Meeting the Buddha on the Road


Buddharupa hand

After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he set off from Bodhgaya in search of his five previous companions to teach them the Dhamma. On the road he met an ascetic called Upaka, who asked him, “Your faculties are clear, friend … Who is your teacher?”

The Buddha replied in verse:

“I am conqueror of all, knower of all,

freed from taints in all things ….”

Upaka said, “From what you are saying, you are an arahat, a Conqueror of the Infinite.”

The Buddha replied:

“Those like me are indeed conquerors,

who have reached the extinction of the āsavas.

I have conquered all bad dhammas.

Therefore, Upaka, I am a conqueror.”

Upaka replied, “Perhaps, friend …” and walked off, shaking his head.

Pāsarāsi Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 26.6 (abridged)[1]


If you met the Buddha on the road, how would you respond?

In the Mahayana it is sometimes said that we are the Buddha, and so is everyone we meet. Both we and they are bringing something to the situation which could potentially transform it. So we are always meeting the Buddha on the road, all the time. But like Upaka, how often do we turn aside, away from the enormity of the implications?

Like all Dhamma practice, the practice of engaging with others, part-icularly of ‘right speech’, often asks more of us than we can manage, but like all practice we can only start from where we are and who we are, and gradually gain in clarity and depth of understanding. If self-doubt arises, perhaps we can consider that the Buddha himself may have miscalcul-ated in talking to Upaka, making a demand on him that Upaka was unable to meet. So who are we to make our speech perfect? Or do we get caught by the sense of ‘should’ that often appears in connection with sīla, a sense of ‘should’ that is easy to ignore, or to rebel against, or to use to judge others or ourselves? What do we feel about Upaka’s reaction: that he should have responded differently? If so, what is the feeling quality of that ‘should’?

Perhaps the ‘should’ is what we feel when we lose heart-sight of the essential:

“When you know for yourselves, ‘These things when followed lead to harm and unhappiness’, then avoid doing them … When you know for yourselves, ‘These things when followed lead to well-being and happiness,’ do them.”

Kālāma Sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.66

Right Speech

“Bhikkhus, if speech has five qualities it is spoken well, not badly: it is blameless and not criticized by the wise. What five? It is spoken at the right time, spoken in line with the truth, spoken gently, spoken beneficially, spoken with a heart of metta. Bhikkhus, if speech has these five qualities it is spoken well, not badly: it is blameless and not criticized by the wise.”

Vācā Sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.198



The Noble Eightfold Path

         Right                Right        | Right    Right           Right      |     Right            Right                  Right

Understanding Intention | Speech Action Livelihood | Effort       Mindfulness   Concentration

_____________________     _____________________       ____________________________

         Paññā (Wisdom)           |           Sīla (Ethics)             |           Samādhi (Meditation)


In the Noble Eightfold Path, right speech is the first aspect of sīla. It forms a bridge between wisdom and right action, just as speech itself is a bridge between the inner world and the outer world we share with others. Since childhood, we have shared our experience with others through speech and this sharing enables us to make sense of that experience, to feel that we are part of a human community and even that we are ‘sane’. Since speech organises the world conceptually for us, speaking is a very power-ful act of kamma for both the speaker and the person spoken to, who accepts or rejects the understanding which is conveyed. But speech is much more than conceptual. The Bojjhaṅgaparitta[2] tells us that when the Buddha was ill he asked Ven. Cunda to recite the seven factors of enlight-enment to him, and “after rejoicing together, he immediately recovered from that illness.” The Buddha could not have needed reminding of the factors of enlightenment. So what was the power of speaking here that went so far beyond conveying information?

Right speech as one of the factors of the Eightfold Path is explained as abstaining from four kinds of wrong speech: false speech, divisive speech, hurtful speech and pointless speech. These same four kinds of wrong speech appear as separate precepts in an elaborated form of the five precepts into eight, reflecting the central importance of speech in sīla.[3]

Musāvāda – False Speech

“Abandoning false speech, he dwells refraining from false speech, a truth-speaker, one to be relied on, trustworthy, dependable, not a deceiver of the world.”

Samaññaphala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2.13[4]

Musāvāda (false speech) is lying or wrong speech. It is saying something untrue with intent to deceive, and this includes much more than what we normally think of as lying. It is also about all those times when we try to twist the truth slightly – exaggerating a story to make it more interesting, pretending we’re fine when we’re not (you’ve just seen me stub my toe; you know it hurts; so why do I say I’m fine when you ask if I’m OK?), saying something we don’t quite believe because it’s expected of us or to please someone, making a promise we’re not sure we’ll keep … as well as the harder to catch aspects: the times when we’re really convinced we’re right, the times when we’re holding a ‘view’, which however much it may appear to coincide with reality, lacks truth because it comes from attachment. At such times if we were more mindful, we might notice our agitation or anger when someone disagrees with us.

Why do we deviate from the truth like this? Fear? Wanting to please? Wishful thinking? …? It is interesting and fruitful to investigate with mindfulness our own feelings and thoughts when we catch ourselves in slight dishonesties of this kind. They may seem trivial, yet they point to deep untruths within us, to our fundamental ignorance, which will only completely disappear with nibbāna. Which must be why the Buddha told his son,

“So too, Rāhula, when one is not ashamed to tell a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I say, that one would not do. Therefore, Rāhula, you should train thus: ‘I will not utter a falsehood even as a joke.’”

Ambalaṭṭhikārāhulovāda Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 61.7[5]

In our practice of Dhamma, we use various methods to try to chip away at our fundamental ignorance. Practising right speech can make its own contribution, making aspects of our ignorance more easily visible to us through the impact of what we say on ourselves and others – if only we have enough mindfulness and humility to see clearly: the mindfulness to be aware of others’ responses, and the humility to feel that their respons-es may be valid, and to acknowledge truth where we find it, even at some cost to ourselves – unlike Upaka. So truth lies as much in listening as in speaking: listening to how others respond to our thoughts, but also listening so that we can respond as best we can to theirs. Just as seeing the truth has the power to transform a person, so speaking a truth that embraces the felt truths of both speaker and listener can transform a relationship, and change both the people within it. The same power lies also in deep open-hearted listening to someone, letting go of imposing our own felt truths. Striving for truth and honesty internally and external-ly are inextricably linked. The more honest we can be externally, the more the striving for truth can become a shared practice that helps to break through limitations of vision and understanding from our confined inner worlds.

“Wisdom is purified by morality, and morality is purified by wisdom: where one is, the other is, the moral man has wisdom and the wise man has morality, and the combination of morality and wisdom is called the highest thing in the world.”

Soṇadaṇḍa Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 4.6[6]

Pisuṇavācā – Divisive Speech

“Abandoning divisive speech, he refrains from it. Having heard something here, he does not tell it there to cause a split with these people. Having heard something there, he does not tell it here to cause a split with those people. Thus he is one who reconciles those at odds and encourages those at one, delighting in peace, loving it and rejoicing in it, a speaker of words of peace-making.”

Samaññaphala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2.13

We can measure the power of pisuṇavācā (divisive speech) by the depth of our fear of what others may think of us, and by the social control this exercises over us. The story of Upaka provides an example of the power of what others think: once the Buddha had become widely acclaimed, Upaka sought him out, asking for him as the ‘Conqueror of the Infinite’, and joined the Sangha. If we practise restraint in how we speak of others, becoming aware in doing so of the emotional loading behind our thoughts, we are brought up against our own competitiveness, envy and judgementalism, our fear of such feelings in others and our longing to protect our own social vulnerability. Any speech that creates a sense of ‘me’ or ‘us’ versus ‘them’, however subtly, could be considered pisuṇa-vācā: it is speech that helps to foster a sense of self, and is a denial of anattā. The practice of abandoning such speech works directly on māna, conceit or pride: ‘I am better than/worse than/equal to others’, a fetter that disappears only with full enlightenment. So taking care of others in speaking of them gives us another shared way into the depths of Dhamma practice; and avoiding divisive speech helps to put an end to divisions within ourselves as well as between ourselves and others.

The practice of avoiding divisive speech is much emphasized in Jud-aism, which recommends that people should avoid speaking of the absent altogether, whether to denigrate or to praise, except in simple factual ways, since even to praise someone can carry an implicit dispar-agement of someone else. But the Buddha said:

“Whatever person blames those who should be blamed, accord-ing to the truth, at the proper time, and praises those who should be praised, according to the truth, at the proper time, this person is the most beautiful and refined …”

Potaliya Sutta, Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.100

On the other hand, according to the Sappurisa Sutta (Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.73), the ‘good person’ is one who evades talk about others’ faults and makes others’ good qualities known, and who is open about their own faults and plays down their own good qualities. How to know then, when and how it is right to blame? How to find the balance point between speech and silence, between judgementalism and genuine discrimin-ation, even in our own thoughts? How to become trustworthy for ourselves and others, and thus develop a real protection against social vulnerability?

Pharusavācā – Hurtful Speech

“Abandoning harsh speech, he refrains from it. He speaks what-ever is humane, bringing pleasure to the ear, kind, going to the heart, polite, pleasing and attractive to the mass of people.”

Samaññaphala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2.13

If we know and attend to what it feels like to be on the receiving end of unkind speech (or sometimes unkind lack of speech), then we know what subtleties of speech we would do well to practise avoiding: teasing, grumpiness, whingeing, speech that excludes some of those present, an arrogant or dismissive or defensive tone of voice …. But we cannot just practise this by being nice to everyone:

“Such speech as the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct and beneficial, but which is unwelcome and disagreeable to others: the Tathāgata knows the time to use such speech.”

Abhayarājakumāra Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 58.8[7]

So how to deal internally and externally with actual or potential conflict, especially when we are angry or afraid? How to find ways of speaking that accept the other but also give space for ourselves, and at the same time stay honest? How to listen without harshness? How to put the brahma-vihāras into everyday every-moment practice and allow ourselves to be touched by the joys and griefs of someone we are talking to, without fear?

Samphapalāpa – Pointless Speech

“Abandoning frivolous speech, he refrains from it. He speaks at the right time, of what is, with good purpose, in accordance with Dhamma and good conduct. He is a speaker whose words are like a treasure, timely, with reason, kept within limits and connected with the Goal.”

Samaññaphala Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 2.13

What does this mean for somebody living the lay life, who has to speak to those around them about many subjects other than Dhamma? Perhaps to make small talk when it offers reassurance and warmth, but to avoid talk that runs down energy, ignores others’ needs, feeds the ego not the heart. The Buddha’s advice to his son, Rāhula, may help:

“Rāhula, if you reflect and know that ‘This act of speech that I desire to do would not lead to harm for myself, or for others, or for both; it is a wholesome verbal action, that causes happiness and has happiness as its fruit’; then, Rāhula, you should do such an act of speech.”

Ambalaṭṭhikārāhulovāda Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya 61.12

So to practise this restraint is to strive for more and more constant mind-fulness of the quality of our impulses to speak, the quality of our speech externally, and the quality of quietness within.

Meeting the Buddha on the Road Again

Meeting the Buddha would be profoundly challenging, profoundly joyful – and perhaps a bit scary? Such is the practice of right speech: a constant test of our wisdom, kindness, compassion, joy for others and ourselves, and equanimity, and we cannot develop any of these fully without it. While it enriches our life on a mundane level, it also takes us directly to the heart of Dhamma practice in its full depth, and from this comes both its difficulty and the great treasure and joy to be gained from it. It is a practice for those around us perhaps as much as for ourselves, and particularly for those with whom we walk the road of Dhamma. Our ability to share with others on that road, to help them along and to be helped by them, is limited or fostered by the quality of our speech. The quality of sangha that we can build depends on it.

Upaka in the end became a non-returner. In walking this path of good speaking and good listening, may we follow in his footsteps, and may we meet the Buddha more and more fully on our road.


[1] Translations are by the author except where otherwise indicated.

[2] Samatha Chanting Book (2014) page 30, translation on page 86 (in the 2008 edition, pages 30 and 78).

[3] Samatha Chanting Book (2014) page 65 (in the 2008 edition, page 57).

[4] Trans. Maurice Walshe.

[5] Trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi.

[6] Trans. Walshe.

[7] Trans. Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi.