The call came from Enloe Hospital at 3:30 on a fall afternoon. A Japanese Buddhist woman, Chinatsu, was dying. I would find her, I was told, in Room 302 of Enloe’s oncology ward. Her family had gathered and had asked for me to come. I had been the hospital’s designated Buddhist spiritual caregiver for several years but had never before been told to hurry if I wanted to see the patient alive.

At the hospital, I took the elevator to the third floor, only to discover that Chinatsu had died a few moments earlier. A ward nurse informed me that the family was waiting for me. Down the hall, I found 20 or more family members and friends packed into a small waiting area. A young man in a suit and tie greeted me with a bow and held open the door to a room where another dozen or so family members were gathered. When everyone from the waiting area had squeezed in behind me, there were close to 40 of us pressed tightly around the dead woman’s bed.

The young man serving as my guide whispered to me that most of those present were Shin Buddhists. I took it that he was suggesting how I should proceed, but I’m a Zen Buddhist and have only slight familiarity with Pure Land practices. My first instance of wrong speech that afternoon, I suppose, was a lie of omission: I didn’t admit to my shortcomings but instead tried to figure out what was best to do under the circumstances. When it comes to lying I’m not at all sure that I know when it’s best to lie, or even whether or not it’s ever best to lie. Nonetheless, I put on my rakusu (the traditional bib-like garment that represents a Zen monk’s robes), clasped the palms of my hands together, and set out to make the best I could of what little I knew of Shin Buddhist ceremonies.

Seeing this, everyone grew still, and an air of expectancy settled over the room. Less than an arm’s length from me lay Chinatsu. Although her body had been ravaged by the cancer that had killed her, I could see that she was still a beautiful woman in her late forties or early fifties. In my years as the senior Buddhist chaplain at High Desert State Prison in California, where most of my students were Shin Buddhists, I had learned a few Shin practices. And so I prayed that Amida Butsu—Amida Buddha, ruler of the Western Paradise of Ultimate Bliss—would take Chinatsu into his care so that she might reside in the Pure Land, the cherished destination of all devout Shin Buddhists.

Understand, I don’t have any belief in a Pure Land. In truth, I have no belief (or for that matter, disbelief) in an afterlife of any sort. Zen is not a repository of belief, either positive or negative, relying instead on the circumstances of the moment to dictate what needs to be done without imposing any preconceived intent on the situation at hand. The only pure land I know of is the dirt under my feet. So my prayer for Chinatsu’s deliverance was, I suppose, a great falsehood, although my intention in offering it was not false. Or was it? Was I simply trying to save face and not appear unqualified? If so, then my patched-together prayer was a falsehood of the most self-serving sort. But if I was saying this prayer because 30 or 40 grieving family and friends were depending on me to perform an essential cultural ritual— and because, like it or not, I was the only spiritual caregiver the hospital had to offer at the time—then I’m not certain what sort of falsehood I was engaged in. I said some other prayers more or less of my own invention, and everyone seemed satisfied.

Zen is not a repository of belief, either positive or negative, relying instead on the circumstances of the moment to dictate what needs to be done without imposing any preconceived intent on the situation at hand.

Japanese Shin Buddhism teaches that deliverance to the Pure Land is a grace bestowed on anyone who sincerely chants Amida Butsu’s name. At the prison, I had run into considerable resistance among the Shin Buddhists when I tried to teach them meditation, which they thought useless, because for them salvific power lies solely in the recitation of “Namo Amida Butsu,” Amida’s vow. Since Chinatsu could no longer chant on her own behalf, I thought maybe we would all feel better if we chanted for her, to help her on her way to the Pure Land. And so I began chanting “Namo Amida Butsu.” My guide seemed especially pleased with this, and he took over leading the chant as the whole room joined in. I chanted along with them until, as if by a signal, they all stopped at once. In the absence of sharing any belief in what we were chanting, I voiced a genuine wish that their hopes for Chinatsu’s deliverance to the Pure Land would be realized.

Afterward, I asked if anyone wanted to say something to Chinatsu. A few did, speaking in Japanese and sometimes, as a courtesy to me, in English as well. Then a woman wearing a soft blue cap worked her way toward me from the rear of the group until she stood opposite me on the other side of the bed. “I think Chinatsu would like you to say something about God,” she said firmly. A few others murmured assent. It was only then that I saw, partly hidden in the folds of Chinatsu’s gown, a tiny cross strung around her neck. The woman lying dead before me was not a Pure Land Buddhist but a Christian! It was an absurd moment. I could only surmise that the Shin Buddhist practitioners in the room had let me carry on because they preferred that Chinatsu be sent to the Pure Land rather than to a Christian heaven. I might just as well have conducted a Zen ceremony, I thought. Still, if they wanted me to say something about God, that I could manage: fourteen years of childhood attendance at Trinity Episcopal Church in Orange, California, had given me enough Christian liturgy to get by.

Mark Cocks/Millennium Images
Mark Cocks/Millennium Images

And so I began with a few prayers of the sort Reverend Hailwood might have offered in the Trinity sanctuary all those years ago. I recited the Lord’s Prayer, the Twenty-third Psalm, and the Apostle’s Creed, which affirms God as the maker of heaven and earth, the virgin birth of His son, and the resurrection of the body and life everlasting—not a word of which I still subscribed to. This was the last and, perhaps, most blatant lie of that afternoon in Room 302. But despite my disbelief, the familiar words rolled out of me, over Chinatsu, and gathered around us like a rising mist from ancient seas of past beliefs. I couldn’t keep my eyes dry.

In the end, both the Pure Land Buddhists and the Christians seemed content with the ceremony. They wouldn’t let me go until they’d taken up a collection as an offering for my services. I left the hospital with a pocket stuffed with cash—and ambiguous feelings about what I’d done. Or not done.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha defines right speech: “Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from idle chatter: this is called right speech.” As an ethical guide, I treasure this as much as anything ever said on the subject. But when, exactly, is speech false? False to what, or to whom, and by what measurement of falsehood? When does the truth become harsh or malicious? These are real questions for which the Buddha provides us with no precise answers.

At one point in his teaching on abstaining from false speech, the Buddha describes a truthful person as one who “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 Room 302, the temptation to lie for the sake of my own advantage, or the advantage of those gathered in the room, was virtually unavoidable. But is advantage what’s really at stake when a lie is told to spare a person’s feelings or ease a difficult time for someone? If anyone stands to benefit from a lie, it seems to me that the intention behind the lie, as well as the nature of the benefit, must be weighed. The Buddha’s teaching on right speech is offered in the light of his teaching on right intention: our choices of speech and action, he said, should be consonant with an intention of selflessness, kindness, and harmlessness. If I’m torn between truth and falsehood, I have to ask myself if the choice I’m leaning toward would be self-serving or selfless, harsh or kind, harmful or harmless. Only then can I know what’s best to do.

One of the Buddhist inmates I’m teaching at High Desert State Prison wrote me recently about “white lies.” He had been studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings on right speech and wondered if he had broken the precept. Another inmate had read him a poem and asked how he liked it. My student didn’t like it much at all: he thought it was too moralistic and obvious. But his fellow prisoner had been working on the poem for weeks, and so my student said what he thought the poet wanted to hear, praising the poem’s wholesome message and ignoring the poet’s lack of skill. But he was troubled about the lie he’d told.

We tell this sort of lie all the time, in the service of not hurting someone’s feelings. Once my mother, as she was leaving the house for lunch with friends, asked me, “How do you like my new hat?” Mother was a beautiful woman, but the hat looked awful on her. She was clearly pleased with her new purchase, however, so I said, “You look great, Mom.” A lie, yes, but what was the truth at that juncture? What about the truth of simple affection for my mother and concern that she have a good time at her luncheon? My guess is that her lady friends didn’t think the hat was flattering either, but according to Mother she received compliments on how good it looked on her. The downside of this, of course, was that my mother, convinced that the hat was a winner, began wearing it everywhere she went. I was relieved when she found another hat that actually did look good on her.

Surely the precept “Do not lie” is to be honored in a spirit of truthfulness rather than in a rigid adherence to fact. Right speech isn’t a matter of telling “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” We cannot say definitively, “This is a lie” without consulting the intent, and probable consequence, of what is spoken. Zen rests on seeking the heart’s consent, and it does so because the truth or falsehood of what we say resides in the totality of the circumstances and not in whether or not the words are consistent with the facts. For one thing, in the world of facts, there’s generally more than one fact that bears on what is best to say in any given instance. There’s the fact that I wasn’t qualified to conduct a Pure Land ceremony— and the fact that if I hadn’t done so, no one else would have. There’s the fact that the inmate’s poem was without merit—and the fact that he had spent half a year making it as good as possible. There’s the fact that Mother’s new hat was unflattering—and the fact that she was so pleased with it. And in all these, there’s the truth of the heart, a truth that resolves the contradiction between the teachings of right speech and the most obvious of lies. The heart’s truth makes a marriage of opposites.

Mark Cocks/Millennium Images
Mark Cocks/Millennium Images

In the languages of the West, heart and mind are separated. Heart relates to feeling and mind to intellect, and in matters requiring judgment, intellect is perceived as more reliable than feeling. In the Chinese and Japanese languages, however, the character for “heart” is the same as the one for “mind.” You can’t even think “heart” or “mind” without simultaneously thinking of the other; there is only “heartmind.” Likewise, in Zen the heart’s truth and the mind’s truth are one and the same, arising from an undivided self whose being is inseparable from the living moment. It is within this inclusive wholeness that the Zen ethic of right speech resides. To speak truly, one must engage with, and depend upon, the accidental and unforeseen circumstances of the living moment. No outside guide will suffice. The best we can do is show up for the event, heart and mind. Yet simply showing up without prescribed guidelines may seem like slender support for practicing right speech: without rules to go by, we’re at the mercy of momentary judgment that might well be flawed—and often is. But even with rules, could we ever get it exactly right? Does anyone imagine that applying even the most commendable precept would guarantee the right response?

Ethical rules are, at best, provisional. George Orwell, in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” lays down six rules of good writing. The first five have to do with metaphor, brevity, passive and active constructions, and jargon, but the sixth is “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Orwell speaks pure Zen when he frees the writer’s pen from compliance with preconceived rules. Orwell knew that you can’t write solely by rules, and we can’t speak solely by them either. When it comes to right speech with its injunction forbidding lying, what’s needed is an Orwellian rule of exclusion, a rule that frees the heart to determine when it might be best to lie—perhaps something like “Tell any lie rather than speak some pointlessly damaging truth.” There’s no Buddhist rulebook to tell us when and how to do this, which is perhaps why Zen insists that we shoulder the responsibility on our own.

This matter of truth and falsehood isn’t as simple as lie or don’t lie. Each situation must be considered in the context of the moment, and nothing absolves us of responsibility for the consequences of what we say. While there have been times when I’ve lied and deeply regretted it, there have also been times when I’ve just as deeply regretted telling the truth. Years ago, as a teenager, I worked on my father’s turkey farm in California. Nearly all his farmhands had been part of the Depression-era exodus from dirt-poor Oklahoma and Arkansas. One year, Father received a letter from Ikle, a young man in Denmark, where my father was born. Ikle wanted to come and study modern methods of turkey production under my father. He arrived and went to work, but the other hands and I noticed with some irritation that he was spared the hardest and dirtiest jobs. What angered us more, however, were Ikle’s complaints about his salary: it was twice what the other farmhands were earning.

One morning, I ran into my father in the hallway between his bedroom and the bathroom. I was in work boots and jeans on my way to the fields, and Father was in pajamas and slippers. The hallway was so narrow that neither of us could pass unless the other stepped aside. I refused to move. Confronting him, I said, “The men are angry about the wage you’re paying Ikle.” “He’s only here for a few months,” my father countered. “The point is,” I shot back, “he’s not just another Okie. He’s your Danish countryman, and you’re ashamed to pay him what you’ve been paying the other hands all these years.”

Father’s face froze, and I watched him getting ready to tell me I was wrong and how dare I question his judgment. Then suddenly he crumbled, and the energy seemed to drain out of him. I had spoken the truth, and he knew it. But what had it served? What was the point of being right if the consequence was the pain of a man cornered in a hallway in his pajamas, humiliated by his son?

Still, despite the vengeful or self-serving truths we sometimes tell, truth remains a beautiful thing—the only thing that liberates us from the falsehoods ego fabricates in the service of its own cause. Truth-telling reports things as they are, not as we wish they were. If we indulge the human propensity to understate, exaggerate, and alter facts for whatever comfort or false security a lie might accord us, we forfeit our capacity to see reality clearly, and see only a world of our own invention. So there are compelling reasons that one of the basic precepts of the Buddhist path is the vow to tell the truth and not lie. But the real truth is the truth of the inborn Buddha, the one who transcends all rules and invariably speaks and acts with a wisdom tempered by kindness.

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