True Speech vs. Gentle Speech

I am looking for suttas that can help me better understand how to find a balance between speech that is strictly true and speech that is gentle. Especially in cultural or social contexts where being indirect about unpleasant topics and allowing others to “save face” is highly valued, it’s sometimes tricky to know when one is “lying by omission” and when one is justified in holding back information for the sake of kindness or social harmony.

I’m thinking especially about what’s described in AN4.73, where it seems to be acceptable to hold back the complete truth in order not to speak badly about another person:

There is the case where a person of integrity, when asked, does not reveal another person’s bad points, to say nothing of when unasked. Furthermore, when asked, when pressed with questions, he is one who speaks of another person’s bad points not in full, not in detail, with omissions, holding back. Of this person you may know, ‘This venerable one is a person of integrity.’

I also frequently come back to MN58, and I suppose ultimately I’m asking how an ordinary practitioner in everyday life can determine the “right time” to engage in these different categories of speech:

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.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions. :pray:

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This boils down to the knowledge of conventional reality and the ability to categorize it, understand its cycles, and detach from it. In dealing with the right time to say things, the practitioner needs to have a feeling for the cycle of events, and requires patience. This is mundane right view, noting that the Buddha is speaking in MN 58 to a layperson. Events have a beginning, growth, maturity, decline and death, and it’s necessary to be tuned in to catch the right time to give input. Think of it like a piece of music where each instrument has to contribute according to the score. If one doesn’t have the skill to make comments at the proper time it’s better to remain silent. When the practitioner develops tranquillity, they are more interested in ‘protecting the sign’ and maintaining silence.

"Unfortunately, we do not have a full treatise on the theory of musical performance as practiced during the Buddha’s time, but there are enough references to music scattered through the texts for us to piece together the outlines of that theory. The first step in performance was to tune one’s instrument, “establishing” one’s tonic note (literally, “base,” thana) to make it on-pitch (“even,” or sama), then to fine-tune or attune (“ferret out” or “penetrate”) the remaining notes (again, “bases”) of the scale in relation to the tonic. This required a great deal of skill, sensitivity, and some mathematical knowledge, as the well-tempered scale had not yet been developed, and many different ways of calculating the scale were in use, each appropriate to a different emotion. The musician then picked up the theme (nimitta) of the composition. The theme functioned in several ways, and thus the word “theme” carried several meanings. On the one hand it was the essential message of the piece, the image or impression that the performer wanted to leave in the listener’s mind. On the other hand, it was the governing principle that determined what ornamentation or variations would be suitable to the piece.

"There are enough passages to show that the Buddha used this terminology conscious of its musical connotations, and that he wanted to make the point that the practice of meditation was similar to the art of musical performance. We should thus try to be sensitive to these terms and their implications, for the comparison between music and meditation is a useful one.

In the most general sense, this comparison underlines the fact that the knowledge needed for release from suffering is the same sort as that involved in mastering a skill — a continued focus on the present, a sensitivity to one’s context, one’s own actions, and their combined consequences, rather than a command of an abstract body of facts. To develop the path is to become more and more sensitive to the present — in particular, more sensitive to one’s own sensitivity and its consequences. This is similar to the way in which a musician must learn to listen to his/her own performance, a process that ultimately involves listening to the quality of one’s listening itself. The greater one’s sensitivity in listening, the more profound one’s performances become. In the same way, the greater one’s sensitivity to one’s own mind in the development of skillful qualities, the more one abandons the causes of suffering and realizes its cessation."—Thanissaro

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Gūthabhāṇī Suttaṃ

(A.i.128)

A Speaker of Excrement

“These three individuals, monks, are found in the world. What three? A speaker of excrement (gūthabhāṇī), a speaker of flowers (pupphabhāṇī), and a speaker of honey (madhubhāṇī).

“What, monks, is an individual who is a speaker of excrement? Here, monks, a certain individual when called to a court, or an assembly, to the midst of his relatives, or a guild, or in the midst of the royal family, and questioned as a witness: ‘So, good man, tell us what you know,” not knowing, he says, ‘I know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I do not know,’ or not seeing, he says, ‘I see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I do not see.’ Thus, for his own sake or for the sake of another or for the sake of a trifling material gain he tells deliberate lies. This, monks, is called an individual who is a speaker of excrement.

“What, monks, is an individual who is a speaker of flowers? Here, monks, a certain individual when called to a court, or an assembly, to the midst of his relatives, or a guild, or in the midst of the royal family, and questioned as a witness: ‘So, good man, tell us what you know,” not knowing, he says, ‘I do not know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I know,’ or not seeing, he says, ‘I do not see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I see.’ Thus, for his own sake or for the sake of another or for the sake of a trifling material gain he does not tell deliberate lies. This, monks, is called an individual who is a speaker of flowers.

“What, monks, is an individual who is a speaker of honey? Here, monks, a certain individual abandons and abstains from harsh speech; speech that is gentle, pleasing to the ear, affectionate, heartfelt, polite, lovely and pleasing to many people — that kind of speech is what he speaks. This, monks, is called an individual who is a speaker of honey.

“These three individuals, monks, are found in the world.”

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Thank you @paul1 and Bhante @BhikkhuPesala for your very helpful answers. :pray:

The Buddha taught his son Rahula a principle underlying the right speech (MN61):

" When you want to act with speech, you should check on that same deed: ‘Does this act of speech that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? …’ …
…"

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I think the conflict for me is in the cases where it’s not so clear…

Telling a deliberate lie hurts both the speaker and the listener. Saying something completely true but unpleasant can also hurt both the speaker and the listener, if not said at the proper time and in a skillful way.

@paul1 was absolutely right to characterize it as a skill issue:

I think it’s a frequent conflict for me because although I may have developed some level of sensitivity to the consequences of wrong speech, I have not yet developed sufficient skill in knowing what is right speech, meaning knowing how to say things at the proper time and in a skillful way.

So in situations where I have the intention to avoid wrong speech but I don’t know how best to communicate using right speech, I’ve been struggling with whether I should tell a half-truth in order to avoid being unkind… but I’m actually missing an important step, which is asking myself “can I simply remain silent in this situation if I don’t know how to speak skillfully?” Learning how and when to remain silent is a skill in and of itself, and I was skipping over this step in my efforts to jump from wrong speech into right speech.

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This is an interesting thread. I think that there may be contexts where omitting unpleasant information is probably wrong. For example, if you are asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone by a potential employer, and you just write about the positive qualities but not the potential faults of the candidate, you may be doing harm to the potential employer.
In the same way, if you have to make a decision say to go and live in a certain place or take a certain job etc. and someone just gives you positive information about the people or the place, you might make a decision based on that, not knowing about the drawbacks and potential problems, which would probably lead to an unhappy outcome.
So in some contexts it’s probably important to point out unpleasant things, for example in order to avoid inducing someone in error when making a decision.

In my experience and from observation of adept ‘honey’ speakers, an unpleasant truth spoken skilfully at the right time is usually received in the spirit it is given, with generosity and grace.

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The doctrinal underpinnings of this discussion are located in right intention, the second link of the noble eightfold path which has three elements, harmlessness, non-ill will, and renunciation. The first two ( pertinent to this discussion) are concerned with relations with others, the third, renunciation applies to ourselves.

“The moment the cultivation of the Noble Eightfold Path begins, the factors of right view and right intention together start to counteract the three unwholesome roots. Delusion, the primary cognitive defilement, is opposed by right view, the nascent seed of wisdom. The complete eradication of delusion will only take place when right view is developed to the stage of full realization, but every flickering of correct understanding contributes to its eventual destruction. The other two roots, being emotive defilements, require opposition through the redirecting of intention, and thus meet their antidotes in thoughts of renunciation, good will, and harmlessness.”

Since greed and aversion are deeply grounded, they do not yield easily; however, the work of overcoming them is not impossible if an effective strategy is employed. The path devised by the Buddha makes use of an indirect approach: it proceeds by tackling the thoughts to which these defilements give rise. Greed and aversion surface in the form of thoughts, and thus can be eroded by a process of “thought substitution,” by replacing them with the thoughts opposed to them. The intention of renunciation provides the remedy to greed. Greed comes to manifestation in thoughts of desire — as sensual, acquisitive, and possessive thoughts. Thoughts of renunciation spring from the wholesome root of non-greed, which they activate whenever they are cultivated. Since contrary thoughts cannot coexist, when thoughts of renunciation are roused, they dislodge thoughts of desire, thus causing non-greed to replace greed. Similarly, the intentions of good will and harmlessness offer the antidote to aversion. Aversion comes to manifestation either in thoughts of ill will — as angry, hostile, or resentful thoughts; or in thoughts of harming — as the impulses to cruelty, aggression, and destruction. Thoughts of good will counter the former outflow of aversion, thoughts of harmlessness the latter outflow, in this way excising the unwholesome root of aversion itself." —-Bikkhu Bodhi

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Thank you @paul1 this is also really helpful. I appreciate you pointing me towards a more orderly approach to thinking through my question, it’s really helped me to understand why I’m getting stuck on this.

I have the book by Bhikkhu Bodhi that you’re quoting from but have not yet read it, I’m encouraged to start reading it today. Thank you again! :pray:

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“The Noble Eightfold Path” is an excellent reference book for those not temperamentally inclined towards a logical approach to the path. For example in MN 58 the Buddha mentions “sympathy” (Thanissaro) and whenever words suggesting the brahma viharas occur in the suttas, it means the Buddha is speaking at the level of mundane right view, and Bikkhu Bodhi describes the difference between the two right views. Such a sutta does not include the unconditioned perspective.

MN 117 goes on to define the two levels applied to right speech:

"[3] Of those, right view is the forerunner. And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong speech as wrong speech, and right speech as right speech. This is one’s right view. And what is wrong speech? Lying, divisive tale-bearing, abusive speech, & idle chatter. This is wrong speech.

"And what is right speech? Right speech, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right speech with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions; there is right speech that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.

"And what is the right speech with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions? Abstaining from lying, from divisive tale-bearing, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter. This is the right speech with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions.

“And what is the right speech that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path? The abstaining, desisting, abstinence, avoidance of the four forms of verbal misconduct in one developing the noble path whose mind is noble, whose mind is without effluents, who is fully possessed of the noble path. This is the right speech that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.”

Bikkhu Bodhi explaining the difference between mundane and transcendent right speech (5.40- 17:00):

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Thank you for the video @paul1 , that was a good explanation of something I’ve not understood very clearly. I definitely have more questions about the distinction between the mundane vs. supramundane path, but I can see it’s addressed extensively in the book, so perhaps I should read it and then come back to some of these questions afterwards. I very much appreciate you taking so much time to help me with this! :pray:

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Yes chapter II on right view explains both mundane and superior right view. They are also discussed by Bikkhu bodhi here beginning at 7:59:

Being able to discriminate between conventional and ultimate reality is a knowledge which is the gateway to insight, but the problem with the definition of mundane right view in MN 117 is its historical characterization has to be converted into modern social reality, and few are able to recoginize its immediacy. The following is the instruction on how to deal with those two simultaneous realities, where knowledge of ultimate reality is implied:

“these are the world’s designations, the world’s expressions, the world’s ways of speaking, the world’s descriptions, with which the Tathagata expresses himself but without grasping to them.”—DN 9

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I think where it can get confusing for me is that there’s just so much information available, and I’m mostly learning on my own right now. If the mundane path is viewed as a set of skills you develop that build on each other, it’s not particularly helpful if you’re looking at information that’s not relevant to the level you’re currently at.

So, in terms of my original question, I wasn’t really looking at the right step in order to see why I was getting stuck. As @paul1 made clear:

I had been thinking that because I had the intention to avoid untruthful and harmful speech, that would somehow automatically give me the ability to honestly communicate something difficult at the right time and in a skillful way. This whole discussion has been immensely helpful in reminding me that when I’m stuck, it is probably wise to first make sure I’m not looking for answers in the wrong place.

It’s a big reason I started reading the suttas directly and looking at discussions on this forum. I have been earnestly studying Buddhist teachings for several years now, but my knowledge is piecemeal and I feel that I’m lacking a solid foundation to build on. It’s sometimes a challenge living in the US to develop a personal relationship with a teacher (although I’m working on it), so I’m trying to go back to basics in what I’m studying to fill in the gaps in my foundational knowledge.

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The following are the instruction from MN 95 regarding a teacher. This is the Buddha speaking to a young lay student:

“Lending ear, he hears the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: “weighs,” “compares”). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment.”

These days reading replaces listening because the highest quality commentaries are available in text form. The process is to work outwards from suttas already understood and compare new material with what is already known to form a cluster of suttas related to a particular subject. This is mostly idiosyncratic, different suttas appealing to some. This knowledge must be then applied to conventional reality, so already there is a division between what is leading to nibbana, and what is samsara. The former can be provisionally classified as ‘ultimate reality.’ This is a necessary duality because the path up until the last fetter removal is working within a conditioned environment. That this naming should be done can be seen in MN 121 where the earliest stage is termed ‘emptiness’:

“And so this, his entry into emptiness, accords with actuality, is undistorted in meaning, & pure.”

@ekay “it’s not particularly helpful if you’re looking at information that’s not relevant to the level you’re currently at.”

That’s correct. The suttas appropriate can largely be identified by the personnel involved. Those delivered to or by Ananda, nuns, Rahula, laypeople or about the Buddha-to-be prior to enlightenment are at a beginner level which applies to many western Buddhists. The general level of the suttas is above that.

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This is quite reassuring to hear, as I have often wondered if there’s a “correct” order I should be reading them in. I’ve mostly been doing as you recommend here, starting with a sutta on a particular subject or question and branching out from there.

This is something I have not been doing, and I would imagine that it contributes to some of my confusion in terms of looking for answers in the wrong suttas or looking at the wrong levels of advice. I’ll go through the list of suttas I’ve spent some time reading and look to see who is speaking or to whom they are addressed. Thanks for the helpful suggestion!

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Hi ekay,

Have you read Bhikkhu Bodhi’s collection of suttas “In the Buddha’s Words”? I found that very useful to make sense of the different types of suttas. There’s a handy link to Sutta Central suttas based on the book here: https://readingfaithfully.org/in-the-buddhas-words-an-anthology-of-discourses-from-the-pali-canon-linked-to-suttacentral-net/

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Maybe the teachings on kamma and impermanence can provide some guidance. Causing a little bit of discomfort when people are in a comfortable situation is a middle path between being offensive and being hypocrite. For example, a young person who is enjoying sensuality is in a comfortable position, hence talking to him/her about the drawbacks of indulgence is a form of challenging his/her personal experience, but when approached objectively, it should not be offensive. On the other hand, blaming someone who is in trouble for his/her past deeds would be offensive and unhelpful.

Thank you @mikenz66 I haven’t yet read In the Buddha’s Words, although I do have the book. I’ll put it next on my list after I finish reading The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering. That link looks extremely useful to reference while reading it! :pray:

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