Rough words harm both the self and others while kind words bring benefit to all.
— Sukhavativyuha Sutra
The Importance of Speech
The importance of speech cannot be overemphasized. Most people create most of their bad karma through speech.
Speech is the single most powerful means by which we interact with other people. Our choice of words, our tone of voice, even our selection of subject matter can have the profoundest influence on other people. Intemperate or ill-considered speech too often leads to misunderstanding, suspicion and anger.
People become angry or suspicious because they are deluded. The “hook” that most often snags our delusive sense of self-existence is speech, and once it has been snagged we are more than likely to answer unkindly or become resentful. There is no simple cure for this problem. Just as we all can too easily offend others by what we say, so they too can easily offend us by what they say. While we cannot have very much control over what others say to us, we can listen to them with compassion and understanding and an intelligent willingness to tolerate their verbal excesses and their mistakes. At the same time, we can be careful of what we say to them.
Human psychology is revealed in our speech. It is good to remember that people who often speak angrily probably have a deep-seated need to do so. People who are frequently negative and critical probably speak that way because that is how they learned to talk. That is how people have always spoken to them. People who talk too much are probably doing so because deep down they feel that no one has ever listened to them. People who frequently say ignorant things just don’t know any better. If you are faced with someone like this, what is the most compassionate thing to do? Be patient, be tolerant and don’t compound the problem by adding speech mistakes of your own.
The Lungshu Zengguang Pure Land Treatise makes nine important points about how we should talk. Presented as metaphors, these points will help us use speech to create good karma as they help us avoid the creation of bad karma. The treatise says:
Whenever we chant the Buddha’s name, our mouths are cleansed and the words that issue from them are like pearls.
Whenever we preach the Dharma, it is as if light were issuing from our mouths.
Whenever we speak uselessly or in a way that does no one any good, it is as if we were chewing on wood shavings.
Whenever we tease someone viciously, it is as if we were cutting them with a knife.
Whenever we use filthy speech, it is as if worms or bugs were crawling out of our mouths.
Whenever we speak of good things, it is as if a fragrance were coming from our mouths.
Whenever we speak truthfully and sincerely, it is as if our words were made of good silk cloth.
Whenever we deceive others, it is as if our words were the cover over a pit-trap.
Whenever we speak harshly or cruelly, it is as if a foul odor were coming from our mouths.
The Dangers of Harsh Speech
Harsh speech generally is caused by anger. It is bad enough to allow ourselves to be angry, but as soon as we act on our anger to revile others we set off a series of events that may quickly explode out of control. Harsh, angry speech is like fire on a flammable surface. Anything can happen. At the very least, we will hurt someone else’s feelings. At worst, our speech may cause violence.
The Karmavibhanga Sutra says:
If in this life you often use harsh speech to irritate others, and if you delight in exposing their private matters, and if you are stubborn and unyielding, then in your next life you will be born as a fire-spewing hungry ghost.
The Yogcarabhumi Sutra says:
Ignorance and a hard heart produce words that are not soft and not warm. A person who is given to harsh and duplicitous speech will not think of what might benefit others and he will often speak recklessly and endlessly. A person like this harbors evil in his heart much in the way ashes may cover a live fire; if you step on them you will burn your feet.
The Benefits of Good Speech
The practice of Buddhism requires that we focus our attention on the actions of our bodies and minds, and on our speech. Speech is so important to the successful practice of Buddhism that the Buddha accorded it the same prominence as the mind and the body. Speech can be like a handle that we use to get hold of all areas of our lives. When our speech is in keeping with the precepts of Buddhism, the rest of our behavior cannot be far behind.
The Yogacarabhumi Sutra says:
If your speech is always soft and agreeable and if it is in harmony with the feelings of others, then your behavior will be supported by it and you will not be likely to harm others through your body or mind. Good speech is like a flowering tree; in time its fruits will be sweet and beautiful.
The Diamond Sutra says that the Buddha is “the one of truthful words, of real words, the one who does not change what he has said and who does not lie.”
The Buddha always spoke beautifully, honestly and with great compassion and therefore he was respected by everyone. The Buddha is our original teacher and he is the best example of how we should behave. If you have trouble knowing how to speak, try to imagine what the Buddha would say if he were in your situation. Remember, one of the Buddha’s great characteristics was he was never frightening to people. Sometimes it is better just to be awkward or foolish than to strain to say something clever or insincere. It is always better to say something kind or encouraging than to speak sharply or derisively.
When Sakyamuni Buddha was still a bodhisattva, he was with Maitreya Bodhisattva, who will be the next Buddha on earth. Sakyamuni Bodhisattva became a Buddha before Maitreya Bodhisattva largely because Sakyamuni Bodhisattva expended more time and energy in praising all the Buddhas in the universe. The power of his praise and the merits gained from his constant habit of good speech allowed him to reach full enlightenment before Maitreya Bodhisattva.
The Buddha said that good speech generates ten kinds of merit. These ten are: a warm voice, fluent speech, the ability to reason well, beautiful speech, accurate speech, straight-forward speech, fearless speech, respectful speech, the ability to speak well about the Dharma, and a good rebirth once this life is over.
In the end, we should try our best to be sure that our speech always is permeated with the wonderful energy we have gained from the Dharma. The beauty of the Dharma is capable of transforming us through our study of it and it is capable of changing others through the positive energy we take from it and then communicate to them.
We all learn the fastest when we learn from a Buddha. Even Sakyamuni Buddha learned in this way. When Sakyamuni Buddha was still a bodhisattva he used his voice to recite the following verse for a period of seven days and seven nights:
Above heaven, below heaven,
There is nothing and no one like Buddha.
In all worlds, in all the ten directions
There is nothing to compare to him.
Nothing I have ever seen anywhere
Can ever compare to him.
— Abhiniskramana Sutra