a harsh punishment.

So

no man should lie down

with the wife of another. — Dhp 309–310

§ 183. A devatā:

“Having killed what

do you sleep in ease?

Having killed what

do you not grieve?

Of the slaying

of what one thing

does Gotama approve?”

The Buddha:

“Having killed anger

you sleep in ease.

Having killed anger

you do not grieve.

The noble ones praise

the slaying of anger

—with its honeyed crest

& poison root—

for having killed it

you do not grieve.” — SN 1:71

§ 184. Like a merchant with a small

but well-laden caravan

–a dangerous road,

like a person who loves life

–a poison,

one should avoid

–evil deeds.

If there’s no wound on the hand,

that hand can hold poison.

Poison won’t penetrate

where there’s no wound.

There’s no evil

for those who don’t do it. — Dhp 123–124

§ 185. Greater in battle

than the man who would conquer

a thousand-thousand men,

is he who would conquer

just one–

himself.

Better to conquer yourself

than others.

When you’ve trained yourself,

living in constant self-control,

neither a deva nor gandhabba,

nor a Māra banded with Brahmas,

could turn that triumph

back into defeat. — Dhp 103–105

§ 186. The Blessed One said, “Once in the past the devas & asuras were arrayed for battle. Then Vepacitti the asura-king said to Sakka the deva-king: ‘Let there be victory through what is well spoken.’

“‘Yes, Vepacitti, let there be victory through what is well spoken.’

“So the devas & asuras appointed a panel of judges, (thinking,) ‘These will decide for us what is well spoken & poorly spoken.’

“Then Vepacitti the asura-king said to Sakka the deva-king, ‘Say a verse, deva-king!’

“When this was said, Sakka the deva-king said to Vepacitti the asura-king, ‘But you are the senior deity here, Vepacitti. You say a verse.’

“When this was said, Vepacitti recited this verse:

‘Fools would flare up even more

if there were no constraints.

Thus an enlightened one

should restrain the fool

with a heavy stick.’

“When Vepacitti had said this verse, the asuras applauded but the devas were silent. So Vepacitti said to Sakka, ‘Say a verse, deva-king!’

“When this was said, Sakka recited this verse:

‘This, I think,

is the only constraint for a fool:

When, knowing the other’s provoked,

you mindfully grow calm.’

“When Sakka had said this verse, the devas applauded but the asuras were silent. So Sakka said to Vepacitti, ‘Say a verse, Vepacitti!’

“When this was said, Vepacitti recited this verse:

‘Vāsava, I see a fault

in this very forbearance:

When the fool thinks,

“He’s forbearing

out of fear of me,”

the idiot pursues you even more—

as a bull, someone who runs away.’

“When Vepacitti had said this verse, the asuras applauded but the devas were silent. So Vepacitti said to Sakka, ‘Say a verse, deva-king!’

“When this was said, Sakka recited this verse:

‘It doesn’t matter

whether he thinks,

“He’s forbearing

out of fear of me.”

One’s own true good

is the foremost good.

Nothing better

than patience

is found.

Whoever, when strong,

is forbearing

to one who is weak:

that’s the foremost patience.

The weak must constantly endure.

They call that strength

no strength at all:

whoever’s strength

is the strength of a fool.

There’s no reproach

for one who is strong,

guarding—guarded by—Dhamma.

You make things worse

when you flare up

at someone who’s angry.

Whoever doesn’t flare up

at someone who’s angry

wins a battle

hard to win.

You live for the good of both

—your own, the other’s—

when, knowing the other’s provoked,

you mindfully grow calm.

When you work the cure of both

—your own, the other’s—

those who think you a fool

know nothing of Dhamma.’

“When Sakka had said this verse, the devas applauded but the asuras were silent. Then the deva & asura panel of judges said, ‘The verses said by Vepacitti the asura-king lie in the sphere of swords & weapons—thence arguments, quarrels, & strife. Whereas the verses said by Sakka the deva-king lies outside the sphere of swords & weapons—thence no arguments, no quarrels, no strife. The victory through what is well spoken goes to Sakka the deva-king.’

“And that, monks, is how the victory through what was well spoken went to Sakka the deva-king.” — SN 11:5

§ 187. “Those who engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct leave themselves unprotected. Even though a squadron of elephant troops might protect them, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they leave themselves unprotected. Why is that? Because that’s an external protection, not an internal one. Therefore they leave themselves unprotected. But those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, & good mental conduct have themselves protected. Even though neither a squadron of elephant troops, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, nor a squadron of infantry troops might protect them, still they have themselves protected. Why is that? Because that’s an internal protection, not an external one. Therefore they have themselves protected.” — SN 3:5

§ 188. “A man may plunder

as long as it serves his ends,

but when others are plundered,

he who has plundered

gets plundered in turn.

A fool thinks,

‘Now’s my chance,’

as long as his evil

has yet to ripen.

But when it ripens,

the fool

falls

into pain.

Killing, you gain

your killer.

Conquering, you gain one

who will conquer you;

insulting,         insult;

harassing,         harassment.

And so, through the cycle of action,

he who has plundered

gets plundered in turn.” — SN 3:15