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:
“Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?
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.
65 thoughts on ““If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?””
It is one of Rumi’s quotes. From the Mehsanvi.
The Masnavi is available in full online, SirPico. Would you be kind enough to point out where in it this quote is found?
Is it not quite likely that the Victorian author had come across one of the early loose paraphrase versions of a life of the Buddha?
I can’t remember the name of the famous one right now, but I have an early copy of it somewhere.
If the Victorian author had read a loose paraphrase of a Buddhist source and since it is at least compatible in meaning, is it not more fake-ish than fake?
That’s an interesting idea, but far as I’m aware, Kester, there were only one or two translations that had been done at that time, and those weren’t from the Pali canon. So it’s more likely that the similarity to Buddhist teachings is coincidental.
Well, perhaps not exactly coincidental, but rather an effect of convergence. Kind minds think alike.
They do indeed. Also, reality is a constant. Speaking untruthfully, without good reason, and unkindly is going to have observable deleterious effects. Observant minds think alike, too.
Do you have a source, Paul Bailey?
It’s mentioned on this Goodreads page (https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/823818-is-it-true-is-it-kind-or-is-it-necessary) with a source in this book (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2300113.Essential_Thinkers_Socrates?from_choice=false&from_home_module=false), but as that’s a compilation, I don’t know that it moves us much closer. Sorry!
Yes, I’m afraid that doesn’t tell us anything, SR. There are entire books of “Buddha Quotes” now available that consist mainly of the fake quotes you’ll find on this site. Basically, it’s easy to make a “book” these days and put it up for sale. The easiest way to make a book of quotations is to lift them from websites. The same is, I’m sure, true for quotes from Socrates and other figures.
Yes! There does not necessarily need to be a doctrine for this. Sometimes you feel a certain way and then there is a written word somewhere to reinforce that way of thought. Everything really is so simple however it is nice to read about reinforcement of that process that we have never given a step process to. Lets spread the word of what is right and positive. It really is that simple.
I suspect is a simplified version of the Abhaya Sutta: To Prince Abhaya (On Right Speech) in which during a conversation with prince Abhaya the Buddha says this…
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.
 In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings.”
So you’d think, Simon, but that’s scarcely possible, given that the “true, necessary, kind” formulation dates back to the early 1800s, before the Pali scriptures were translated into English. The similarity seems to be coincidental.
Could it not be the case that a scollar spoke of the time came into contact with the sutra while studying in Asia and later misquoted it
If you’d like to find evidence for such a scenario, feel free, Simon! But it doesn’t seem very likely.
I really admire your work. Thank you.
I just came upon this site and this page today (2/21/2016) while doing some research for a lesson on St. Paul’s letter to the congregation at Ephesus, in which he admonishes his readers to “speak the truth in love”. I was reminded of the “True, Kind, Necessary” formula and when I Googled it I was struck by how many of the references attributed it to the Buddha. Whether it was ever spoken by him in that form or not, it is obviously true to the spirit of his sayings on the subject. Truth shall always be truth, no matter who said it first. Thank you for your insights and your research. As that guy said in the movies, “I’ll be back…”
This is a quote from Socrates. I learned it in school, but I don’t have a reference.
Well, you need to find a reference, or yours is simply one of many competing claims and simply adds to the confusion rather than clearing it up.
I found an attribution to Socrates here — and you will find many versions if you google “socrates three sieves” — but nothing that looks authoritative. http://www.spiritual-knowledge.net/tales/socrates-three-sieves.php
Well, the whole existence of this site is due to the fact that people misattribute quotes, and that misattributed quotes are endlessly repeated, so the existence of multiple attributions to Socrates means nothing at all, really. The only thing that matters is an original source. Socrates wrote nothing, so in this case that means finding something in the writings of Plato, Xenophon, or anyone else who was in a position to quote him directly. That’s not a large body of work, so it shouldn’t be hard to find the quote if it exists.
Amen. Yours is true inquiry, and I respect and laud it.
I’ve heard this in Quaker circles, as the “three sieves” to ask before speaking. It’s probably perennial wisdom, so no need to compete for who said it first.
This reply is 5 years after the original post, but I wanted to offer another source of the quote- in “At the Feet of the Master” a book written by J. Krishnamurti ( aka “Halcyon” or “Alcyon” depending on your language source) in 1910, he writes, ” It is well to speak little; better to still say nothing. Unless you are quite sure that what you wish to say is true, kind and helpful. Before speaking, think carefully whether what you are going to say has those three qualities; if it has not, do not say it.” Beautiful advisement from a beautiful teacher.
Thanks. This has the same general idea (one has true/kind/helpful and the other has true/kind/necessary), but it’s not the same quote.
The general idea that we should pay attention to our speech must be as old as ethics itself, and the somewhat more specific notion of there being multiple components of ethical speech, such as Krishnamurti’s true/kind/helpful, the Victorian true/necessary/kind, and the Buddha’s true/kind/helpful/harmonious/timely keeps cropping up over and over.
It’s possible that K’s formulation was derived from the one expressed by Mary Ann Pietzker, but it’s probably not possible to say with any certainty.
J. Krishnamurti’s true-kind-helpful formulation may have been inspired consciously or unconsciously by the Bhagavad Gita. In 17.15, Krishna explains discipline of speech, saying “satyam priya-hitam ca yat”: words should be true (satyam), kind or loving (priya), and beneficial or helpful (hitam).
Thanks, Simon. I found this online:
satyaḿ priya-hitaḿ ca yat
vāń-mayaḿ tapa ucyate
Translation: “Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others, and also in regularly reciting Vedic literature.”
Thanks for posting the complete verse, Bodhipaksa. I really appreciate your website. A few further details, for anyone interested in this verse from the Bhagavad Gita (17.15):
The Sanskrit “priya” has several meanings, including “loving/dear”, “kind” and “agreeable/pleasing”. So which is it? Sages and seers like Vidura and Bhishma spoke strong words to the blind emperor Dhritarashtra (with whose question the Bhagavad Gita begins), and these words were always truthful, loving and beneficial; they were not always agreeable or pleasing to the emperor, though. Pleasing in the sense of flattery or of being biased or selective or only saying what someone wishes to hear would contradict truth, so “priya” has to be taken in the sense of coming from a kind or loving place.
Interestingly, while “true-kind-helpful” (“satyam priya hitam”) appear together in a single line, this verse has four requirements, the first being “words that do not agitate/disturb others”. In other words, one’s speech need not always be pleasing; but it should at least not disturb or agitate others. It’s a lower threshold. (Hence, if we translate “priya” as pleasing, then “words that do not agitate/disturb others” would be rendered redundant.)
Interestingly too, the word “ca” (“and”) rather than “va” (“or”) is used here. Again, this affirms that all four elements are required in discipline of speech. They are cumulative. Regular recitation of the Vedas is then added as a separate item, a different type of disciple of speech.
I collect quotes, always seeking sources to verify their authenticity. As such, I have used this site many times to debunk—or in some cases verify—quotes of the Buddha. There are not many quotation sites that care about authenticity, and yours is an invaluable resource.
Having said that, I think I found the source of the attribution to the Rev. [James Haldane] Stewart: in Memoir of the Life of Rev. James Haldane Stewart, M. A. (1857, available for viewing at the Internet Archive), written by his son David Dale Stewart. The son comments on one of his father’s letters, “It was hardly possible to draw his attention to any event without receiving some allusion to Scripture in reply. A friend was once speaking to him of a marriage engagement which had been rather hastily formed. Wishing, according to his usual practice, to put the best construction on what had taken place,* he instantly found an apology for the absent bride…”
The asterisk leads to a footnote: “He carefully avoided the language of condemnation: and used to advise persons, before they spoke evil of any one, to ask three questions: First, Is it true? Second, Is it kind? Third, Is it necessary? One rule, which he was fond of recommending, was—’Praise by positives : blame by negatives.’ Another favourite saying, by which he would set a guard upon the tongue, was, ‘Slow to promise—quick to perform.'”
Also, an attribution from 1847, apparently the same year Poynder published his Literary Extracts from English & Other Works, p. 160, can be found in the 4 November 1847 issue of The London Pioneer, p. 464, col. 1.
Thank you, Hugh! That’s immensely helpful.
It’s a little reminiscent of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:8 in the Bible:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
I loved looking through all these entries. I learned a great deal. In the end, it’s damned good advice, no matter where it came from, and I will do my best to walk the path presented by the idea from here on out. Thanks to all for all they shared.
This quote is now owned and copyrighted by Hallmark Cards.
Seriously though, thank you for this site! I research a lot of quotes as part of my job and this is one of a very few sites that I love for both business and pleasure.
Thank you, Nari.
Ha, Googled this quote and this page was on the first page of results. Keep up the good work Bodhipaksa. No one else is doing the work that you do here, as far as I know.
I’d always heard “is it true, is it necessary, does it need to be said by you, and does it need to be said now”
The internet is full of falsely attributed quotes, for me it is important to know the true origin of thoughts so I can go to the source and learn more about him/her.
Great Job Bodhipaksa, thank you for doing research and publishing your findings
Thank you. The internet is indeed full of falsely attributed quotes, as well as other false information. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t much care, or even show hostility toward fact-checkers. So your comment is very much appreciated, Guillermo.
What a great analysis! Thanks to Elaine, Bodhipaksa and Hugh Hyatt. I adjusted the GoodReads quote page accordingly.
Thank you for doing that, JR.
Thank you for this and all comments. So informative and helpful. My mom always said,
‘if it’s not true, kind or necessary, don’t say it.’
I always wondered where it came from. I have a lot more background and positive info.
I came across your site and this thread while I was checking the veracity of this quote: “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.” ~ Bernard Meltzer
It seems to me that while the concepts are ancient and universal, this more recent version is clearer and more concise than others I’ve read.
I was recently introduced to a translation from the Bhagavad Gita that read as follows:
in due season will I speak
in truth will I speak
gently will I speak
to one’s prophet will I speak
with kindly intent will I speak
and if I can’t speak that way, I will not speak
Does this translation make sense?
Hi, Danielle. I’m not familiar with the Bhagavad Gita, since my area of study is Buddhist texts, but the quote you’ve offered is from the Buddhist Monastic Code (Vinaya), and I’d doubt it’s from the Gita. (Incidentally, it’s “profit” and not “prophet.”) Here’s another translation:
And here’s the source (although you’ll have to scroll down or search on the page to get to it).
Buddhism is an outgrowth of proto-Hinduism with influences from indigenous philosophy and practice (tantric/aesthetic practices). And it (like Vedas) was an oral tradition for many years before being written. As a long time Buddhist, I only recently began studying Hinduism and have noted that Buddhism contains essential aspects of Hinduism (I.e. Bhavad Gita). Similar to how one cannot really understood Christianity without understanding Judaism. While the quotes may differ, from an evolutionary perspective the origins of Buddhist teachings lie in Hinduism.
You’re absolutely right that we can’t understand Buddhism without understanding something about the teachings around at that time.
The Buddha rejected most of the core beliefs of the religious traditions that were prevalent at the time he lived. He didn’t think a god created the world, he didn’t accept the Vedas as sacred scripture, he didn’t believe that there was a core self, or atman, he didn’t believe that some people were inherently better than others (i.e. a caste system), and he didn’t believe that ritual actions could purify our being. These are core beliefs of the tradition that evolved into Hinduism. He did adapt some of the terminology, like karma, dharma, and so on, although he gave those words new meanings.
It seems to me that the Buddha was a spiritual genius, and I imagine that he’d have embarked on his spiritual explorations whatever religious tradition he encountered in early life. Science, by way of comparison, has arisen in many places and in different philosophical/religious environments, arising out of curiosity and the desire to establish truth through observation. The Ancient Greeks did science, and so did the Chinese and the Arabs. So did people in Christian Renaissance Europe. The Buddha happened to live at a time and place when Brahmanism was common. If he’d been born somewhere else he would have rejected whatever in that place’s religious culture was not useful, and have used or adapted what wasn’t useful. In other words, I don’t think proro-Hinduism was a necessary condition for Buddhism to arise.
By the way, you start by saying that Buddhism has its origins in Proto-Hinduism and end by saying that it has its origins in Hinduism. There’s a big difference between those two statements!
Anyway, thank you for your thoughts. I hope you enjoy your explorations.
All the best,
When you’re relating to “Hinduism” of that time – whether proto or not – be aware that the term was coined much, much later by western orientalists and expresses a certain (i.e., western) view of looking at Indian religion/spirituality/philosophy.
And I don’t understand the “proto”, as Brahmanism and the Vedas were quite established in the time of the Buddha. (Which, with the suffering of the “lower caste” people or cruelty against animals probably inspired him to develop his system and path to overcome suffering: what we now call Buddhism.)
Investigating whether the Buddha was influenced by the Bhagavad Gita seems problematic, as the BG probably was written down only centuries later. There are actually clear indications that the BG responds to Buddhism and the Buddha, by contrast. What can be said, I think, is that the BG reflects Indian religion/spirituality/philosophy that the Buddha was aware of, because that’s the culture in which he grew up in.
The last line — “and if I can’t speak that way, I will not speak” — seems to have been added. It’s not in the original.
I found this website with a gathering of quotes on the topic of right speech (samma vaca). Each quote has a link to its source below each quote. Some have been mentioned here already. I like this because it gathers all related quotes on Right Speech onto one webpage: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-vaca/index.html
Thanks, Cristina. It’s a great collection of quotes, but it’s by no means “all” of the Buddha’s sayings on speech.
I saw Ben’s reference to Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers, and wanted to offer another variation on this theme from Paul’s writings:
—Ephesians 4:25, 29
It seems clear to me that the sentiment—in various forms—has been around for a very long time!
That is a lovely quote. Thank you.
Seems It’s always Buddha, Einstein, or Mother Teresa! Well, that’s three. I’m sure there might be four or even five. Now, how much weight would that quote carry if I attributed it to the other drunk I was talking to at the bar last night? Or even my sainted mother? Doesn’t make for a good poster, or even a Hallmark card. Nonetheless the sentiment it expresses is true, kind, necessary (especially in today’s world), Etc. I can never remember more than three!
If I remember correctly, n “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha!” I joked that in the distant future all quotes would end up being attributed to Mark Twain, Einstein, or the Buddha.
“Thank you.” — Mark Twain
“😁” — The Buddha
I don’t have anything to add except an observation that amused me. There seem to be a great many people on this very page who are willing to speak on this quote without verifying the first tenet of it “is it true?” Thank you Bodhipaksa for trying to be a source of truth!
What an interesting project you are pursuing on this website! Thank you.
But it also seems a bit ironic (if not futile) to me to investigate into the authenticity of Buddha quotes, if the Buddha, as far as we know, didn’t write down anything himself; and the oldest written sources – the Pali Canon? – are from centuries after the Buddha’s death.
So the relevant question seems to me whether a statement reflects something which the Buddha could have said – and in this respect it seems to me that speech, from a Buddhist’s perspective, should indeed be true, kind, and helpful. I recently heard some Buddhists add to the list, by the way, that a statement should also be an improvement upon the silence.
Whether that’s what the Buddha said or not: I resonates with me.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this on this website, but the only source we have for what the Buddha might have said is the early scriptures — not just the Pāli texts, but other early records. We can never know for sure that something that’s in the scriptures is word-for-word what the Buddha said. So there’s no such thing, technically as a 100% verified quote from the Buddha. However, unless there are good reasons for thinking that the Buddha didn’t say a particular thing (e.g. it blatantly contradicts the rest of the scriptures) by convention we accept that they’re more or less what he did say.
However, if a saying is not in the scriptures then there’s absolutely no justification in assuming that the Buddha might have spoken it.
AFAIK the Buddha never said anything about improving on silence, although he did often say to his disciples that they should either talk about Dharma or remain silently meditating. This was usually in the context of him coming across them while they were engaging in chit-chat about current affairs.