A reader called Elaine wrote with the following message:
A friend shared this on facebook.
If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind.” ~ Buddha
Googling brings up tons of hits but none with a pointer to the sutra being referenced. Love your site! Elaine
I appreciated Elaine’s kind comments. I’ve been touched by how many people have expressed appreciation for what I’m doing here.
So anyway, this one’s very “meta” because one wonders how many people ask themselves, before sharing it, whether it’s true or not. Ahem!
Actually, the quote, on the face of it, is entirely within the spirit and letter of the Buddha’s teachings, but I believed it was a paraphrase and not an actual quote from the scriptures. It’s a bit too neat, for one thing. And for another, it includes only three out of the standard four (or five) guidelines for speech, which are that speech should be true, kind, helpful, conducive to harmony, and (and this is sometimes omitted) spoken at the right time.
Here is a canonical quote on right speech:
“Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.
“A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people.”
Here’s another quotation from the suttas.
“Monks, speech endowed with four characteristics is well-spoken, not poorly spoken — faultless & not to be faulted by the wise. Which four? There is the case where a monk says only what it well-spoken, not what is poorly spoken; only what is just, not what is unjust; only what is endearing, not what is unendearing; only what is true, not what is false. Speech endowed with these four characteristics is well-spoken, not poorly spoken — faultless & not to be faulted by the wise.”
You’ll notice that the style is less streamlined and less polished than in our suspect quote, and there are four or five guidelines mentioned, never just three. But this still seemed like it might be a partial paraphrase of a genuine quote.
In fact here’s another canonical quote, which I thought for a while might be the verses that were paraphrased:
And what other five conditions must be established in himself [i.e. a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another]?
“Do I speak at the right time, or not? Do I speak of facts, or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?”
Again, there are the full five criteria…
I had begun to convinced myself that the quote was a slightly clumsy and incomplete paraphrase of that last quotation, but I dug a little deeper, and was glad I did, because I tracked the quote back to a book of Victorian poems! It’s from “Miscellaneous Poems,” by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London (at the “corner of St. Paul’s Churchyard”).
“Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind? is actually the title of one of her poems. Here it is:
Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay,
Before a word you speak,
That can do harm in any way
To the poor, or to the weak;
And never say of any one
What you’d not have said of you,
Ere you ask yourself the question,
“Is the accusation true?”
And if ’tis true, for I suppose
You would not tell a lie;
Before the failings you expose
Of friend or enemy:
Yet even then be careful, very;
Pause and your words well weigh,
And ask it it be necessary,
What you’re about to say.
And should it necessary be,
At least you deem it so,
Yet speak not unadvisedly
Of friend or even foe,
Till in your secret soul you seek
For some excuse to find;
And ere the thoughtless word you speak,
Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”
When you have ask’d these questions three—
Ask’d them in all sincerity,
I think that you will find,
It is not hardship to obey
The command of our Blessed Lord,—
No ill of any man to say;
No, not a single word.
So the finding of this source moves the quote from being suspect to being definitely a Fake Buddha Quote.
Pietzker herself had borrowed this phrase from earlier writers. There are similar sayings as far back as this one from 1848, although it’s in turn quoting an even earlier source (Poynder’s Literary Extracts), and that quotation itself is referring to some even earlier source, which was a Reverend Mr. Stewart:
“Rev. Mr. Stewart advised three questions to be put to ourselves before speaking evil of any man: First, is it true? Second, is it kind? Third, is it necessary?”
Perhaps the Rev. Mr. Stewart was the originator of the formula used in this quote. Perhaps he’d encountered Buddhism, or perhaps (and I think this is more likely) it’s simply a coincidence that he arrived at a form of words similar to Buddhist teachings.