A man is depicted leaning his head into a large sculpture of an ear and ear-horn

Discernment Guided by Compassion

Ryuei Michael McCormick on right speech: When should we use forceful words, or gentle ones? Or none at all?

By Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick

“Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) Opus #133,” 2007, by John Baldessari. Resin, fiberglass, bronze, aluminium, electronics. Ear: h 70.5 x w 43.25 x d 16.5 in. Trumpet: 88.125 x 51.125 in. (Diameter). Photo by Chris Osburn. © John Baldessari 2007 | Courtesy Estate of John Baldessari © 2024 | John Baldessari Family Foundation | Courtesy Sprüth Magers.

Is it right speech to speak up for the truth if others find your words controversial, even offensive? Presumably, Buddhist practitioners endeavor to avoid falsehood, malicious or divisive speech, harsh or abusive speech, and even idle chatter or gossip. This is right speech as the Buddha defined it (e.g., Saleyyaka Sutta 45.8). In the Saleyyaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha taught that to be in accord with the dharma one should speak what is true, what unites people, what is agreeable, and what is timely. He taught that one should speak in a way that is reasonable, moderate, and beneficial. 

That’s pretty straightforward. The problem is that all of us have found ourselves in situations where we felt the need to speak up for what we believe is true or to speak out against what we know to be false or unjust. When that happens, our speech is no longer agreeable to some, and those who disagree with us may feel that our words are not reasonable or beneficial. Have we gone against the Buddha’s teachings on right speech in such a case? 

We should keep in mind that the Buddha expected that senior teachers in his sangha would be capable of refuting opposing doctrines. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta in the Digha Nikaya, he told Mara that he would enter final nirvana in three months because the holy life had been successfully established and was flourishing, widespread, well-known, and well-proclaimed because there were finally monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who were accomplished, skilled, learned, able to teach and declare the dharma, and to refute false teachings. 

Likewise, the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra contains many passages wherein the Buddha admonishes his followers to correct misconduct and false teachings within the sangha. As an example: 

If a good monk sees someone acting in a way that is injurious to the dharma and decides to leave him be, rather than taking steps to have him reprimanded by temporary removal or censure, understand that the [monk who observes the bad behavior but does nothing] is an enemy within the dharma of the Buddha. If you can reprimand [the violator] by temporary expulsion or censure, then you will be a disciple of mine, for you have heard my true voice.

One disciple of the Buddha who took the duty to refute false doctrines and declare the true dharma very seriously was Nichiren Daishonin (1222–1282), who established what is now called Nichiren Buddhism. Nichiren is well-known (or perhaps infamous) for his polemics and inflammatory rhetoric in favor of the primacy of the Lotus Sutra. His criticisms of other schools came to be summarized as the four maxims,  found together in a letter attributed to Nichiren that was sent to Zen Master Lanxi Daolong (1213–1278) of Kenchoji Temple on October 11, 1268: “The followers of nembutsu are making the karma that leads to the Hell of Incessant Suffering. The Zen school conducts itself like a heavenly devil. The Mantra school is an evil Dharma that destroys the country. The Discipline school teaches deceptions that are treasonous.” Is it any wonder that Nichiren wrote that even some of his followers complained that the harshness of his rhetoric unnecessarily antagonized people?

In a letter written to a monk named Shomitsu-bo of the Shingon or Mantra school in Japan called the Shomitsu-bo Gosho, Nichiren leveled several sharp criticisms at the school’s founders. Anticipating Shomitsu-bo’s reaction, he included the following dialogue in the letter:

Question: Is there a reason why you alone among Dharma teachers speak ill of others?

Answer: I, Nichiren, am not speaking ill of other people. I am only trying to resolve my suspicions about them. If you get angry with me, I cannot help it.

Nichiren believed it was his responsibility to correct errors about the buddhadharma, even if it was displeasing to others. In a letter attributed to Nichiren called the Zemmui Sanzo-sho (“On Tripitaka Master Shubhakarasimha”), we find this further explanation about the proper use of forceful words and gentle words: 

Even if you resort to forceful words, if they help someone they can be considered to be speech that is true and gentle. However, if gentle speech injures someone then it should be considered speech that is false and forceful. The Buddhist teachings of today’s scholars are regarded as speech that is gentle and true, but it is all speech that is forceful and false. This is because their words go against the Lotus Sutra, which expresses the true intention of the Buddha. 

Nichiren knew very well that Shakyamuni Buddha had taught against the use of divisive and harsh speech. Even in the Lotus Sutra, which Nichiren regarded as the Buddha’s highest teaching, we find the following guidance in the fourteenth chapter: 

Whenever they proclaim or read the sutra, they should take no joy in speaking of the shortcomings of other people or sutras. They should not scorn other teachers. They should not mention other people’s good or evil, or their strengths or weaknesses. They should not designate shravakas by name in describing their faults and impurities, nor designate them by name in praising their virtues, nor bear any resentment or hatred toward them. Because they will cultivate such a peaceful and agreeable state of mind, they will arouse no opposition in those who listen to them.

In his letters and treatises, Nichiren quite frequently went against this guidance. He did this because he felt forthrightly, even provocatively, that criticizing those who were slandering the buddhadharma was more important than being inoffensive. He did so to stop people from going against the Lotus Sutra, because he took the sutra’s warnings against slander very seriously. For example, in the verses of the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha declares: 

If people lacking faith in this sutra
Defame and slander it,
They may destroy
All the seeds of buddhahood in their world. 

In Kaimoku-sho (On the Opening of the Eyes), one of his most important writings, Nichiren argues that subduing any slander of the dharma is a merciful act intended to save others. 

Why shouldn’t we warn our parents if we know that someone is trying to kill them? Shouldn’t we prevent an evil drunken child from killing his parents? Shouldn’t we prevent an evil man from setting temples and pagodas on fire? Shouldn’t we give our only child a moxibustion treatment when he or she has a serious illness? Those who do not discourage the followers of Zen and nembutsu in Japan are the same as those who do nothing on such occasions. [They are what Zhang’an referred to in his Annotations on the Nirvana Sutra when he says,] “Those heartless people who are their false friends are really their enemies.” I, Nichiren, am like a compassionate parent to everyone in Japan, whereas everyone in the Tiantai school is their worst enemy. [As Zhang’an says in his Annotations on the Nirvana Sutra,] “To prevent a friend from committing evil is really a friendly act.”

“Rumi and Socrates are credited with the three sieves, or filters: Is it true, is it good, and is it useful? In the canonical discourses, the Buddha set up a similar test.”

Setting aside whether Nichiren was justified in his criticisms of the other schools of Buddhism that he believed were slandering and denigrating the Lotus Sutra, would Shakyamuni Buddha agree that it was sometimes appropriate to criticize others, even in a way that sounded insulting? Does even a wise and compassionate person sometimes have to “be cruel to be kind,” as Shakespeare (and a modern pop-song) put it? Curiously, the Buddha did acknowledge that sometimes one must speak the truth plainly to those who may not want to hear it.  

One such occasion was when the Buddha denounced Devadatta in no uncertain terms, refusing to give him the leadership of the sangha and making it clear that he did not consider him qualified to ever do so, even if the Buddha were to consider appointing a successor. The Buddha went so far as to say to Devadatta, “I would not hand over the Sangha of monks even to Shariputra and Maudgalyayana. How should I do so to such a wastrel, a clot of spittle, as you?” (Vinaya, Cullavagga 7.3) This statement of the Buddha seems to be so far out of character that one wonders how anyone could have attributed such words to him. 

In the Abhaya Rajakumara Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya, Prince Abhaya of Magadha, a follower of the Jains, hoped to embarrass the Buddha by using these statements about Devadatta against him with what we would today call a “gotcha question.” The prince begins by asking if the Buddha would say things that are unwelcome and disagreeable to others. The Buddha tells him that there can be no one-sided answer to such a question. Prince Abhaya then admits that the Jains have lost because the Buddha did not fall for either of the two horns of the dilemma he was trying to establish. One horn was that if the Buddha agreed that the Buddha would say unwelcome and disagreeable things then he would have admitted the Buddha is no better than ordinary, unenlightened people. The other horn was that if the Buddha were to say that the Buddha would not say such things, then the prince could ask why the Buddha had said that Devadatta was incorrigible and destined for hell, which caused Devadatta to be angry and dissatisfied. 

The Buddha pointed to an infant lying in Prince Abhaya’s lap and asked, “What would you do if this child were to try to swallow a pebble?” The Prince replied that he would try to take it out at once. If necessary, out of compassion to prevent the child from choking, he would stick his finger down the child’s throat to pull it out, even if it temporarily hurt the child. The Buddha told him that in the same way, a buddha knows when to use speech compassionately, even if what he has to say is disagreeable. The Buddha explained that whether or not it is welcome and agreeable or unwelcome and disagreeable, a buddha only speaks what is true, correct, and beneficial, and he will only speak such things at the right time and place motivated solely by compassion. 

In the case of Devadatta, the Buddha was certain, based on his knowledge of Devadatta’s character and activities and the law of cause and effect, that Devadatta was heading for a fall. In some versions or translations of this event, the Buddha called Devadatta a “lick-spittle” with the implication that Devadatta’s reliance on the very generous patronage of Ajatashatru, the ambitious crown prince of Magadha, is comparable to licking the spit of others. In other words, his reliance on his patron seemed good but was in actuality a degrading dependence that led him further and further away from the true good of liberation. All of this can be taken to rationalize the use of name-calling in a debate or disagreement, but I think the actual principles are quite clear: We should speak truthfully and beneficially, and whenever possible in a kind way: but also in a timely and appropriate way to help others see the truth and avoid harm, even if they are resistant to hearing it.

The Sufi poet Rumi is often credited with having said, “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” Socrates is also erroneously credited with the three sieves or filters: is it true, is it good, and is it useful? Here we see that in the canonical discourses, the Buddha set up a similar test. If something is not true, don’t say it. If something is not beneficial, even if it is true, then don’t say it. If something is true and beneficial, whether or not it will be welcomed and found agreeable, one must find the appropriate time to say it.

Speaking only what we know to be true might seem pretty straightforward. However, the Buddha taught in the Canki Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya that one must make sure to preserve the truth by differentiating between what one knows to be true for oneself through direct experience, and what one only believes to be true based on hearsay, tradition, speculation, or other sources of information apart from direct experience. Specifically, the Buddha taught that we only come to directly know the truth for ourselves through insight in a state of meditative stability. Truth claims based on anything else may be only subjective, partial, or biased. Until we know something for ourselves, we should not make dogmatic claims, and even when we think we know something, we should probably still be humble and open to learning through dialogue and continued deepening of our practice and insight.

How do we determine what is beneficial, or helpful? The Buddha many times admonished his followers for wasting time talking about a variety of unedifying subjects such as politics, wars, celebrities, gossip, and metaphysical speculations. He only spoke about things conducive to the understanding of suffering, the uprooting of the causes of suffering, the realization of the end of suffering, and the cultivation of the way to end suffering. That is a very strict criterion for what is beneficial. As most of us are householders with jobs, families, and secular communities, we should probably think in terms of how our words can be supportive, and foster love, kindness, patience, and mutual understanding between people. When necessary, we may feel the need to caution people or even whole communities against unwholesome, destructive behavior and habits and guide them toward more wholesome and skillful conduct. If we are teachers, managers, or leaders, it may even be our responsibility to guide and instruct others. We should make sure that we do so with care and kindness. 

When is the right time to speak about what is true and beneficial? This is really a question of when it is best to maintain silence, and under what circumstances our words will have the best chance of being heard as we intend them to be heard. In most cases, if a difficult discussion must be had, it is probably best to speak to the person or persons concerned privately, not too long after the problem has arisen but not too soon either. If one waits too long, feelings may fester or the other party may forget exactly what happened. If one speaks too soon, feelings may still be too strong or too raw. 

There are also times when one must speak publicly against a perceived injustice. In that case, the person or group that has committed the injustice may not be receptive to one’s words, but they must be spoken anyway so that others will know that one is giving witness to the truth and speaking up for those who have been or are being hurt. This may even give someone a chance to reflect and do something to resolve the situation. Nevertheless, one should recognize when the point has been made and further attempts to advise or remonstrate are no longer having a positive effect but only stirring up strife. For all his recalcitrance, Nichiren also recognized that once you’ve said what needed to be said, and your listeners have had a chance to respond constructively, it is time to let things go. In his autobiographical Shuju Onfurumai Gosho, Nichiren said of his retirement to Mt. Minobu where he established Kuonji Temple (the head temple of the Nichiren school):

As I had long considered leaving the country after admonishing the authorities three times but to no avail, I left Kamakura on the twelfth day of the fifth month in the same year (1274) and came here to Mt. Minobu. This was in accord with the actions of the ancient sages.

I often reflect upon the Buddha’s criteria for right speech so that I may be kinder, more responsible, and more effective in my daily interactions and as a dharma teacher. When it comes to teaching the dharma, I focus on sharing what is positive and edifying about the practice of chanting the Odaimoku mantra and the teaching of the Lotus Sutra, rather than on what I perceive as the shortcomings of other teachings and practices. Still, on several occasions, even as a guest speaker before audiences composed of clergy and practitioners of Zen or Pure Land Buddhists, questions come up wherein it is appropriate to address the differences between the Nichiren school and others. On those occasions, I do my best to set forth the different perspectives and the basis for them calmly and clearly. I address misunderstandings or errors about the dharma as I understand it in a dispassionate and collegial way. In doing so I endeavor to speak from a place of compassion, not egotism or the need to be right. I have found that this approach leads to better mutual understanding between different traditions and rarely to argument. In this way, without compromising one’s principles, one can enter into a respectful dialogue and even disagree without being disagreeable. 

Finally, consider the following advice from a letter attributed to Nichiren called the “Kyogyosho Gosho (Teaching, Practice, and Realization).” It was written to a monk to advise him about the proper conduct for a doctrinal debate:

In a public debate, when you are responding to questions about the Dharma-gate concerning the essential principles to live by, you must not ever appear to be speaking in a way that is improper, too forceful, or self-aggrandizing. That would be shameful. Always be harmonious in your actions, words, and thoughts, and be prudent when meeting other masters face-to-face.

Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick

Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick

Ryuei Michael McCormick is a Buddhist priest of the Nichiren Shu, a Mahayana Buddhist lineage established in Japan by Nichiren Daishonin in 1253. In 1997, he became a disciple of Bishop Ryusho Matsuda of the Nichiren Order of North America, receiving full ordination at Kuonji Temple on Mt. Minobu in 2001. He is currently serving as minister to the Nichiren Buddhist Sangha of the San Francisco Bay Area.