In America, we spend a lot of time talking about our rights. We have the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to bear arms, and so on. And these rights are important. So much so that wars have been fought to protect them.
Unfortunately, having the right to do something doesn’t translate to having the wisdom to use that right correctly. An example of this can be seen when we look at our First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Stated simply, the First Amendment guarantees that US citizens can speak without fear of being arrested, even if they criticize a government official.
Among other things, this allows for freedom of the press, so that citizens can stay informed of what’s happening in the government without fear of getting a doctored or “watered down” version of events. Sadly, some people think that the guarantee of freedom of speech means that our speech doesn’t matter. They think we can say whatever we want because, in the words of the old adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But this is wrong thinking. Just because we can do something, that doesn’t mean we should. In fact, our ability to exercise our rights is always limited by our willingness to use them responsibly.
For example, the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. However, when I served in the US Marines, we had many rules associated with how and when we could exercise that right. Our M16A2 service rifles were locked in the armory when they weren’t in use, and when we went to the rifle range each year to qualify with them, there were strict rules that we had to follow. These were codified in the Marine Corps Weapon Safety Rules, which stated:
1. Treat every weapon as if it were loaded.
2. Do not point your weapon at anything you do not intend to shoot.
3. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire.
4. Keep your weapon on safe until you intend to fire.
Every Marine must recite all four of these rules verbatim each year before they’re allowed to do rifle qualifications. Violating any of them can result in being removed from the range, which would kill your chances at promotion, while egregious infractions—an accidental discharge, for example—could result in criminal charges.
However, these rules were not put in place to hinder our ability to shoot our rifles. Rather they were there to keep us safe; to ensure that everyone exercised their Second Amendment right in a responsible way that didn’t endanger others.
Obviously, there is a difference between speech and the use of firearms, however it seems reasonable to encourage people to use words responsibly. After all, they may not be able to cause physical harm, but words can certainly inflict emotional and psychological damage. They can bond people together or tear societies apart.
So much so, that when people get married they exchange words in the form of wedding vows to pledge their undying love for one another. And there is a reason that, six decades later, we still remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, in which he called the US to account for not living up to its own words in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal . . .”
Words have power. And it’s out of respect for that power that Buddhism encourages us to use Right Speech—the third tenet of the Noble Eightfold Path—in our daily life. When we practice Right Speech, we use our words responsibly, in a way that makes life better for ourselves and other people.
If we’re unsure whether the things we want to say or write are in keeping with Right Speech, it can be helpful to ask ourselves these four questions, which are based on the bodhisattva vows:
1. Will my words either reduce suffering or increase joy for the people who hear them?
2. Will my words create feelings of harmony and cooperation for the people who hear them?
3. Are my words in keeping with the Buddha’s teachings?
4. Am I doing my best to use my speech for the good of all sentient beings?
Yes, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech to every American citizen. However, Buddhists must hold themselves to a higher standard. In addition to being legal, our speech must also be responsible. It must plant roots of “good virtue” in accordance with the Buddhist teachings, so that we can save ourselves and others from suffering. When we do this, we elevate the national conversation, creating a better world for everyone we meet.