Prince Abhaya was a disciple of the Naked Ascetics (Nigaṇṭhā), who were vehement opponents of the Buddha. The Abhayarājakumāra Sutta relates how their leader sent Prince Abhaya to the Buddha with a formulated question to ask him, that he hoped would confound him. Prince Abhaya invited the Buddha with three other monks to his house for alms
Prince Abhaya, served and satisfied the Blessed One with superior hard and soft foods by his own hands. Then, when the Blessed One had eaten and had removed his hand from his bowl, Prince Abhaya took a lower seat and sat down at one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Venerable sir, would the Tathāgata say words that are harsh and displeasing to others?”
“Prince, there is no one-sided answer to that.”
“Then right here, venerable sir, the Naked Ascetics are defeated.”
“But prince, why do you say, ‘Then right here, venerable sir, the Naked Ascetics are defeated’?”
Then Prince Abhaya repeated the entire conversation he had had the day before with Nigaṇṭhā Nāṭaputta.
Now at that time a baby boy was lying face-up on the princes lap. So the Blessed One said to the prince, “What do you think, prince: If this young boy, through your own negligence or that of the nurse, were to take a stick or a piece of gravel into its mouth, what would you do?”
“I would take it out, Venerable sir. If I couldn’t get it out right away, then holding its head in my left hand and crooking a finger of my right, I would take it out, even if it meant drawing blood. Why is that? Because I have compassion for the young boy.”
Six Kinds of Speech
- Speech that the Tathāgata¹ knows is untrue, incorrect, unbeneficial, harsh² and displeasing to others, he does not utter.
- Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, unbeneficial, harsh and displeasing to others, he does not utter.
- Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, beneficial,³ but harsh and displeasing to others, he knows the right time to say it.
- Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be untrue, incorrect, unbeneficial, but affectionate and pleasing to others, he does not say it.
- Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, unbeneficial, but affectionate and pleasing to others, he does not utter.
- Speech that the Tathāgata knows to be true, correct, beneficial, and affectionate and pleasing to others, he knows the right time for saying it. Why is that? Because the Tathāgata has compassion for living beings.”
1. Tathāgata is a term that the Buddha used when referring to himself.
2. Harsh (appiyā), not affectionate.
3. Beneficial (atthasaṃhitaṃ). The Buddha gave advice on attaining worldly benefits such as wealth, health, and long-life; as well as advice on attaining spiritual benefits.
Prior to the occasion that is the basis of dilemma in this discourse, Devadatta went to the Buddha and suggested that the leadership of the Order should be handed over to him in view of the Buddha’s approaching old age. The Buddha scorned the suggestion, saying, “Not even to Sāriputta or Mahā-Moggallāna would I hand over the Order, how would I then to you, vile one, to be expectorated like spittle?” Devadatta showed great resentment and vowed vengeance. These were very harsh words indeed, after which Devadatta conspired to try to kill the Buddha and urged Ajātasattu to kill his own father, King Bimbisāra.
When Devadatta tried to kill the Buddha himself by throwing a boulder down from Vulture’s Peak, which splintered, drawing blood from the Blessed One’s foot, this was the first heinous crime that condemned Devadatta to hell. Later, he caused a schism in the Saṅgha, which is another heinous crime. Killing one’s own mother, one’s own father, an Arahant, spilling the blood of a Tathāgata, and causing a schism in the Saṅgha are all weighty volitional actions (garu kamma), with a definite and irreversible result of rebirth in hell.
It is hard to see how these harsh words were beneficial to Devadatta as they did not deter him from further evil acts, and may have been what spurred him to take such drastic actions. However, they were beneficial to many others. After this refusal to hand over the leadership of the Saṅgha to Devadatta, the Buddha had a public declaration made that any actions done by Devadatta thereafter were his own only, and not those of the community.
My conclusion: True speech that is harsh, displeasing, and unbeneficial to some, but of benefit to others, is right-speech if spoken without malice.