Controlling Speech

Guard against the four verbal transgressions. Frequently use encouraging speech. Honestly admit your own mistakes, and in these ways you will attain the supreme voice.

— Bodhisattva Without Possessions Sutra

One word can save a country and one word can destroy a nation. Words are very powerful. Words can be used to bring great harm to others or they can be used to bring benefit to them. The mind controls the mouth, but the mouth often seems to be able to talk by itself without forethought or without any consideration for the consequences of what it says. The reason for this is language is so close to us—it is such an important part of our minds—that it often becomes animated seemingly without our consent. This is why the Buddha constantly exhorted his followers to watch what they say. It is too easy to say the wrong thing.

The Sutra Concerning Four Kinds of Self-Harming says:

In the light of truth, contemplate the tumbling and roiling of this world; observe that all of it comes from arguing over unimportant matters. Calamity issues from the mouth causing a thousand wrongdoings and myriad transgressions that bind us firmly to this realm.

Wise practitioners are careful about what they say and they take the Buddha very seriously when he says to completely avoid the four transgressions of the mouth: lying, duplicity, harsh speech and idle speech. Nothing good will ever come of them.

The Sutra on Distinguishing Between the Origins of Good and Evil says:

In this world, no one should harm another through lying, duplicity, harsh speech or idle speech. If one does not commit these transgressions, one will attain five good results. What are these five results?

These results are 1) one’s words will always be believed, 2) one will be loved by others, 3) one’s breath will be fragrant, 4) one will be reborn in heaven and be respected by all, 5) when one is reborn again in the human realm, one will get along well with others and others will not be inclined to speak harshly of one.


Lying is particularly reprehensible because lying is a deliberate attempt to increase delusion. Most people already are completely lost in delusion; to deliberately add to the problem is to turn away from the bodhisattva path and from the infinite compassion that inspires it. Lying is very damaging because it ruins trust and it causes honest people to doubt their own intuitions. The Buddha called lying one of the ten evil deeds and he made it the subject of one of his five basic precepts.

The Zhufa Jiyao Sutra says that when one lies, one abandons the true Dharma and harms other people. The sutra says that lying is often the principal cause of many other serious transgressions, all of which bind one firmly to the cycle of birth and death. Lying obscures the truth and carries us farther and farther from it. Lies create innumerable obstacles to finding the way to liberation.

Buddhist literature recognizes lies of commission and lies of omission. When we say something that we know is not true we have committed an overt lie. When we fail to say something that we know we should say, we have committed a lie of omission. A lie of omission may be more subtle than an overt lie, but it is no less serious. If the intention is to harm someone or not prevent someone from harming themselve, a lie of omission can be extremely serious.

The Upasakasila Sutra says that frequent lying will produce in this life “harsh speech and an ugly appearance, and it will cause evil to accumulate around the liar, while no one will want to look on him.” In his next life, the sutra says, the liar will “enter hell where he will suffer great hunger, thirst and heat.” Following his long stay in hell, if the liar is reborn in the human realm, the sutra says he will “have poor speaking abilities and be mistrusted by others. People will not be happy to see him and even if he speaks the truth, they will not listen to him. He will live in poverty.”

The Dharmagupta Vinaya distinguishes two basic forms of lying. To fabricate an untruth in general is called the “lesser form of lying.” The “greater form of lying” mentioned in the Vinaya is the very serious offense of claiming to be enlightened when one is not.


Duplicity means to speak with a forked tongue. When we are duplicitous, we say one thing to this person and another thing to that person. If our intention in doing this is to create disharmony or confusion, we have committed a serious offense. Duplicity also means to pretend to have certain feelings while acting on the promptings of other, concealed feelings. When we deceive another person emotionally, we have committed a great offense against them.

A common form of duplicity is flattery. Flattery always is engaged in for ulterior reasons. Flattery is a form of trickery used to get someone to do something or give something they would not otherwise do or give. Whenever we smile falsely or use words to create false feelings among people, we are guilty of an offense against truth. Actions like those damage the natural trust that should prevail among groups of people.

The Saddharma Smrty Upasthana Sutra says, “Being too attached to endless chattering leads to an increase of greed within oneself and an increase of fear in others. Duplicity is generally the result of the verbal transgressions of boasting and exaggerating.”

The Kusalamulasamgraha Sutra says, “Harsh speech and duplicity are signs that one enjoys harming others or leading others to harm; being like this causes endless trouble.”

The Fayuan Zhulin says:

Those who are duplicitous or who fight with others and cause discord among them will be torn in half once they fall into hell. They will have their mouths ripped out by the soldiers of hell and with heated knives their tongues will be cut away. They will suffer immensely and they will go hungry and be thirsty. They will not be able to free themselves from their evil karma. They will drink their own blood.

In another place the Fayuan Zhulin says:

When anyone harms another through an act of duplicity, he will definitely fall into one of the lower realms. If he does succeed in obtaining another human body, his bad karma will follow him everywhere; his family will be low-minded and evil and they will often fight with him, disagree with him, be angry with him and cause him trouble.

Duplicity creates disharmony within our small groups and it contributes to the general disharmony of the world. The mind that acts duplicitously is predominantly negative. A mind like this appears clever to itself while in reality it suffers from the ignorance of not knowing the full consequences of its actions. Duplicity is especially harmful if engaged in by practicing Buddhists. If we as Buddhists are hypocritical about our beliefs—if we profess one thing while doing another—we will only be working against the efforts of countless bodhisattvas and Buddhas. Rather than leading other sentient beings to the truth, our poor examples will be driving them away. It is very important that anyone interested in leading others to the Dharma always behave with honesty and straightforward sincerity.

Harsh Speech

Harsh speech does not simply mean loud or forceful speech. Harsh speech is speech that hurts another person. Sometimes harsh speech can be conveyed through the subtlest tones of derision. Sometimes even rough words may not actually be harsh. If we are mindful, we should know when our words are intended to cause pain.

The Introduction to the Stages of the Dharma Realm says, “Evil words intended to bring suffering to another is what is meant by ‘harsh speech.'”

The Five Part Vinaya says:

People are born with axes in their mouths and they cut themselves with their own harsh speech. They criticize those who should be praised and they praise those who should be criticized. The results of their behavior come back to them and thus they know no happiness.

Idle speech

The Satyasiddhi Sastra says that idle speech may be defined as any one of the following: untruthful speech, truthful speech that has been spoken at the wrong time, truthful speech that leads to someone’s suffering, or truthful speech that has no beginning or end, truthful speech that is disorganized or presented in an unreasonable manner.

The Yogacarabhumi Sastra says that idle speech can be defined as any one of the following: false speech, ill-timed speech, speech without significance, speech employing inaccurate terms, thoughtless speech, raucous speech, disorganized speech, pointless speech, speech with no larger meaning, or speech that contradicts the Dharma.

Idle speech gives no value to others. It is a waste of time to listen to it. One who frequently engages in idle speech is in danger of creating senseless attachments to this world of delusion. Loose or creative speech that has some higher goal in mind, of course, is not a form of idle speech.

If you want to achieve true contemplation,

contemplate only name and form.

If you want to achieve true realization,

realize only name and form.

Though you may choose to be ignorant

and waste all of your time in thought

discriminating among myriad phenomena,

still you will find nothing at all

that reaches beyond name and form.

— Mahaprajnaparamita Sastra