Monday, July 5, 2010

Right Speech -Timing is everything

Some years ago, well before my mother had died, I had the opportunity to spend a week with her in a small cabin by the shore of Lake Huron. We covered a lot of ground during that week; reconciled many issues. And we did it in a loving and kind way.

Among the topics we covered was my coming out to her. She explained that at the time I told her I was gay, she was ready to hear and accept that. But, she added, if I had told her while I was still in high school, her reaction would not have been welcoming. In fact, she admitted that had I done it then, her reaction would have been ugly.

Most of us were taught since childhood that telling the truth is always the right course of action. But as we grew older, speaking the truth, we learned, was a complicated matter. Our culture attempted to simplify this with colloquialisms like, “If you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all.”

Trouble is for most of us, we are incapable of remaining silent when silence is called for. The Buddha recognized this, and his teachings on Right Speech reflect that while it is important we speak only truth, knowing when to do that is equally important. A relevant case can be found in the Abhayarajakumara Sutta (MN 58).

Prince Abhaya was goaded by Nigantha Nataputta to test the Buddha by asking whether one should always speak the truth, even if the truth would piss someone off (think Devadatta). But when Prince Abhaya asked, the Buddha replied that things aren’t that simple. The Buddha then replied with guidelines about what constitutes Right Speech. There are three elements: (1) whether the speech is true; (2) whether the speech is beneficial; and (3) whether the speech is pleasing to others.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu presents an excellent introduction to this sutta, noting that not only is the Buddha explaining Right Speech, he is demonstrating Right Speech in action. Throughout his explanation, the Buddha engages Prince Abhaya, allowing him to present his own thoughts and thus save face through the process.

Clearly, something that is untrue, that provides no benefit and which would just annoy people qualifies as wrong speech and ought to go unsaid. And if something is untrue, provides no benefit, yet would be welcomed by others, you still don’t say it. But, even if something is true, if saying it provides no benefit and would just annoy others, it also should be left unsaid.

“Do these jeans make my ass look fat?” “Why don’t you try on a different pair just to compare looks?”

What if the speech is true, is beneficial, but would still likely piss someone off? In those cases, the Buddha said it’s important to have good timing. That is even true when all three criteria are met: the speech is truthful, provides benefit, and would be welcomed. Even in that case, the Buddha said it is not spoken until the right moment arises. To know when the right moment occurs, we must cultivate compassion for others.

This isn’t always easy, especially when we talk of things like coming out. When we come out, that’s an example of something being true, that ultimately is beneficial, but which can bring about unpleasant results. We may deeply hurt someone when we come out, but we still do it. The trick is to have compassion for others. Sometimes when we come out in these circumstances, we are doing it solely for ourselves because we just can’t live the lie any longer. If we are compassionate when we do this, we recognize that whomever we are speaking to – a parent, other relative – may be guided by delusive thinking. We may never change that. We can, however, keep control over our own ego and retain our sense of compassion for the other person, even if he or she tells us to get the hell out of their life.

I was fortunate when I told my mother. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she already had several experiences that had prepared her for my announcement (not the least of which was her parish priest was a flaming queen!). At first, I think it did cause her some discomfort. But the timing was right nonetheless. And we moved on.


  1. Thank you so much for a wonderful article. I consistently enjoy your pieces and they always provide me with plenty to think about.

    For what it's worth, my father once told me the same thing. When I came out to him, he responded with a big hug. He later told me that had I came out to him in high school, he would have put me in therapy.

    Timing is important!

  2. I moved out to go to school at 18, when I called back home to tell my parents. The reason why I waited until I was out of the house was to give them time to absorb it without being in their face. I guess it was right timing, because we are still close. My father died twenty years ago, but we were all resolved and in fact, visited me the week before.

    On the other hand, I think it is hard to have great timing, because you can't always read other people's minds...perhaps, then it best to say nothing at all when in doubt. Someone who is truly close to you, would then ask when they are ready to hear and have a compassionate ear open.

  3. This is something that has been on my mind a lot, rightspeech and talking with my own mother. We argue, like all parent child relationships, and we always apologise to one another before the day is over. I make a point to apologise to her for anything I've done wrong during the day or any harsh words I may have used. I guess I'm scared that if I don't apologise to her and tell her "I love you." there won't be a second chance. My moms adopted me when they were in their late 40's and early 50's, I turn 22 in Sept.

    I'm glad that your mother was honest and supportive of you when you came out.

  4. Thanks Kamala for sharing. I also strive to apologize for hurtful speech, to develop that sense of shame the Buddha talked about. While setting things right with someone is good, I need to get to the point of not saying these things at all so I don't have to apologize for them!

  5. (1) whether the speech is true; (2) whether the speech is beneficial; and (3) whether the speech is pleasing to others.

    plus the right moment, which to know when is through compassion to others.

    Oh how true it is.. thanks for the post!