Recently, I lied. Not a “white lie”, not a lie by omission, no: an actively deceitful and voluntary lie. And I was fully aware of lying… or “mindful” of lying…
And, no, this is neither a confession, nor a justification; this is just an opportunity to discuss how to practice.
You could think that I breached the 4th Buddhist precept musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi (I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech).
You could think that, regardless of precepts, I abandonned the eightfold path, since its 3rd spoke is sammā vācā (right speech) —defined as « abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, and from idle chatter » in the saccavibhanga sutta (MN 141).
You could think that I contradicted one of my own previous writings, where I explained that telling the truth to others, even when inconvenient, is a form of respect and of love/kindness, by empowering them: well-informed, they can then take meaningful decisions.
Whether the situation is pleasant or not is beyond the point: they can only improve their prospects if they're as clear as possible about the situation “as it is”.
Thus, you could accuse me of having lacked “integrity”… of having betrayed ethics… of having abandonned wholesome principles… of being a “bad” buddhist.
You could blame me, gossip about me, turn this text into a scandal on social media… and/or search for a better teacher, one you may idealise as “never defeated” (most likely out of simply not knowing him/her enough).
But to do so might rely on invalid reasoning.
You'd be making the assumption that I vowed to train according to “five precepts” (or eight, or ten), which I didn't. I have taken Buddhist vows, but I've taken the four “encompassing vows” of Bodhisattvas.
Reading the Abhaya sutta (MN 58) would provide a more nuanced description of appropriate speech: the Buddha states that, in situations where the message is disagreeable and unendearing to the hearer, he speaks the factual, the true, only if it is beneficial (i.e. connected with the goal of awakening), and with a sense of proper time.
Sure, one might note that the possibility that a statement might be untrue yet beneficial is not entertained in this sutta…
However, lying is clearly considered in the Nanda sutta (Ud 3.2), where the Buddha presents himself as the “guarantor for getting 500 dove-footed nymphs” if Nanda (the Buddha's brother) renounces “a Sakyan girl, the envy of the countryside” he is smitten with and follows the holy life instead… only for Nanda to later realise that the path is not at all about enjoying the presence of nymphs in heavens, but about awakening and freeing oneself from such cravings!
In the saddharma puṇḍarīka sūtra, a.k.a. the lotus sutra, lying saves the lives of children (chap. 3, parable of the burning house). The lotus sutra is considered a fundamental text in many Mahāyāna schools, and is primarily about “expedient means”.
And if you imagine lying is where the buck stops, then note that another influential text, the upāyakauśalya sūtra, even justified compassionate killing! The self-abnegation of the killer might be described as “compassionate”, if the intention of taking bad karma onto oneself for the benefit of many is genuine.
And yet, until we're awakened, we cannot really foresee the consequences of our intentions (and unfolding actions) with clarity, or certainty! An intention to help, when tainted by ignorance, might prove biased and disastrous…
We should be very careful not to use “expedient means” to justify too easily the circumstancial abandonment of general principles or precepts.
If we abandon precepts, vows or rules whenever they're inconvenient, they're unlikely to play their rôle to help us reform for the better.
Still, the key function of “training rules” in Buddhism is that, when we perceive a potential breach, we pause, take stock and reflect: we suspend our first impulse and take a step back, a larger view. In line with selflessness, we strive to see the situation from multiples perspectives, not just our own. Such a “pause” alone is likely to lead to a better answer, even if it's still imperfect! This is eminently practical.
Rules do not always apply, as if they were appropriate “by default”, regardless of the context; the rules are primarily there to halt unexamined reactivity, to be mindful, to consider more than ourselves and our particular preferences; they help create a gap in the action-reaction chain, in order to manifest wisdom and freedom, more than they give us preconceived answers.
So why did I lie?
I lied because, when facing a man with suicidal thoughts, to tell abruptly the truth without considering the consequences, just so I could feel I had integrity, would be the utmost selfish righteousness! It may look “principled” speech from the outside, but it might even actually breach the 1st precept against killing: if that man ended his life, unable to handle what was heard (and leaving young children behind —thus creating a lot of suffering), or if he decided to violently “retaliate” on some people involved, telling the truth would be among the causes of profound violence. To speak of “empowerment” arising from knowing the truth only sounds great until such an empowerment is directed towards causing unnecessary pain for many.
It is hard to assess if/when suicidal thoughts would indeed lead to an actual suicide, and yet there's little doubt that these are violent thoughts, and that letting them loose, due to poorly chosen words or a bad timing, might prove very damaging.
And while the lie may certainly lead later to a sense of betrayal, and other violent thoughts, I had to assess whether the hearer could nonetheless be in a better place later (thanks to a therapy currently underway, not just some blind hope) and therefore better able to handle the news later, or not: there are degrees of violence and it may be argued that to risk being beaten up for betrayal is a lot better than to put lives at immediate risk! Is it convenient? no. Is it pleasant? no. Is it neat? no. But it is better.
Am I sure it was the right thing to do? no. Is it convenient? no. Is it pleasant? no. Does it feel right? no. But a choice had to be made, based on the contingent and messy circumstances at hand, not based on some idealised world, and with the discernment I had, not with some idealised omniscience. And so I now have to live with that.
The precepts of Buddhism can be summarised brutally as « do not harm. »
They're also an expression of unconditional generosity: they support us to protect “others”, closed ones and strangers alike, from our deluded selves! It's an offering of safety (and safety is something sentient beings crave, while uncertainty causes anguish).
And sure, in general, biased and unreliable information lead to suboptimal decisions and to harm… So, in general, it makes sense to refrain from lying, from deceiving, from tricking. In general, the 4th precept makes sense.
But in some situations, the fundamental practices of generosity and of compassion that Buddhism promotes imply that one should bear the unease of the situation, ane refrain from pushing it onto others, for the sake of selfishly offloading one's own burden. Some truth-telling primarily manifests a selfish aversion to unease, more than spiritual integrity.
And in some situations, safety would be threatened by words spoken at the wrong time.
The 6th division of the eightfold path is « right effort », defined in the Sacca-vibhanga sutta (MN 141) as « generating desire, endeavoring, arousing persistence, upholding & exerting one's intent for the sake of the non-arising of evil, unskillful qualities that have not yet arisen… for the sake of the abandoning of evil, unskillful qualities that have arisen… for the sake of the arising of skillful qualities that have not yet arisen… (and) for the maintenance, non-confusion, increase, plenitude, development, & culmination of skillful qualities that have arisen ».
This effort is at the heart of dealing with a breached precept, and it doesn't limit itself to black and white perfect worlds (where only good qualities have arisen, and no unskillful quality has), it addresses the weakening of faults: it calls for progress from where we stand, it doesn't condemn past failures, it just includes them as part of the picture and what needs to be worked on.
What to do after breaching a precept, or acting ignorantly, unwisely or just not-so-constructively?
We start with admitting any breach of wholesome intention, and the associated fault. And it is safe to assume that there was a fault, if only because there probably would have been another way, more constructive, more beneficial, which we didn't see at the time. There usually is at least a fault of negligence, of lazyness, of biased perception, etc. So we should admit the fault, and feel regret for it.
Here, regret is the wish that we did not have to commit the act we have done (e.g. thanks to seeing clearer sooner). It is the opposite of rejoicing in our action. Guilt, on the other hand, would be a feeling that our action was really bad and that we have become a bad person. Guilt is invalid reasoning, abusively transfering judgement from an act to the actor, but regret arises from valid discernment, that some painful consequences will unfold. Regret pushes us to pay attention, to prevent as much as possible such “the least of two evils” situations from arising.
Then we should promise (to ourselves) to try our best not to repeat the unwholesome action: whatever the “justification” was this time, next time such an action is possible, it will not be the exact same conditions therefore it would be wrong to assume that because it might have been unavoidable once, it would be so again! A painful act should not constitute a precedent or a juriprudence… which is why justifying it is usually wrong, even if the justification could “hold” w.r.t. particular circumstances!
A bodhisattva will not justify “bad” actions, no matter how necessary or appropriate they actually were: such a renunciation of self-justification is to avoid misleading others into believing such actions are (generally) acceptable. A bodhisattva will “take the blame”, as a practice of generosity, to teach that there's no escape from responsibility, no “talking your way out of it” (usually starting with “there was no other way”, which is false: “I didn't see another way” is certainly not the same!).
Finally, we should re-dedicate our hearts to achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all… and, of course, undertake remedial measures to counterbalance our transgression (measures to support others as well as ourselves).
Hence, no, I'm not writing this for you to think I've probably acted the best I could, and my lie is excusable: it's not excusable, I should have paid better attention, earlier, and mastered causality better, earlier, to avoid this situation, and I wish I had!
And as a teacher, to refrain from lying implies not to pretend that I'm awakened already, not to pretend (if only by omission) that I follow the Path without fail… not to teach based on marketing fallacies or misguided expectations.
I'm writing this because it highlights the reality of, and some lessons about, working with vows in a flawed world… when we're not perfect, when we're not buddhas, but we still do our best… and we persevere, we don't abandon the path just because we failed a few times to find the best solution! We do our best, no matter how imperfect we are, and then we do our best again! We try to maintain an awareness of the consequences of our actions, we make amends, we draw lessons, but we also move on: in order to try again, we cannot forever dwell on the past (nor can we freeze in fear of making mistakes).
Integrity lies in “honestly” engaging with reality as it is. Sticking to a reassuring representation of reality (as we deem it “should” be, with easy spiritual answers) would lack honesty! If we're speaking of truth, then we have to start by admitting the unsatisfactoriness of some situations we get ourselves into!
Integrity lies not in righteously clinging to contextless, blind “moral principles” while ignoring other considerations; this would be a weakness, not a strength. Integrity means taking reality as a whole, undivided (including the uncomfortable, the inconvenient and the avoidable-that-wasn't-avoided)… and dealing with that, as wisely, mindfully and constructively as we can… and again in the next moment, and the next.
“MN” for Majjhima Nikāya, the middle-length discourses; “Ud” for Udana, the third book of the Khuddaka Nikāya, the collection of lesser discourses.
Illustration: only one 3D curve, but several wildly different perspectives… only one reality, but no easy answer