Praying, observing holy days, and engaging in various rites and rituals are obvious components of religious practice, but ethical speech or speech ethics is also a prime arena for expressing a tradition's core beliefs. The ancient teachings of the world's spiritual communities reflect a universal understanding regarding verbal conduct: It can promote well-being, or it can inflict harm. It can lead to the loftiest attainments or make a person fall off the path.
The foundation of ethical speech in any spiritual tradition is the absence of an intention to harm others. The old ditty that sticks and stones may break the bones but words can never hurt is not true. If it were, religious leaders would not exhort their followers to refrain from harsh, malicious, false, or frivolous speech. Although the tongue is soft, it can be sharp as a sword plunged into someone's heart. Sacred texts recognize that words destroy more people than weapons do. While we need to be fairly close by to be shot or knifed, gossip and slander can devastate a person from far away. To paraphrase the Talmud in modern terms, a gossiper in New York can kill someone in New Delhi. The Bible concludes that "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21). When informed by wisdom and compassion, ethical speech is decent, kind, and respectful as well as beneficial, truthful, and timely. It is also balanced by attentive and open listening. Because the opposite occurs too easily and too often, there are precepts, guidelines, and advice about "guarding the tongue." In general, the preference is for brevity over verbosity. For example, the Buddha counseled that it is better to say a single word that induces peace than to utter a thousand useless words. A Sufi expression recommends that we not say anything until we see that it is worth saying. The Daoist sage Lao-tzu wrote that those who know do not talk whereas those who talk do not know. The Baha'i consider excess speech a deadly poison. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said that we do not need many words to speak the truth. Others have recommended that our words not be empty: we should do what we say and say what we mean.
Clear prescriptions about proper and improper use of the mouth, tongue, lips, and ears include speaking the truth. One of the five Buddhist precepts is abstaining from falsehood. One of the 10 biblical commandments is not bearing false witness, for the Lord hates "a lying tongue" (Prov. 6: 16-17). Psalm 34 suggests that if we want to live a life of good fortune, we should keep our lips from deceitful speech. There is also the recognition that lying is a dangerous activity because once a person tells a deliberate untruth, any other misdeed is likely.
Additional guidelines indicate that even if something is true, it is important to consider whether saying it is useful. If it will hurt someone, then expressing it would not be in keeping with spiritual ideals. For instance, those who believe in a Creator God assume that each individual is created in God's image. Therefore, everyone deserves to be treated accordingly: Who would intentionally injure God's creation? Another criterion for wise speech is choosing the right time. If the truth will fall on deaf ears, there is no point in sharing it. The manner in which we communicate is equally important. No matter how violently someone speaks to us, the Buddha and other spiritual masters have said we should not let that pervert our own speech. Ideally, our voice should be gentle, pleasant, and polite, and our heart should be filled with compassion and friendliness.
Precepts of speech not only help society run more smoothly but also help develop a character based in spiritual values. By avoiding false speech, a person becomes trustworthy and reliable. By eliminating hateful words, she is not divisive but instead promotes friendship, harmony, and concord among others. By not speaking harshly, she is considered courteous, agreeable, and lovable.
Religious "laws" take into account that unwise or unkind speech has a multiple impact. Generally, we think slander affects only the object of it by damaging that person's reputation, livelihood, and maybe even marriage. But Jewish sages conclude that badmouthing actually "kills" at least three people. The slanderer demeans not only another but also himself and proves to be untrustworthy. The listener who accepts the slander reaps consequences as well. By making himself a party to evil or unwholesome verbal behavior, he cheapens his own character. Thus ethical speech entails more than what we say; it also includes what we voluntarily listen to. The Talmud teaches that fingers have a pointed shape so that we can put them into the ears to shut out malevolent speech. Spiritual teachers discourage being a party to idle talk because it encourages "tale bearers" and "mischief mongers" that disturb the peace of a community. As the Bible says, "For lack of wood the fire goes out; and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases" (Prov. 26:20). All the major religious traditions agree that everyday speech tends to be inconsequential, superficial, and unrefined chatter or troublemaking, misleading, and spiteful gossip. Christian mystics Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa found talk about anything other than God a waste of a person's precious time and energy. The Buddha similarly instructed his disciples to avoid topics of conversation that do not support attaining enlightenment and instead to engage in discussions about the Dharma (the "Truth").
Ethical speech or speech ethics is a practice that crosses all religious boundaries. It reflects each tradition's teaching on the importance of self-control in developing a virtuous character and learning wisdom. Unrestrained speech is often connected with anger, and anger, with unleashing injustice. It prevents us from fulfilling the highest aspirations of the religion we follow. But, according to James in the New Testament, if we can control the tongue, we are "perfect." A story in the Talmud, the authoritative body of Jewish tradition, highlights this inherent potential in speech. One day, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel asked his servant Tobi to go to the market and buy the best dish he could find. Tobi came home with a tongue. Then the rabbi told him to go and buy the worst dish. Again, Tobi brought back a tongue. When the rabbi asked him why he had bought a tongue both times, he replied that a tongue could be both good and bad. When it is good, it is unsurpassable, but when it is bad, there is nothing worse than an evil tongue (Vayikra Rabbah 33).