In this precept, we are making a formal pledge to practice the behavior of positive speech.
Positive speech is far more than motivational poster material. In the novice monastic precepts, positive speech is presented in four different ways - verbal empowerment, kind speech, meaningful speech, and harmonious speech.
Verbal empowerment is the opposite of useless speech.
Kind speech is the opposite of harsh speech. Some would argue that harsh speech, perhaps in the form of sarcasm, irony, or ’snark’, has value. I’ve been told by a person who was rude and obnoxious in a conversation was doing so to be strip the illusion. And certainly we see some examples in Chan Buddhism where the words are a stick to shake off illusion. And what of coaches and the military?
One dharma practitioner states “it all comes down to the intention behind the words and actions. Are you being hurtful, or teaching a hard lesson? However, if you use harsh words you might not make the point you are trying to make. Ultimately, we have to be careful and compassionate with our words”
Here the question is one of skillful means. Can I express myself in a harsh way for a positive means? FOR ME the answer is no - that is to say, as a novice monk, I have vowed to not speak in a harsh way.
Ryugen Sensei would say, "Hurting others is our last resort." It may have to come into play, for example, if someone is on a dangerous path and may be harming themselves or others. We may need to get more forceful
Another dharma practitioner points out “When you use harsh words, you add a lot of "noise" to your message. And the person doesn't know if you're just being emotional, or if you're judging them (instead of their behavior). So it tends to degrade both your message and your relationship with the other person and decrease dramatically the probability of your message to bring about a positive change”
Meaningful speech is the opposite of frivolous speech. I like the idea of abstaining from speaking just to avoid silence. Silence is under rated; yet many of us feel the need to fill the air with words and stories just to keep the silence at bay. Or talk about things we don’t really care about - the weather comes to mind.
And finally, harmonious speech, which is the opposite of slanderous speech. Avoiding gossip and speech that is intended to tear down and harm others. Even when we say ‘well, this person doesn’t know what we are saying about them, so what harm?’ does indeed do harm. When we confine our speech about others to what we would say to them, we find we often have little to say.
Now, there is power in verbally processing, and I would not deny the value of blowing off steam or sharing with a friend a vexing situation or problem you perceive in a relationship. It can be useful to have that ‘sounding board’. But we have to be careful we don’t over use this - often the best way to process views or feelings that involve someone else is to speak to that person - do it with compassion for them and yourself, but speak to them instead of about them.