Right Speech – How to Avoid Accumulating Kamma

Revised May 27, 2018; January 2, 2020

1. The fourth precept of the five precepts for a moral life is the right speech. Most people literally take it to mean “not lying”.

  • But since we know that intention (cētana) is at the root of deciding whether an action is right or wrong, we always need to be careful about what we intend to achieve by what we say.
  • The correct meaning of “lying” is not to utter speech with “bad intentions” to hurt others or to deceive others.

2. If one does a wrong deed, one may be able to deny it in a statement worded in such a way as to conform to legality.

  • Yet it is registered as false speech in one’s own mind, and thus one is not able to escape the kammic consequences.

3. Ven. Ayya Khema, in her book, “Visible Here and Now” (p. 53), has nicely summarized what right speech is NOT:

  • If you know something that is not helpful and is untrue, then do not say it
  • If you know something that might be helpful, but is untrue, do not say it
  • If you know something that is not helpful and is true, do not speak about it
  • If you know something that is helpful and is true, then find the right time to say it

4. If you carefully examine the above four statements, they say to prevent lying, gossiping, and hate or vain speech; these are the four ways one can accumulate immoral kamma with speech (see, “Ten Immoral Actions – Dasa Akusala“).

  • Let us look at some of the examples from the Tipiṭaka on how the Buddha himself handled some situations.

5. When the Buddha was at the Jetavanārāmaya for many years, there lived a butcher Cunda ( “pig killer”) right next door. Some bhikkhus suggested to the Buddha that he should preach the Dhamma to Cunda, and get him to understand the consequences of his actions.

  • But the Buddha explained that if he was to go there and try to do that, Cunda would only generate hateful thoughts (paṭigha) in Cunda’s mind about the Buddha. Thus Cunda would commit an even worse kamma.
  • So, we need to be tactful about our speech.

6. On the other hand, the Buddha walked a long distance to get to Angulimāla just before he was to kill his own mother.

  • Angulimāla had killed almost a thousand people, but that was on the prompting of his teacher, who was trying to get Angulimāla into trouble. That morning, the Buddha saw what was about to happen and knew that he would be able to convince Angulimāla of the bad consequences of his actions. Angulimāla became an Arahant in a few weeks. See, “Account of Angulimāla – Many Insights to Buddha Dhamma.”

7. In the case of the wanderer Vacchagotta asking the Buddha about whether there is a “self” or “no-self”, the Buddha just remained silent.

  • After Vacchagotta left, Buddha’s personal attendant, Ven. Ananda asked him why Buddha did not explain the concept that it is not correct to say “there is no soul” or “there is a soul” (because there is only an ever-changing lifestream) to Vacchagotta. The Buddha told Ananda that he did not think Vacchagotta was mentally capable at that time to understand the concept, and that he did not want to confuse him. See the post, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream” for the correct explanation.

8. The Buddha was endowed with that capability to see other people’s mental status. We do not have that capability. So, we need to use our own judgment.

9. Lying to another human being (with “bad intentions”) may have even worse consequences (depending on the particular case) than killing a being of a lower realm. In some cases, lying may lead to physical harm or even death for others.

  • The kammic effects of such offenses depend on the status of the being in question and the consequences of the particular action. For example, killing an Arahant or one’s own parents is a much worse crime than killing a normal human, and killing any human is much worse than killing any animal; see, “How to Evaluate Weights of Different Kammas“.

10. During the Nazi terror in Germany, many Germans “lied” to the Nazis that they were not hiding Jews in their houses; of course the intention was to save human lives, and thus it was the right thing to do. They acquired good kamma for protecting lives.

  • We need to realize that “lying” — as meant in as “musāvāda” in the five precepts — really means the “intention” involved: “Musā” means “wrong or incompatible with morals” and “vāda means “speech”; see, “What is Intention in Kamma?“.
  • Therefore, even though they were literally lying, their intention was not a “musāvāda“, but actually a “good deed”.

Next, “Learning Buddha Dhamma Leads to Niramisa Sukha“, ………

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