Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.


Right Speech is Not Always Gentle

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 24, 2017

Right Speech Is Not Always Gentle: The Buddha’s Authorization of Sharp Criticism, its Rationale, Limits, and Possible Applications

Sallie B. King
Georgetown University

What is Right Speech and how should it be applied in the multiple challenges of social and political life? Examining passages from the Pāli canon shows that although Right Speech is normatively truthful and gentle, the Buddha endorsed “sharp” speech when it was beneficial and timely. He both permitted and modeled direct, sharp criticism of the person whose words or actions were harmful. The monks were taught to use such speech even though it might disturb their equanimity and are seen as having a moral duty to do so. Good moral judgment is needed to determine when sharp speech should be used. Applying the analysis to the question of how Buddhists should respond to the harmful words and actions of Donald Trump, the study finds that the norms of Right Speech entail using sharp speech in this case. In responding to supporters of Donald Trump, the study finds benefit in avoiding sharp speech in an effort to build mutual understanding and heal the deep divisions in contemporary American society. An exception is made for hate speech which is seen as needing to be immediately confronted.

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