“If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

Apparently the use of question marks is a dying art.

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—
   True,—Necessary,—Kind,—
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.

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Bodhipaksa

DIrector at Wildmind
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17 thoughts on ““If you propose to speak, always ask yourself, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?”

  1. SO lovely that you’re doing this. I was searching for the five criteria of right speech. Not only have you cleared up a mis-quote, but you’ve also offered up the authentic ones. Brilliant!

  2. I’ve heard this quote attributed to Rumi, though I’m not sure if that’s the original source or simply yet another misquote.

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  4. ThinkExist.com attributes it to Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I don’t have great faith in this website, but I thought I’d pass it along.

    Thanks for this post. I had found the misquote, and you cleared things up for me. I can now speak with authority about it this Sunday.

    • Those quotes sites have the aim of making money, and quotes are simply their way of achieving that aim. As far as I can see they put no effort into verifying quotes. You’ll often see the same quotation attributed to several people…

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  7. Is it not highly likely that this Victorian lady heard the Buddhist quote, was moved, and inspired to write a poem?

    Okay. In answer of my own question, I just found the whole text of her book. She had poems like “The Hindoo Girl,” as I suspected. She was a person who undoubtedly encountered the philosophy of Buddhism, perhaps even through Hinduism.

    So though it is true she coined the simplified variation, it is as likely that her poem was inpired by a quote/idea she heard, thought was beautiful and important, and shared in a new way.

    • I don’t know about “highly likely.” There is only one poem about a “Hindoo Girl” and it’s not at all philosophical, but just a simple tale of love. From that one mention I find it a stretch to say she “undoubtedly encountered the philosophy of Buddhism.” The furthest I could go would be to say it’s not impossible, but that there’s no evidence for it.

      It’s much more likely that she took the phrase from a Christian source. Although the exact phrasing of our FBQ is from the poem by Pietzker, there are similar sayings much earlier, as in this one from 1848 (although it’s quoting an even earlier source [Poynder's Literary Extracts], and that quotation itself is referring to some even earlier source by a “Rev. 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?”

  8. Brilliant detective work! You’re awesome Bodhipaksa. In gratitude for all the work you do. Have a wondrous day.

  9. I’m editing a book and working with the author to properly cite sources. Your post here is enlightening. I wish more people were as scrupulous and diligent as you, sir.

    • I’m so glad to hear that you’re doing that, Will. It’s amazing how many falsely attributed quotations there are appearing in books these days.

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