There are three ways we act on the inclinations, impulses, and intentions that come through the mind, and these are through body, speech, or mind. In a monastery, where there are many restraints on our activities, we can particularly notice the action of speech. Because actions and ideas are often expressed through speech, it’s good to focus attention on this habit so we can learn about ourselves through our speech patterns. In the monastery we attempt to speak only the truth, but also to speak without anger, without tale-bearing, and without frivolous or unnecessary speech. Overall, people do a good job with the practice of right speech. However, speech is a difficult area of practice, and wrong speech can come out unexpectedly.
We come to the monastery with speech habits formed through family upbringing and the company we’ve kept. In Western cultures there can be an encouragement for people to express their thoughts openly, without considering how it might affect other people. This conditioning can manifest in speech indicative of trying to get one’s way or get what one wants or being overly persistent. We can also express frustration, impress people, or present ourselves in certain ways that might be different from how we really are.
These habits in our minds can easily influence the speech we use in the monastery, and it can take constant vigilance to restrain ourselves from speaking in unskillful ways. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say nothing, as when practicing noble silence. But at other times in a monastery there is a need for communication. We need to talk with each other to engender a sense of communal living and support as well as maintain harmony and well-being. If something needs to be communicated or somebody needs support, then skillful speech is appropriately encouraged.
Nevertheless, we must watch the underlying impulse or mood in the mind that serves as the basis for speech. It’s important to be careful with our speech because people are sensitive, and regrets can arise when others are hurt through the use of wrong speech. The Mettā Sutta suggests that we be not only straightforward in speech, but gentle as well. Even if our speech is true, we must be mindful of the impact our words have in a community, as well as when we are engaging in the world outside of the monastery.
This reflection by Ajahn Karunadhammo is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume One, (pdf) pp. 57-58.