the truth about lying

March 9th, 2014


Or, what a buddha does not say.

An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
— The Dhammapada

Why would a Buddhist have to think twice about lying? Admittedly, lying is disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense having a conversation about honesty. “Right speech” is codified into the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. It’s there in black and white: “Don’t lie.”

Only it’s not black and white and it’s doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a dualistic comparison. Right speech is whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive. That’s a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the nondistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so often expressed by silence.

The Abhaya Sutra categorizes what a buddha does not say:

1. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

2. Words known to be factual, true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable to others.

3. Words known to be factual, true, beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others, because it is not yet the proper time to say them.

4. Words known to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

5. Words known to be factual, true, but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.

Right speech is not only a lesson in how to speak. It is an admonition to practice: to watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the most inconvenient truth of all.

See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
— Tao Te Ching


  1. As a child I moved from the US to Holland. They way people speak to another in these countries are the complete opposites of eachother. in the US people warned children saying: “Don’t say that, you’ll hurt his feelings.” In Holland it seemed like people had a particular pleasure in formulating things in the most abbrasive and cruel way possible. It was very strange taking that in when you are 8 years old.
    And the Dhammapada, thank you for the reminder, it is next to my bed but I have not read it in a long time. I will pick it up over lunch. Just reading it already changes you.
    Kind regards.

    Comment by SImone — March 10, 2014 @ 2:24 am

  2. Thank you Simone. I have experienced that.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — March 10, 2014 @ 5:39 am

  3. Maybe being able to handle “truth” can only come when you have an understanding of forgiveness and have let go of shame. But then I guess you have the untroubled mind mentioned by the Dhammapada.

    Comment by SImone — March 13, 2014 @ 3:42 am

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