The Right Speech

I took a mindfulness workshop at a friend’s yoga studio this weekend. The class was taught by an ordained monastic in the Jonang lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I’m not much of a follower of anything, but Buddhism offers something for everyone. I learned that one of the limbs of smrti, Sanskrit for mindfulness, is that, “One is mindful to abandon wrong speech and to enter and remain in right speech.”

So what is right speech? I’d think it is language that attempts to be as true and factual as possible, though, of course, there’s always a lowercase “t” on truth and facts can be subjective sometimes.  But according to the monk, right speech is not necessarily truthful. It is helpful rather than factual. It is kind. It is timely.

Here’s an example:

An angry, armed man knocks on your door and asks for your brother.  You know that he is upstairs asleep. Would you tell the truth and send the shooter upstairs or would you say that your brother left for the airport an hour ago?

Of course, you’d tell him the latter. That would be the “right speech” for the time, although it is not factual.

But circumstances are not always this clear. Do you tell your spouse that you cheated on her once—only once, a long time ago, while you were still engaged? Doing so would relieve your conscience but burden your wife. Do you rat out a friend who has lied on his resume, knowing that if he loses his job, he won’t be able to support his family? It’s not fair that he takes credit for things he didn’t do, and yet his three kids would pay the price.

Oftentimes, we are faced with these dilemmas. Trishia Jacobs shared an interesting conversation posted by Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago. ”What do you do if a dying family member wants to know that you believe in Jesus and god before their impending death? If you tell the truth they may hate you, but yet you don’t want to lie to them. What do you see as the solution?”

One woman responded, “Always be true to yourself. Why should my beliefs have any bearing on whether or not they get into a make believe utopia? They should be content in THEIR own beliefs.” There were many others like her who agreed.

Seems heartless, thinking only of yourself when someone you supposedly love is in pain physically and emotionally. You and I both know why a dying Christian would ask this:  He wants hope that he’ll be reunited with you and those he loves. Is that such a bad thing? What is the right speech, and what will it cost? If we are being helpful, kind, timely and merciful, we will ease the emotional burden of the person who is dying. There is no cost to us, no price we’ll pay by simply saying “I believe in Jesus” or by giving a squeeze on the arm for assent. Our rights will not have been affected, nor will our lack of belief. The conversation will soon be buried, gone forever. And the truth could be that you believe in what Jesus taught about love and kindness, but not in his divinity.

It is important to teach our children right speech, too, because it takes the focus off them and encourages empathy and compassion. Wisdom comes from knowing when to make an issue of religion and when to make peace.



51 responses to “The Right Speech

  1. I wouldn’t tell a loved one on death’s door that I believe in Jesus, Allah, or any other type of divinity. In a sense, this is an example of Christian privilege. Would a Christian tell a Muslim friend who is about to die that he or she renounces Jesus?

    • Hi Andrew, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t think that this has anything to do with Christian privilege. It’s simply a matter of compassion for the dying.

      A Muslim would most likely not ask a Christian to renounce Jesus, considering that Islam considers Jesus a prophet.

      • A Muslim near death may certainly wish that his or her loved who happens to be a Christian join them in paradise. That would mean rejecting Christ as God (traditional trinitarian doctrine) and accepting that Allah is God and Mohammed is His last prophet. Asking an atheist to renounce his or her belief (or non-belief) system is the same thing.

        • Andrew, This is very true about doctrinal differences. But, again, it wasn’t really the point I was trying to make. I was only saying that to give *someone we love* — a wife, parent, grandparent–some solace really doesn’t come with a cost, especially if it’s just a smile or hug. It’s not going to affect us in any way. But I certainly understand if a person feels this is compromising himself and would rather not.


          • And what I’m saying is that there is religious privilege in that it’s commonly considered absurd that someone would ask a Christian to give up his or her faith while asking an atheist to compromise disbelief is no biggie.

  2. Thank you for sharing that insight.

  3. Yeah, this is a tough one. I have several friends who haven’t come “out” to their older relatives about their beliefs for basically this reason (except the older relatives aren’t really close to death). Their reasoning is that these people are old, won’t understand and won’t change, and it’s not going to help and only going to hurt.

    I have to admit: I have a hard time with that logic. I don’t think it’s doing them or you a favor to be less than truthful about who you are. If you were gay, would you tell grandma? If you were marrying a person of another race? Why should their beliefs trump your ability to maintain your own identity and dignity? (Especially since we’re not talking about deathbed confessions, but years and years of get togethers and holiday gatherings.)

    On the other hand, there’s certainly some truth to the fact that it may never change anything and only make someone upset. And fighting a needless battle just seems like a waste of energy.

    I feel like in some cases (and this may be wholly unfair) this is sort of an age thing. The younger one is, the more they are likely to believe that truth is more important than struggle, that battles are worth fighting, and that other people’s feelings are less important than what’s right. The older people are, it seems like they are less likely to believe in any of those things, because life has taught them otherwise time and again. Or maybe I’m wrong and it’s just a personality thing. Or both.

    I think I disagree with what would be the right speech in this situation, but I have complete sympathy for the perspective I disagree with. It’s a really hard call and I don’t think you can do anything but take each situation case by case.

  4. That’s an interesting perspective, Someone. Thanks for sharing.

    I always thought that the young had a harder time with the truth because they were afraid of other’s reactions (they may not like me, they may be disappointed). Peer pressure has a lot of power.

    Of course, every situation is different (for example. older relatives who are just being pushy). But in the case of a dying loved one, the issue isn’t about “truthfulness.” It’s simply about compassion. What is the *intent* behind the question they ask? Conversion? Or because they want hope? Dying is an incredible lonely process.

    Besides, what is “truth” exactly? There’s a lot of wiggle room there, as any politician knows! 🙂

  5. I much prefer the ethical foundations of Buddhism to the Ten Commandments because the 8-fold path does not demand belief or exclude based on belief and it encourages self awareness and self improvement rather than blind obedience.

    RIGHT VIEWS:perceiving the world as it is rather than imposing a false system on it, understanding the changing nature of everything, not placing ourselves at the center of our existence

    RIGHT SPEECH: truthfulness, kindness, clarity, sensitivity, and being fully ‘present’ when we speak

    RIGHT INTENTION:self-understanding of what motivates us to behave the way we do, think the way we do, and believe what we do. Acknowledging our intentions for ourselves and for others

    RIGHT ACTION:causing no harm or minimal harm to others, avoid taking life, avoid taking what is not intended for you, avoid sensual misconduct, avoid intoxication, avoid false or hurtful speech

    RIGHT LIVELIHOOD: do not engage in work that destroys life or harms others, do not engage in work that involves deception, cheating, or slander, do not engage in work that promotes compassion

    RIGHT EFFORT: actively cultivate positive qualities such as compassion, wisdom, patience, and generosity. actively try to eliminate in the self negative qualities such as greed, ignorance, and anger

    RIGHT MINDFULNESS: cultivate being fully present in each moment, rather than being distracted by daydreams, anticipation, indulgences, or worry.

    RIGHT CONCENTRATION: cultivate reducing distraction and focusing through meditation, cleansing the mind to cultivate well-being, inner peace, patience, and wisdom

  6. “If we are being helpful, kind, timely and merciful, we will ease the emotional burden of the person who is dying.”

    This is such a thoughtful post, Debbie. And I agree with you on so many levels. I very much understand where you’re coming from, but clinical studies indicate that the more spiritual support a dying person gets from its community the greater likelihood they will suffer more in their last week of death. Quoting data from the clinical studies published in JAMA (Journal for the American Medical Association).

    “Objective: To determine whether spiritual support from religious communities influences terminally ill patients’ medical care and quality of life (QoL) near death.

    Compared to those who reported a lower level of spiritual support, participants who reported “high spiritual support” from religious communities were about a third as likely to receive end-of-life (EoL) hospice care, over two and half times more likely to to receive some form of aggressive — and expensive — EoL service (like being put on a ventilator or pursuing additional chemotherapy), and five times more likely to die in a hospital ICU in their last week of life. Furthermore, patients who self-reported the highest levels of “religious coping” during their final days were 11 times as likely to receive aggressive EoL treatments and 22 times more likely to die in the ICU compared to those with lower levels of religious coping.

    Conclusions and Relevance Terminally ill patients who are well supported by religious communities access hospice care less and aggressive medical interventions more near death.”

    Can there be a point where we can cause more suffering with our kind speech? In some cases, I’d say yes.

    • Hi Victoria, I remember reading that article on Medscape. There have been a lot of articles teaching physicians how to deal with end-of-life for the spiritual and for non-theists. Perhaps–as this article shows–doctors should be instructed on the best use of medical resources as well as quality end-of-life. I think that, no matter what you believe, seems like a horrible end to spend your last hours in the ICU, especially when it’s already been determined that you’re terminal. It is such a tough, tough call. My father died in 2012 so this is still fresh in my head. It is so lonely and scary to pass into nothingness. Death is not scary, of course, but like anything the fear of it is.

    • Interesting. It’s just as if theists are MORE afraid to die than non-theists. Are they perhaps afraid there isn’t an afterlife after all? I would have thought that with all the hype afterlife gets in religions they’d welcome a fast death.

      • @Kalle Last I think some are afraid of not being reunited with their loved ones of other belief systems. But that’s just a guess from someone who doesn’t believe there’s an eternal vacation spot somewhere in the sky!

  7. Right (truthful) speech is NEVER appropriate when your wife asks, “Does this dress make me look fat?”

  8. What if the situation in reversed and you are on your deathbed and someone wants you to convert before you go? This has happened in my family with my mother. When her sister was dying, my mom said she was at peace with losing her sister because her sister converted in the days before her death and my mom knew that she would see her again someday (in heaven). But when her brother was dying a year or so ago, he refused to convert to Christianity even though he knew he probably wasn’t going to survive. She pushed for him to convert but he wouldn’t. This left my mom feeling very disappointed. I think I will be faced with one or the other at some point. If my mom goes before I do, she will want me to believe (she kind of knows I don’t, but I think she’s in denial) or if I go before her, she will try to convince me that it’s the right the to do. Either way, I would not want to disappoint her, but at the same time, I’m not sure what I would do in either case.

    • The other day, I was watching a video of a debate with Christopher Hitchens (PBUH). He asked, and rightly so, why the religious get to pressure the non-believing on their deathbeds while no atheist would ever, EVER consider asking a dying person to live the last few hours of this life free of attachments to false gods, fairy tales, etc. He has a point, you know.

      • Haha, Deo. (PBUH) Of course Hitchens has a point. But can you fault one who is in a religious-trance? It just seems like such a very little thing, and what it comes down to, in refusing to give solace, might be ego. I dunno. Just my thoughts at this point….

      • Excellent point @deosullivan3!

        My husband and I live in a tiny town in west Tennessee. We don’t push our non belief on anyone for we know that we were where most of the locals are regarding religion just a few years ago. (We understand the devastation one experiences when the lights come on about religion. Less than two years into leaving our faith, we still have our moments of mourning.) However, there have been a couple of times when people asked us specific questions regarding belief and morality and we both gave them quick, calm and honest answers for where we stood on such issues.

        The people closest to me already know that I’m an atheist. Most of them were told by my hateful, Pentecostal dad who believes I need deliverance. If one of the said people were on his or her death bed and asked me if I’ve changed back or will reconvert down the road, I think I would tell them no. I’d be apologetic that they’re disappointed about my choice. However, I can’t lie to them.

        My only exception is my Christian maternal grandma who I don’t see much. She will more than likely die in a few years. To my knowledge, she doesn’t know about my non belief. The last time I saw her I was still a Christian. If I were to see her again and she were to mention God, I don’t think I would flat out agree with her, but I wouldn’t necessarily flat out deny God to her either. She’s well into her 80’s and has never hurt me in any way. We’ve never been super close, but I know that I have a special place in her heart because I’m her first grandchild.

        • Hi Charity, I’m so sorry that your dad has been so hurtful to you, and I understand that you would not want to give him that peace. Some things are not forgivable, and from what you’ve discussed before, I know he has made your life difficult.

          As for your grandmother, I totally get what you’re saying because I had a similar situation with my grandmother and she would have been so pained and so fearful for me….

    • Hi Gina, For sure, it is a tough call, and you don’t really know what you’ll do until you’re there….I understand your mom’s brother not wanting to convert–and your mom hoping she’ll see him.

  9. I have to agree with Andrew: i wouldn’t do it, although i might just offer a smile as opposed to an outright declaration.

    It’s funny; it seems almost taboo to even consider teaching a child the benefits of right speech (where a lie may be necessary), but it is an excellent vehicle for learning empathy in the young.

  10. A philosopher I admired greatly, Susan Langer, had a similar concept — she felt that instead of fruitless argument about EVERYthing, people should strive for discussing and doing that which produced the best result. This was not mere pragmatism (which can be used to justify some really cruddy choices), but the idea that our words and choices are “fruitful” in a helpful, conducive to progress way.
    I’ve always thought she was seriously on the right track — talk about what promotes forward motion and real progress!

  11. Hi Deb,

    Great post, thanks for sharing this. I really like: “But according to the monk, right speech is not necessarily truthful. It is helpful rather than factual. It is kind. It is timely.” and “It is important to teach our children right speech, too, because it takes the focus off them and encourages empathy and compassion. Wisdom comes from knowing when to make an issue of religion and when to make peace.”

    I feel that there is a time and a place for empathetic “right speech” and an appropriate time for being “factual.” We should aim to me mindful, to discern which is the right time and place for each.

    Take care,

  12. Two points I’d like to make: I concur that truth can be written with a lowercase ‘t’. I’ve often wondered what I would have done if I lived in Europe during the Nazi occupation. How much would I have collaborated to save myself and my family. I think I would have spoke little “t” truth often and might have actually enjoyed being double tongued toward the Nazis:)

    In regard to the conversation with the dying relative, I don’t think of myself as a manipulative person, but I gave much thought to the Richard Dawkins’ scenario and I imagined myself not answering the question by manipulating where I wanted the conversation to go. Something like: “You know, Grandma, when you talk about Jesus and God, your face lights up. I see the faith and hope in your eyes. I’m going to remember this moment with you and treasure it always. I love you so much. I remember that time…..” I think sometimes that confrontation can give way to diplomacy and compassion and one’s values/morals are not the less for it.

    As always, Debbie, love how you give us good stuff to ruminate on.

    • @Trishia Jacobs I love your response! When people ask me about my faith or church, I’ll sometimes reply by turning the attention back on them, too. (It’s really no one’s business anyway.) Thanks, by the way, for pointing me to that conversation. Definitely food for thought!

    • Trishia,

      Your point in the second paragraph seems doable and reasonable. You’re not lying in the situation at all. You’re simply keeping the conversation calm and kind with the person you love, regardless of their belief system.

  13. There is no easy or right answer for the q you posed. In many respects the one asking for affirmation is in the wrong no matter their predicament but…

    In that hypothetical scenario the person asking would most likely be close to you so you might just not say anything and just smile and squeeze their arm and remain true to yourself.

    The q Mr Hitchens posed was very valid – why is the need for tolerance and reverence only a one-way street?

  14. I’d pretend to have a born-again experience at my mom’s bedside if it would lighten her heart in this world. I’d promise to convert her grand daughters too. What do I care? They are mere words. Says me ALL words that ease pain and bring comfort are excellent!

  15. @Aaron Freeman, love your attitude:)

  16. Kindness in words creates confidence.
    Kindness in thinking creates profoundness.
    Kindness in giving creates love.

    ~ Lao-Tse

  17. If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ~ Joss Whedon

  18. It really is an intriguing thought. A majority of people (my former, Christian incarnation included) assume that “right speech” is the domain of the religious, as the Bible is where one finds “the golden rule” and many other admonitions to be merciful, kind, mindful, etc. (Paul’s letters to the early churches leap to mind…) Clearly, though, this isn’t true. You don’t need a religious framework to be that kind of a person or cultivate the trait of “right speech”.

    The examples you brought up are doubly intriguing to me, for I was taught as a Christian that lying is ALWAYS wrong, even if the circumstances seem to warrant it, and that if you tell the truth God will protect you and honor your commitment to the truth. Story after story is brought out to illustrate the point… and so, as a new un-believer, I find my ingrained instincts to be at war with my rational mind which says, “Yes, I can see that. That makes sense to bend/omit the truth in that case.” Kind of like the whole “it’s always wrong to steal” scenario pitted against the hypothetical scenario of the man who must steal the antidote to some illness for his dying wife. Situational ethics, and all that jazz.

    What led me to comment was the confirmation of belief through a careful statement of the truth that you discuss in the scenario of the dying Christian family member. I find myself doing this kind of thing with my family members and friends from church and Bible college. I mean, they’re not all dying (how awful would that be?!), but I do know that my relationship with them is very precious to me so I agree where I can and shut my mouth on the rest. Fortunately I’m a fairly quick-witted and well spoken person, so it’s not too hard for me to say things in a way that tells the truth but lets them take from it what they want to hear. Also, I have no qualms discussing doctrine with them even though I don’t openly state that I no longer believe it, so I think they take that as proof of my belief. I don’t know. I’ve had a few instances where my “coming out” has resulted in damage to the relationship so I figure that if they don’t ask and they haven’t figured things out through the fact that I no longer attend church, then why do I need to bring it up? It’s not hurting me all to remain silent, and I don’t feel that I am lying or misleading them in the relationship. I will, however, maintain my personal boundaries and stand up for myself when necessary, as I’ve had to do with some members of my old church. I HATE it when people try to guilt trip or manipulate you into doing something using God as an excuse.

  19. Oh for Pete’s sake, the person is dying. Tell them whatever would make them happy in their final moments. Or as you suggest, just smile and squeeze their arm. It’s a kindness, the compassionate thing to do. Why say anything that would distress them? It’s one of those fingers-crossed white lies like telling your wife you love her new haircut when you really hate it.

    • I really see your point, PiedType.

      But I have to wonder aloud, when do atheists get to tell the truth? When will we no longer feel like we have to hide and lie and deflect? And I’m not innocent here. I too have a very old and pious grandmother whom I don’t see very often and who doesn’t (or probably doesn’t) know what I believe. So I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I would just like to think that things are going to be easier for us one day, hopefully for my children, if not before I’m on my own deathbed.

      • @deo. I think we’ve already made great strides! 🙂 We no longer are hanged or imprisoned for our lack of beliefs, and our children are not forced to pray in school. Little steps every day….

  20. I’d prefer a situation in which people, even those who are dying, respect each other enough to not bully each other with guilt or threats. I agree with Deb, that we should be kind and put things into context (will saying I love Jesus to my dying grandmother really hurt me?), but I also agree with deo that we should not have to deny who are what we are to please others. Should the gay person promise his dying parent he’ll live straight after he dies? Should the unmarried, career woman promise a dying parent she’ll ‘settle down’ and have children? Should a person dating someone of a difference race or religion promise to not marry that person to his dying parent? Where does it end? Why is the Christian who refuses to deny her faith a martyr, but the atheist who refuses to deny her disbelief is characterized as insensitive and arrogant?

    • There are times when atheism and fundamentalism can be quite similar, and those are the times when both are arrogant, egotistical, and when they refuse to see our common humanity in favor of holding onto an ideology. I always advocate for appropriate boundaries, but there are times when we need to overlook bad behavior and be the bigger person…

  21. I think this is a wonderful concept. It’s something that people don’t want to talk about b/c it’s a very gray area. But you’ve summed it up so nicely. I completely agree w/ you.

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