Right speech (sammà vàcà) is the third step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Speech is the ability to form and utter words, an ability unique to human beings. Because of its power to do good but also harm, the Buddha laid great stress on Right Speech.
He defined Right Speech as speaking words that are truthful, useful, spoken at the right time and motivated by kindness and compassion (M.I,395). On another occasion he added to this list the quality of gentleness (M.I,126). In one of his most detailed description of the skilful use of verbal communication the Buddha said, ‘Refraining from lying he becomes a speaker of the truth, one whose word can be taken, trustworthy, dependable, he does not deceive the world. Refraining from malicious speech he does not repeat here what he has heard there to the detriment of others. He is a reconciler of those at variance and an encourager of those already united, rejoicing in peace, loving peace, delighting in peace, he speaks up in favour of peace. Refraining from harsh speech he speaks words that are blameless, pleasing, easy on the ear, agreeable, going to the heart, urbane, pleasing and liked by everybody. Refraining from useless chatter he speaks at the appropriate time, correctly, to the point, about Dhamma and discipline, words worthy of being treasured, seasonable, reasonable, articulate and connected to the goal’ (D.I,4).
One abstains from lies, hatred speech, and gossip. The famous saying puts it best, “one lie needs a thousand more to back it up.” When we lie we need to back up our story. This requires new lies to support the one we started.
Hatred speech is bad in especially two ways. The Buddha said that when one person attacks another through speech, two people get hurt. The one being attacked gets hurt and the one delivering the attack also gets hurt. It is like throwing a hot coal on someone. Sure, the person getting hit with the hot coal gets hurt. But first you get hurt as you get burned picking up the hot coal. The Buddha said that the agitation in the mind and the heat in the body from anger are causing all kinds of distress to the person doing the insulting and speech filled with hatred.
Modern science has since concurred with the Buddha that creating this stress in the body through violent hate filled speech causes an agitation that can cause heart disease and hypertension. Stress is one of the leading causes for heart related problems and early death. Engaging in insulting and hate filled speech only encourages the growth of this stress inside our bodies.
The Buddha was also opposed to gossip and idle chatter. He knew that this leads to hearsay and rumors which can cause much stress and may not even be factual. He preferred attention to productive and wholesome conversations since idle and useless chatter do nothing to get us to the “other shore” (of enlightenment).