by BP Morton
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself “Is is true?”
At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
(at least as quoted by Elephant Journal "Spiritual Snobbery: The Dark Side of Lightworkers)
I've seen versions of this quote a lot. Hell I've expressed roughly this sentiment myself, and my wife certainly uses the three gates test sometimes. But seeing it being attributed to Rumi, (I'm pretty sure it isn't really by Rumi, or Abraham Lincoln, or Buddha) really brings home its failing to me.
Four way tests, that are basically similar include the Rotary Four-Way Test “1) Is it the truth? 2) Is it fair to all concerned? 3) Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4)Will it be beneficial to all concerned? I called it 'The Four-Way Test' of the things we think, say or do." written by Herbert J Taylor in the 1930s and promoted by Rotary International since the 40s. Or Sai Baba's four way test “Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?” Now Sai Baba (of Shirdi) was an Indian guru who died in 1918 somewhere around the age of 80 (he was pretty cagey about his early life, and Sai Baba is more a title than a name). He blended many traditional Muslim, Hindu and Sufi elements together, and has become quite influential. I can't say for certain if he really did say the quote attributed to him and if so when. But there is little indication that he extensively studied English literature, so he's unlikely to have been either the origin of the ideas of Day or Pietzker, nor was he likely influenced by them. On the other hand, Sai Baba taught orally, and rarely had people directly transcribing his words, it is entirely possible that the exact phrasing which Sai Baba's teaching has morphed into before reaching print WAS influenced some version or another of the English True/Necessary/Kind tradition. Or perhaps there is some common root version of the three gate test, say a Sufi writer, who influenced both Day and Sai Baba.
Sometimes some version of this quote will be attributed to Buddha. And there are some bits of canonical Buddhist scripture that come close. The Vaca Sutta for example proposes a five-fold test “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.” The Subhasita Sutta has a quite different 4 fold test: what is well-spoken (rather than poorly spoken), just (rather than unjust), endearing (rather than unendearing), and true (rather than false). The Patimokkha describes 5 conditions for skillful admonishing of others, in terms similar to the Vaca Sutta, “Do I speak at the right time or not? Do I speak facts or not? Do I speak gently or harshly? Do I speak profitable words or not? Do I speak with a kindly heart or with inward malice?” The point is that the exercise of going through multiple checks on oneself prior to speaking is definitely a Buddhist idea even very early on, but the specific list you should use seems to vary a fair bit from text to text within the Buddhist canon, and none of them are close enough to the true/necessary/kind formulations in English to be much more than very dim or indirect inspirations.
Sometimes the true/necessary/kind formulation is attributed to “a Sufi.” It's not impossible that some Sufi or other said something to this effect long before Sai Baba or the British poets and theologians, but I've seen no smoking guns, and not seen it attributed to any specific Sufi other than Sai Baba or Rumi. The three gate test would be a poor match for both the style and thought of the Sufi poet Rumi. He has a lot of things to say about silence and speech, but in a very different vein. For Rumi, if you're going to mess with speech at all, it should be beautiful, and from the heart, and aware of it's own imperfections, rather than scrupulously careful. He says things like:
wrap your beautiful robe of words
and sleep." ( the end of poem 314)
“There is a tall tower that Love builds
Live there in Silence.” (from 824)
"Go up on the roof at night
in the city of the Soul.
Let everyone climb their roofs
and sing their notes!
Sing loud!". (the end of 532)
And I think Rumi gives us a clue to what is going both right and wrong with the true/necessary/kind test.
If we wish to be morally careful in our speech, then the exercise of holding ourselves in check and reviewing a list of considerations makes sense. Perhaps we have erred on the side of carelessness in the past and we are training ourselves to be more careful. But it is possible to err on the side of over-caution as well in speech or actions. Sometimes we must risk saying the wrong thing, in order to say the right thing at the right moment.
Famously there is plenty of dispute about saying things that are necessary and kind, but not exactly true, including polite lies. I often talk about the value of false theories that nonetheless have other virtues, such as being good heuristics for people at a particular stage of understanding of a topic. There are lots of other cases where I advocate uttering untruths for basically epistemic or alethic reasons, even apart from moral considerations. Sometimes a claim is untrue, but close enough to true for the topic at hand. Sometimes it is an appropriate simplification of a complex situation. Sometimes, I explain that I cannot say the truth, but wish to say something anyway. Sometimes a frankly admitted falsity can clear away another more obscure falsity without thereby stating a truth.
Similarly, much poetry, song, art, and even daily praise is surely true and kind, but not necessary. Indeed why we should even want to restrict ourselves to necessary speech is not clear to me. Flowing with frivolous talk is not exactly the style of Buddhists or Quakers, but it is my style. Silliness is rarely necessary at any given time, but some level of silliness IS an important part of coping with the world we live in. It is almost never necessary that I say “I love you” to my wife or kids at any given point, but it is needful that I say it to them a lot, over and over, frequently.
And, of course, sometimes you need to say things to people that aren't exactly kind, but that might well be true, and necessary for them to hear, and might come from a place of love or compassion within you. I'm much happier with the kindness criteria if we mean “coming from a place of kindness within the speaker, rather than one of inward malice” rather than “will be taken as kind by the target or other audience to the speech act.” We are often called on to hurt others as part of our compassion towards them and the world and ourselves.
One blog I saw suggests that you need to meet and two of the three criteria of truth, kindness, and necessity. But that's not my take either. Someone who is flowing in manifest grief might say something untrue, unkind, and unnecessary, and still have said the right thing for the moment.
Sometimes we can dwell in the tall tower of love and live there in silence and that is OK.
But sometimes we spill out noises, or words, or songs. Shouts of joy. Cries of pain. Complex theories. Poems. Songs of praise. Skeptical expressions. Well-worn “I love yous.” Here sometimes we encounter a genuineness beyond caution in which we are as we are rather than holding our self in check. The truth or falsity of the statements, if statements they even be, is swallowed up the being-true of our own-being. The soft-kindness or razor-hurtfulness of our sounds are swallowed by the most intimate relation between self and world. The moral modalities of necessary and optional are drowned in the outflowingness of unchecked self.
I know it's odd to reply to a piece of sober moral advice that is well-meant with pretentious ontological poetry. But that is the rebuke to excess sobriety, reminding us of the drunkenness of being taken outside of our normal frameworks and united with our most genuine selves. In that state what we say and what we do is who we are, rather than who we would like to be. There is nothing wrong with thinking about who we would like to be, and practicing being what we wish we were, but sometimes we need to be who we are instead.
As with many things, my favorite take here is Zhuangzi's. In chapter 4 of Zhuangzi, Confucius discusses with several of his students their approaches to talking to nobles who might employ them. Confucius shuts down several different approaches with various criticisms, including the initial ideas of his favorite disciple Yen Hui. Eventually he advises Hui to engage in the “fast of the heart.” My understanding of the true/necessary/kind test is that it can be a part of the process of going through the fast of the heart. But once Yen Hui has done the fast of the heart and comes back to Confucius to describe the results, Confucius says
“Perfect! I will tell you. You are capable of entering and roaming free inside his cage [the prospective employer/ruler/tiger], but do not be excited that you are making a name for yourself. When the words penetrate, sing your native note; when they fail to penetrate, desist. When there are no doors for you, no outlets, treating all abodes as one, you will find your lodgings in whichever is the inevitable, you will be nearly there.”
Carefully keeping our words and self in check by trotting them through the gates of truth, necessity, and kindness, or some similar set of gates or sieves is not dumb, but it is not ideal either. It is preparation for a state where we can sing our native note, or desist, where we can treat all abodes as one and find out lodging in whichever is the inevitable ...