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The Noble Eightfold Path 3

This is the third of seven blogs that use notes from our 2017 ‘The Buddhist Background To Mindfulness’ course. Each session covers one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path and ends with some questions and practices that may help you make the subject more personally real:

2.Right Speech (Skt. samyag-vāc / Pali sammā-vācā)


The third noble truth takes us into the ethical portion of the eightfold path. Ethical action is central to the Dharma – the Buddha taught that his was a path where we should aspire to do good and cause no harm. One of the primary ‘tasks’ of mindfulness is to clearly know what exactly is bad – ignorance, greed and hatred – and what is good – or perhaps more easily, what is wholesome and skilful – and to encourage these good qualities within ourselves. The most obvious expression of this is the ‘Five Precepts’ that all lay Buddhist aspire to – either completely or in part: not to kill, steal, lie, commit acts that sexually harm and finally not to become intoxicated. The key word here is ‘aspire’ which is to imply that these are ways of being that we will have to work at to make real in our lives. Unlike Christianity, failure to do so is not a ‘sin’ but more simply an unwholesome action that will cause unhappy repercussions. Mindfulness is the means to raise our actions into awareness and make better, wiser choices.

Gethin p.169

However ‘good deeds’ in themselves are not sufficient for awakening. Accumulating the fruit, or karma, of good deeds simply leads to a happier future, if not in this life then in the next. A fruit, furthermore, that will one day become exhausted and end unless more is added to it through further wholesome and skilful acts. For awakening we need something more than the good karma arising from ethical action but also the wisdom that arises from the first two noble truths, right view and right intention. Or in other words, insight into what causes suffering and the truth of how things really are – impermanent, not-self and unsatisfactory. Only when we have the combination of ethical action married with wisdom will awakening be possible. For this reason, secular mindfulness when practiced without a moral compass, from the Buddhist point of view, is doomed to failure if success is still understood as awakening. We may gain some insight but finally the unethical use of this insight obscures the full potential of the practice.

Early Buddhism with its love of lists has many descriptions of what wholesome and skilful ‘mind factors’ create the environment for awakening to occur – one is called the ‘Seven Factors of Awakening’ – mindfulness, discrimination, energy, rapture, calm, concentration and equanimity. Another is the ‘Four Divine Abodes’: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity.

Later Mahayana Buddhism speaks of the ‘Path of the Bodhisattva’ and the ‘Six Perfections’ she or he practices – generosity, virtue, patience, energy, one pointed concentration and lastly wisdom. If you want a bit more information on this:

One question that leaps out of this so far is what exactly constitutes a wholesome action that may be skilfully chosen? Early Buddhism was very clear on this, drawing up long and precise lists of actions and mental states that either created good or bad karmic consequences. However these ‘recipes’ when used in real situations do not always fit – for instance in a situation where a pets suffering could be ended by having it ‘put to sleep’ but is being hindered by the injunction not to take life. Later Mahayana Buddhism became more nuanced in its perception, recognising that sometimes something that is not in itself good can be the best thing to do. Consequently the ethics of Early Buddhism is sometimes called a ‘rule ethic’ and that of Mahayana Buddhism, a ‘situational ethic’.

For a (fascinating!) description on how this played out during the second world war for Japanese Buddhism see:

Right Speech

As we have seen above, a way of speaking that avoids lying is one of the lay practitioners five precepts. This is then further expanded in the third path factor of ‘right speech’ which is to refrain from all false speech, divisive speech, hurtful speech and idle chatter.

False Speech – lying.

Given that the whole path is about knowing how things truly are the issue of what is true and what is false is central. To take our stand in truth is to align ourselves with our deepest value. Yet, mindful observation uncomfortably reveals just how much lying we all do – both to ourselves and others. Sometimes this seems to be for the good – a child’s lies actually are the means by which they begin to create a private self that will be necessary for their separation from their parents and we all know about the social white lies used constantly so not to hurt each others feelings. However there is also something deeply corrosive about lying that alienates us from the reality of how things are. Within ourselves are frequently used semi-conscious narratives that distort our value, either putting us down or bigging us up. Lies to ourselves that leave us feeling shamed or cut off in defensive superiority. This type of lying is both extensive and deep and is always connected with the psychological wounds that are inevitably accumulated along the journey into life. One of the things our practice reveals is this type of ‘lying’ and as we become conscious of it so we have a chance to replace it with a more realistic and kindly self image that neither needs to be a horrible person or a person special and better than others. With practice we achieve a sensibility to our lying – feeling when we lie that in that moment we have cut ourselves off from ourselves and disliking the sensation that this causes. And finally as we become more truthful with ourselves the lies of the world become more obvious and transparent. An accomplished and committed liar will find it more difficult to lie to a person who has learnt to bear the truth of themselves.

Divisive and hurtful speech

This is really about slander and gossip. Again these can seem to have a good side – particularly gossip, if it is not malicious, can be the glue through which a community holds itself together. However mindful observation will reveal that most if not all saying bad things and gossiping about others is fundamentally about cementing our own sense of self in place. Each time I talk about someone else I reaffirm who I am to myself and perhaps my listener if they agree with me. As such divisive and hurtful speech is ultimately defensive – defending me from feelings I am afraid of. In psychotherapy this comes up over and over again. We dislike intensely the very characteristics in others that we have not allowed in ourselves. In ‘Why Can’t I Meditate?’ on p.219 at the start of the chapter on the “Damaged Heart” I describe my own experience of this – not wanting to admit to my own needs I deplore the neediness expressed by a group member. Had I been more honest and accepting of myself this person would have caused me less distress and I could have been much kinder towards them.

Idle chatter

As one who likes words and talking, this can sound rather puritanical to me but then if I reflect about the hours of idle chatter on the television – celebrities talking about their favourite subject – themselves, politicians endlessly lying, opinions on everything, many obviously originating from naked self-interest – I then realise that my stock response is to immediately turn it off. As such there is something about idle chatter that has the effect of devaluing what the chatterer has to say, bringing them into a place of ridicule or worse. Conversely there is a real power in saying little, saying it to the point and saying it true. “Less said the better”, as a proverb, can have another meaning. Not just saying nonsense, blah, blah, blah, can feel really good!

Finally this whole section on ethics and morality is about how to live our lives amongst others. We can spend hours on our meditation seats and have lots of lofty ideas about the nature of reality but if we can’t happily co-exist with others, caring for a world we all share, then finally the teaching is meaningless.

Putting it into practice

Buddhist ethics can be exposed to the danger of the whole thing being run by our superego – our internalised rule book about what we should and ought do. Gone about this way we can create a shadow self that just wants to be bad and break all the rules – effectively creating another great big ‘lie’ in ourselves.

To avoid this we need approach ethics more skilfully through the use of our felt sense. When we speak – or act – we can begin to sense what the motivation for this is and where it comes from within us. Usually this is quite simple and becomes obvious with practice. Unwholesome mind states that produce unwholesome speech usually come from a fearful contracted place within us and the opposite, wholesome mind states and speech come from a place of kindness, compassion, emotional attunement and wisdom. A small place or a big place.

By using our mindfulness when we are talking with others, or to ourselves inside, we can begin to feel what is really going on. Telling ourselves and others lies, creating division and hurt rather than concord and good feeling, talking meaningless nonsense without pause, all feel horrible and emotionally draining if we only pause long enough to tune in. Then it is this feeling, (or rather not wanting this feeling), and not an external rule book, that will begin to guide how we use this amazing and sacred gift of speech.

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