Appropriate Speech When Talking Politics: the Buddha’s Five Conditions

Appropriate Speech When Talking Politics: the Buddha’s Five Conditions November 16, 2016

Most of us need to talk to others about political matters. We need to vent and process, and try to understand. We need to keep ourselves conscious of what’s happening in our world so we can respond appropriately.

At the same time, our conversations about politics can get exhausting, depressing, agitating, repetitive, divisive, judgmental, and even hateful. They can discourage us from staying politically engaged – right when we need to stay engaged.

The Buddha laid out five things to consider before speaking, and implied that if our intended statement doesn’t meet all five of these conditions, we should remain silent.  These conditions are listed below, along with short commentaries on how they apply when we’re talking about political issues.

Keep in mind, these are very strict instructions. You may think you’ll have to remain silent forever, and be unable to enter into political dialogue when it matters. Or that you’ll have to keep your feelings bottled up until you get depressed, enraged, or sick. These outcomes are not desirable; the best way to practice with these instructions is to simply keep them in mind before, during, and after your conversations and honestly ask yourself how well your speech met the Buddha’s five conditions. Gradually, your speech will change. Courageous speech that meets these conditions is incredibly powerful – so let’s practice diligently so we can speak effectively in this troubled world.

In the Vaca Sutta, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches that a statement is well-spoken when it meets all five of these conditions:

  1. It is spoken in truth. If you’re honest with yourself, there are very, very few political statements you can confidently speak in truth – unless you stick to “I” statements. “I read” or “I heard” or “lately I’ve been wondering.” It’s best to avoid absolutes, broad generalizations, or predictions about the future. For example, instead of saying, “Corporate greed is going to destroy our planet,” I might say, “I have heard so many stories about corporations prioritizing profits over the well-being of people and ecosystems, I worry about the future of our planet.” For more on speaking honestly or truthfully, read my recent blog post on the subject.
  2. It is spoken beneficially. Wow, this is a hard one, right? Are you really going to benefit the people you are speaking to with your statement? Are you going to help them clarify their thoughts and feelings? Encourage them? Support them? Inform them? If you hope to inform them, are they open to being informed, or are you just going to make them feel defensive? Are you preaching to the choir so you can hear yourself speak? Are you just looking for people to agree with you so you can feel more secure in your worldview? Remember to have compassion for yourself here: You may need to speak in order to process or vent, in which case the benefit is to you. That can be okay, as long as you acknowledge this – out loud, so the people you are speaking to understand the context of your speech. And then watch carefully for the point at which the conversation stops being beneficial either for you or for others.
  3. It is spoken with a mind of good-will. Sure, we experience anger. Maybe even outrage, or hatred. These experiences tell you that you perceive something needs to be protected from danger. Investigate that experience. But when you speak, try to keep in mind that the bodhisattva vow is about saving all beings. Some beings need to be saved from their greed, hate, and delusion (including us). We’re all in this together. If you’re not in the mood to feel sympathy or compassion for your enemy, then keep in mind that ill-will only generates more ill-will. At least speak as if you feel good-will for your enemy – if for no other reason than you’re more likely to be heard, change minds, and get your way.
  4. It is spoken affectionately. This about the flavor and character of your speech. There are many different ways to say the same thing. Err on the side of humility, gentleness, kindness, diplomacy, and compassion. In the moment, this effort may feel contrived and less than “honest,” but affectionate speech reflects the deeper truth of interdependence. In the moment you may feel angry and judgmental, but in reality your well-being is intimately connected with the well-being of all, and what you really want is peace and real happiness for everyone. Choose your words carefully in order to water the seeds of your deeper aspirations instead of your momentary fears and frustrations.
  5. It is spoken at the right time. This means to pay attention to other people and the situation and be sensitive, kind, and compassionate. Watch the faces and body language of the people you are speaking to. Are they looking more and more agitated or depressed as the conversation goes on? Have they lapsed into silence? Are they fidgeting, slouching, or looking at their watch or phone? Is the political conversation involving only a few people, while others are captive and unwilling listeners? If you have any doubt about how other people are feeling during a political conversation, just ask them, “Do you want to change the subject?” Very few of our political conversations are critical in determining the future. Sometimes it more important to simply connect with people, or be present with them.

Carry your Buddhist practice even into your political conversations, but remember to use the Buddha’s five conditions to reflect on your own speech, not to judge the speech of others. If you are subject to speech from others that doesn’t meet these conditions, become mindful of your own state of mind and body. Can you listen compassionately and offer something beneficial when the time is right? Is it worth putting up with some discomfort in order to engage in this conversation? Are you able to refrain from getting drawn into harmful speech? Or are you getting more and more agitated, overwhelmed, depressed, angry, or anxious and the conversation wears on? If necessary, ask people to change the subject. Maybe explain that you just need a break from political talk. Or, if you need to (and can), quietly leave the conversation in order to take care of yourself.

Talking to one another is important, but we’re never going to solve the world’s problems in one conversation. There are many other skillful, compassionate ways to respond to suffering, and many of them don’t involve any speech at all.


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