Right speech consists of four parts:

  1. not lying
  2. not speaking divisively
  3. not speaking harshly
  4. not speaking uselessly


Not Lying

It’s when a certain person gives up lying. They’re summoned to a council, an assembly, a family meeting, a guild, or to the royal court, and asked to bear witness: ‘Please, mister, say what you know.’ **Not knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I see.’ ** So they don’t deliberately lie for the sake of themselves or another, or for some trivial worldly reason.

Not speaking Divisively

They give up divisive speech. They don’t repeat in one place what they heard in another so as to divide people against each other. Instead, they reconcile those who are divided, supporting unity, delighting in harmony, loving harmony, speaking words that promote harmony.

Not speaking harshly

They give up harsh speech. They speak in a way that’s mellow, pleasing to the ear, lovely, going to the heart, polite, likable and agreeable to the people.

Even if low-down bandits were to sever you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, anyone who had a malevolent thought on that account would not be following my instructions. This is often depicted as one of the torments of hell.

If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart full of love to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.

Not speaking uselessly

They give up talking nonsense. Their words are timely, true, and meaningful, in line with the teaching and training. They say things at the right time which are valuable, reasonable, succinct, and beneficial.


Let’s first describe what right speech is, before we dive a little into how to practice right speech.

Right Speech vs. Wrong Speech

Right speech is quite straightforward, when compared with its opposite.

  • Right speech is to tell the truth: saying you know when you do, saying you don’t know when you don’t.
    • Wrong speech is to do the reverse: saying you know when you don’t, saying you don’t know when you do.
  • Right speech is to not speak divisively: to not deliberately tell people things with the motive and intention to divide people.
    • Wrong speech is to do the reverse: to deliberately tell people things with the motive and intention to divide people. (Clearly, much political discourse falls into this category!)
  • Right speech is to not speak harshly, but to speak gently and in an agreeable way.
    • Wrong speech is to speak harshly. (Note: this is my personal pet Wrong Speech: I do this all the time…)
  • Right speech is to not speak nonsense, but to speak what is “timely, true and meaningful, in line with the teaching and training”.
    • Wrong speech is to speak nonsense.

Now, you might be thinking “oh no! I speak nonsense all the time!” and think this is absolutely hopeless… you’re not alone. I used to think the same way! Two things to note:

  1. For Buddhist precepts, the general principle is that there is a hierarchy of importance i.e. the later precepts are less bad than breaking the first few precepts. So, speaking divisive (but true) speech is less bad than speaking false (but non-divisive) speech.
  2. The law of kamma still applies i.e. the motives and intentions underlying one’s speech are the most important thing, rather than the content itself.

How to practice Right Speech

“What do you think, Rāhula? What is the purpose of a mirror?” . “It’s for checking your reflection, sir.” “In the same way, deeds of body, speech, and mind should be done only after repeated checking.” MN 61 Advice to Rahula at Ambalatthika

When you want to act with speech, you should check on that same deed: ‘Does this act of speech that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? MN61 Advice to Rahula at Ambalatthika

It’s hard to beat the Buddha’s advice to his son Rahula.

Modern considerations with practice

Something which occurred to me recently, was the fact that the Buddha had no written text in his era. His age was a heavily oral and listening-focused era, with little or no writing (the Buddhist texts were not written down almost a hundred years after his death).

This means that Right Speech in our modern text-heavy era is quite different, because it is no longer just about what you say: it also now includes what you write and type and video and post online.

The medium of communication has a very big impact on how it is received. Many of my personal biggest “fights” in recent times have been the result of miscommunication over text messages.

  • This is due to the loss of nuance from text: text cannot convey nuance from differences in tone or body language. For example, try this for yourself:
    • Say aloud “This is just not done” in a sleepy, soft tone of voice.
    • Now, say aloud “This is just not done” in a loud, assertive tone of voice. Same words, completely different nuance, which is lost from text.
  • Another effect of the shift to text is that, text is more permanent. What you write tends to persist for a lot longer than what you say. So if you wrote something with the wrong intentions on a forum, well, good luck! Even if you changed your mind and apologized, this is likely to persist.
  • A third effect is that text is timeless, especially on the internet. You cannot control when someone will read what you wrote.

How, then, should one practice right speech in our modern era? Here are some half-formed thoughts:

  • The loss of nuance from text, and the fact that you cannot control when someone reads your writing, means that one should caveat and be much more explicit about one’s context.
  • The permanent nature of text means one should reflect a lot more on one’s motivations and intentions, before posting.
  • Get ready to apologize for causing offence.



  1. When was the last time I spoke truthfully, non-divisively, gently, and for the benefit of others?
  2. Which factors of right speech were present, in the last argument I was involved in?
  3. Which factors of wrong speech were present, in the last argument I was involved in?
  4. Which factors of right speech do I need to focus on more, in future?

Exercise with Orbit