Thursday, May 21, 2009

Unwholesome Speech according to Buddha

The Ten Unwholesome Actions are actions of body, speech, and mind which harm ourselves and others and which therefore have karmic consequences. They are the basis for ethics in Buddhism. In this, Buddha doesn't speak as a lawgiver saying, "Thou shalt not," but rather as a physician, who counsels his patients on what will cause themselves harm, both now and in the future. 

The ten unwholesome actions are:
Three of body:  Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct
FOUR of speech:  Slander, harsh speech, gossip, lying
Three of mind:  Avarice, malice, false views

Note that of the ten unwholesome actions, there are more harmful actions of speech than any other category. It's just so easy to slip that tongue. 

The following is an extended quote from Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up: A Practical Approach for Modern Life by B. Alan Wallace. It was one of my first Buddhist books and became a kind of handbook for learning the basics. In it, he describes the unwholesome actions of speech:

"Of the four verbal unwholesome deeds, the first is lying. This may be vocal, but it also includes intentionally misleading someone with a nod or a gesture. One may even lie by keeping silent.

Slander, the second of the verbal deeds, depends on motivation. Imagine two individuals, or it could be two or more communities, who have a harmonious relationship. If one speaks with the intention of creating disharmony or distrust between them, this is slander. Or if two parties are already at odds, and one speaks in order to prevent a reconciliation between them, this too is slander. Such speech may be true or false – it is still slander.

The third of these verbal acts is abuse. As with slander, what determines whether one's words are abusive is one's motivation. If one speaks with the intention to inflict harm, this is abuse; and, as we know, this may bring greater suffering to another person than physical injury. The abuse may be directed toward the person with whom one is speaking, or it may be directed to someone else. In either case, as soon as one utters words in order to inflict harm, one accumulates the karma of abuse.

With this brief introduction to slander and abuse, let us review our own verbal behavior. We may find that on occasion we do speak of the faults of others, saying so-and-so is conceited, aggressive, or selfish. As soon as we speak about the faults of another person with an unwholesome motivation, it is guaranteed our speech is unwholesome. It is bound to be abusive or slanderous, and if we exaggerate, we also accumulate the karma of lying. 

So we may ask: 'When is it appropriate to speak about the faults of other people?' The answer is: 'Hardly ever.' If at times we feel it necessary to speak of someone's faults, we are well-advised to look first into our own hearts to see if we are motivated by any mental distortion. If we find our intention is thoroughly wholesome, that we sincerely wish to speak out of a desire to benefit the other person, then we may proceed, drawing on our full capacity of wisdom and kindness.

Many people find that by this simple act of discipline, their minds become more serene. Try to recall a person who rarely or never speaks of others' faults. We can feel very much at ease with this person, because if we never hear him or her speak of others' shortcomings, we can feel confident the person is not abusing us behind our backs either. Such simple restraint creates harmony in the mind of the person who practices it, and it is refreshing for others to hear as well. 

Idle gossip is the fourth of the verbal misdeeds. For speech to be included under this heading, it must be stimulated by a mental distortion. So, if we engage in friendly, casual conversation, we need not fear we are doing something unwholesome. But if our speech is dominated by any mental distortion, including attachment, it is bound to be a form of idle gossip, even if it is not included in the other three verbal misdeeds. Moreover, unlike the other three, one can accumulate the karma of idle gossip without anyone else hearing one's words. Tibetan Buddhist teachers often comment that idle gossip is the most innocuous of the ten unwholesome deeds, but it also provides the easiest way to waste one's life."

© 1993 B. Alan Wallace, Wisdom Publications

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