Part 6 here.The third "fold" in the noble eight-fold path as described in the Fourth Noble Truth is "Right Speech".
The ethical injunctions in the third, fourth and fifth "folds" are meant to guide people more specifically. The second fold ("Right Intention") is presumably not enough to guide people in living life ethically, and more thorough instructions are given in these three folds.
Let us look more closely at the notion of "Right Speech" according to Buddhism:
And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech.It is interesting to note that in the above description of "Right Speech", there is no positive description of what kind of speech is right, but there are four kinds of speech which are not to be indulged in. It is a description by negation.
However, later sutras describe "right speech" in more detail:
Abandoning false speech... He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world...
Abandoning divisive speech... What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here...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 abusive speech... He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing and pleasing to people at large...
Abandoning idle chatter... He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal...To speak the truth is an interesting commandment. Generally it is good advice and is helpful in keeping one's conscience clear. One can of course devise situations where to tell a lie, by omission or by commission, is beneficial for all concerned. And one can also think of situations where truth and falsehood are ambiguous and matters of opinion. Moreover, there are situations where speaking the truth is considered bad manners ("Is the dinner you lovingly prepared tasty? No it's not. It tasted rather horrible actually.")
There is a school of extreme opinion which advocates telling the truth in all situations. It calls itself "Radical Honesty" and the results are interesting, to say the least.
Usually people try to determine whether and how much to speak the truth in any given situation, based on the consequences that that speech might have, and adopting a general principle of "abstaining from lying" might do more harm than good.
Abandoning divisive speech is also generally good advice. There are many human beings, perhaps a majority of us, who like to see other people fight or bicker. The Buddhist term for being happy when others are happy, and vice versa, is called Mudita, or having a good heart.
"Abandoning abusive speech", or to be polite and gentle, is excellent advice and one which applies rather universally. However, I have also found that some people do not take polite advice very kindly and need to be dealt with in a rather unkind voice.
In April of 2011, a curious incident happened to me. I was living in Hyderabad at that time and on that particular day I was home. I went up a flight of stairs to hand over the monthly rent to my landlord. It so happened that that day they had forgotten to chain their rather ferocious dog. Without much of warning, the dog pounced on me and bit me badly on my belly. I limped back in quite a bit of pain, and after taking care of the wound, complained gently but firmly to the landlord and his servant (whose duty it was to keep the dog chained). The landlord didn't even attempt to get any kind of medical help for me.
Unfortunately, my gentle complaint didn't make much of an impression. The same dog bit me again in the evening as I was venturing out, more deeply this time and tore off a bit of my thigh. This time I let out a volley of expletives and shrieks, which were anything but pleasing to anyone's ear (especially the landlord's). My speech could definitely be categorized as "abusive" at that instant.
After I came back from the doctor's, heavily bandaged and just having had an anti-rabies injection, I had the landlord waiting for me. He was genuinely apologetic, readily agreed to compensate me for the medical bills, and meekly advised me to offer the dog a biscuit or two sometime to make it like me. I was not amused.
Unprovoked abusive speech is perhaps always to be avoided, and nobody would disagree that avoiding it would lead to an increase in peace and harmony. Some would argue that nothing in life is unprovoked, but then again, not getting provoked unnecessarily is perhaps wise. Whether the necessity is there or not can be up for debate! It is said that a saint close to enlightenment wouldn't even get provoked if someone tore away his limbs, whereas a short-tempered mofo would take offense even at a "Howdy?". When to take offense, and how to then express one's outrage so that it makes a point, are interesting questions.
The last bit of "Right Speech", to avoid idle chatter, is something that I disagree with completely. Life is not merely to be lived functionally, it also needs leisure and distraction. An individual would be a terrible bore if he did not participate in lighthearted conversations, did not make jokes or enjoy them, did not seem interested in anything except Dhamma, and always wanted to say "treasuring" or "reasonable" words. This injunction seems more apt for a convent or a military school than for living life freely.
Life is not a judge's chamber where speech always has to be measured and one must only give as much information as is being asked for. Telling anecdotes and stories (fictional or not), singing songs, gossiping about people and their situations, talking of theories and ideas and history and politics, reminiscing, talking about one's worries, aches and regrets, all this can be seen to serve no "useful" purpose by an uptight individual. But I consider these speech acts, if not profit-bearing in the usual sense of the word, to be life-sustaining and life-affirming.
(to be continued)