One factor of the five precepts and right speech that seems especially important and difficult in today’s world is avoiding harsh speech bordering on anger. See, for example, AN 10.211.
The “bordering on anger” is especially interesting. Does that mean when I am communicating and anger or some related emotion is in the mind, that I’m bordering on anger and speaking harshly? The most challenging situations for me to abstain from harsh speech bordering on anger is when I need or want to give constructive feedback or have a difficult conversation.
Another passage comes to mind where the Buddha teaches monks to only give constructive feedback when they have a mind of goodwill, free from anger and hate. Does anyone recall the specific citation?
Any thoughts about what the Buddha meant when he said avoid harsh speech bordering on anger, especially with respect to situations where there’s a need for a difficult conversation?
I’m so thankful for the Dhamma, Buddha and Sangha because without them, I would have not known that engaging in harsh speech bordering on anger would cause me suffering and should be avoided. This instruction is making a big difference in my life. Thank you!
May our diligence and discernment be free of anger, full of kindness and compassion:-)
“Mendicants, a mendicant who wants to accuse another should first check five things in themselves and establish five things in themselves. What five things should they check in themselves? A mendicant who wants to accuse another should check this: ‘Is my bodily behavior pure? …
There is MN 103 which talks about giving feedback. In short, it says that if you think the other person is capable of understanding and you feel able to help, then you should talk to them. If there’s nothing you can do, it’s best to practise equanimity and not start a fight.
As you train in harmony, appreciating each other, without quarreling, one of the mendicants might commit an offense or transgression. In such a case, you should not be in a hurry to accuse them. The individual should be examined like this: ‘I won’t be troubled and the other individual won’t be hurt, for they’re not angry and hostile. They don’t hold fast to their views, but let them go easily. I can draw them away from the unskillful and establish them in the skillful.’ If that’s what you think, then it’s appropriate to speak to them. …
Sometimes, it is necessary to stop another person’s abusive behaviour with clear words though, even if they don’t understand you, especially if it creates suffering for you and others. Then you can’t just be equanimous. But you can always understand that they are also suffering and speak with a mind of goodwill.
There’s the simile of the saw (MN 21): Even if you are sawed apart alive, still don’t give rise to a mindstate of anger. So what’s a difficult conversation compared to that?
Bhikkhus, if you keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind, do you see any course of speech, trivial or gross, that you could not endure?”—“No, venerable sir.”—“Therefore, bhikkhus, you should keep this advice on the simile of the saw constantly in mind. That will lead to your welfare and happiness for a long time. (Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)
I think there’s a sutta which says harsh speech is to be used if it’s helpful for the person listening and not otherwise. Even the truth shouldn’t be said if it isn’t going to be useful to the listener.
I found SN7.2 The Abuser very helpful in considering responses to anger or harm directed at me.
“In the same way, brahmin, when you abuse, harass, and attack us who do not abuse, harass, and attack, we don’t accept it.
It still belongs to you, brahmin,
it still belongs to you!
Here the Buddha is verbally abused yet firmly and reasonably responds that he does not accept the offering of anger and that it still belongs to the abuser alone. In this refusal, the Buddha stops the cycle of abuse by not feeding the anger.
Regarding harsh speech, the Buddha does sometimes call someone in public “foolish”, which is harsh indeed to hear if one thinks oneself to be wise. One sees these harsh scoldings especially when consulting the history of the Vinaya, which is the history of foolish loopholes closed.
These are often situations I think when the monk in question damages themselves and the reputation of the dhamma or sangha.
When you want to act with speech, you should reflect on that same deed: ‘Does this act of speech that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both?’ …
If, while reflecting in this way, you know: ‘This act of speech that I have done leads to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both. It’s unskillful, with suffering as its outcome and result.’ Then, Rāhula, you should confess, reveal, and clarify such a deed to the Teacher or a sensible spiritual companion. And having revealed it you should restrain yourself in future. But if, while reflecting in this way, you know: ‘This act of speech that I have done doesn’t lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both. It’s skillful, with happiness as its outcome and result.’ Then, Rāhula, you should live in rapture and joy because of this, training day and night in skillful qualities. SuttaCentral
“In the same way, prince, the Realized One does not utter speech that he knows to be untrue, false, and harmful, and which is disliked by others. The Realized One does not utter speech that he knows to be true and substantive, but which is harmful and 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, but which is disliked by others. The Realized One does not utter speech that he knows to be untrue, false, and harmful, but which is liked by others. The Realized One does not utter speech that he knows to be true and substantive, but which is harmful, even if it is liked 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.”
Agreed! Thus, one would be following the Dhamma and avoiding harsh speech that is tainted with anger or bordering on anger. Seems like compassion and anger can’t coexist in the mind at the same time.
One of the genesises of this topic was that it seems like most of us would agree speech tainted by anger is not right speech. Yet, the Buddha seems to take his instructions even one step further to say that if what is driving our speech is even bordering on anger, then it is unskillful speech. It’s also interesting that this instruction was grouped together with lying in the five precepts set forth in AN 10.211.
Seems like the instruction to abstain from harsh speech bordering on anger is an important part of the Buddha’s teachings and possibly one of the more difficult ones.
Apologies for reopening this discussion, but following the recent reading of DN1 by Ajahn @brahmali at BSWA pertaining harsh/gentle speech:
‘The ascetic Gotama has given up harsh speech. He speaks in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to the people.’
‘Pharusaṃ vācaṃ pahāya pharusāya vācāya paṭivirato samaṇo gotamo, yā sā vācā nelā kaṇṇasukhā pemanīyā hadayaṅgamā porī bahujanakantā bahujanamanāpā tathārūpiṃ vācaṃ bhāsitā’ti—
With reference to AN4.111 Kesi Sutta: the words and compound saṇhapharusa (gentle/harsh) are used not for quality speech but content of speech.
From AN4.111, it appears that the quality of gentleness or harshness is dependent upon the cause and effect of the outcome.
[“It’s a fact!” sure isn’t gentle.]
What if the 3rd right speech doesn’t (just) mean the tone by which one speaks, but also the content. Actually, that would make more sense since the first 2 and the last all have to do with content.
For reference: (probably inexhaustive search) The 4 right speeches.
AN: Saccavācā, apisuṇā vācā, saṇhā vācā, mantavācā
MN: musāvādaṃ pahāya… pisuṇaṃ vācaṃ pahāya… pharusaṃ vācaṃ pahāya… samphappalāpaṃ pahāya…
I’ve been chastised by my wife endlessly for both tone and content so long that by now I am more mindful of both and consider them as two sides of a whole. Thanks to that admonishment, I see no conflict in my readings of the suttas. Content and tone have become somewhat synonymous in my head.
I think mindfulness is key here; if, mindful, you perceive the border of anger, be alert; consider stepping back or walking away; proceed only with caution and only if you have the grace (skills) to step forward care- full-y. Is it the right time, the right message, the right condition in the hearer?
These are some of the things I notice, when I am in the condition for Right Speech. These can also be things I notice to realize it’s an occasion for Right non-speech!
I think that there might be a difference between “harsh speech” (speech that is intended to hurt) and “disagreeable/disliked speech” (speech that might be perceived subjectively as unpleasant to hear, but which is not necessarily done with the intention of verbally hurting or harming another being).
Thus, it seems like harsh speech will always lead to harm.
Disagreeable/disliked speech may lead to harm if it is not constructive and spoken in a timely way.
One might like the color red, another may dislike the color red - these are both subjective preferences.
Whether one likes or dislikes a harmful action, it is still a harmful action - this is an objective evaluation.
It is interesting though, and I have heard others use this line of reasoning.
I wonder if on the basis of this misunderstanding, beings justify speaking harshly to others.
I agree. Well said.
Exactly, well said.
I agree that harsh speech doesn’t seem to be easily understood - even when the Buddha categorically rejected harsh speech, it seems that misunderstanding causes beings to perceive that it is still justified under some conditions.
Your comment seems to help re-think what exactly harsh speech means.
I wonder if the phrase “bordering on anger” is significant, since it is not merely saying “out of anger” as one might expect.
I am also not entirely clear what this means.
Does it mean “even if there is a little bit of anger in the mind”?
Does it mean “if there is anger somewhere else in the mind, even if one is not speaking from that part of the mind, yet the anger is there somewhere trying to make it’s way into what and how the speech is said”?
Why “bordering on anger,” as opposed to “out of anger”?
I got the impression from the suttas that use this phrase that it means speech that’s not quite angry speech, which seems to be clearly wrong speech, but speech that’s close to angry speech. To me, it seems like a reminder to be very careful about our speech and the tendency for speech to start edging toward anger.
And how does a mendicant meditate observing an aspect of the mind?
It’s when a mendicant knows mind with greed as ‘mind with greed,’ and mind without greed as ‘mind without greed.’ They know mind with hate as ‘mind with hate,’ and mind without hate as ‘mind without hate.’ They know mind with delusion as ‘mind with delusion,’ and mind without delusion as ‘mind without delusion.’ They know constricted mind as ‘constricted mind,’ and scattered mind as ‘scattered mind.’ They know expansive mind as ‘expansive mind,’ and unexpansive mind as ‘unexpansive mind.’ They know mind that is not supreme as ‘mind that is not supreme,’ and mind that is supreme as ‘mind that is supreme.’ They know mind immersed in meditation as ‘mind immersed in meditation,’ and mind not immersed in meditation as ‘mind not immersed in meditation.’ They know freed mind as ‘freed mind,’ and unfreed mind as ‘unfreed mind.’
And so they meditate observing an aspect of the mind internally, externally, and both internally and externally. They meditate observing the mind as liable to originate, as liable to vanish, and as liable to both originate and vanish. Or mindfulness is established that the mind exists, to the extent necessary for knowledge and mindfulness. They meditate independent, not grasping at anything in the world.
That’s how a mendicant meditates by observing an aspect of the mind.
One key difference between bordering on lying vs. bordering on anger is that lying is an action and anger is an emotion. And, of course, we typically have much less control of emotions than actions. That said, it seems like speech bordering on lying should probably be avoided (the best we can) like speech bordering on anger.
Perhaps a translation of Buddha’s words might be helpful to your question, too.
“They speak harshly. They use the kinds of words that are cruel, nasty, hurtful, offensive, bordering on anger, not leading to immersion.” AN 10.211
That said, bordering on anger in this context seems a little strange to me, too. However, I checked Bikkhu Bodhi’s translation and it uses the same phrase.
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I think this is why the Buddha suggests that good spiritual friends are all of the path. If we hang out with people who don’t speak from a position bordering on anger, then we calm down too. If we hang out in places where confrontation, divisiveness and competition isn’t valued (in favour of the opposites) I think it can have a profound effect on our compassion and the rest of the Brahmaviharas.