When Zen teachers in the United States began to deeply explore the role of speech in the systems we inhabit, we realized how often disrespect and disparagement are found in family structures, the workplace, and our religious communities. We began to use the Five Gatekeepers of Speech, questions sourced in the Buddha’s teachings, as a tool for appropriate communication. Practicing them means that before we [communicate], we consider:
- Is it true?
- Is it kind?
- Is it beneficial?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it the right time?
These questions are a way of looking deeply into whether what we want to say is necessary at this time and whether it will really serve. Is this the moment when our words are needed to turn a situation around for the better? Or might our feedback be received as bullying, disrespectful, or disempowering?
Yet when answering these questions, I have had to remember an important element of Right Speech that Thích Nhất Hạnh emphasized over the years. In cases of injustice, of disrespect, of harm, of abuse, of violence, it’s our responsibility to call out the harm in the name of compassion. Nhất Hạnh interprets the Buddhist precept of Right Speech with these words: “Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that can cause division or hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things that you are not sure of. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”
Right Speech is courageous speech. Speech that is compassionate and fearless is grounded in authentic respect.
Rev. Joan Jiko Halifax
Abbot, Upaya Zen Center