Buddhist Philosophy

Speaking Moderately and in a Gentle Way

Introduction to the Societal Human Values Series

Among his many achievements, the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (Srong-brtsan-sgam-po), who reigned 629-650 C.E., promoted a moral code known as the Sixteen Principles of Societal Human Values (Tib.: mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug). His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s translator Thubten Jinpa writes, “Most of these sixteen values have to do with promoting greater societal well-being and living one’s life with dignity, honesty, and respect for others.”

Phakchok Rinpoche has frequently emphasized the importance of living respectfully in society. Therefore he encourages his students to memorize and internalize these sixteen points of conduct to establish a core foundation for our practice of Dharma. If we don’t hold this moral code well, any higher practices that we engage in will be unlikely to bear much fruit.

This is the fifteenth in a series of explanations of these sixteen principles.

15. Speaking Moderately and in a Gentle Way (ngag ‘jam zhing smra ba nyung ba)

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Many of us grew up hearing this nineteenth-century rhyme from parents or teachers. They used it to console us when we had been on the receiving end of teasing, verbal nastiness, or tormenting speech. And although as kids we often learned to recite it to each other (or at least to the retreating backs of verbal bullies), did we truly believe it? Even at a young age, most of us learned that words have the power to wound and that hurtful speech leaves scars that can last years.

Using Speech Wisely

The flip side, however, is that moderate and gentle speech carries significant power. When we think before we speak and choose to use our voice wisely out-loud, or in print, we can soothe, console, and befriend others. We can also teach more effectively and negotiate with dignity and strength in business or personal relationships. Moderate and gentle speech can heal damaged relationships and open the door to meaningful and loving communication.

Speech Takes Many Forms

When we think about speaking moderately and gently, we might interpret that as only applying to the activity of our voice. But as modern individuals, our speech manifests also in the written word. We text and tweet and blog as if we are having a conversation, and we often speak about novelists or journalists having a “voice.”  

And these other media can be tricky because we might not think of them as talking—but our words have similar effects. Because these new media can amplify our speech, we might want to take a little time to consider how others might receive our “clever” words. We all know that we speak differently with our closest friends and our families than we do with work acquaintances and then strangers. When we use these platforms, we can take some time to recall that larger audiences might not know us well enough to understand our underlying intention. Many of us may have experienced puzzlement or bewilderment when reading a text or social media post from others—these types of speech can leave lots of room for misinterpretation. Often people interpret even neutral comments as sarcastic or snarky. Some studies have even shown that, because of our common human negativity bias, up to 50% of the time we misinterpret the tone of texts and messages.

Affectionate and Careful Speech

When we think before we speak or communicate in other ways, we can offer ourselves and those around us words based on love and wisdom rather than reactivity. By taking a brief pause before we vocalize, or before we hit the “send” button, we can review our words and consider our tone. Throughout Buddhist history, teachers have placed an emphasis on affectionate and careful speech. In the foundational Buddhist teachings, the Buddha laid out the noble eightfold path, or more literally, the eightfold path taken by noble beings. 

We know the third training on that eightfold path as right, or correct speech. The Buddha advised his followers to practice blameless speech by considering five elements before engaging.

Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five? It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of goodwill.

A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless and unfaulted by knowledgeable people.

Vācā Sutta (AN 5:198). Translation by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu.

Speaking at the Right Time

“Timing is everything” we often hear. So before we speak, we can consider the context of our conversation. Does the other person have time to hear us, or is she in a receptive frame of mind? Can we pause and think of her situation and her needs before we open our mouths? Have we heard her point of view, and have we listened attentively and compassionately? Sometimes when we have listened well, we may not need to say much at all!

And we can also investigate our own mental states before we begin to talk. Are we distracted, or anxious, or just plain tired? Has something happened that pushed one of our buttons that might have nothing to do with the person we are about to address? Taking a brief pause to assess the timing can allow us time to “reset” and adjust our tone and our response to meet the moment.

Speaking Truth

These days, we may repeat misinformation or exaggerate points to sound more important or interesting. But if we keep the Buddha’s five factors in mind, we can check ourselves before we embellish or distort the facts. Again, if we pause for a moment before launching into a story, or deciding we have to share a post, we can catch this common tendency. And then, we can share more openly and honestly with our audience.

Or, we may choose not to speak, instead giving the other person a chance to shine. As the famous proverb reminds us “speech is silver, silence is golden.” Nodding and smiling can often mean more to a friend than a witty comeback. And if we know that our opinion will hurt or anger our audience, we may decide that silence may be the more intelligent option. Silence does not mean that we lose our dignity, and that we accept another person’s point of view. But many of us choose to engage in battles of words that harm rather than inform.

Moderate and Kind Speech

Many wise sages throughout history have advised moderation in our speech. Moderation doesn’t mean we can never discuss delicate issues or mundane topics like the weather or banter with friends and colleagues. But by maintaining a friendly and open quiet, we can also be attentive to their needs and learn how we can most effectively speak truth with respect and kindness. We can choose to speak gently even if we disagree with someone. When we take the time to think before we speak, we don’t give our negative emotions the microphone. We keep a cool head, and our interactions are more likely to be kind and gentle. And most people who encounter such kindness will react positively. Even if they don’t immediately respond, they will carry that warm imprint with them into their next encounter. That is beneficial speech!

  • Consider some situations where you might have tough conversations or encounters in your life. What happens when you give yourself some time to consider your speech before engaging? Have you recently noticed any experience of someone speaking kindly or gently to you? How did you feel in that situation? Did it change your own speech behavior?

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