The first two elements in the Eightfold Path, Right View and Right Intention, help set the initial understanding and attitude. The next three elements – Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood – are grouped together under the theme of moral discipline.

“Moral” is the word commonly used in english translations from the Pali word “sila”, which has a more subtler connotation as it relates to behaviour. In fact, the use of the word “moral” connotes a sense of obligation, constraint and obedience, which are contrary to Buddhism’s emphasis on harmony.

Ditto the use of the word “discipline”, which has several definitions:

  • the use of punishment to ensure obedience,
  • a branch of knowledge (ex: the discipline of sociology)
  • a system of rules of conduct or method of practice

Looking at the last two definitions, the better interpretation of moral discipline would be “harmonious practice”.

As well, though the principles laid down for each of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood promote good conduct, the goal is not so much to instill ethical conduct as it is to promote efficiency in achieving your spiritual goal.

Right Speech

Right Speech is dividing into four abstentions:

  • Abstaining from false speech
  • Abstaining from slanderous speech
  • Abstaining from harsh speech
  • Abstaining from idle chatter

The capacity for verbal expression is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species, one whose use can be hurtful, create enemies, even start wars. Or it can impart wisdom, heal divisions and create peace.

With this kind of power associated with speech, it would seem logical to use it in a positive way to promote human excellence.

Abstaining from false speech

Avoiding false speech and speaking the truth is the proper conduct. Lying is the result of intending to deceive. Lies arise when the motivating intent is grounded in one or more of the Three Poisons – greed, aversion/hate and delusion:

  • Greed can drive lies when one is looking to gain personal advantage at the expense of another
  • Hatred leads to malicious lies that can be personally hurtful
  • Delusion can result in exaggeration and misrepresentation

In a profound sense, lying damages trust and disrupts social cohesion. At a personal level, lying to oneself impedes personal development When we create separation between what we pretend to believe and the actual truth in our reality.

Abstaining from slanderous speech

The intent of slanderous speech is to alienate a person or group from another. This effort to tear down others is rooted in resentment of another’s successes.

Because slander is usually premeditated, the negativity is magnified.

The preferred opposite of slander is speech that promotes friendship and harmony.

Abstaining from harsh speech

Harsh speech arises from anger and aversion. It can be abusive, bitter, insulting, sarcastic – and usually impulsive and spontaneous. The antidote is patience – learning to tolerate blame and criticism from others, to respect different viewpoints and to endure abuse without the need to retaliate or respond in kind.

Abstaining from idle chatter

Idle chatter can be two ways, one in generating idle talk and the other in being receptive to it.

Idle chatter now extends far beyond a voice-to-voice communication – think social media, the constant exposure to ads, daily news shouting for attention, popular entertainment – we live in a world where we are subjected to a fire hose of information that, more often than not, adds nothing to our understanding while dulling our senses.

One has to make choices, be discerning both in choice of conversation and the level of exposure to the noise generated by others.


Next: Right Action

Previous Post: Right Intention

Note: The content of this post is based in part on “The Noble Eightfold Path”, Chapter IV, by Bhikku Bodhi