What is the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie? For some this may be difficult to discern because lying has become such a staple in their lives that they cannot tell the difference between it and the truth. A friend of mine used to say “the truth would have served her better.” But alas, the truth was not told.
Dictionary.com defines it thus: “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.” We have even divided up our lies into categories and given them different names. Let’s say we’ve got the following list:
- white lies
- outright lies
- bold-faced lies
- deceitful lies
- malicious lies
- the beneficial lies
The last on the list is written about in Reb Anderson’s book Being Upright Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (2001). He takes what is called the “beneficial lie” and relates it to the person during World War II in Nazi occupied Europe who lied about a person’s whereabouts in order to keep them from being imprisoned and/or put into a concentration camp. From there he says,
In the practice of the Bodhisattva precepts, our ultimate concern is for the welfare of all beings. We therefore extend the meaning of ‘not lying’ to include ‘not speaking in a false or harmful way, or standing by in silence when others speak in a false or harmful way.’ All speech based on self-concern is false or harmful speech, and speaking the truth naturally arises from selflessness. (122).
This really simplifies the list above doesn’t it! Boy that makes it much easier for me than trying to determine whether what I’ve just said is on the list. All I have to do is ask myself—is what I am saying based on self-concern or on the concern for another. If it is based on “concern for another” then I am apt to be going in the right direction as I travel the bodhisattva way of living. If it is not then I need to think before I say the words and choose words that show my concern for another rather than for me.
Next, he talks about the times when “speaking the truth” can get us in trouble and he says, “Buddha said that you should not speak the truth when it is harmful, but we need to distinguish between what is harmful and what is hurtful. Sometimes people tell you the truth and it hurts a lot, but it is very helpful (page 125).”
I remember a time in my life when my nephew was about five or six years old and he was pushing his younger sister and my brother-in-law ran over and told him he was a bad boy and to stop pushing his sister. But I did not want him to think badly of himself at such a young age so I took him aside and told him that he was not a “bad boy” that he was a “good boy” but his behavior toward his sister was not good and could hurt her if she fell down. I made the clear distinction between him and his actions and what was actually “bad.” I doubt that my words stopped him from pushing his sister in the future, but I hope that they helped minimize his negative self-thinking in the future.
My brother-in-law’s comments were “harmful” and I hope mine would be considered somewhat “hurtful” but something he needed to hear to help him grow into a more loving caring adult. I am happy to say that he has!
What harmful or hurtful things have you said this day? Reb talks about “right speech” in the community or sangha. He says, “ . . . it generates trust and harmony within the community and becomes a strong support for others’ liberation. . . .when members of the sangha speak falsely or act in a way that encourages others to use false speech, it brings about a deterioration of trust among people in the community and undermines the practice of liberation (page 126).” What happens at the Sangha is exactly what happens at your home, office, or school. Life plays out the same in all ways and in all places.
So let’s take a look at our self and use this week to practice not telling lies. Let us focus less on self-concern and more on selflessness and doing good for all others through our words and actions as we follow the bodhisattva way.
Things to focus on this week:
- Step one: Begin by deciding how you will refrain from false speech and focus on right speech instead.
- Step two: Set your intention to do so before each possible encounter.
- Step three: Remember to be mindful of being upright in all you do and do not harm others with your false speech.
- Step four: Finally, keep a journal on the precept and make note of how learning to embody truth in all its aspects thoughts, words, and actions is affecting your life. Good luck with that!
 Anderson, R. 2001, Being Upright Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts. Rodmell Press: Berkeley, CA