Jesus, Buddha and Right Speech

This post is part of a series on Jesus’ Teaching in Buddhist Terminology.

Both Jesus and the Buddha taught Mindful Speech, also known as right speech.  In a nutshell, the dharma of right speech is about refraining from speech that will do harm, and speaking with loving kindness. Here’s what Jesus said, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

And he called the multitude, and said unto them, Hear, and understand:  Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.  Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?  But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.  Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.  Then answered Peter and said unto him, Declare unto us this parable. And Jesus said, Are ye also yet without understanding? Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?  But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:  These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man. (Matt 15:10-20 )

Jesus is saying that it’s not what goes in to your mouth, but rather what comes out of your mouth, that will be defiling or make you unclean.  This was a radical statement, in a time when cleanliness and purity laws were central to worship. His point was that whatever we eat will pass through us, but what comes from within, when they are vulgar or base, will defile you. Put positively, Jesus seems to be suggesting that we speak only truth, and only from a motivation of loving-kindness. That’s the same thing that the Buddha taught.

Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha recognized that, unlike the child’s nursery rhyme, sticks and stones can harm… they can even make, break and save lives… they can start wars, disarm enemies… Buddhism offers further details: refrain from slander, lies, or repeating anything malicious or harsh or harmful words, including idle or purposeless gossip and chatter.

Jesus’ dharma on right speech is not unlike the Buddhist practice of Right Speech, the first principal of ethical conduct in the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. In a nutshell: right view and intention, from which prajñā or wisdom arises; right speech, action and livelihood, called sila or ethical conduct; and right effort, mindfulness and concentration, known as samādhi or meditation. From this comes knowledge and liberation1.

Mindful speech can foster hope and relieve suffering. We are taught that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…”  and that God spoke all creation into existence.  The power of the word is sometimes underappreciated.  Words can hurt or heal, and knowing their power puts us in a position to take greater care. Speak truthfully, but not in ways that cause division or discord. When in doubt, one can always refrain from speaking.


1 For a good introduction to world religions, see Ellwood, Robert and Barbara Mcgraw. Many Peoples, Many Faiths; Women and Men in the World Religions, 9th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009.  Includes Hinduism, The Upanishads, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, the early Jesus movement, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and various Christian denominations, among other topics.

Categories Edify | Tags: | Posted on August 26, 2013

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