March 2015: Everyday Precept Practice

The Fourth Grave Precept: Refraining from Telling Lies

This month, we will focus on the Fourth Grave Precept: Refraining from Telling Lies. As we know, speech is a very important tool that we have as human beings, with great power to create harm or good. This fourth precept is one of four that is specifically concerned with speech and how to use speech in a skillful way. At first, refraining from telling a lie seems fairly straightforward and clearcut. However, when we really examine what lying is and how it manifests, it becomes, like all of the precepts, more nuanced and subtle. The Pali canon alludes to more ways that untruthfulness can creep into our speech. Abstaining from false speech is the first of four categories (false speech, slanderous speech, harsh speech and idle chatter) described in the Noble Eightfold Path as part of Right Speech. The following is an excerpt on false speech from the Anguttara-nikaya (translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi):

From the Pali Canon (Anguttara-nikaya – Right Speech (abstaining from false speech)

Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society or in the king's court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers , if he knows nothing: “I know nothing,” and if he knows, he answers: “I know”; if he has seen nothing, he answers: “I have seen nothing,” and if he has seen, he answers: “I have seen.” Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person's advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.

In Bhikkhu Bodhi's commentary, he points out that the intention to deceive is really at the heart of the precept of not telling a lie. We could deceive someone by telling a lie, but also by exaggerating or misleading someone purposefully in the way we word something. We are also lying, according to this passage if we fail to tell information that we know when asked. This could involve leaving out part or all of what we know.

Bhikkhu Bodhi also suggests that we should also consider what the intention behind our unskillful speech is. Our motivation springs from one of the three poisons – greed, hatred or delusion.

Greed-based deception, exaggeration, and deliberate misleading are prevalent in our society in epidemic proportions. Whether we are talking about science, politics, sales, marketing to name a few, it is evident that putting the right “spin” on something has more often than not eclipsed the more noble, ethical search for the truth, the balanced presentation of pro's and cons, the most genuinely accurate representation. Motivations of making a profit, selling a point of view, getting re-elected, while not necessarily bad in themselves can often lead us down a road of deception – however gross or subtle. How can we sell a product, win the confidence of a constituency, make a convincing argument without resorting to some kind of deception, exaggeration or convenient omission? And unfortunately, in our effort to compete with others for marketshare, we find our small deceptions and misleadings escalating into more and more deception and misleading, which in turn motivates our competitors to deceive more.

Zen Peacemaker Tenet

I will listen and speak from the heart. This is the practice of Non-lying.  I will not create conditions for others to lie. I will see and act in accordance with what is.

This brings to mind the part of the Zen Peacemaker tenet which states: “I will not create conditions for others to lie.” How are we as individuals and collectively putting each other constantly in this situation? Is it possible for two political candidates to discuss a topic with the idea that together they will piece together the true picture? Isn't that actually seen so often as indecisive and weak? Have we not created a climate where deceptively simplistic sound bites are the expected norm?

Listening open-mindedly, as much as possible without preconceptions and judgments is the complement of right speech. What conditions would make it possible for two disagreeing children to feel able to hear each other's point of view and incorporate it into their own view of the situation in some way, even if it is different? When one communication partner is not really listening or taking in what the other is saying, there is a tendency to exaggerate, to galvanize one's position, in an attempt to be heard and understood. On the other hand, really listening from the heart,without interruption or rebuttal allows one's communication partner to speak with truth and clarity and without need to embellish or edit.

Students in our current Ripples class program recently participated in a talking circle (council) as part of our teaching on Right Speech. Several pairs of siblings commented that practicing really listening to each other would be very beneficial for them and their brother or sister. It might help them fight less, they suggested, and might open up communication in the family as a whole more. The practice of Council, also called deep listening or talking circle, is a wonderful adjunct to our practice. Really listening without the interference of our judgmental, argumentative minds is certainly closely related to the practice of shikan taza, just sitting, in which we “listen” with our whole being, with all of our senses with open, unadorned awareness.

Using exaggeration, presentation of partial truths, using misleading wording are often manifestations of delusion-based deception. For example, it's easier to adopt a viewpoint and then stop listening to opposing viewpoints. To shut out things that don't fit our picture of what's true about a topic. We are, first and foremost, deceiving ourselves. If we carefully observe any one of our most dearly held beliefs on whatever topic – global warming, nuclear weapons in Iran, abortion, fracking, “Right to work” legislation, and on and on – we can see that we gravitate toward information and people who support our view and avoid or ignore that which challenges us to see a more complex, nuanced picture. Honestly, it's hard to keep an open mind. Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh points out that we should not criticize and condemn things of which we are not sure. On the other hand, we should have the courage and the conviction to speak out about unjust situations even when doing so may rock the boat of our comfortable world or even put us in personal danger. Indeed, we need to act on what we believe, at the same time keeping our mind open and ready to accept changes in viewpoint as additional information causes our picture of the to situation shift.

These Engaged Buddhism Precepts also mention not saying untruthful things to impress people. Sometimes we use speech to try to elevate our own position – we boast, exaggerate, try to make it seem like we are the ones who have accomplished something and diminish others' role in it. Even when subtle, this is, according to the Pali canon, a form of lying.

Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh's Engaged Buddhism Precepts

Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.

Finally, there is hatred-based deception. Gossiping and ill-speaking about others falls into this category. For example, we exaggerate someone's errors and faults because we do not like them and want to make them look bad. Not only is this unkind to the person being ill-spoken of, but it leads others to also misspeak and ultimately causes divisiveness. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking that people who are different from us are inferior simply because of their difference. Judging that is mean-spirited, even if we do not speak the words out loud, but only hear them as thoughts, falls into this category. And unfortunately, the judgments about people that we harbor in our minds tend to eventually lead to mean-spirited words and deeds.

Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept

Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.
In the Dharma that is beyond all expression
Not speaking even a single (dead) word
Is called the precept of refraining from telling lies.

Zen students who do formal koan study are well aware of the expressions “live words” and “dead words.” In koan study, we demonstrate Buddha nature itself with words and actions, not descriptions or explanations of what we think Buddha nature is. When done skillfully, koan study is a wonderful opportunity to shed the layers of conceptual understanding, clearing away the dead words that obscure suchness itself. It is not an altogether comfortable or even pleasant process, since we are so attached to our beloved ideas and viewpoints. However, as we connect with the direct expression of our nature with live words, we feel an incomparable invigoration and unshakeable confidence stemming from this clarity.

Bodhidharma's One Mind Precept is saying something even more radical, though. From an intrinsic standpoint, there is no such a thing as dead words. Even the most abstract, convoluted statement we could make is none other than the voice of Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Realizing this fact is the precept of refraining from telling a lie. On the other hand, whatever we try to say about the Dharma, including these words you are reading, cannot reach what it is. Yasutani Roshi, in his commentary on this precept, points out that saying “sugar” even repeatedly does not make things sweet. Yet a Zen teacher is called upon to offer words to encourage students. When these words shake our conceptual views to the point that they break away and offer an unobscured glimpse, we call them “turning words.” Still, ultimately, whatever we try to explain is a lie. Hence the verse:

Shakyamuni and Amida, the more they lie, the more they're Buddhas.
If they spoke the truth, they'd just be ordinary men.

It is our awakened nature that sees all explanations are just skillful means, eventually to be discarded. Our deluded nature causes us to try to offer these explanations as truth.

Dogen Zenji's Teaching on the Precepts (Kyojukaimon)

From the beginning the dharma-wheel has turned, with nothing
in excess and nothing lacking.
The sweet dew (of perfection ) saturates all.
Everything is true, everything is real.

I think this is one of the most beautiful expressions in Dogen Zenji's Kyojukaimon. His expression slices through the entire notion of true and false to the very core of our practice – everything is undeviatingly exactly as it is. Whatever words we use – truth, lie, real, suchness – this is what it is.

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