The Three Gates
“Always speak the truth. Just don’t always be speaking it.”
– Grandma Jones
When I was younger, I remember conversing with my parents about their experiences in life. I asked what they thought the “secret” of a good marriage was. They had been happily married for over fifty-five years. My mother paused thoughtfully and replied, “I think talking is important. Some people don’t talk when they should.” After another pause she continued, “I think it is also important to know when not to talk. Some people talk when maybe they shouldn’t.” I’ll leave that there for a moment—old-school wisdom.
Even though something might be true, said kindly, and thought to be helpful, it might not be the right time to speak. Knowing when and when not to speak is the secret to a happy marriage (and a good life). One of my mother’s favorite sayings was “Always speak the truth. Just don’t always be speaking it.” This insight about being mindful of one’s speech has always stayed with me. Not everything that is true needs to be spoken. The Buddha also talked about the importance of the timing of speech.
The great Sufi poet Rumi described this in a useful way: “Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates. When you arrive at the first gate, ask yourself, ‘Is it true?’ At the second gate, ask, ‘Is it kind?’ At the third gate, ask, ‘Is it necessary or useful?’”
Rumi and Grandma Jones were saying similar things. Be thoughtful about your speech. Words are powerful and can impact others in the same way as our actions. So, before we speak, we can ask ourselves some reflective questions. Am I saying something true? If it is not true, why am I thinking about saying it? Is my ego operating, am I defensive, or am I trying to manipulate in a way that affects the other party negatively?
Next, why would I say something unkindly? I can share something brutally honest but say it in a way that strives to be kind. Is it kind to be “brutally” honest? What is the point of being “brutal?” Again, is my ego driving my actions?
At the last gate I must ask myself, Do circumstances insist that saying this is necessary? Will the other party find what I have to say helpful? If the answer is no, then I may want to resist speaking. Not everything that is true needs to be spoken aloud. Often the truth speaks for itself without any help from me. I might have something to say that is true, yet realize the other person would not benefit from my saying it.
Like the other practices of the Eightfold Path, Right Speech is not a stand-alone practice. We can see how Right Understanding leads to Right Thought, which leads to Right Speech. If we look at things incorrectly, engage in distorted thoughts as a result, and put those distorted thoughts into speech, we may say and do things that are hurtful, hateful, or cause division and suffering.
Alternatively, if we look at things clearly and in a way that reflects wise understanding, we will have clear thoughts and wise speech. Right Speech is, again, “right” in the sense of having the “right” key for a lock. What is effective and skillful? It isn’t just about acting in a way that makes you a “good” person. It’s about the most effective, compassionate, and genuine way to communicate and interact with other people.