Speech that Unifies

By Gil Fronsdal

The power and efficacy of mindfulness are directly related to how we live our lives.
As mindfulness grows, we discover—perhaps paradoxically—that our mindfulness
diminishes when we knowingly act or speak in ways that are harmful. We also come
to understand how mindfulness can naturally increase as we avoid causing harm. In
other words, it becomes clear that the quality of our mindfulness depends on the
quality of our ethical life.

The Buddha emphasized one activity of our ethical life that is frequently overlooked,
especially because it is often not considered to be ethical in nature. This is our
speech. Speech can be both beneficial and harmful. Positive, beneficial speech is
nourishment for mindfulness; negative, harmful speech desiccates it.

These are the four forms of speech the Buddha singled out as being harmful and
unethical: speech that is false, speech that is divisive, speech that is abusive, and
speech that is pointless. In his own language he used the word unskillful to refer to
what we would now call unethical. He defined unskillful as what brings affliction
both to oneself and to others. He said that when one intentionally harms others, one
is simultaneously harming oneself. This becomes obvious when our mindfulness is
strong, allowing us to recognize how these four forms of unskillful speech are in fact
stressful, involving tension and agitation. Harmful speech decreases our access to
wisdom and clear thinking, and socially alienates people. While sometimes pushing
people away is the intended purpose of harmful speech, doing so can have a steep
price. As mindfulness brings greater inner peace, it becomes clear that the cost of
unskillful speech is too high, and the cost isn’t worth the perceived benefit.

The first of the four unskillful ways of talking is speaking falsehoods. The Buddha
illustrated this with the example of lying as a witness in court. This is a clear
example where one’s lies negatively affect others.

The Buddha describes divisive speech as speech intended to divide people who are
united and to further the divisions among those who are already at odds. He stated
that some people love and rejoice in dissension. This joy in friction and strife often
comes from the conceit of feeling special or being part of a special group that
derives its identity by drawing sharp, disparaging lines between “us” and “them.”

The third type of harmful speech is abusive speech, which the Buddha describes as
being harsh, cutting, hurtful, offensive, connected with anger, and unproductive for
concentration. To mention concentration at the end of this list may strike us as odd.
But it relates to an important way abusive speech harms the one who speaks it.
Abusive speech agitates and troubles the mind so it can’t settle enough to become
concentrated. People unfamiliar with the ways in which concentration states heal,
nourish, and provide deep inner well-being don’t recognize that abusive speech is
an obstacle to happiness.

The final form of harmful speech is pointless speech, defined as “speaking at the
wrong time, speaking of what is not real, or of what is useless, contrary to the
Dharma, worthless, unreasonable, immoderate, and unbeneficial.” Speech that is
not real includes exaggeration, pointless commentary, and telling tales as if they are

One reason we might have for being ethically irresponsible with our speech is the
idea that speaking is a means of expressing our opinions; we can feel justified in
saying whatever we believe. Moreover we may want to express our views because
they seem obviously true to us. And when speech is used to defend ourselves or to
assert what we believe are our rights, needs, or desires, it is easy to ignore the
impact our words have on others, not to mention the impact they have on ourselves.

Most people will agree that there are abundant examples of people who espouse
views that appear false, misguided, and harmful. Often enough, and not coincidently,
these are people whose views are opposed to our own. Few people regularly
question the veracity of their own opinions or the ways they express them.
Most of the great conflicts in our society today are not conducted on battlefields of

armed confrontations. They are fought verbally—mostly unsuccessfully—in the
arenas of everyday conversations, political speeches, TV and on the web, social
media, books, bumper stickers, clothing, and even hats. The degree of hostility and
vilification with which opinions are spoken has become a prominent social poison,
creating so much divisiveness, discord and ill will that factional strife is now more
prominent than conflict over almost any other social issue. Important social issues
are being eclipsed by the intensity of communication that is false, divisive, abusive,
and pointless.

Skillful speech—the opposite of unskillful speech—has a mutually beneficial
relationship with mindfulness. The more one gives attention to skillful speech, the
more mindfulness grows; the greater our mindfulness grows, the greater our
sensitivity to how we speak and the impact of our words.

The Buddha taught four forms of skillful speech. These are speaking what is true,
what brings concord, what is inoffensive, and what is beneficial. As a set, he
describes these four as “four kinds of Dharma conduct and harmonious conduct.”
We can understand Dharma conduct as behavior that arises from our inner wisdom
and goodness; harmonious conduct is behavior that heals and brings peace to our
interpersonal lives.

Speaking what is true is mindfulness out loud. When we speak the truth wisely and
inoffensively, we are harnessing the power of mindfulness practice. Speaking the
truth also contributes to trust and safety. When people can count on us to be
truthful, they don’t have to doubt whether we mean what we say.

Speaking to create concord is described as speech that reconciles those who are
divided and supports those who are united. This speech is comprised of the words
of someone who “loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, and speaks
things that create concord.”

Inoffensive speech is described as “soothing to the ear, affectionate, going to the
heart, polite, appealing, and pleasing to many people.”

And lastly, beneficial speech refers to words worth treasuring and which are
“timely, about what is real, beneficial, and concerned with the Dharma and an
ethical life.” It is spoken with clear explanations, delineations, and benefits.

We see in the Buddha’s emphasis on avoiding unskillful speech and engaging in
skillful speech that he puts a strong emphasis on speaking in ways that are
beneficial for others. Our speech, as with all ways we communicate, begins in
ourselves and flows out from there into our interpersonal relationships. This close
connection between what goes on within us and our relationships with others
outside of us means that if we want to care for one of these areas, we should care for
both. To be happy in ourselves, we can promote unity and affection in our
relationships. To promote unity and affection in our relationships, we can cultivate
the conditions for happiness in ourselves.

In situations of great social divisiveness, hostility, and fear, it is tempting to respond
to anger with anger, divisiveness with further division, and disdain with
disparagement. Doing so may seem to work; but this is only in very limited ways
and then only in the short term. It certainly doesn’t promote the personal and
interpersonal peace that is the goal of Buddhist practice. One can’t clean a stain with
what caused the stain. A stain in our social life and political life is only cleaned by
our capacity for goodness, generosity, and cooperation, perhaps fueled by resolute
fervor. And these are the same capacities that can clean any stains found in our

With mindfulness, the motivation to employ skillful speech is not derived from a
moral injunction; rather mindfulness reveals the personal, inner consequences of
both unskillful and skillful speech. It shows us that it is for our own personal benefit
to speak in skillful ways—that is, in ways that benefit both self and others.

Healing Anger
One makes things worse
  Who returns anger with anger.
Not returning anger with anger,
  One wins a battle hard to win.
When another is angry
  One wins welfare for oneself
And for the other
  If one mindfully keeps one’s peace.
Someone who thinks others are fools
  For healing their own anger
And that of others
  Has no skill in the Dharma.

   —Ancient Buddhist verse (SN 11.4)