Harsh Speech -- Bordering on Anger?

Perhaps influence is a better word than control. It does seem from the EBTs that the Buddha teaches we can influence our actions and that we should try to do so even though we are not a permanent self. Why else would he teach right action in the eightfold path if there was nothing we could do to influence our actions?

That said, it also seems like the Buddha teaches how to positively influence anger in MN 20. Thanks @ERose for the tip on copying and pasting a link on a line by itself to get the SC link, like the one below for MN 20:-)


I was just perusing this topic and thought to respond.

My own two baht is that the quality of speech hinges on the intention ( cetanā) behind the speech. Volition is the most significant mental factor in generating kamma, since it is volition that determines the ethical quality of the action. (Bhikkhu Bodhi)

There might be speech that is considered harsh, but if the intention is to provide an ethical and skillful response or outcome, it is likely Right Speech. By way of example, admonishing a child (after the child reached to touch the flame) not to put their hand near a gas stove might be a skillful means of conditioning the child for its own health and safety.

Anger, as we agree, is not a healthy emotion. It is the poison that we direct at others, that poisons ourselves. It seems to me that anger has the quality of unskillfulness. But to be harsh, or direct, or to admonish/teach with the goal of educating or correcting the subject toward more skillful behaviors, is bright kamma, as the intention is not one of angry outlash, but to benefit the subject.


Having been guilty of “being harsh for others benefit” I hesitate to advocate harshness for any reason. It so easily becomes a rationalization for cruelty.

AN4.171:1.2: As long as there’s a voice, the intention that gives rise to verbal action causes pleasure and pain to arise in oneself.

MN8:12.2: ‘Others will be cruel, but here we will not be cruel.’


Karl, I appreciate where you’re coming from. I have in my training in Thailand been on the receiving end of some harsh admonishments. I realize now how much these admonishments are of benefit to me, and that the abbot involved meant only to correct a stupid farang novice, who he must have felt only in some small way having some minimal potential on this path.

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From these discourses related to kamma, it seems that one is responsible for one’s own kamma, regardless of one whether one exercises control over it or whether one even thinks it is possible to control one’s own kamma.
I think that one’s own kamma (literal meaning: action; Buddha’s definition: intention) is controllable by oneself, but the phala (literal meaning: fruits; figurative meaning: results/outcomes) that corresponds to those actions are not.
One way to understand this could be to experiment with this for oneself:
hold the belief that kamma cannot be controlled and see how that affects one’s actions.
hold the belief that kamma can be controlled and see how that affects one’s actions.

Agreed, good point.
In addition to trying to get and have good friends (external factor), it also seems important to try to be a good friend (internal factor). Both seem fundamentally important. As you point out, the Buddha seems to warn that the value of the external factor of good friendships shouldn’t be underestimated or dismissed.

Exactly. I would go further to say that one is able to intentionally and volitionally develop all eight parts of the noble eightfold path.
I am forgetting which sutta, but I think that the Buddha explicitly rejected the view that one cannot control their own actions.

He further criticizes these three views which imply that nothing can be done about one’s situation: everything happens due to God’s will, past actions [alone?], or random chance.


Same here!! I agree with your overall sentiment. I am suspicious of views that arise in my mind that try to justify, rationalize, or make excuses for harmful/hurtful bodily, verbal, and mental actions.
In the moment, they can be so persuasive!

I don’t know the abbot in question, but I am also slightly suspicious because I find that Buddhist monks in Asian cultures sometimes carry habits that are more influenced by Asian culture and values than by Buddhism per se. Scolding, harsh, and rude speech seems much more common and socially acceptable in Asian cultures than in Western cultures in my experience, though I would be careful to point out that this is a mere generalization and should be taken on an individual case-by-case basis.
My point is, that even if someone brought up in an asian cultural setting “means well,” but admonishes and corrects others harshly as opposed to gently, it could be considered “well-intentioned,” but “misguided.” Dhamma-Vinaya is supposed to represent universal principles, so such harsh admonishments might not be excusable according to the laws of the universe which do not make exceptions on the basis of cultural influences.

In this sutta, Kesi Sutta: To Kesi the Horsetrainer, the Buddha explain what is harsh and mild training. But I don’t think harsh, in the Noble One’s discipline, means rude, hurtful, or abrasive speech:

"In using gentleness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings.’

"In using harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’

“In using gentleness & harshness, [I teach:] ‘Such is good bodily conduct. Such is the result of good bodily conduct. Such is bodily misconduct. Such is the result of bodily misconduct. Such is good verbal conduct. Such is the result of good verbal conduct. Such is verbal misconduct. Such is the result of verbal misconduct. Such is good mental conduct. Such is the result of good mental conduct. Such is mental misconduct. Such is the result of mental misconduct. Such are the devas. Such are human beings. Such is hell. Such is the animal womb. Such the realm of the hungry shades.’”


In Nyanatiloka/Nyanaponika’s translation there seem not to be such an expression like “bordering on (…anger…)”(retranslated by google translator:

He uses raw words; Words that are sharp, harsh and embitter others that are full of imprecations and malice and do not lead to the gathering of the mind: such words he uses. -

Perhaps he did not detect such a finetuned problem (“bordering on…”) there at all?

In Ven. Thanissaro’s translation there is also no “bordering on…”. In
he formulates:

“He speaks words that are insolent, cutting, mean to others, reviling others, provoking anger and destroying concentration.”

Here we find even “provoking anger” instead of “bordering on anger”
So that problem in the OP is only a translation-artifact?


That sounds like a real possibility. Thanks for sharing. The more I study the EBTs and translation issues, the more I realize translations seem to be just an approximation of what the Buddha said.

That said, I’m infinitely grateful for such translations and translators…without the translations, I would be completely lost.


It takes a bit of anger to provoke anger. Anger calls to anger and when anger answers, anger’s borders grow.

Not to be quarrelsome, but my experience is quite the opposite. I am in Thailand now, and being here can be a refuge from the anger and rudeness that I feel is commonplace in the US. Thais, of course, can be coarse and angry (like any culture) , but culturally, these behaviors are not made public. Thais get angry, just as any person might, given the circumstance. But generally more harsh or rude than people in the US? No.

Part of what I was trying to touch on is the idea that anger involves intention; the intention to harm another. I recall an anecdote, as I recall from Ajahn Jayasaro, who spoke of an evening with Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Jayasaro was massaging his teacher’s feet, a sign of respect and gratitude, when Ajahn Chah noticed a novice doing something badly. Ajahn Chah scolded the novice and corrected his behavior, but the point of the talk from Ajahn Jayasaro was that Ajahn Chah’s body during this scolding was relaxed, and calm, and AC returned immediately to a posture of calmness and friendliness. Ajahn Chah’s admonishment was accomplished with an arguably calm and metta filled moment; this seems to me the opposite of volitional anger.


Of course, there is a lot of variation, so it is dangerous to generalise, but in my experience Thai (and Japanese) culture is very different from Chinese or Indian in terms of quietness and politeness. It’s interesting to get to the airport to take a trip from Bangkok to Hong Kong, for example. The volume suddenly goes up! Not that either approach is necessarily better or worse. The problem with the more polite cultures can be that you get less warning that the situation is getting out of hand — it just suddenly explodes…

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Passive aggression can be very destructive and may be more common in cultures that subvert overt displays of anger. Sometimes I think overt anger can cut through a negative situation when nothing else has worked.

The term “bordering” implies a degree while the term anger implies “care”. When combined, a speech bordering on anger implies a degree of care that does not reflect right view or the middle path.

Equating anger with care seems odd. Are you referring to attachment or grasping?

Equating care with not right view or the middle path seems also odd. Equanimity is also care, is it not? But without attachment, or grasping.

If you take anger as an extreme and indifference as the other extreme, then equanimity would be the middle. Both extremes seem to be associated with the perception of an actor within action (self view), or making conclusions about the reality of the senses either by designating it as substantial (which would warrant anger/passion/care) or insubstantial (which would warrant indifference/apathy/carelessness).

We have examples in the suttas where the Buddha used harsh speech, but his speech did not border on anger, which helps us makes a distinction between action and the mindset behind it. While actions can be indicative of certain mind states, equating the two can be equally misleading. Actions can be driven by necessities and context, while mind states are linked to right view.

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