The doctrine of Right Speech (morally skillful speech) holds a pivotal place in Buddhism's overall moral system, as a kind of gateway between thought and action, between moral intention and active expression.
According to the Buddha, speech is the first action that an individual may positively take in the world following a period of quiet meditation, and perhaps the achievement of some insight into ''the way things are'' through meditation. The equanimity and inner peace that may have developed in meditation thus has a chance to be expressed in the world immediately through speech, even before action.
Crucially, the Buddha explicitly identifies Right Speech as a necessary step on the path to enlightenment. It is given as the first of three virtues necessary as a foundation for spiritual growth, the two others being Right Action (acting so as to help and not harm all sentient beings) and Right Livelihood (making a living in a useful and nonviolent way). Put another way, attaining enlightenment without having mastered Right Speech is impossible. This is true of all three of the above-named virtues but again, by listing Right Speech above the other two, the Buddha seems to give it a certain priority as requiring that the utmost careful attention be paid to the incredibly subtle, but also incredibly powerful, uses and abuses of human speech.
It's important to sketch out the larger system in which Right Speech holds such a special and pivotal place. That larger moral system, which essentially contains the entirety of the Buddha's teachings, is usually referred to as the Four Noble Truths. These truths were the subject of the Buddha's first sermon following his enlightenment, and he often said they were all that he taught his 50 years as a wandering monk. The Buddha summarized the Four Noble Truths by saying that all his teaching was about one thing only: ''Suffering and the end of suffering.'' The Four Noble Truths are usually given as 1) The truth of suffering, 2) The truth of the arising of suffering, 3) The truth of the end of suffering, and 4) The path to the end of suffering.
The First Noble Truth, the truth of suffering, says that the impermanence of all things is the source of human suffering. The Buddhist word ''dukkha,'' usually translated as ''suffering'' (and the source of the mistaken popular notion that Buddhism is a nihilistic creed) actually connotes not only the ideas of human suffering, discomfort, and pain, but additionally the ideas of impermanence, imperfection, emptiness, and void. The Noble Truth of Suffering says that at the heart of the human experience lies a cosmic seed of imperfection that we spend our lives trying to understand and heal.
The Second Noble Truth, the truth of the arising of suffering, says that ignorance is the root of all suffering. More specifically, it says that ignorance of the present conditions of life -- of ''the way things are'' -- sets off a chain of potentially disastrous inner reactions based on that ignorance: either trying to make permanent what one likes, or trying to destroy what one dislikes. Either of those reactions only tightens the grip of desire or aversion, leading people to devise ever more desperate schemes for release.
The Third Noble Truth, the truth of the end of suffering, says that an experiential understanding of the way things are, can lead to the end of suffering. This transcendent wisdom gained through meditation dissolves suffering as the morning sun evaporates the dew. It's a wisdom-in-the-bones, a knowledge of lived experience, and not anything book-learned or mentally puzzled out. It blooms from within, drawing on its own depths for nourishment. Suffering ends because wisdom creates the possibility of action that is smoothly continuous with the realities of the world.
The Fourth Noble Truth, the path to the end of suffering, is the Buddha's great how-to manual of enlightenment. It describes eight steps that collectively create conditions in which suffering can decrease by degrees, and finally cease completely. Although the path is usually described as having eight steps, in essence there are only three, with each of those three broken down in groupings of three, three, and two sub-step. The three basic steps are ethical conduct, meditation, and transforming insight into the way things are. Rather than forming a stairway that leads to heaven, these three steps and their eight sub-steps are more like a Mobius Strip that endlessly leaves, travels, and arrives in the here and now. One can start anywhere on the path, or choose to follow any step at any time, or several or all of them all at once, and always arrive at the same place. The Noble Eightfold Path, as the path to the end of suffering is usually called, truly describes more of a place than a path, with the place being the present, a boundary-less orb without coordinates in which all things happen everywhere all the time. To phrase it this way is to advance to the end of the teaching at the speed of light, so take it as you will. The basic point is that the Noble Eightfold Path leads a person to a direct experience of the way things are, which is the solvent of ignorance, which is the path to the end of suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path is usually shown schematically as:
|1. Right View||Transforming Insight|
|2. Right Intention|
|3. Right Speech||Ethical Conduct|
|4. Right Action|
|5. Right Livelihood|
|6. Right Effort||Meditation|
|7. Right Mindfulness|
|8. Right Concentration|
The essential logic of the path is that virtuous action in the world creates a foundation for fruitful individual meditation, and that individual meditation creates a foundation for the arising of wisdom in a soul. A virtuous circle leading to the end of suffering can thus be started by entering the path at any point. Yet, within this virtuous cycle, Right Speech stands at an especially critical point, which is the line proceeding from wisdom towards virtue. Right Speech lies right at the point where the wholesome soul developed through meditation, decides to express itself in the world. The very first such expression, the Buddha says, is speech that will either spread the peace achieved by meditation into the world or, if unskillfully spoken, will assuredly achieve just the opposite effect.