The Buddha took a hard line on truth.

“One who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie,” the Buddha told a monk after dramatically pouring out the contents of a dish, “has as much of a contemplative in them as this empty bowl” (MN 61, The Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone). (The monk he was lecturing, by the way, was said to be his son, Rahula.)

“In the same way, Rahula,” the Buddha continued, “when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, they will not do. Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie, even in jest.’”

Even in jest? This austere, worshipful attachment to truth was characteristic of the Buddha. The early Buddhists thought that truth was so important, so powerful, that they sometimes invoked the truth like magic. They would practice something called an “act of truth,” a type of protective blessing that involved chanting something incontrovertibly true, and then saying, “by the power of this truth, may there be such-and-such.” Probably the most dramatic example of this comes from the story of Angulimala, the mass murderer who was converted by the Buddha and became an enlightened monk. The story goes that he once came upon a woman having a dangerous labor and said to her, “Sister, since being born in the noble birth [in other words, attaining a level of awakening], I am not aware that I have intentionally deprived a being of life. By this truth may you be well, and so may the child in your womb.”

The woman and her baby were safe, and this paritta [protective verse] is still chanted to safeguard expectant mothers in Theravadan countries today.

Related: Five Precepts of Buddhism Explained 

The Buddha made “not lying” one of the fundamental training practices of his path of self-transformation (it is the fourth precept out of five). And in his words to Rahula, he made it clear he believed that there is an essential connection between truthfulness and personal integrity. If one goes, so will the other.

It seems pretty straightforward, then, that according to the Buddha we should never lie. This raises some serious and difficult ethical questions, however. What if Nazis ask us if Anne Frank is in our attic? What if the truth is terribly embarrassing or could harm a relationship of ours?

In a pinch we might choose to take the karmic consequences of lying over the results of telling the truth, as in the Anne Frank example. Yet that is not the traditional solution in Buddhist ethical thinking, which is to avoid deception, but if deception is necessary, to do what one could call “deceiving with truth”—in other words, to deceive while speaking technically true words.

There is a story I was once told by a monk that illustrates this. The story goes that the Buddha was doing walking meditation in the forest when he perceived with his “all-seeing eye” an incident about to occur, and planned how to respond to it. A moment later a terrified-looking man ran past. The Buddha then stepped a few feet to the left and waited. A gang of brigands approached and asked, “While standing there, did you see a man run past?”

“No,” replied the Buddha. He was, of course, telling the truth. He had been standing somewhere else when he saw the man run past.

When I was a monk, I was required by the Vinaya, the code monastics follow, not to lie. The problem was that there were times when I wanted to. Maybe I wanted to hide the fact that I had not lasted through the all-night sitting I had boasted I would do the day before but had instead passed out just shy of 2 a.m. If another monk asked how my night of meditation went I might respond “Good,” and leave it at that. I would not have lied (there were many good things about it) but I knew that I was giving the impression that I had sat all night when I hadn’t. I used true words, yet I deceived.

Related: Right Lying 

This solution may seem tortured and hypocritical to some. If you are going to lie, they would say, then surely it is better to just lie, rather than hiding behind this reassuring façade of truthfulness.

While surely it is best to tell the truth, the truth is that we are quite prone to lying. Numerous studies point to very widespread lying in our daily lives, with one American study showing 60 percent of people lying during a 10-minute conversation an average of 2-3 times; a UK study shows a more modest but still startling average of 10 lies a week. Most of us are not austerely refusing to deceive, but rather lying regularly and easily.

When I was a monk I found that my commitment to always speak true words forced me to change the way I occasionally deceived. It was impossible to deceive thoughtlessly and instinctually. I needed to be aware I was deceiving the other person. I had to put some real thought into it.

The practice of deceiving with true words was like swimming while anchored to the shore. I needed to maintain a relationship with the truth, to maintain a respect for it, even while deceiving. Putting this self-conscious effort into deception while keeping one hand on the truth protected me from fatal threats to Buddhist practice: self-deception, casual deception of others, and lack of awareness and shame about the deception I did practice.  

As much as we would like to always tell the truth, the evidence shows that most of us don’t. Buddhist tradition’s more realistic commitment to avoid deception as much as possible, yet to absolutely refuse to speak untrue words, might do a better job of keeping us connected to the truth than the self-righteous lie that we are never liars.

[This article was first published in 2017.]

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