Samma-Vaca: Speaking as Spiritual Practice

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.   (James 3:5)

Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.  (Dionysius Of Halicarnassus)
If you want to stop suffering, says the Buddha throughout the Discourses, there is an eightfold path of practice to that end, consisting of right view, right motivation, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samādhi. (The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation, MN 10, tr.Bodhi Bhikkhu) With its connotations of orthodox correctness, the word “right” is actually a misleading translation of the Pali word samma, which means “perfected, completed, consummated.” The point is that working on ourselves entails a gradual completing of what we are supposed to do, until we find ourselves “fulfilled” and “accomplished” with regard to the eight limbs of the path. It is “eightfold” in the sense not of eight steps to be taken consecutively, but of eight branches to one trunk, or eight tributaries flowing into one river: each of these is essential to getting you there, but all eight have to be involved. Among the eight, some are more spiritually “glamorous” than others, and of the homely ones none seems plainer than “right speech” or samma-vaca. Yet samma-vaca turns out to be a powerful practice that we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, transforming us both inside and out.
   And what is samma-vaca? asks the Buddha. Refraining from lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, and meaningless speech. This is called ‘samma-vaca’.
The statement seems innocuous and unobjectionable, but let’s see how the Buddha unpacks it.

   In one of the shorter suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha engages Cunda the Silversmith in a discussion of Hindu rituals of purification, and then describes what purification means for a follower of the new path. Quite simply, the Buddha undertakes “purification” of three things: bodily action, verbal action, and mental action. If these are “impure,” all the rituals with water and fire will do us no good; and if these are “pure,” the rituals with water and fire will be redundant. In other words, working on what we do, say, and think is a sufficient practice for “purification,” but if we expend no effort on what we do, say, and think, no ritual practice will be sufficient. Samma-vaca gives us an excellent example of the kind of thing the Buddha means by “purification.”
    Many have remarked that if you cannot control your mouth, you have no hope of controlling your mind. Most people spend the first decade of their lives learning Elementary Right Speech: how to interact politely, respectfully, inoffensively, when to speak, when not to speak, and so on. Then we spend another decade on Intermediate Right Speech, which involves techniques of argumentation and presentation, the expression of more complex feelings and ideas, the heuristic and forensic uses of language. Some of what we study on these two levels is bottomless; even something as simple as when to speak and when not to speak cannot be determined by formula, and the knowledge of “when” is refined over a lifetime. But are we ever taught that we can use language in such a way as to improve ourselves or harm ourselves? Here we begin to enter on Advanced Right Speech, in which we become more consciously skilled with our words. Each act we commit feeds and waters a sprout that can grow into a habit; insofar as thoughts and statements are also actions, they too have the power to grow into habits and thus change us. When we become aware of the effects of our words, both on ourselves and on others, we realize that every word we utter makes a mark, and nothing we say can be deleted. The Buddha points out that our own speech can make us “impure” — confused, muddy, self-evading, increasingly unable to separate truth from untruth. His own words on the matter are hard to improve upon and worth listening to carefully:

“And how is one made impure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward. He engages in divisive speech. What he has heard here he tells there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he tells here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus breaking apart those who are united and stirring up strife between those who have broken apart, he loves factionalism, delights in factionalism, enjoys factionalism, speaks things that create factionalism. He engages in abusive speech. He speaks words that are harsh, cutting, bitter to others, abusive of others, provoking anger and destroying concentration. He engages in idle chatter. He speaks out of season, speaks what isn’t factual, what isn’t in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, and the Vinaya, words that are not worth treasuring. This is how one is made impure in four ways by verbal action.”

The four ways are: 1) telling falsehoods, by which we deliberately relax our commitment to truth and eventually even become so tied to subtly evolved fictions that we can no longer notice when we might be fooling ourselves; 2) saying things that are certain to cause strife, contention, and bad feeling, thus destroying social harmony by creating a miasma of mistrust — and at the same time turning ourselves into the kind of spiteful little creature who delights in dragging other people down; 3) uttering words designed to hurt and upset, sowing internal strife in those around us, and undermining their capacity for contentment; and 4) filling precious silence with babble that can matter to no one, just to hear our own voices or to cover over a silence in which anxiety might arise. This fourth destructive way is the hardest for a modern to understand, so accustomed are we to our sound-realms constantly being filled with “entertainment” or commentary; silence disturbs us, it is “awkward.” Just from a single day’s experience with social media posts, I can cull dozens of examples of each of the “four ways”: posts that are careless of truth and factually reckless, posts that are sure to turn some group of people against another and drive them both farther into contention, posts that we know will hurt and anger someone, and posts that are just for posting’s sake, for “fun.” The effect of all of these together is unproductive emotional entanglement and mental confusion.
   When we become more disciplined and scrupulous with our words, the opposite happens, and we find ourselves becoming better people:
“And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.”
Here we are introduced to the rare person who can always be counted on to be truthful and honest; who nonetheless never speaks in such a way as to cause discord, and is both good at and enjoys making friendships; whom people routinely seek out because of her sincerity, kindness, good nature, and encouragement; who is always to the point, and always worth listening to. This is an image of a wonderful, lovable human being — the kind of person we would want for a friend, and also one that we can all aspire to become.
   The beauty of such a path is that it can be practiced, for at the beginning of each day we can actually articulate to ourselves an intention to work on the four aspects of samma-vaca with regard to the particular people and situations of our daily lives; and at the end of the day we can reflect, evaluate in detail whether we succeeded or not, and then decide what we need to do to improve. It is the conscious application of our reflective intelligence that makes this a practice, and not just the spontaneous play of natural gifts. Did I tell the truth? Was I right to tell my friend X what my other friend Y had said about him? Did I hurt W’s feelings and make it harder for him to speak with me? Did I just waste an hour chatting about politics on Facebook? Underlying all of these questions is the bigger question about motivation: Why did I speak, what in me needed to say this? In thinking about these things and trying to cultivate lucidity regarding our own actions, we gradually become smarter about ourselves, more sensitive to other people, and more nuanced in our actions.
   A habit of self-reflection tends to make us more moderate and judicious, but being mindful of our mouths develops the special kind of intelligence that is attuned to the intricate mysteries of language. We are never done with the work of samma-vaca; it becomes more challenging and more interesting the better we become at it, and it is work that never stops expanding our minds and hearts. I still think about ways I could have said things better fifty years ago, and the good or bad effect of things that were said to me long ago — for every utterance is a seed that cannot be prevented from growing into something. The practice of samma-vaca necessarily takes place in small, particular instances, but each of these instances is packed full with significance: for example, something as simple as a “hello, nice to meet you” is an occasion for understanding the deeper meanings of welcome and respect. 
   Speaking well depends on listening well, and learning to listen may be one of the hardest things a human being has to do. We are generally poor listeners from impatience, arrogance, desire, and fear: impatience, because we are eager to say our own thing or because we have some other task to check off; arrogance, because it is natural for people to assume they are qualified to judge others, so that we already “know” what our interlocutor will say and what it is worth; desire, because we want to hear ourselves corroborated; and fear, because there are things we know we don’t want to hear. When we are silent, is it because we are listening or because we are waiting to speak? When we speak, are we responding to the person in front of us, or merely reacting or deflecting? If we are habitually not responsive to people and situations, we cannot be sincere practitioners of samma-vaca. It will be obvious that our silences are also included in this, because all silence expresses something, and some silences are more eloquent than words. To the extent that many silences are in fact preparations for speech, words exist in a continuum from intuition, to thought, to utterance — which means that the thoughtful practitioner of samma-vaca must attend to what precedes speaking as much as to speaking itself.
   Thus the art of speaking well includes the complementary art of listening well. Both of these arts cannot be taught as an arsenal of techniques and strategies to master. For example, we can know all there is to know about different methods of beginning an argument, but how do we know when to start and how to choose the words that will move this particular person? Or we can have a large enough vocabulary and wide experience of life to understand the words that are spoken to us, but how do we intuit the real intentions behind the words — such as whether the speaker is friendly or unfriendly towards us– let alone understand why the intentions are what they are? If we have no insight into these deeper matters, we are unlikely to address this interlocutor effectively in speech. 
   But how do we learn such things? It would seem that there is no shortcut; we learn from paying attention to every interaction and reflecting afterwards on what went right or wrong. We learn from mistakes, and also from letting others point out our mistakes: when we said things poorly, when we misunderstood, when we completely misjudged an interlocutor, when we failed to sustain a harmonious relationship. Mistakes and failures make up the rich seedbed of self-reflection and improvement. Because of this, samma-vaca is a practice that will tend to make a person more grounded, generous, humble, attentive, observant, present — and at the same time, more reflective, imaginative, far-sighted, open to other people and to other possibilities. It is a richly rewarding practice for a thoughtful person, and a salutary discipline for a less thoughtful person, because it encompasses so many other virtues. Indeed, samma-vaca is itself a mindfulness practice that tends to get instant feedback because it occurs in the moment, with other people.
     The wonder is that every human being can do this practice in some way; each of us is capable of trying to listen well and to speak well, and of the self-reflection that these require. Even when we find ourselves perplexed in certain situations and unable to see clearly, we can always consult our friends, who can be helpful in getting us to see what we did wrong and how we could do better. In the Pali Discourses, the Buddha’s gift is twofold: a vision, and a practice. He always gives us something we can do — indeed, that we can start doing now, wherever we are, by ourselves. There is no need to wait for anything or anyone.

The Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith (tr.Thanissaro, Anguttara Nikaya, 10.176) can be found here:
The Discourse on Mindfulness Meditation (tr.Bhikkhu Bodhi) can be found here: