Are unkind words wrong speech?

Continuing the discussion from Reincarnation:

Hi Karl

I would not call what you referred to as ‘stupid behaviour’, but rather ‘dangerous behaviour’, as it was life threatening. It may also be ‘stupid’ but that is a secondary issue to me.

Yes, kind words are easy/easier to hear, but the Buddha saying ‘Devadatta, you are bound for hell’, or ‘Bhikkhu Sāti, you are a fool’ do not seem like the kind of expressions you are promoting. One of the qualities of Right Speech as I understand it is, ‘unpleasant to hear’. I choose to follow the Buddha and it’s ok with me if people want to judge his or my words as unkind.

best wishes

addition: but I’ll still try to listen to them if they can present well thought through/researched evidence that my understanding may be incorrect, not just parrot repeating of the accepted, general/common view.


To be classified as unkind, words must stem from absence of kindness.

Absence of kindness indicates something is missing in regard to the cultivation and understanding of the path factor of right thought or intention.

Hence, to me, unkind words are wrong speech.

I cannot justify the use by myself of harsh and unkind speech to anyone by referring to what I find in the suttas as what a Buddha saying to someone else in a very specific context.

This is for 1) I am not the Buddha; and 2) I am not able to fully understand where the Buddha was coming from when he may have said harsh words or expressions as recorded and attributed to Him in some suttas.

Nevertheless, I need to acknowledge people are free to do as they wish, and of course, others are free to react as they see fit.

Frankly, I do struggle to make sense of what you are pushing for @BrotherJoe.

And much of that struggle stems from not expecting someone in robes (I assume your photo is real) would advocate for when it comes to the use of written language in a space dedicated to friendly discussion of early buddhist texts and the message of peace and liberation they convey.

The words above where written as much as possible with what I understand the Buddha meant when it comes to saying things in MN139. I apologise in advance if that agitates or displeases you, venerable.



of course we agree

of course we agree

I wonder if you’d agree that kindness is about intention, or motivation

Maybe we agree, but to be clear, to have an unkind motivation or intention, would be to wish harm by one’s actions, in this case speech, to the one spoken to.

Thus, if one speaks unpleasant words, without a motivation to harm, then they would be kind. No matter who was saying them.

This would probably be a contradiction to most people who do not take motivation into account, but rather focus on the pleasant or unpleasantness, i.e. judging a book by it’s cover.

I’m glad you can’t do that, but to assume that is my motivation, would be unkind, imo.

What I am trying to do is question the definition of Right Speech, taking into account the consistent words and example of the Buddha, rather than the opinions of disciples, or even the inconsistent words ascribed to the Buddha. This is a more complicated process than simply following the common understanding based on a majority of texts, which I used to do.

I aim at following the Buddha’s example and teaching, which is consistent and that requires thorough investigation, as he taught us to do.

I appreciate your honesty. Hope this explanation helps.

It matters not to me, if something someone says displeases me or agitates me, because the Buddha taught, if that happens, we should not react and should investigate what they say for any truth.

Actually I don’t think in that way anymore, that something someone says displeases me or agitates me, now I think: ‘I get agitated or displeased at something someone says’. That is my reaction and if I initiate wise reflection, I may break the reaction and experience some more freedom.

best wishes


I think a question I would like to ask concerning this topic is what about admonishing someone? It rarely comes across as kind when we call out someone’s racism or homophobia or patriarchy or other forms of oppression. But I would see this as kind because we are trying to correct harmful behavior/views and sometimes the words need to sound “harsh.” So in this case, is it called for? Is it okay to sound harsh to correct harmful behavior/views?

I have had several years of crises of faith in the Dharma precisely because of this and other related topics and because I had found our wounds silenced in Dharma communities in the name of silencing anger or harsh speech.

I am new to this community. And I do want to say I really appreciate it precisely because it is a community that encourages us to think about these issues. And though I am am a practitioner of Dhamma/Dharma that very much deviates from EBTs (I am still very much devoted to my Tibetan practices), I appreciate the work of finding out what the EBTs have to offer us regardless of whether we are also inspired by views that deviate from the EBTs. But anyway, I am getting off topic here.

To get back to the point, what is the relationship between admonishing and kind/harsh speech in the face of problematic views/behaviors? Are there exceptions in harsh speech in certain instances if they are skillfully trying to end hurtful practices?

I am not asking specifically in terms of the forum rules. So far I have found the moderators here very kind. And the work here to be admirable. I am more interested in the broader questions I asked above.


Hi there,

this is exactly the point, I believe.

To me, the Buddha’s unpleasant to hear words, were kind, as he had the best wishes of the listener at heart, but it had to be made clear that the behavior was unwholesome and harsh words would more likely break thru the ignorance, where pleasant words would not. The decisive factor would be if they implement wise reflection on hearing the words, or simply react to the unpleasantness. Devadatta, it seems did not, but some might have. It is false or blind faith to me, if one assumes the Buddha’s words will enlighten.

best wishes

Great topic as it addresses some of my concerns regarding an ‘adopted daughter’ who has gone astray, and seems plagued by anxiety to the degree that her life is full of chaos and angst. I have done my best to instruct her in wise decision making, and other ways to create some order…some direction in her and her young daughter’s life…all to little avail. And I have used all manner of voices, some loud some soft, to find something that reaches her.

Using this relationship has taught me much about my speech… and the right and wrong emotions behind them. At some point in our discussion I have noticed my focus transitioning from “What would Buddha say to this suffering daughter” to “Why doesn’t she listen to my words”, which subtly redirects my thoughts from the objective 'right thought/speech to the subjective thought, which of course results in improper thinking about some one else’s Karma.

So I think this goes to the heart of my problem dealing with obtuse people in my environment, and what is the appropriate amount of force to employ behind words of loving kindness. If only Buddha had recorded a Youtube video. Then we would not have to wonder: Did Buddha ever raise his voice in Kindness?

Thanks for a great discussion. May all your voices be kind. May we all be liberated.


Admonishment often happens in relation to identity view. Clearly, harsh words are forbidden:

speech that’s false, divisive, harsh, or nonsensical.

So we then consider slipping out of “harsh” and into “unkind”. Here, too, notice that “unkind” is the opposite of “kind”. And if we have a choice of equally effective speech or action, why should we choose “unkind” over “kind”? We should never be content with skillful qualities–skill in kindness can always grow.

  • This is an unskillful admonishment that promotes identity view and is divisive: “You are a racist”
  • This is a unkind admonishment that is still divisive: “Your racism is stupid, destructive and evil.”
  • This is a kinder admonishiment that can lead to a dialogue: “Why is your skin filled with hate, anger and resentment?”

The danger of relying on harsh admonishment alone is that one becomes lazy and hardened in a harsh view, thinking, “The Buddha was harsh here, so I can be too.” Given that I am not a Perfected One, I cannot ever feel comfortable with exhibiting similar harshness because that would be conceit. It would be the conceit that I know another’s mind and that I know what is right for another.


I know this is harping on semantics, but sometime’s it’s important to clarify the meaning of words. I’d say there’s a difference between unkind, harmful, and unpleasant.

Unkind: Like @Gabriel_L noted, unkind words stem from an absence of kindness. The intention is to hurt someone’s feelings or demean them in some way. It’s harsh, unbeneficial speech. I think this kind of speech is based mostly on the speaker’s intention based on wisdom.

Harmful: This is the kind of speech that would be for someone’s suffering or downfall. In my understanding, it would be telling someone something that will harm them or cause them to harm themselves. That is, telling someone to break a precept or to do something we know will harm them in some way.

Unpleasant: Now I’d venture to say that unpleasant speech isn’t always unkind or harmful and has more to do with how the message is received. Sometimes people won’t like what you’re telling. When a teacher tells a class to focus on their work so they can do well, one student might perceive that as nagging, another as encouraging, another as admonishing. This is the kind of speech that the Buddha has a sense of time for, as per MN 58:

The Realized One knows the right time to speak so as to explain what he knows to be true, substantive, and beneficial, but which is disliked by others… The Realized One knows the right time to speak so as to explain what he knows to be true, substantive, and beneficial, and which is liked by others. Why is that? Because the Realized One has compassion for sentient beings.

Sometimes we have to tell people we care about truths that will be difficult and unpleasant to hear, but will be helpful in the long run. Personally I’d try to do this in a way that was pleasing and deferential, but honestly some people don’t respond to quiet voices and affection—which the Buddha also notes in AN 4.111:

“I guide a person in training sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, and sometimes both gently and harshly."

Again, this is what the Buddha—the Realized One—would do, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to use his example as a model while we’re on the Path, especially if we’re in a situation where people rely on us to help them. A parent knows this, and I think teachers do, too, but not everyone finds themselves in these roles.


I found this quote in the Buddha’s Path of Wisdom in the section on “The Wise”:

“Should one find a man who points out faults and who reproves, let him follow such a wise and sagacious person as one would a guide to hidden treasure. It is always better, and never worse, to cultivate such an association.”

I’m ok with someone using harsh words with me to help me see the truth. I don’t like it at the time, but if they are right, after considering their words, it can help me to change my views from error to truth. Notwithstanding, not everyone is capable of doing that. Some people are pushed farther from the truth. I, personally, refuse to use harsh speech because I have no idea how the person will receive it. If I become clarvoyant and begin seeing into their hearts, I may consider it if I see that it will be truly beneficial.


This is a very good point. At the university where I teach, faculty members or other individuals providing academic services (e.g., librarians) who are concerned about a student who is struggling academically, or might be coping with emotional issues, substance abuse, roommate conflicts, time management, etc. can submit what is known as a “care report” which then is handled by the relevant support staff in counseling, academic support, residential life, etc. As the name implies, the intent of submitting the report is to show “care” for students’ well-being.

Nonetheless, many students perceive the attention they subsequently receive as unwanted and unwelcome because it can be unpleasant to hear that they are failing a class, not getting along with roommates, abusing substances, etc. Many students resent the filing of a “care” report because they think they are now “in trouble.” So the speech conveyed in the care report may be kind and seemingly harmless, but students can perceive it as unpleasant and be upset that they are now on support staff’s radar.

It’s a problem for faculty like me who want to show compassion for students but who know that students often perceive such compassion as efforts to interfere in their lives. We don’t want to inadvertently harm students who sometimes react to the filing of a care report by withdrawing even further and continuing with their self-destructive behavior.


so sad to hear about this situation and hope you find a way to help her/them, via mental, verbal or bodily action, or verbal and bodily inaction due to mental action, e.g. the brahma vihara (divine abodes) or wisdom/compassion.


Hi all

I’m not going to talk about what others should or should not do, or can or cannot do. That is up to them to decide. I am only focussing on what would probably be the authentic teaching of the Buddha. After that is clarified, anyone can choose to follow it or not.

So this is an example to me of inconsistent teachings ascribed to the Buddha and then I look to the Buddha’s actions as confirmation and behold, we have examples of him using harsh words.

best wishes

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I have read so often the Buddha making a similar kind of statement, not 'your racism is’ but simply ‘racism is…’

For me, from this example it seems we have a very different understanding of ‘admonition’ = we speak a different language on this point.

This to me, is not admonishment at all, but a question which encourages reflection. I think it is very good in certain circumstances, but I would avoid the assumption of emotion. I would not see ‘hate, anger and resentment’ in skin. I would see reddening (from a lot of blood), stretching and maybe sweat.

I certainly agree and hopefully no one does that. It is for them to know, not for us to assume, right?

‘I am…’ and ‘I am not…’ are both examples of ‘identity view’.

There is a difference between knowing the outcome of behaviour and knowing another’s mind (read: thought or emotion). Slicing a person’s throat would almost certainly lead to their death, but I might not know that someone who was holding the knife was angry, hateful or with a sad heart and very reserved, maybe at fulfilling the request of a dear friend who had no quality of life = euthanasia. (I do not agree with this scenario of euthanasia.)

best wishes

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While still having fetters, I think it’s even more important to accept the consistent words and actions of the Buddha, try to understand them, then copy them. That for me, is Right View and Right Action, in this case speech.

Hi Solitary

To me, this paragraph represents two conflicting ways of thinking.

The first I agree with: ‘if they (the comments) are right, after considering their words, it can help me to change my views from error to truth’. This incorporates the person’s own kamma/vipaka, if they choose not to react and rather to reflect wisely, as the Buddha taught to do in this situation.

The second I disagree with: ‘Some people are pushed farther from the truth. I, personally, refuse to use harsh speech because I have no idea how the person will receive it.’ For me, this means one’s speech pushed them farther from the truth and that denies the person’s own kamma/vipaka. In that case they have no choice in the matter and practically, I have power over their decisions. I have given this way of thinking up and think it is arrogant.

best wishes

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Beyond the Eight-Fold path are two more steps. These two steps are Right Knowledge and Right Freedom. --DN33 (Tens)

I acknowledge that the Buddha used harsh words. I see these harsh words coming from Right Knowledge and Right Freedom. Since I personally cannot claim either Right Knowledge or Right Freedom as attainments, I focus on restraining harshness and nurturing kindness in accordance with the Buddha’s instructions. Because of this, when I, a lay person, see or hear a monk relying on harsh speech or action, it makes me sad. It makes me feel that there is no point on going forth.

Several months ago a monk accidentally killed a student he was admonishing. He is no longer a monk, but this is where unkindness leads.


The Buddha clearly emphasises that harsh speech is only justified when it is beneficial, (at the right time,right place, right circumstances, right receptability etc). Therefore, unless one is certain (ie knows rather than assumes) that it is going to be beneficial, one should not use it.

On an internet forum such as this, it is really impossible to know enough about another participant, based only on a few sentences of writing, to be certain of knowing what is beneficial and what could be harmful. It is when one conflates assumptions with knowledge and understanding that problems arise. If in doubt, it is better not to risk the negative effects of using harsh speech. On a forum of this kind, it is impossible to ever really know, where another user is coming from – so kindness should always inform our speech.



Dear Karl,

I am really saddened to hear this …

You must realise though, that monks are just like you and me. They have just made a committment to devote their lives to following the path and living according to the Vinaya.

However, they may not have mastered mind in any way yet. Their intention and dedication is to be lauded, but an assumption of greater understanding is not warranted. Sure, generally speaking most monks who have undertaken extensive training, and who adhere to Vinaya, can be expected to have more experience than lay followers. The degree of insight and self awareness is another matter.

As such, individual examples should not taint the entire pool, or be the basis for general disillusionment.

I say this as one, who used to assume that ordained monks were probably all stream winners… but that was a wrong assumption on my part.

Dedicated lay practitioners, can rely on their own understanding of Dhamma, following wise teachers, and indeed show compassion to those who struggle in the holy life. One can always respect the intention, motivation and dedication of anyone, sincerely trying to acheive the Noble 8fold path :pray:

These are, of course, general points :slightly_smiling_face:




I understand where you are coming from, but I think there are people who, because of their spiritual state, allow themselves to be affected by others. Therefore, yes, we can affect others. Some people use this power for evil and others for good. If a man tries to persuade a woman to have sex with him even though both are married to different people, he is seeing if she is capable of being swayed. If she is strong spiritually, she will see that it would be harmful for her to have to lie to her husband and many other factors. Therefore she will decide not to do it. However, if she is living in ignorance without heedfulness (perhaps she has had a few beers as well), she will be more likely to be swayed. Furthermore, when we admonish or instruct people (which is why one would want to use harsh speech to begin with - otherwise there would be no point in saying anything harshly or kindly - better to keep silence), we are assuming that we can help a person in a beneficial way. We believe that the person could change towards repentence or there would be no point of speaking at all. Therefore we can recognize that our decisions do affect how others think and behave without being arrogant. If the entire world were holy, this would not be true. However, the entire world is not holy and people can be swayed for good or for evil. People who live in the truth cannot be swayed. They become like a mountain in a storm. However, people who live in ignorance can be swayed like a hut in a storm.