All well and good, you say. Who wouldn’t agree that children tell a charming version of the truth? But what about when a lie is really a lie? What about right from wrong? How do I teach my children to know that? Isn’t that the task before us? To raise good children to do good things?
Yes, it is our task and it is deceptively difficult. Not because of them, but because of us.
It is not as easy as counting to 10. Not just about hewing closely to a list of things to do, or a list of things to not do. Don’t hit your brother! Don’t cheat! Don’t lie! There is a place for those kinds of lists, they appear in all religious traditions, and they can be useful, especially as a starting point. But they do not really get to the pit of the cherry, so to speak, because human beings are quite clever with themselves. We nibble around the edges. We lie all the time, especially when we say we don’t. Rare are the offenders who can’t completely convince themselves of innocence. Or at least of extenuating circumstances!
In Buddhism, we have what we call the precepts. Formalizing your commitment to a Buddhist practice involves “taking the precepts,” which is a public promise to do what you say you will. The precepts sound like this: “Refrain from killing. Refrain from stealing. Refrain from lying.” They sound deceptively like another list of prohibitions with which most of us are familiar. And in that way, sometimes Buddhists seem to be replacing one set of ethical prohibitions with another. That’s as far as some folks get: still mired in a moralistic view of good and bad, right and wrong, believing sincerely that they are on the righter side of right, and on the gooder side of good. I’ve written before about how anytime we are judging either/or, right/wrong, good/bad, using our egocentric picking and choosing mind, we are hanging ourselves from a very strong and enduring tree, but hanging ourselves nonetheless.
(With lip-smacking self- satisfaction, I assure you that I’m better than those other half-baked Buddhists!)
No, just thinking you are doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing at all. To get it really right, you have to chop down the tree. You have to chop away at self-satisfaction, self-righteousness, self-interest, self-absorption and self-service. You have to chop down your precious self – all its menacing branches and creeping vines. You have to forget yourself altogether. Then you really cannot tell a lie. But you can still eat the cherries or make a heckuva pie.
I’m off to destroy the incriminating evidence. Less of everything but truth tomorrow. (Or something that tastes a lot like it.)