Buddhist Responsibility of Speech


The Pali Suttas are very precise and exact.  It is obvious that they represent the recording of a very logical and reasonable mind at work.  For the Buddha, truth is always preferable to ‘untruth’, but truth must only be expressed if it helps others to become ‘free’ of suffering.  This is an interesting Buddhist distinction with regards to how truth should, and can be used.  Truth is better than deceit, the Buddha firmly established this fact because the negative ‘intent’ behind the act of deliberate ‘lying’ attracts a corresponding ‘negative’ karmic reaction to be experienced by the liar.  Karma is not a ‘punishment’ from some higher authority, and should never be confused with divine retribution, which it most certainly is not.  If karma is explained in modern scientific terms, then the Buddha becomes one of the first human beings in the history of humanity to use his mind in a distinctly ‘non-religious’ and ‘secular’ manner, for his understanding of karma is nothing more than the recognition that humanity, as a distinct psycho-physical entity, is subject to the law of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’.  The difference is that where Western science has only acknowledged this law as operating exclusively in the physical world, the Buddha makes the point (now accepted within quantum physics) that the observation of the physical world is in itself an interpretive event that adds ‘reality’ and ‘meaning’ to that which is being observed.  Furthermore, the Buddha fully acknowledges that the physical environment conditions the inner functionality of the mind, and that ‘what’ and ‘how’ the mind ‘thinks’ has the power (through enlightened action) to transform the physical world through behaviour and action.  Obviously an optimum environment has the potential to import an optimum mind-state and psychological functionality.

The Buddha located the issue of human suffering as being the product greed, hatred, and delusion generated in the mind.  The Buddha recognised that ‘intention’ (the basis of his interpretation of ‘karma’) was always conditioned by these three taints, and that as a consequence, reality is not understand, and suffering is perpetuated in the mind (through painful thoughts and emotions), and in the environment through corrupt actions – with painful thoughts and corrupt actions mutually reinforcing one another in an endless cycle of suffering.  This is the Buddha’s new theory of existence that cuts-out any recourse to theological argument.  However, the Buddha acknowledged that not all experiences are karmic related, but can be ‘natural’ in origin and simply caused by the unfolding of cause and effect in the physical world.  This can also include illnesses and disease in the human body as being the product of dysfunctional cells, or infected cells caused by environmental conditions that has nothing to do with ‘intent’ in the mind.  This is why the Buddha acknowledges that a physical world exists independently of the mind within the Pali suttas.  Therefore, not every experience an individual has, is the product of personal karma.  The Buddha taught that in reality the human condition is ‘free’ of any permanent ‘self’ or theological ‘soul’, and considering existence is ‘empty’ of any permanency, the nature of the apparently existing physical world is also ‘empty’ of any real substantiality (again, another idea now found within modern Quantum theory).  This appears to be stating that the physical world, (and the perception of that world), although comprising two distinct aspects of reality, are in essence both ‘empty’ of any meaningful substantiality.  This ‘emptiness’ has become a distinguishing feature in many facets of Buddhist thought.

The Buddha states in the Anguttara Nikaya, 10:174 the following:

‘Killing, I declare, O monks, is of three kinds: motivated by greed, motivated by hatred, motivated by delusion.

Also taking of what is not given, sexual misconduct, lying, tale-bearing, harsh language, vain talk, covetousness, ill-will and wrong views – all these, I declare, are of three kinds: motivated by greed, motivated by hatred, motivated by delusion.

Thus, O monks, greed is an originator of the kamma-concatenation, hatred is an originator of kamma-concatenation, delusion is an originator of kamma-concatenation.  But by the destruction of greed, hatred, and delusion, the kamma-concatenation comes to an end.’

(The Vision of Dhamma: By Nyanaponika Thera – Page 115)

Speaking is a physical action that the Buddha stated must be controlled so as not to inflict greed, hatred, and delusion upon the listeners.  The modern liberal notion of ‘freedom of speech’ is an error of interpretation for the Buddha, because such speech is never ‘free’ of greed, hatred and delusion in the unenlightened state.  In reality ‘freedom of speech’ is the institutionalisation of the freedom to spread greed, hatred, and delusion throughout the world, with no thought for the consequences.  Instead, the Buddha advocated ‘responsibility of speech’ which advocates the use of considered ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ (as cultivated wisdom) when interacting within society.  Responsibility of speech should be premised upon a thought process that is the natural consequence of non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion.  Freedom of speech is a misnomer that facilitates the spread of human ignorance and suffering throughout society and the world.  It is, in reality, the legalisation of freedom of ego that drags society down to the lowest common denominator.  Those who state ‘all is empty’ and so it does not matter what is said or done, do not understand the Buddha’s teaching.  This is not an enlightened view, but is firmly within the deluded realm of greed, hatred, and delusion.  It is an ‘idea’ of the Buddha’s notion of ‘non-substantiality’, which has not been realised in actuality, and represents the deluded ego assuming a knowledge and experience it simply has not yet possess.  Speech can only be free of greed, hatred, and delusion, which is in itself a state free of egotism, but it can never be free of responsibility, because ‘intent’ in the mind is the basis of all karma, and is the motive behind all emerging words and sentences.  If greed, hatred, and delusion is to be prevented from emerging through speech, then silence is preferred to speech, with speech being very carefully considered before being used to communicate.  Everything must be carefully considered from many perspectives before words are used, so as to ensure that suffering is not generated and perpetuated in the minds (and bodies) of those who hear the utterances.

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