The Fourth Buddhist Precept is written in the Pali Canon as Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, which usually is translated "I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech."
The Fourth Precept has also been rendered "abstain from falsehood" or "practice truthfulness." Zen teacher Norman Fischer says the Fourth Precept is "I vow not to lie but to be truthful."
The Buddhist Precepts are not rules everyone must be compelled to follow, like the Abrahamic Ten Commandments. Instead, they are personal commitments people make when they choose to follow the Buddhist path. Practice of the Precepts is a kind of training to enable enlightenment.
How can speech help us realize enlightenment? Let's take a look.
The Precepts and the Eightfold Path
The foundation of Buddhist teaching is called the Four Noble Truths. Very simply, the Buddha taught us that life is frustrating and unsatisfactory (dukkha) because of our greed, anger, and delusion. The means to be liberated from dukkha is the Eightfold Path.
Right Speech goes beyond simply trying to not tell lies. It means speaking truthfully and honestly, yes. But it also means using speech to promote good will and reduce anger. Right Speech is using speech to benefit, not to harm.
The Buddha said, "And what is right speech? Abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter: This is called right speech." (Samyutta Nikaya 45)
However, "Right Speech" does not imply that one must never disagree or criticize. In his book Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Rodmell Press, 2001), Zen teacher Reb Anderson suggests that we distinguish between what is harmful and what is hurtful. "Sometimes people tell you the truth and it hurts a lot, but it is very helpful," he said.
Truth and Intention
In Theravada Buddhism, there are four elements to a violation of the Fourth Precept:
- a situation or state of affairs that is untrue; something to lie about
- an intention to deceive
- the expression of a falsehood, either with words, gestures, or "body language"
- conveying a false impression
If one says an untrue thing while sincerely believing it is true, that would not be a violation of the Precept. However, lawyers sometimes refer to "reckless disregard for the truth." Recklessly spreading false information without making at least some effort to "check it out" first is not practicing the Fourth Precept, even if you believe the information is true.
Speech rooted in the Three Poisons -- hate, greed, and ignorance -- is false speech. If your speech is to get something you want, or to hurt someone you don't like, or to make you seem more important to others, it is false speech.
Working With the Fourth Precept
Reb Anderson points out in Being Upright that "All speech based on self-concern is false or harmful speech." Speech based on self-concern is speech designed to promote ourselves or protect ourselves or to get what we want. Right Speech, on the other hand, arises naturally when we speak from selflessness.
In other words, speaking truth comes from a practice of truthfulness, of deep honesty. And it is based on compassion rooted in wisdom. Wisdom in Buddhism takes us to the teaching of anatta, not-self. Practice of the Fourth Precept teaches us to be aware of our grasping and clinging. It helps us escape the fetters of selfishness.
The late Robert Aitken Roshi said,
"Speaking falsely is also killing, and specifically, killing the Dharma. The lie is set up to defend the idea of a fixed entity, a self image, a concept, or an institution. I want to be known as warm and compassionate, so I deny that I was cruel, even though somebody got hurt. Sometimes I must lie to protect someone or large numbers of people, animals, plants and things from getting hurt, or I believe I must."
Telling the truth requires mindfulness of what is true. It also requires that we examine our own motivations when we speak, to be sure there isn't some trace of self-clinging behind our words. For example, people active in social or political causes sometimes become addicted to self-righteousness. Their speech in favor of their cause becomes tainted by their need to feel morally superior to others.
Sometimes not speaking is false speech. Recently a well-respected educator was found to have been sexually assaulting children over a period of years, and some of his associates had known about this. Yet for years no one spoke up, or at least, did not speak up loudly enough to stop the assaults. The associates possibly kept silent to protect the institution they worked for, or their own careers, or possibly they couldn't face the truth of what was going on themselves.
Working with the Fourth Precept is a deep practice that reaches into your whole body and mind and all aspects of your life. It is also a great gift to others. The Fourth Precept is an essential part of the Buddhist path.