Skillful Speech

Bhante Gunaratana

ssExcerpts from Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha's Path
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana – Wisdom Publications


Bhante Gunaratana delves deeply into each step of the Buddha's most profound teaching on bringing an end to suffering: the noble eightfold path. With generous and specific advice, eight mindful steps to happiness offers skillful ways to handle anger, to find right livelihood, and to cultivate loving-friendliness in relationships with parents, children, and partners, as well as tools to overcome all the mental hindrances that prevent happiness. A gentle and down-to-earth guide that helps bring the heart of the Buddha's teachings into every aspect of s life.

Think how often you say to yourself, "If only I hadn't said that," or something like "When I saw the look on her face, I knew that what I said had hurt her feelings." Wrong speech causes us many problems. We lie and then get caught in it; we say something nasty about a co-worker and get him into trouble; we speak inconsiderately and offend a client or friend; we spend a whole day in meaningless chatter and get nothing clone.

These bad habits of speech are not new. The Buddha considered the practice of Skillful Speech so essential to one's personal and spiritual development that he gave it its own step on the path to happiness. Skillful Speech, the Buddha told us, has four qualities: It is always truthful. It is uplifting, not malicious or unkind. It is gentle, not crude or harsh. It is moderate, not useless or meaningless.

A person who is known for gentle and beautiful speech, the Buddha explained, will quickly be trusted and respected. Such a person enjoys a calm and peaceful state of mind and is able to interact with others lovingly. Have you noticed, for instance, that people tend to speak to us as they have heard us speak? If we are known to exaggerate or to lie, others find it easier to lie to us. If we habitually malign others, people find it easier to speak harshly of us. The converse is also true. If we are known for truthfulness, our words are more readily believed. If we have a reputation for discretion, others find it harder to spread gossip about us. If our speech is always kind and gentle, others feel embarrassed to swear or speak crudely in our presence.

It is clear that speech creates an environment that either contributes to happiness or destroys it. We know this is so because our own experience shows us that how we think and act is heavily influenced by the kind of speech that goes on around us. One of the Buddha's first nuns observed in verse:

If he resorted to noble friends,
Even a fool would become wise.
(Thig 213)

If we wish to be wise, we must not only seek out noble friends but be a noble friend to others. Doing so requires that we make a mindful effort to practice Skillful Speech. A Buddhist folk story illustrates how strongly speech can influence our behavior:

A monk in the Buddha's entourage had a habit of eating sumptuous meals with a group of people misled by the evil monk Devadatta. Tempted by the delicious food these people offered, this monk spent much time in the unwholesome company of this group. The Buddha reprimanded the monk for choosing such companions and warned him of the consequences. To convince him to change his behavior, the Buddha told the monk the story of an incident that had taken place in a former life, in which the monk had been led astray by the harsh, unwholesome speech of those around him.

In a previous birth, the Buddha said, the monk had been a great elephant belonging to a king. This elephant was known for his gentle disposition. Then a group of burglars made a habit of gathering near the elephant's stall each night to discuss their evil plans. They spoke harshly and encouraged each other to commit murder and other cruel acts. The elephant began to believe that their rough words were intended to teach him that he should behave in similar ways. As a result, the formerly noble elephant became murderous, killing anyone who tried to work with him.

The king who owned the elephant sent his minister--the aspiring Buddha to investigate what was corrupting the gentle elephant. The minister overheard the wicked speech of the burglars and saw how it affected the elephant. He advised the king to send wise sages, known for their gentle speech, to talk together near the elephant's stall every night. The good and wholesome speech soon influenced the elephant to return to his gentle ways, and he was never cruel again. (J 26)

Skillful Speech can improve your life in many ways. Just imagine never having to regret anything you say! That would release many of us from a heavy burden.

Let's look more closely at the four qualities of Skillful Speech and explore how they might help us along on the path to happiness.


The first quality of Skillful Speech is that it is always truthful. Never lie, the Buddha told us, whether for your own advantage, for someone else's advantage, or for any advantage whatsoever. The Buddha summed up the guidelines for truth-telling this way:

When [someone is] questioned as a witness thus, "So, good man, tell what you know": knowing, he says, "I know"; not knowing, he says, "I do not know"; not seeing, he says, "I do not see"; or seeing, he says, "I see"; he does not in full awareness speak falsehood for his own ends, or another's ends, or for some trifling worldly end. (M 41)

Occasionally we may be asked a question to which a response of silence indicates a particular answer. If our silence would convey a lie, then we must speak. For example, a police investigator at the scene of a crime asks a crowd of on-lookers whether they saw anything. If everyone remains silent, the investigator will conclude that no one has seen the crime occur. If some of the onlookers are witnesses, then they lie by remaining silent. They may feel that they have good reason to say nothing, such as fear of retaliation, but their silence is a lie nonetheless. We can also lie with our body language. Sometimes a shrug or a raised eyebrow may convey "I don't know." But if you do know, your shrug is a deception.

There are situations, however, where the truth has to be withheld because speaking up might hurt someone. In such cases, we have to wait for the right time to speak the right wor.ds to the right person. The Buddha himself frequently resorted to silence when his answering a question would cause someone harm. Once a man asked the Buddha whether there is life after death. The Buddha just sat there, silent, until the man gave up and went away. Later, his attendant Ananda, asked the Buddha why he had not answered. The Buddha explained that any answer would have caused the man suffering. If he had answered that there is continuation after death, the Buddha knew that the man would have seized on the idea of an eternally existing self, a wrong understanding that leads to suffering. If he had answered negatively, the man would have developed another wrong understanding, thinking, "Then I will be annihilated!" and would have suffered greatly on that account. To avoid causing harm to the man, the Buddha decided not to make any response at all.

The Buddha described the guidelines by which he himself decided whether to speak or to remain silent. If he knew something was untrue, incorrect, or not beneficial, he would not say it. "Such speech [the Buddha] does not utter," he said. If he knew that something was true, correct, and beneficial, then "[the Buddha] knows the time to use such speech." When his words were true, correct, beneficial, and timely, the Buddha spoke regardless of whether his words would be "unwelcome and disagreeable to others" or "welcome and agreeable to others." (M 58) Deeply compassionate and fully focused on people's well-being, the Buddha never spoke only to be a "people pleaser." We can learn much from his example.

When I am tempted to speak words that do not meet the Buddha's guidelines, I remind myself that I gain nothing by speaking, nor does anyone else gain, and nobody loses by my keeping quiet. For example, let's say I am talking with friends, one of whom is monopolizing the conversation. I have something to say and feel impatient to say it. I have reflected on what I want to say and know it is true as to past events, correct as to current facts, and that it would benefit the listeners. If I blurt it out now, however, I may offend the speaker. Thus it is not timely. So I remind myself that I do not gain if I speak in an untimely way, nobody else gains, and furthermore nobody loses by my patient silence. I can say what I want to say some other time.


The second aspect of Skillful Speech is avoiding malicious talk. As an old folk saying tells us, "The tongue is a boneless weapon trapped between teeth." When we speak malicious words, our tongue releases verbal daggers. Such words rob people of their good name and their credibility. Even when what we say about someone is true, if its intent is to cause the person harm, it is malicious.

The Buddha defined malicious talk as speech that destroys the friendship between two people. Here's an example: Suppose on a trip I meet one of your good friends who lives far away. I remember that several months before, you had told me an unflattering story about this fellow. I may not remember your exact words, so I add a little flavor when I repeat what you said. I even make it look like I am doing this guy a favor to let him know that you have been talking about him behind his back. Your friend responds in some heat. When I get home, I repeat his words to you, spicing them up a bit to make it a better story. Because it causes disharmony and breaks up a friendship, such speech is malicious.

Sometimes we disguise malicious speech as concern about another's behavior. Or we reveal a secret that someone has confided to us, believing that we are doing so "for his own good." For instance, telling a woman that her husband is being unfaithful because "you don't want her to be the last to know" may cause more suffering for everyone involved. When you are tempted to speak in such a way, ask yourself what you hope to gain. If your goal is to manipulate others or to earn someone's gratitude or appreciation, your speech is self-serving and malicious rather than virtuous.

Public speech can be malicious as well. Tabloid newspapers, talk radio, Internet chat rooms, and even some respectable news media seem to be making their living today using words as weapons. A fresh shot at this week's media target scores points that translate into increased viewers and advertising dollars. Malicious speech knocks someone down to raise someone else up. It tries to make the speaker look incisive, smart, or hip at another's expense.

Not all malicious speech sounds nasty. Sometimes people use words that seem gentle but have a derogatory meaning. Such disguised verbal daggers are even more dangerous than overtly malicious words because they more easily penetrate the listener's mind and heart. In modern terms, we call such speech a "backhanded compliment." We say to someone, "How clever of you to fix up your old house rather than moving to a more fashionable neighborhood," or "Your g~ray hair is so becoming. Isn't it wonderful that looking older is acceptable in our profession?" Skillful Speech not only means that we pay attention to the words we speak and to their tone but also requires that our words reflect compassion and concern for others and that they help and heal, rather than wound and destroy.


The third kind of wrong speech is harsh language. Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
Speech is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for ill. The Buddha compared speech to an ax:

Every person who is born is born with an ax in his mouth. A fool who uses abusive language cuts himself and others with that ax.
(Sn 657)

We probably think of an ax merely as a tool for chopping firewood. But in the Buddha's day, the ax was a tool of precision and power. It was used to cut long planks of wood and plane them perfectly smooth and to carve and chisel wood precisely. It could cut down a mighty tree. And it was a deadly weapon, a brutal means to maim or kill. Perhaps a modern parallel to the ax is the computer. Computers can be used to do many wonderful things--to communicate across oceans, make music, or direct a flight to Mars. They can also be used for destruction. Computers help wage wars by controlling missiles and other weapons.

lust as we must choose how we will use the power of an ax or a computer, we must choose how we will use our speech. Will we speak words that awaken, console, and encourage others ? Or will we cut them down, injuring ourselves in the process? Slanderous talk, cruel gossip, lies, and crude or profane jokes not only abuse others but make us look like fools who are unable to wield the ax in our mouths without bloodying ourselves.

We are also fools if we think that harsh language ever accomplishes anything positive. Though we may feel very self-satisfied when we have dressed someone down, as we say--given them a piece of our minds--we have won no genuine victory. As the Buddha said:

The fool thinks he has won a battle, when he bullies with harsh speech; but knowing how to be forbearing alone makes one victorious.
(S 1.7.1[3])

It is easy to silence people by using harsh, insulting words. A smart adversary will generally withdraw from such an interchange and respond to our harsh words with icy silence. We may congratulate ourselves and think, I really showed him–he shut right up when he heard what I had to say. But our apparent victory is hollow. Our opponent may have pledged never to speak to us again or vowed to thwart us secretly sometime in the future. The ill will and bad feelings we cause will boomerang and strike us when we least anticipate it.

It's easy to think of other examples of the negative effects of harsh language. Perhaps you have a co-worker with enormous talent or technical genius, whose mouth always gets him into trouble. He bullies his associates with words that are harsh, abrasive, arrogant, and obnoxious. Despite the quality of his work, people cannot tolerate him, so his career goes nowhere.

Another particularly sad example of the destructive power of harsh speech is its effect on children. Haven't we all overheard parents telling their children, "You're a disgrace," "You can't do anything right," "You'll never amount to anything." Perhaps we remember being told such things when we were small. Verbal abuse can leave scars on the heart of a child that never completely heal. Of course, parents might sometimes have to speak sharply to a child to stop the child from doing something dangerous, like playing with matches or running into the street. But such strong speech is motivated by love and care, not by the wish to bully or belittle.

Animals also feel the effect of harsh speech. My grandnephew has a great Alaskan husky named Taurus. Taurus is fascinated by the animals on television. He even tries to bite them. Because he is so large, when Taurus is attracted to what he sees on the screen, he blocks the view of the people sitting behind him. One day a member of my grandnephew's family ordered Taurus to get out of the way. Her tone of voice was excessively hard and stern. The dog reacted by going to the basement. For a week Taurus stayed down there, refusing to come out, even to eat. He emerged only occasionally to go outside to relieve himself. Then he went right back downstairs. Finally, the family had to go and plead with him, using sweet words, in affectionate tones, before Taurus rejoined them.

The soft words of my grandnephew's family won back the companionship of their beloved pet. Kind language, as another early Buddhist saying tells us, is always appropriate and welcome:

Speak kind words, words rejoiced at and welcomed, words that bear ill will to none; always speak kindly to others.
(Sn 452 [translated by Ven. S. Dhammika])

Telling someone, "I really appreciate the work you did," "You handled that difficult situation beautifully," or "It's such a joy to see you" warms the heart of the speaker and of the person spoken to. Soft word: are honey on the tongue. Speaking our praise and appreciation increase: the happiness of everyone involved. They help us make and keep friends, for everyone wants to associate with people whose soft and gentle speech makes them feel relaxed, comfortable, and safe. Soft words help children flourish and grow up with a positive feeling of self-worth. Such words can also help people learn and appreciate the Buddha's message. There is no limit to the amount of joy we can spread to those around us if we speak with kindness and skill.

A word of caution: Soft words must also be sincere and motivated by a noble purpose. Speaking gently and kindly while thinking or doing the opposite is hypocrisy, not virtue. We have all heard religious leaders who use soft words to spread fear or manipulate people into sending money to their organization. I remember a man in Sri Lanka who toured the country speaking against the evils of alcohol. This man rose to fame, power, and popularity, drawing large crowds due to the power of his oration. He galvanized the campaign to close the bars, shut down the breweries, and end the sale of liquor. One hot summer day, during one of his powerful speeches, the man carelessly whipped off his jacket. A small bottle of alcohol fell from an inside pocket and hit the floor of the stage. That was the end of the prohibition campaign, and of this man's public career. Even though what the man was saying about the poison of alcohol was true, once people saw the poison of this man's hypocrisy, they could no longer buy his message.


The fourth type of wrong speech is gossip, which the Buddha described as foolish or meaningless talk. When we say the word gossip in English, we may be referring to a whole range of negative speech, from malicious invective to merely careless or useless chatter. All such speech is considered wrong according to the Buddha's teachings.
Gossip about other people is a problem regardless of whether what we say about someone else is true. After all, if three people relate a story about a fourth person, each story will be different. Human nature is such that we tend to believe whatever we hear first, even though it is just one person's version. It may be based on truth, but gossip will embellish and exaggerate it.

Gossip leads to quarrels and misunderstandings. It can break up relationships. In the most serious cases, it can lead to lawsuits for libel or defamation. In the Buddha's time, the power of gossip toppled a great confederacy:

The Licchavi people were a proud, free clan, one of the most powerful and important members of a strong confederacy of eight clans. Their capital city was the capital of the confederacy. An ambitious ruler, King Ajatasattu, the principal supporter of the evil monk Devadatta, planned to invade and defeat the Licchavi people. The king asked the Buddha his opinion of his plan to invade. The Buddha spoke of the harmony in which the Licchavi people lived and told the king, "You cannot invade them so long as they remain unified and harmonious." The king postponed his attack and pondered the Buddha's statement.

Then King Ajatasattu came up with a simple and devious plan. He instructed his prime minister to whisper something into the ear of a Licchavi man. The prime minister went up to one of the Licchavi men and whispered emphatically, "There is rice in a paddy seed." It was a trivial, meaningless statement. Everyone knew that rice can be found in a paddy seed.

But seeing something whispered, another Licchavi man began wondering what King Ajatasattu's prime minister had said to this fellow. When he asked the man what had been said, the man repeated the statement about the paddy seed.

Hearing this, the second Licchavi man thought, "This guy is hiding the truth. He doesn't trust me. He fabricated this silly statement about the paddy seed to deceive me." Filled with suspicion, he told another Licchavi clansman that the man had been whispering with the prime minister. That person told another, and so on, until people believed that the man was a spy and that a secret conspiracy was being hatched in their midst.

Peace was shattered. Accusations and arguments arose among the Licchavi people, and fighting broke out among the leading families. With his enemy in disarray, King Ajatasattu invaded the Licchavi people, and his troops conquered them easily. He then went on to conquer the rest of the confederacy.

I don't need such accounts to convince myself that gossip is harmful. I have experienced myself how damaging gossip can be. It seems that whenever someone tries to do something for the good of society, some people feel opposed to that effort. Maybe they feel insecure or jealous of another's success. Rumors are their weapons. They do not have to come forth and provide any evidence. They can whisper insinuations and rely upon other people's willingness to engage in careless talk to do their dirty work.

When we were first trying to raise funds to build our center, some people spread rumors about the Bhavana Society. People said that I was bilking donors, intending to use the funds we collected to start a shady business for profit. Unsigned letters were sent to key people, telling them not to contribute. The gossip was started maliciously, but it was spread by people who simply did not know the truth. The Buddhist community in the city in which I lived, which had initially been supportive, became divided. Fortunately, those who opposed the building of the Bhavana Society could not find any real faults to magnify, or they would have completely destroyed our efforts.

So long as people are willing to believe whatever they hear and repeat things carelessly, rumors will circulate. Once an American member of the board of directors of the Bhavana Society traveled to Sri Lanka. While there, he joined a group of meditation practitioners from various countries, and they spent an evening talking together about meditation centers in various places. Someone mentioned the Bhavana Society in this gathering, and a woman exclaimed, "Oh! That's the center where they have that tea ceremony in the evenings !" When our board member protested, the lady insisted that she knew her statement to be true. Finally our member said, "Well, I have known Bhante Gunaratana since 1972 and have been involved with the Bhavana Society since its inception. I know there is no tea ceremony there." If someone who knew the truth had not been present, no one would have been able to contradict the woman's statement. Perhaps others would have added further untrue comments and maybe even hurtful things. That is how gossip gets started and how it damages people and institutions. If we hear someone gossip or say something damaging, we have two choices: either we end the conversation or we discourage the person from speaking negatively, as our board member did in this case.

But there's an even more radical and powerful message in the Buddha's teaching that we abstain from gossip. It is that all unnecessary speech is harmful. Many of us spend a great deal of time chattering about the food we ate several days or months ago, or trying to remember the details of some silly movie or TV show that we saw. We waste even more time saying things simply to make others laugh. This kind of talk does not lead to any deepening of wisdom. When we consider how short human life is and how easily it can be snatched away by accident or illness, do we really want to waste our precious time distracting ourselves with idle chitchat? Someone whose hair is On fire must urgently try to put it out; likewise, we must arouse our spiritual urgency to free ourselves from the burning of negative mind states, rather than wasting our time on gossip.

Now, it's true that some seemingly idle or silly talk may actually serve an important purpose. Sometimes we must speak so~t meaningless words to comfort someone or to bond lovingly with our children. All mindful speech motivated by love and compassion is an acceptable part of Skillful Speech. The test is to stop and ask ourselves before we speak: "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?"


Skillful Speech is not something you practice on the cushion. It happens in dialogue, not silence. During formal meditation, however, you can think about your habits of speech and try to convert the thoughts that arise to skillful thoughts--those motivated by generosity, loving-friendliness, and compassion. You can analyze your past actions and ask yourself: "Did I speak correctly yesterday? Have I spoken only gently, kindly, meaningfully, and truthfully?" If you find that you have erred in some way, you can pledge to improve your mindfulness of Skillful Speech.

The most important resolution you can make is to think before you speak. People say, "Watch your tongue!" But it's more important to watch your mind. The tongue does not wag by itself. The mind controls it. Before you open your mouth, check your mind to see whether your motivation is wholesome. You will come to regret any speech motivated by greed, hatred, or delusion.

Also make a strong determination not to say anything that might hurt another person. This pledge will definitely help you to think carefully before you speak. When you speak mindfully, you automatically speak truthfully, gently, and kindly. Mindfulness will keep you from using verbal daggers that can pierce people to the marrow. If the intent to speak in a harmful way occurs to you, immediately use mindfulness and Skillful Effort to prevent these thoughts from continuing.

The pledge not to wound others with your speech is especially important when talking with someone toward whom you feel resentment, or when discussing a situation about which you have strong feelings. Be careful! Use only gentle, well-selected words. Speaking softly can bring peace and harmony to the situation and help the conversation to continue in a productive, profitable, and friendly way.

If someone approaches you and speaks irritatingly--nagging or gossiping about one of your friends, for instance~and you notice yourself getting upset, simply stop talking. Remind yourself silently, "I must not be reactive. I must not fall into the same lack of mindfulness as this person. This conversation is not going anywhere. I choose to engage only in meaningful conversation." In many cases, the other person will respond to your silence by stopping the irritating talk. You can use the pause that follows to turn the conversation in a better direction.

Actually, as someone following the Buddha's path, the moment you know that a conversation is heading in the wrong direction, you should take responsibility for putting it back on track. It is so easy to get carried away with emotional talk and start shouting. A shouting match causes unhappiness to everyone involved. With mindfulness recall how awful you feel when you are out of control emotionally. Remind yourself that it may take hours or days before you calm down enough to talk to this person again. A lot of good feelings will be lost, perhaps permanently.

In spite of all your good efforts, however, sometimes you still get angry. If another person continually provokes you, assaulting you with verbal daggers, you may become completely confused and bewildered. Then it is very easy for anger to arise. When you see your confusion building up, say "Wait a minute!" to the other person, with the hope of finding a moment to clear your mind. But what if the other person responds with "No, you wait a minute!" and continues to attack--then what?

In these situations, when the conversation spins out of control, your task is to bring mindfulness back quickly and use Skillful Effort to overcome the anger. Even if your feelings of anger cause your heart to beat fast, your body to break into a sweat, and your hands to shake, mindfulness of your resolution to avoid all harsh speech can help you stay in control. Simply refuse to let your anger tell you what to say. Concentrate on your breathing to reestablish mindfulness until your anger has died down.

Calming yourself gives both you and the other person a chance to open your hearts in a more friendly way. As your heart begins to warm, you see the other more clearly, and maybe you will understand why you both got upset. You can also see how confused an angry state of mind makes you. As your feelings of respect and concern grow, you can resolve to use this moment to begin a new and more loving relationship and to strengthen the companionship between you. That is what you should always hope to do.
When you see that you have disciplined your mind and your words and that the situation has become more harmonious, be happy about it! Say to yourself, "This is what I want. I want always to act in ways that allow these good things to happen." Bring up that thought again and again.

Let me tell you a story of a time when I myself had to use mindfulness to practice Skillful Speech. Perhaps my experience will give you some clues about how to apply mindfulness to situations that arise it your life--at your work, at home, and in your personal relationships.

Many years ago, when I was in charge of running a certain temple, a group of people called a meeting for temple supporters. These people opposed some work I had initiated and needed a forum where they could express their frustrations. A bit of character assassination may hay been on the agenda, too. Some of these people had very strong feelings about the matters to be discussed. They had been born into Buddhist families, but they had no interest in meditation. In fact, they considered meditation a crazy thing to do. Therefore they did not understand my work. I expected to be on the hot seat during this meeting, but what happened was worse than anyone could have predicted.

About forty people were attending the meeting, including many of my relatives, close friends, and others who hoped to show support for my programs. Before the meeting was properly opened, even before introductions had been made, a very simple man stood up and began to speak. This fellow was uneducated and unskilled, with a tendency toward unrefined speech. He had little to say about the temple business under discussion, but a lot to say about me. In low, vulgar terms, he charged that I had done nothing for the temple for years, that I was damaging support for the temple, and so on. He used socially unacceptable, derogatory, and hurtful language throughout this tirade, which went on for about twenty minutes.

During this shocking verbal assault, I worked with my mind. To prevent anger from arising, I reasoned with myself. I could see that the man was in a disturbed state, and I thought to myself, "I know this man to have a peaceful nature. We have had a good relationship. He must have been poisoned by someone else who feels strongly about these matters to say such things." As the man continued to speak, I reflected that I had had many opportunities for spiritual and cultural development that this man lacked. I recalled that he had only an elementary school education, few skills, and little interest in spiritual training. In this way, I tried to cultivate compassion for him and also gratitude that my training made it unlikely that I would ever speak or act as he was doing.

I also reflected on the context of what was happening. I considered that if I were to say anything to oppose him, my supporters would stand up for me, and the meeting might degenerate into an ugly fight. I watched people's eyes getting bigger and saw them frowning at the man and shifting in their seats. I sensed that my relatives in particular were deeply affected. I am an elder in my family--a brother, uncle, granduncle, and great granduncle---and I am known to be a gentle monk. Naturally, my family respects me and feels protective of me. I knew that if I seemed to be hurt or upset by what this man was saying, my relatives would experience anger and other unwholesome states of mind. They might even physically attack the man. So I told myself: "Here I have to exercise mindfulness, patience, and understanding to bring peace to this meeting."

I established mindfulness by concentrating on my breathing. When challenged like this, it is very important to pause and take some deep breaths before responding--perhaps two minutes of deep breathing, or thirty inhalations and thirty exhalations. This pause gives you time to relax and clear your mind, so you can speak sense, instead of blowing up.
Finally, the man seemed to have exhausted himself and stopped talking. Everybody was tense. They all looked at me. In a quiet voice I said, "This gentleman has been a friend of mine. He has been a very good supporter of this temple and has done many good and helpful things. He also knows what I have done all these years for the temple. But today, somehow, he seems to be upset, disappointed, and maybe not feeling quite himself. Therefore I feel like giving my blessings to him and to everybody."

I asked everyone there to put their hands together in the prayer position and to reverence the Buddha by saying three times, "Homage to the Blissful One, the Noble One, the Fully Enlightened One." This is how we commonly begin formal ceremonies. From the sheer weight of tradition, there was no way anyone could bring up any quarrel or express any negative opinion from that point on. It would have seemed disrespectful to the Buddha. Then I led the group in taking the five precepts, which uplifted their minds and made sure that everyone recalled the Buddha's guidelines for proper, harmless behavior. Finally, I recited a lengthy blessing chant, and when I finished, I said, "Now you can go home. The meeting is over." And that was the end of it. For some years, this man remained cold toward me, but later I had the opportunity to be of service to him when he went through some serious difficulties. Since then and to this day, he remains friendly to me and expresses only his gratitude and respect.

Mindfulness is the key that helped me resolve this difficult situation. The same technique can work for you. I sometimes hear people say that things were happening so fast that "even with mindfulness" they could not control their actions or speech. Saying "even with mindfulness" makes no sense. Perhaps their mindfulness was weak or undermined by greed, hatred, or delusion. But by definition, mindfulness keeps us in control of what we think, how we act, and what we say. It's impossible to shout at someone mindfully, or to abuse alcohol mindfully, or to engage in sexual misconduct mindfully. If you are truly mindful, you simply cannot do these things!

Because our habits are so strong, whenever we open our mouths, things seem just to spill out. We may not be aware of how much energy pours away with our speech. With mindful awareness, we put a stop to this outpouring, and energy collects. We can use this built-up energy to develop insight into the nature of our habits. Using this energy as fuel, we can talk to ourselves mentally in meditation, taking stock of our actions, further training our minds.

However, when we let this bottled-up energy out without mindfulness, it often explodes with a pop! like a cork from a bottle. I see this especially at the end of retreats. A few moments before, a perfectly silent group of people were sitting still or moving slowly and quietly. Then the Noble Silence of the retreat ends, and a roar of babbling conversation breaks out. This flood of talk goes on for an hour or two, until all the built-up energy has dissipated. The longer the retreat, the louder and more light-headed people will become, unless they make the effort to remain very mindful of their speech.

The only antidote for wrong speech is a strong dose of mindfulness–not just during retreats, or when you are in a challenging or difficult situation, but for your whole life. Mindfulness of Skillful Speech will contribute to your happiness. I guarantee it.


Here are the key points for preventing unhappiness by way of Skillful Speech: