The Power of Speech

Ajahn Karuṇadhammo • October 2013

I was thinking about an aspect of our practice, right speech, and reflecting on the power of speech to affect us all. In some ways it affects us even more than bodily actions, which we think of as the coarsest way of acting out a mental condition. Speech can have an even broader effect because the number of people who can hear spoken words is greater than the number of people who can observe somebody’s bodily action. Knowing how powerful it is, we need to put a great amount of care and attention into our speech because it can impact each one of us for better or for worse, depending on what is said. I believe that many of us here have a keen intellect with well-developed mental faculties, as well as the ability to rationalize and this often results in having some fairly strong views and opinions. I see that in myself. If we combine that with the ability to articulate, and to put those ideas, thoughts, and intellectual capacities into speech, then the outcome is that one has an extremely powerful tool. It is helpful for us to recognize this power and the possibility of its ramifications.

Thinking historically, we see how one person in this past century, with a strong intellect and a powerful ability to articulate, influenced an entire culture to the point that, even though he may not have personally taken many lives himself, he was responsible for the destruction of six million Jews and millions of other people. He also justified horrible kinds of experimentation on human beings. All of this took place simply because of the power of his intellect and speech.

Conversely, speech can be used on a mass scale for good. We realize this when we look at our own teacher, the Buddha, who was able to use speech for the benefit of many, many people. And 2,600 years later, his ability to communicate and use speech effectively has continued to have a strong influence worldwide.

For better or for worse, speech can be an exceptionally powerful tool and here in our community, we need to be aware that it can have a potent and long-lasting effect. If we have a keen ability to think, rationalize, and analyze, as well as the ability to articulate, it doesn’t mean that our speech is always free from defilement. With all of those qualities the underlying negative tendencies can still be expressed. Sometimes we may feel a need to prove something or to be correct, or feel that something must be done in a certain way, or try to position ourselves within the community in a way that is promoting our views. Those kinds of tendencies are an indication that we are not completely free of basic animal instincts. Our brains may have well-developed cortices and speech centers but we also have the lower functioning parts that are influenced by basic unwholesome tendencies toward territory, ownership, and a sense of “me” and “mine.” These tendencies are still part of our cultural inheritance, our kamma, and our biology. No matter how skilled we are with an ability to speak, no matter how clever we are in the way we think and analyze, these tendencies still come bubbling up.

We need to be aware of that and use our speech in a way that is conducive to harmony, because we also have the ability to harmonize. Think about how powerful and uplifting it can be when there is a discussion in the community centered on Dhamma. Similarly, somebody may express intentions toward kindness, support, clarification, and truth by articulating a harmonious viewpoint, something that contributes to the welfare and well-being of the community. We can develop harmonious speech by using the skills we have learned practicing the Dhamma to check our speech when kamma starts to bubble up. If a conversation is heading in the wrong direction, then one needs to be able to stop it, change direction, or skillfully withdraw if necessary. We can then move toward establishing speech that is not only well expressed but also grounded in kindness and an interest in supporting the welfare of the whole community.