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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One thought on “Right Speech is Not Always Gentle”

  1. An open society allow dissonant voices to express their viewpoints. In democratic societies, a collective consent is sought after through polemical dissensions, dissensions that factually exist in all human societies, preferably exchanged in an open spirit of inquiry. This probably exists nowhere as such, but this is the ideal. This indicates that in the midst of a variety of views and interests, polemos is a way to move on and settle disputes, reach tolerable agreement. Again, whether this is properly enacted in the reality of political spheres is another matter; it still remains a guiding principle. This is, of course, the main difference from autocratic, totalitarian regimes and societies. We should note that most Buddhist countries recently adopted a more or less democratic mode of governance, that which comes the West.

    In the section on Proper Speech commented upon in this article, from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book on social and communal harmony, all the quotes from the Pali suttas that serve as basis of discussion are addressed by the Buddha to “monks,” bhikkhus, shramanas. Bhikkhus were formerly forbidden to talk about politics. Things have changed dramatically since then, obviously. More than that, they were forbidden or discouraged to discuss any type of worldly matter; they were allowed to discuss and communicate Dhamma matters only.

    My question, considering the above, is how much moral and behavioral rules of speech taken or even “inspired” from this Vinaya-Dharma, addressed to ascetic yogis living a very specific and almost disappeared way of life, can be seen as relevant in our lay, mostly secular, scientized and technocratic democratic societies. How much is it useful to help voice concerns skillfully against social oppressions of any kind? We know and can see that what motivates those rules are wholesome guidelines to guard against harmfulness and violence, sterile and endless arguing, along with many undesirable effects. The Buddha voiced his intentions very clearly and in much detail on such, beautifully and with depth But we know also that the range of authorized and legitimate social exchanges excluded most of mundane affairs, political included (which is vast). After all, in those days of autocracy, there was not much to discuss with politics, including for lay people.

    I wonder if what we need to invent is not an education to non-violent, peaceful, meaningful, open and kind ways to express our dissents. This is not taught in schools anywhere, beside some abstract principles, the phony use of some catchwords (“republic,” “democracy,” “liberty”…) and limited practical applications (e.g., discussions on literature). This is a task ahead, a project for the future. This is probably what the book is about; I did not read it yet, but base my reflection on this article, which is already a good start.

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