“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

This one was emailed to me this morning by Thomas Hughes in the UK:

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

This quote is all over the web, and in many books, attributed to the Buddha. I believe, though, that these are the words of Dwight Goddard, an early 20th century translator, editor, and popularizer of Buddhist texts, perhaps best known for his Buddhist Bible.

This sentence is found in Goddard’s rendering of the Kakacupama Sutta (MN 21), although Goddard’s version is a mixture of selected highlights and his own commentary. Unfortunately he didn’t distinguish between the two, and so he ended up passing off his own words as those of the Buddha.

As to purity by words. There are five pairs of words that cause much disturbance in the world:—words that are suitable on some occasions and wrong on other occasions; words that fit certain facts and that do not fit other facts; some words are quiet, some are wild; some words are beneficial, some harmful; some words are sympathetic, some are hateful. Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them, for good or ill. If our minds are filled with sympathy and compassion, they will be resistent to the evil words we hear, and we must not let wild words pass our lips lest they arouse feelings of anger and hatred. The words we speak must always be words of sympathy and wisdom.

Suppose there is a man who wants to remove all the dirt from the ground…

And here’s the original sutta:

Monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. Others may address you in a timely way or an untimely way. They may address you with what is true or what is false. They may address you in an affectionate way or a harsh way. They may address you in a beneficial way or an unbeneficial way. They may address you with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. In any event, you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person’s welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That’s how you should train yourselves.

Suppose that a man were to come along carrying a hoe & a basket, saying, ‘I will make this great earth be without earth…’

You’ll see why I refer to Goddard’s translation as a “rendering.” At best it’s rather a loose paraphrase of the original, and at worst he has inserted other material which is barely relevant to the original context of the teaching, which is about how we respond to others’ speech rather than on how we choose our own speech, so this sentence is totally out of place.

Where do these words come from? They may have been taken from another part of the Pali canon and relocated in the Kakacupama Sutta, but they may also be Goddard’s editorializing. If they are from elsewhere in the canon then they may, as with the rest of Goddard’s text, be highly paraphrased, so tracing any putative original may be tricky.

Dhammapada verse 133 makes a similar point:

Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

But this is more specific.

The general principle that our words can help or harm others is articulated by the Buddha’s disciple Vangisa:

One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken.

One should speak only pleasant words, words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant.

And there’s a rather extended exposition on this same principle, given by the Buddha to his son, Rahula:

“Whenever you want to perform a verbal act, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it would lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it would be an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then any verbal act of that sort is absolutely unfit for you to do. But if on reflection you know that it would not cause affliction… it would be a skillful verbal action with happy consequences, happy results, then any verbal act of that sort is fit for you to do.

“While you are performing a verbal act, you should reflect on it: ‘This verbal act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful verbal act, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it is leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both… you should give it up. But if on reflection you know that it is not… you may continue with it.

“Having performed a verbal act, you should reflect on it… If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful verbal act with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction… it was a skillful verbal action with happy consequences, happy results, then you should stay mentally refreshed and joyful, training day and night in skillful mental qualities.”

Anyone aware of any closer parallels that Goddard might have been drawing from?

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