Right Speech and Conflict

Knowing what to say at the right time is something of an art, but we are lucky that the Buddha did give us some advice to point us in the right direction.
I came across an interesting sutta recently while I was doing research for a previous post that gave me the opportunity to be reminded of the teachings around right speech, and to reflect on how different and seemingly unrelated parts of our practice support this.
The sutta itself is called The Non-Conflict sutta, but even with such a straightforward title the meanings within it aren’t entirely self-explanatory. The majority of it is about Right Speech, and it does actually offer us some very practical examples of how we should and shouldn’t communicate to maintain harmony. But it also has some deeper points to make too which seem to point to the connections between what can sometimes seem like disparate elements of practice, which also reminds me of why it is so important to work on having a well balanced practice.

The sutta, MN 139, opens with the Buddha simply stating to his monks that he is going to teach them the analysis of non-conflict, and he gives them this summary of what he is going to cover:

“Don’t indulge in sensual pleasures, which are low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. And don’t indulge in self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, and pointless. Avoiding these two extremes, the Realized One woke up by understanding the middle way, which gives vision and knowledge, and leads to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and extinguishment. Know what it means to flatter and to rebuke. Knowing these, avoid them, and just teach Dhamma. Know how to assess different kinds of pleasure. Knowing this, pursue inner bliss. Don’t talk behind people’s backs, and don’t speak sharply in their presence. Don’t speak hurriedly. Don’t insist on local terminology and don’t override normal usage. This is the recitation passage for the analysis of non-conflict.”

https://suttacentral.net/mn139/en/sujato trans. By Ajahn Sujato

The Buddha then works through each of these topics in order, but his opening topics on sensual pleasure, self-mortification, and the middle way aren’t given much of an exposition, they are largely just stated as facts with little extra explanation. The remaining topics are given more of a breakdown, and the Buddha explains why these other points support non-conflict. It seems relevant that the Buddha is addressing his monks because the areas he is discussing fit with the kinds of conflicts that a teaching monk might get himself into, and perhaps he was also addressing specific incidents that he wanted the others to avoid.

But even though it does lean towards monastic experiences, I still see there is a lot here that is just as relevant for us as laypeople, and even now some 2500 years after this teaching was delivered. The reasons people get into disputes haven’t changed at all in that time, we still antagonise each other in exactly the same ways.

I’m going to start with the sections on external conflict because these are the main focus of how to use right speech, and they don’t need much unpacking. Again bearing in mind that he is talking to his monks, the Buddha starts by pointing out the difference between flattering, rebuking, and teaching just the Dhamma, which was probably a pertinent issue for them. He illustrates to the monks the wrong way to deliver the Dhamma by saying:

“In speaking like this, some are flattered: ‘Pleasure linked to sensuality is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. All those who have broken off such indulgence are free of pain, harm, stress, and fever, and they are practicing the right way.’
In speaking like this, some are rebuked: ‘Indulging in self-mortification is painful, ignoble, and pointless. All those who indulge in it are beset by pain, harm, stress, and fever, and they are practicing the wrong way.’”

https://suttacentral.net/mn139/en/sujato trans by Ajahn Sujato

He makes it clear that making these things personal is not the correct way to teach the Dhamma, by doing so you are either praising or criticising which of course is likely to lead to conflict. It also isn’t a particularly kind or thoughtful way to communicate. Instead of making it about some people being right and some people being wrong, the focus needs to be on cause and effect: these are the types of actions that lead to these outcomes:

“You don’t say: ‘Pleasure linked to sensuality is low, crude, ordinary, ignoble, and pointless. All those who have broken off such indulgence are free of pain, harm, stress, and fever, and they are practicing the right way.’ Rather, by saying this you just teach Dhamma: ‘Breaking off the indulgence is a principle free of pain, harm, stress, and fever, and it is the right way.’
You don’t say: ‘Indulging in self-mortification is painful, ignoble, and pointless. All those who indulge in it are beset by pain, harm, stress, and fever, and they are practicing the wrong way.’ Rather, by saying this you just teach Dhamma: ‘The indulgence is a principle beset by pain, harm, stress, and fever, and it is the wrong way.’

https://suttacentral.net/mn139/en/sujato trans by Ajahn Sujato

Most people aren’t Dhamma teachers, but clearly this is a useful point we can use in our own lives. It is all too easy to fall into our habit of talking and thinking about things in terms of people and personalities, but in the Buddha’s understanding of how the world works it is conditions that create outcomes, so the only way to speak correctly within those terms is to talk only about causes and their effects. This reduces the chance of conflict because it means that we are focusing only on verifiable facts, not on speculation or opinions; and we aren’t making people feel judged by saying that they are right or wrong. It can be a subtle difference of just phrasing something in a slightly different way, but the result of that can be quite marked. As the Buddha says in AN 5.198, the key to right speech is that it should be spoken at the right time, in truth, affectionately, beneficially, and with a mind of good will; so sounding like you are criticising people doesn’t meet the requirement to speak affectionately.

The next area of speech he analyses is not talking behind people’s backs, and not speaking sharply to people in their presence. This uncovers an interesting aspect of the Buddha’s attitude towards the importance of telling the truth; he made it very clear that one is never to lie, but conversely he didn’t state that one should always tell the truth either. His approach to the truth is nuanced, something being true isn’t enough justification for it to be spoken, the usefulness of this truth and the impact it will have on others must be weighed up in the equation too. He says in this sutta that if something is untrue, false, and harmful, then we should really try to learn to not say it at all, either behind someone’s back or to their face. If something is true and correct, but it is still harmful, again the Buddha tells us that we need to learn to not say those things either. But even when what we have to say is true, correct, and beneficial, we still don’t have free rein to just say it, we still need to check that it is the right time to speak before we say something. As in AN 5.198 above, the key to right speech is that it must be spoken at the right time.

The Buddha then talks about speaking hurriedly as a problem because it will tire you out, make your voice strained, and will make you more liable to being misunderstood. If our focus is on using right speech to avoid conflict then it is useful to be reminded that something as simple as people not understanding what you are saying is another potential source of conflict.

He finishes up by saying that we shouldn’t insist on using particular terminology, or particular ways of doing things if they are the norm. This might have been addressing particular problems that his monks had when they travelled to other areas that used different languages and dialects, so he needed to point out to them that it really doesn’t matter what word is used for things like ‘pots’ and ‘bowls’, what they need to do is to respect that this is the way the people there refer to those things. For us this points to recognising a tendency we might have for feeling that our way is the right way, and that digging our heels in and insisting on it does create conflict. Often we find that winning these sorts of petty squabbles is a hollow victory, we have proved our point but we have created so much disharmony in the process that the damage done was totally disproportionate to the small moment of pleasure we got from being right. If we speak with a mind of good will, then we will bear this in mind before we jump on our high horse about something trivial.

So going from ways that we create external conflict, now to looking at what the sutta says about internal conflict.The Buddha doesn’t go into a lot of detail about internal conflict but he does talk about it in very stark and direct terms. Pleasure from sensuality is low, crude, ignoble, and pointless; indulging in it leads to pain, harm, stress, and fever, and it is the wrong way. Again it is worth remembering that he is talking to his monks, so the strength of the language corresponds with his audience. Self-mortification likewise is painful, ignoble, and pointless, and indulging in it also leads to pain, harm, stress, and fever, it too is the wrong way. It is worth noting that even though our experience of them feels very different, both sense pleasure and self-mortification will both lead to the same outcome – pain, harm, stress, and fever. This distress, we are to understand, is the source of our inner conflict, and in this sutta the Buddha says that the right way is the middle way, which is to avoid these two extremes of sensual pleasure and self-mortification. The practice of the middle way itself is following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha here says that we need to learn how to recognise the difference between different types of pleasure; yes sensual pleasure is ultimately not beneficial for us, but if we were to reject all kinds of pleasure that would be taking an extreme position – which is not the middle way. There is an experience of pleasure that doesn’t rely on the senses, and that is jhana meditation. This is the type of pleasure that we should be cultivating, not just because we need to take a balanced position, but because this type of pleasure will in time make us less interested in the more coarse pleasures of the senses.

But I feel that in this sutta the Buddha doesn’t only mention sources of internal conflict just because they complete a discussion of the subject; the message seems to be that they lie at the heart of what causes external conflicts, so if we want to behave harmoniously with others then we need to pay attention to our inner world. We could see the point that the Buddha makes about speaking hurriedly as suggesting a particular way that our inner state can contribute to inadvertently creating the conditions for conflict. We might speak hurriedly because we are nervous; We might speak hurriedly if we want to get something finished by a particular time; we might speak hurriedly if we find the subject boring and want to get onto something else; if we tire ourselves out by speaking too quickly we might forget what we were supposed to say and say the wrong thing; and if we speak quickly our mouth might go faster than our mind and we end up saying something we didn’t mean to say.

But I feel that there is also something much more fundamental in this sutta too, that connects internal and external conflict to the Budda’s realisation that the source of our suffering is craving. Specifically that craving revolves around our desire to only have pleasant experiences and to get rid of, or avoid any unpleasant experiences, and this is where our internal conflict creates the conditions for external conflict. It isn’t laid out in this particular sutta, but in MN 14, The Shorter Discourse on the Mass of Suffering, the subject of how sensual pleasure leads to suffering and conflict is explored in great detail.

In MN 14 the Buddha explains that when we are attached to sensual pleasures that means we need to work hard to earn a living, and in the course of doing that we will suffer the discomforts of being out in the elements, of being tired, and so on; but whether we are successful or not, we will still suffer because of it. If we work hard but make no money, we will lament our wasted efforts and feel hard done by; but if we are successful, instead of being happy we become consumed with concern about how we can stop our money from being stolen, or losing it in bad investments, and we will worry about our possessions being stolen or damaged. We become fixated on having things turn out the way that we want them to, and on avoiding the discomfort of things going against us.

In the same sutta, the Buddha then goes on to say that because of this wish to only experience the pleasant people fight each other, from kings fighting kings, householders with householders, parents with children, brother with sister, and even friends with friends. In the parallel Chinese text to MN 14 [1], it elaborates that quarrelling leads to speaking badly of each other, and that leads to people hating each other. The hating then leads to violence, at first between individual people, and then it ultimately leads to war. So when you look at MN 14 and it’s parallel, you can see that the Buddha has drawn a direct causal link between our individual pursuit of sensual pleasure and conflict with other people. Not only that, we can follow a clear connection between attachment to sensual pleasures and how that impacts on right speech, and how not using right speech leads to conflict.

The desire to have things only the way that we want them creates a state of constant internal conflict for us because either we are desperately trying to get something we haven’t got, or we are desperately trying to not lose something that is already ours. This is perhaps why the Buddha says that both indulgence in sensual pleasures and self-mortification both lead to pain, harm, stress and fever – even when we get what we want it just creates more problems for us. Both extremes of pleasure and pain do not lead to inner or outer peace, and that is why the Buddha says that they are the wrong way.

The craving for sensual pleasures also creates an internal stress that makes it harder for us to conduct ourselves correctly, and makes it less likely that we will follow the guidance about right speech, thereby creating another source of conflict. The internal stress we experience from practicing self-mortification will also leave us less able to act with patience and wisdom, again creating the conditions for conflict with others.

So what seems on some levels to be a sutta that is largely about right speech, goes well beyond the basics of how to speak in a way that will minimise hurt, misunderstanding, and conflict, and points us to how our habitual tendency towards wanting only pleasant experiences is ultimately the source of our conflicts. This is where the not so obvious connection between meditation practice and right speech becomes clearer – it is through meditation that we gain the insight into our own behaviours and the suffering that they cause us, and that leads us to stop pursuing a life of sensual pleasures.

Each element of our practice is interconnected, and we can’t tackle a bad habit just by doing a spot fix on it, change comes through the development of our whole practice not just by picking out the parts that seem the most relevant. This was one of the shrewdest actions of the Buddha when he put together his path of development; he realised that to reach enlightenment required a combination of factors that needed to be developed fully, so he created the Noble Eightfold Path.

So it makes more sense to me now that the Buddha starts a sutta which is largely about right speech by talking about the dangers of indulging in sensual pleasures, or in self-mortification, because the way to avoid these two extremes is to follow his middle way, which is done by developing the factors of the Noble Eightfold Path.The need to cultivate multiple different aspects of practice can be a source of frustration for us at times when the mistake we keep making doesn’t seem to have an obvious method for correcting it, we just need to get our head down and keep working on seemingly unrelated qualities in the hope that at some point it will all make sense. But the Buddha seemed to know what he was talking about, and in my experience at least I generally find that if I just keep doing the right things then in time it all works out. So if you want to work on your right speech, don’t forget to spend time meditating because even though it doesn’t seem to be the obvious route to take, all the parts of the practice are ultimately connected to each other.

[1] The Madhyama Āgama (Middle-length Discourses), Volume II, dBET PDF Version, Edited by Bhikkhu Anālayo and Roderick S. Bucknell, MA 100, p 246

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

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