Recently I had a conversation with a friend about truth-telling.
We agreed how too often “the truth” becomes an excuse for bludgeoning someone rather than any sort of actually trying to help. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled reading advice on this subject, how telling the truth wasn’t quite enough. There was something about kindness and necessity being important, as well. I decided to look it up…
My friend the Dharma bum who goes by Weasel Tracks observes “Conditions for right speech go back at least to the Suttas, and maybe they predate both Buddha and Mahavira, in the common Indian spiritual culture of the 1st millennium BC and since.” And certainly there are lists attributable to the Buddha.
But, I noodled around the web looking for the quote I was half remembering. I found it. It’s even better than I recalled. It goes:
“Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?”
What bothered me was how this quote was attributed to Sathya Sai Baba, a figure of considerable controversy. However, I also found the quote attributed to who I like to think of as the real Sai Baba, Sai Baba of Shirdi, whom I find a very attractive figure. The Sai Baba who was born in 1926 and who died in 2011 claimed to be the reincarnation of the Sai Baba who was born, well, we don’t know when he was born, but who died in 1918. So there’s a fair amount of confusion.
But its the saying that’s the thing.
First, that truth thing. I suspect we need always to be careful of assertions of truth. Pilate’s famous question hangs always in the air. So, for the sake of argument, let’s say for a moment this advice comes from Sathya Sai Baba, someone who has been charged with various forms of fraud and abuse. Let’s say he’s guilty of everything he’s been accused of, and the list is rather long. Is the saying any less true? Any less helpful? I think not. For me truth has most to do with congruence with reality. And appeal to authority is just one more fallacy distracting us in our quest. Ironically, I find I best approach truth so far as matters spiritual are concerned through passionate not-knowing. Which circles around to silence…
But before that, second, that kind thing. The Dalai Lama is famously said to have declared his religion is kindness. I admit I find kindness is something powerful and compelling and seems to exist at the heart of the spiritual quest. The kind heart seems essential to finding joy and peace in this life. And I have no doubt acting with kindness is one of the great rules of thumb for a worthy life.
And third, that necessary thing. When is something absolutely needed? Not often, I suspect. Actually I’m pretty sure not often. But, sometimes, absolutely, something is necessary. And it does feel to me necessity should trump kindness.
Before I throw words at silence, I want to note before finding the Sai Baba quote I was recalling this as some sort of rule of thumb about when to speak. And, I was thinking, the rule was something to the effect of asking: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
And then, interestingly, at least in my imaginal reconstruction of the rule, if the answer to at least two of these questions is yes, then speak..
Although one of those combinations gives me pause. That’s when a statement that is both kind and necessary but is not true. Although… The Buddha tells a story of a man who calls to children in a burning building, telling them he has candy. Kind. Necessary. But not a bit a chocolate in the bargain…
Moving into too many words…