Words: How Well Do They Work?

ฐานิสสโร ภิกขุ

Words: How Well Do They Work?

As we have noted, the Buddha saw that every truth expressed in words is instrumental, a means to an end.

This is in line with the fact that all words are fabricated by the mind, and—as he himself observed—all fabrications are put together for the sake of something. They’re meant to serve an aim.

The Buddha chose his words so that they would serve the most beneficial aim of all: leading the listener to the reality of the end of suffering.

He was once asked if he would ever say anything displeasing to others, and in the course of his answer he explained the framework he used in deciding what was worth saying and what wasn’t.
(MN 58: Abhaya Rāja-kumāra Sutta, To Prince Abhaya).

The framework boils down to three questions:

• Are these words true?
• Are they beneficial?
• Is this the right time to say something pleasing, or is it the time to say something displeasing?”

–If something wasn’t true, he wouldn’t say it.
–If it was true but not beneficial, he wouldn’t say it.
–Only if it was true and beneficial would he go on to the third question: Given his audience and their state of mind, would it be more beneficial to express that truth in a pleasing or a displeasing way?

…The way the Buddha sets out his framework makes two important points.

The first is that, as he goes through the various possible combinations of true/false, beneficial/unbeneficial, pleasing/unpleasing, there is one combination that he doesn’t even consider as a possibility: that a statement could be false but beneficial.

For him, only true words could be beneficial in the long term. He had no use for the idea of useful fictions. Some fictions might be beneficial in the short term, but over the long term they would end up doing harm: either in misleading the listener or in destroying the listener’s trust.

The second point is that the Buddha also had no use for the idea that displeasing words were necessarily harmful.

People are not damaged by hearing words they don’t like, especially if those words are meant to benefit them.

The skill, here, of course, lies in knowing the right time and place for words of that sort so that they’ll actually have the desired beneficial result.

What this means is that the Buddha was interested in truths—as words—not for their own sake, but for how well they worked.

This reflection by Ajaan Geoff is from the book, Four Noble Truths, “The Truth of Words.”