The Fourth Precept

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech.  The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk.  This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say.  If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

  1. Why am I saying this?
  2. Is it completely true?
  3. Is it the right time to say it?
  4. Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it.  It’s simple.

The Buddha often refrained from giving painful or unwelcome answers until the questioner had asked three times.  There’s an American Indian proverb that we should think things over three times before we say them.  Once certain things have escaped our lips, it’s impossible to take them back or undo their harm.  Mindfulness is the key.

It’s often said that there are three kinds of lies, “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” but by my count there are six different kinds:

  1. Lies to aggrandize the Self (exaggerating one’s accomplishments)
  2. Lies to avoid shame and blame
  3. Lies to take advantage of others (manipulation, con games)
  4. Lies to cause malicious harm (gossip, slander)
  5. Lies to protect others from embarrassment (“little white lies”)
  6. Lies to help others (“skillful means,” paradoxical therapy)

These lies are not all equally harmful or blameworthy.  Lies intended without harm and resulting in no harm seem less blameworthy than those devised with malice aforethought that succeed in injuring their target.  Self-aggrandizing speech reinforces patterns of “selfing” and causes others to doubt one’s trustworthiness but causes little other harm.  Virtuous lies are lies that may even have positive results.  We might include in this category the physician who offers hope to a terminal patient, or the Bodhisattva who uses “skillful means” to hasten a student’s enlightenment. Virtuous lies seem less blameworthy, however, if and only if both their intention and their effect is beneficial.  For example, the physician’s offer of false hope to the terminal patient might ease the distress of the person who is unable to come to terms with death, but it could also impede acceptance and preparation for death in a less psychologically fragile patient.

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests.  It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason.  What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery.  This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect.  We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.

This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

May all the victims, families and friends of the victims, and all beings find peace and freedom from sorrow.

  1. [1] Thanissaro Bhikku, translator

12 Replies to “The Fourth Precept”

  1. The reminder of the value of right speech is important daily — thanks. Well written.
    Your phrase “fails a number of important karmic tests” was fun. It probably changes little if you change it to “fails a number of important dharmic tests”.

    Negative talk was done on all sides of the political spectrum. I wonder if focusing on one side may be ironically a sort of wrong speech, a slandering of its own sort. But I agree, that moments of violence are important for us to realize that words matter. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Sabio. You are, of course, correct that wrongful speech is not the exclusive purview of any one side of the political spectrum. I came of political age in the 1960s when the Left borrowed some of its incendiary rhetoric from the Black Panthers and referred to the police as “pigs.” I wrote “Don’t Side With Yourself” during the Bush administration when I was disturbed by the Left’s hateful rhetoric directed towards the president (whose policies I was in total and energetic disagreement with). In the past two years most of the violent, hateful rhetoric has been coming from the Right, however. In contrast to the 1960s, some of that rhetoric has even been coming from elected officials themselves. The “second amendment remedies” and “lock and reload” rhetoric from major party politicans is something new in my lifetime. It is also spewed over the airwaves in ways it never was during the 1960s. In the 1960s you might have heard Stokely Carmichael say that violence was “as American as apple pie,” but you would never have heard that kind of opinion endorsed by a someone who had a radio or television program with a nation-wide audience.

  2. Thanx for the fun romp through the distant past ! smile
    Even today, you hear rhetoric on both sides that is inflammatory and speaking of enemies. But I agree, many on the Right have been using flaming violent rhetoric. But If the Left had radio, they may be doing the same.
    Point: We must not take advantage of the ugliness to try and paint a picture of onesidedness because that itself is inaccurate and open to a minor dharma violation ticket !
    Thanx Seth — your writing is fun.

    1. Lee, I took the first quote from the Plum Village website, and the second from Thay’s book “Interbeing.” The first quote is an expanded version of the fourth precept in “The Five Wonderful Precepts”. The original wording in “The Five Wonderful Precepts” is:

      “Aware of suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to the suffering of others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or bring suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that can inspire self confidence, joy and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things I am not sure of. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, even small.”

  3. Wow thank you. I have been looking for a detailed explanation of the fourth precept for some time now because I always get confused on what sorts of ‘false speech’ are there. Thank you so much.

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