Saturday, May 10, 2014

Elementary Buddhist Ethics: Wrong Speech Is Wrong

     And now for something completely different—a post on elementary, non-controversial Buddhist ethics. 
     To refrain from mūsavāda, alias "wrong speech," is the fourth of the standard five moral precepts which any practicing Theravada Buddhist is expected to take upon himself or herself. It doesn't simply involve the telling of deliberate lies, but also includes harsh speech (i.e. verbally abusing another person for the sake of hurting that person's feelings), divisive speech (i.e. badmouthing another person behind that person's back for the sake of causing others to have a lower opinion of that person), and "idle chatter" or gossip (i.e. talk which is of no benefit to anybody). I would interpret this last variety of wrong speech to mean primarily gossip, such as who's doing who in the neighborhood, or in Hollywood, etc., rather than simply hanging out and "shooting the crap," avoiding which would seem contrary to human nature, and it seems to me unnaturally strict for laypeople, or maybe even for monks. Such extreme strictness reminds me of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the so-called "Temple Scroll," which asserts that nobody should have sex within the city limits of Jerusalem, and that all toilets should be at least a mile away from the sacred city! Purity is nice, and may justifiably be rather strict for professional renunciants, but for laypeople especially such restrictions are simply inviting broken rules. Ethical conduct among relatively worldly laypeople should still allow a certain amount of having a good time, and talking about unessential things, maybe even silly ones.
     But getting back to wrong speech…the reason I have singled it out is because it is arguably the most dangerous of all broken precepts, even worse than murder or stealing. Consider: In tropical countries like Burma, the most dangerous wild animal in the forest is not a tiger or elephant, or even a poisonous snake. The most dangerous animal in the jungle, by far, is the anopheles mosquito which is the vector for malaria—a tiny, fragile little thing. We might not even notice when it bites. Yet millions of people die every year from the bite of this mosquito, while more tigers are killed by humans for Chinese herbal Viagra than people are killed by tigers. I would guess that the number of people killed by tigers worldwide nowadays is down in double digits, per year, maximum. Tigers are more afraid of people now than the other way round. So the mosquito is much more dangerous than the tiger because there are lots more of them, and because one is much more likely to be fatally bitten by one.
     Similarly with wrong speech: It is more dangerous than, say, stealing because it is so much easier to do it. Opportunities abound. One doesn't even have to get out of one's chair or lift a finger for it. And, unlike killing and stealing, one is practically required to tell at least small lies in order to get along in "civilized" society. But regardless of politeness, saying "I'm sorry" if you're not really sorry, or saying "I'd like to, but I can't—um, I'm busy" when you're not really busy but just don't want to, or saying "It's so nice to see you again!" when it isn't nice at all, is still lying. It happens all the time.
     But I've said enough about polite, civilized lying in other posts. So I'll point out a couple of very common forms of wrong speech that many people may not even recognize as such.
     One is sarcasm, which is of course usually a way of expressing thinly veiled hostility. It may be that sometimes it's not harsh speech; but if one is not saying it lovingly, then it probably is. Be careful.
     Another one seems to run rampant in this world, and I've even seen world famous Dharma teachers doing it—and that is carelessly breaking promises. We say we'll do something, and then don't do it. "We'll talk about that next week." Maybe something comes up, or maybe we change our mind, or sometimes we simply space it off and forget. But if we say that we'll do something and then don't do it, we have just broken a promise. And breaking a promise is not as serious as telling a deliberate lie (we don't know that the statement is false while we're saying it), but it is still a volitional deviation from truth. A Theravada Buddhist monk who breaks a promise is, according to tradition, required to confess it as an act of wrong speech. So it's presumably wrong speech for laypeople too. Deviations from truth are deviations from truth, regardless of who speaks them.
     Making a promise does not require the words "I promise" added to the deal. Simply to say "I'll be there" is already a promise; so regardless of why one isn't there at the appointed time, the promise has been broken. So…just as it is better to keep silent than to tell a lie, or to say as much truth as possible if silence is not a viable option ("Well, I can't say I'm sorry I did it, but I am sorry that you are unhappy right now"), it is better not to make a promise if one is uncertain of keeping it; for example, it is a good practice to qualify one's promises with "I'll probably do it, if nothing comes up which prevents it," or "Insha'allah," or some such. 
     For most of my adult life I've been sensitive to this issue of broken promises. To this day I still remember a promise I broke many years ago: I was in a big forest in upper Myanmar, standing near a creek, and I told a man who was with me that I would take a bath there. He went away to let me bathe alone, and I stood there, looking at the water. It was cold, and deep, and had big fish in it that might bite a wormlike appendage dangling around in the water…so I chickened out and didn't take the bath. I confessed my lapse from truth to another monk afterwards. This sensitivity is largely because my father, who was a pagan barbarian, had a moral code of only three precepts: Don't kill an animal unless you figure you've got a good reason (i.e., don't kill an animal for entertainment or target practice); Don't hit women; and A promise made is a debt unpaid. He was no saint, but he kept his promises, in accordance with his barbarian code of honor. He was a very reliable person in that sense. All one had to do is to remind him, "You promised," and he would have to give in, regardless of how inconvenient it was to give in.
     Anyway, it is important to hold truth as sacred, even in little things—maybe even especially in little things, since little ones far outnumber big ones. If you cannot be true to conventional, worldly truth, then it's hardly likely that you'll ever come to meet Ultimate Truth. So tell the truth, even if you get into trouble for it. Or keep silent, even if you get into trouble for it. But don't lie, and don't break promises…and if you find yourself in a position where you have no choice but to break a promise, tell the person you made the promise to and ask to be absolved of the promise. Unilateral backing out of a promise is not only somewhat dishonest, it is uncool besides.
     Being honest involves levels upon levels, and it may be an uphill climb, especially at first, because we may have decades-long habits of exaggerating, putting a subjective spin on a story to make ourselves look better than the other guy, or carelessly saying "I'll do it," and then, for whatever reason, not doing it. Even forgetting that one made the promise is no excuse; for if truth is sacred, sacredness is important enough not to forget. That goes for one's own virtue as well. It's not something negligible. Pay attention.
     Before leaving the issue of deception, I'd like to mention the strange phenomenon called "self deception." This used to be a paradox to me, and to some degree it still is; in the past I couldn't understand how anyone could possibly lie to oneself. Obviously, in order to lie, one has to know that one is lying—if one doesn't know that one isn't telling the truth, for example if one is making an honest mistake, then one certainly is not lying. Right? So how can one lie to oneself? We'd have to know that we were doing it, so that we couldn't possibly deceive ourselves. Or so I used to think. As I get older and become less reclusive I see more and more people somehow paradoxically lying to themselves, and believing it. I'm still not sure how it works, I suppose it's through dissociation, but it obviously happens.
     So don't be too sure of your motives, especially in emotionally charged situations. And if someone who knows you well informs you that you are being a hypocrite, or a jerk, or whatever, pay attention. They may be wrong, but at least they are telling you how at least one person sees you, and there is probably at least a grain of truth to it. Be careful.
     One other thing—and I got this one from a talk by ven. Ajahn Brahm that I happened to hear recently—the main reason why children lie to their parents is fear of being punished, even if the punishment is nothing more than reduced affection. So if you have children, it may be wise to make a deal with them: Tell them that if they honestly tell you the truth, they won't be punished, and you will be on their side, regardless of how badly they've messed up. Make it a promise, and don't break it. Just a suggestion. Hopefully it won't inspire them to go on a crime spree.
     To repeat myself, perhaps totally unnecessarily, if we don't revere and honor small, worldly truth, then it's hardly likely that we'll ever graduate to big, Ultimate Truth. Beware, because we're all born with an axe in our mouth that can hurt others, and also ourselves.

This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with wrong speech,
but I like it.

"APPENDIX:" Here's a moral question that I've occasionally pondered. First of all, it is obviously possible to lie through writing, or, if one knows sign language, through signing with one's hands. Thus "wrong speech" is not necessarily spoken aloud. So consider this situation, which maybe most of you have been in at some time or another: Let's say a dog is angrily barking at you in a menacing way, and you stoop down and touch the ground as though you were picking up a rock to throw at it—where there may not even be a rock in sight to pick up. (This usually works like a charm, by the way, and causes the dog to back off.) Well, have you just "lied" to that dog? In such a case one has deceived a dog into thinking that one picked up a weapon that one hasn't really picked up. Is this unskillful ("bad") karma? But maybe wondering about whether or not one is deceiving a dog is getting too technical and picayune even for Buddhist ethics.


  1. Crazy Busy in FremontMay 23, 2014 at 8:24 PM

    U Pannobhasa,
    Right speech is one of the more interesting teachings of the Tagatha. Something I have also thought a lot about.

    I agree with most of your blog however I take exception with the paragraph dealing with children. I believe young children are taught to lie by their parents then by society. Years ago in another life I had a "friend" with two children. She was the priestess of idle threats. For example she would threaten them with punishment "You do that again you can't go to the birthday party tomorrow". We all knew it was useless threat, lie. 10 minutes later the punishment was forgotten. This always bothered me and probably one of many reasons we don’t have any contact. Early on I realized not to make threats, lie to, my son. If I did make a statement "you do that and you can't have ice cream tonight" means that even if I wanted to give in he was not going to have ice cream, end of story. As my son has grown I believe he has learned fairly well. At 17 we trust him to be able to spend the weekend home alone not going crazy while we are away. Don’t believe for a second that I am the perfect parent but I like to think I am doing a pretty good job. We don’t lie to him and for the most part he has not learned to lie to us. The old honest is the best policy, within reason as I would not tell him many things in complete honesty after all he is a also a layperson and I don’t want to "hurt" his feelings. In the end this is not perfect because both of us have been taught by society to lie. Even if it is as you noted in the blog to save someone from being hurt or get you out of a sticky situation.

    Now I like your statement "I'll probably do it, if nothing comes up which prevents it," I will have to use this one the next time we are together. And I really mean "I'll probably do it, if nothing comes up which prevents it," since I tend to be crazy busy now I will won't lie if something comes up to prevent it.

    Now one more step. This has always intrigued me about one who is on the Bhikkhu path. Should I worry about hurting a monks feelings? Should I worry about hurting your feelings and be completely honest with you even if say something to you that by comparison would hurt a laypersons feeling? There is no self and feelings are just neurons firing in the brain in a specific pattern is it better to be honest and say Ven. Pannobhasa I can't do such and such rather than worry about your feelings. Certainly I would go to the ends of the earth to keep my word, not lie, to a layperson and even you but should I treat a monk with absolute honesty and not be concerned about their feelings unlike a coworker who is completely tied to a self. As the saying goes "inquiring minds want to know".

    Crazy Busy in Fremont. (Not too busy for you… at least most of the time)

    1. OK, this is my second attempt at replying. The first reply disappeared into cyberspace as I attempt to use extremely slow Burmese Internet through a cell phone connection.

      Your question about hurting monks' feelings intrigues me. Do you have anything particularly inflammatory to tell a monk? If it's for me, well, I give you permission to tell me anything, so long as you feel that it will cause more good than harm. My feelings don't hurt so easily anyway, plus I know that it's good to listen to feedback, even if it is unpleasant. Especially if it is unpleasant. But different monks are different cases.

      So long as you have skillful mental states, then anything you say or do is bound to be ethically skillful, with converse results going the other way. So say what you think ought to be said, but don't "worry" about it.

      And as for that paragraph about parents and children, well, that's the only part I got from Ajahn Brahm. You're not the first to disagree with it either. What you said reminds me of what Desmond Morris wrote in The Naked Ape: he said that small children are as sensitive to expressions and body language than there are to spoken language; so when parents say things like "Don't be afraid" while at the same time they themselves are obviously afraid, it causes serious confusion in the child. But you know infinitely more about how to be a parent than I do.

      Now let's see if it publishes this time.