Is it ever O.K. to lie?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Training of Sila, the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).
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torqz
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Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby torqz » Tue May 03, 2011 11:06 pm

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby retrofuturist » Tue May 03, 2011 11:48 pm

Greetings Pedro,

I'm a little confused by your explanation... was there any intent to speak/write a falsehood? Any attempt to deceive?

If not, I would not regard this is a breach of the precepts.

Metta,
Retro. :)
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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby daverupa » Tue May 03, 2011 11:51 pm

The Gestapo hypothetical I'm going to set aside as it's been discussed elsewhere at great depth.

As to your personal scenario, there appears to have been no intention to lie; your intent was to be as precise as possible. Being inaccurate due to lack of information is not the same as intending to prevaricate or misdirect.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby Jason » Wed May 04, 2011 12:40 am

PeDr0 wrote:I understand the Buddha said that under no circumstances was it ever skillful to tell a lie.

But what if the Gestapo come knocking on your door and you have a family of Jews living in your basement?

I have just had an interesting end to my day at work. I work as a care worker with people with (Supposed) learning difficulties. (To coin a phrase).

I Just took a phone-call from the residents adopted mother (at least I think she is adopted, that is what I seem to remember) I said to the resident, "Your Mum called" or words to that effect. I also wrote a note in the communication book that said "A****'s Mum phoned, and she said she will call back in the morning" or words to that effect.

After pondering on it for some time next to where I had written Mum I wrote ('Mrs F**** I think if my memory serves me correctly) or similar. But seeing as she is adopted (or at least I think she is) I have broken one of the precepts right? I guess legally speaking she is her mother, but then again the law is an ass on many occasions is it not? Perhaps I should just call her by her first name in future...

But if you have told a lie is it necessary to un-tell it? If it is then I am going to be pretty busy. :-)


Interesting questions. I don't know if it's ever OK to lie, but I do think it can be easier to deal with certain situations by lying than not. The question is, how much effort do we want to put into observing the fourth precept? At times, I've put forth a lot, but others, not so much. Looking back, though, I don't think I've ever really had a good reason to lie when I did as much as I simply found it to be more expedient. And since becoming interested in Buddhism, I've found myself lying less and immediately correcting myself when I do catch myself telling a fib or exaggerating the truth.

That said, the Buddha seems to take the position that lying is never really 'OK.' Thanissaro Bhikkhu, for example, notes that throughout the 550 birth stories contained in the Jakata, the precept against lying is the only precept the Buddha doesn't break. Moreover, the Buddha appears to hold truthfulness in pretty high regard (see examples of his words on truthfulness here).

Personally, I tend to agree with Aristotle that lying isn't legitimate unless overridden by some higher virtue, such as the lying to save someone's life (which is probably a position more in line with Mahayana than Theravada). In most circumstances, if I'm forced into a position where I have to either lie or watch someone die because I tell the truth, I'm going to lie my ass off. The only issue I have with the Gestapo scenario, however, is that it (like most hypotheticals of this nature) seems to be based on the assumption that lying is the only way to protect a family of Jews hiding in your basement.

For example, one could preemptively befriend local Nazis, having a few drinks with them or whatnot, so that they wouldn't even be suspected of harbouring Jews in the first place. Or, if confronted unexpectedly, one could simply invite them in (assuming the people were fairly well hidden), offer them a drink and say, "Have a look if you want." It'd be the equivalent of saying "I've got nothing to hide" without actually having to lie.

Either way, there's not much one could do to prevent them from searching one's home if that's what they had in mind to do; although they probably wouldn't look as hard if they didn't feel suspicious. And having an open and friendly attitude would probably help. But, like I said, I'd have no qualms about lying in this situation if I had to or couldn't think of anything better.

As for rest, I agree with daverupa that, "As to your personal scenario, there appears to have been no intention to lie; your intent was to be as precise as possible. Being inaccurate due to lack of information is not the same as intending to prevaricate or misdirect." Mistakes and misunderstandings ≠ lies. Furthermore, there's nothing wrong with trying to correct your past indiscretions, but it's my opinion that you don't need to correct every lie you've ever told as long as you make a serious effort to renounce lying and do your best to cultivate the truth in the future, e.g., in AN 10.176, the Buddha says:

    And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, 'Come & tell, good man, what you know': If he doesn't know, he says, 'I don't know.' If he does know, he says, 'I know.' If he hasn't seen, he says, 'I haven't seen.' If he has seen, he says, 'I have seen.' Thus he doesn't consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.

Note that he doesn't say you have to go back and "un-tell" each and every lie you told in the past.
"Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya" (AN 7.58).

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby rowyourboat » Wed May 04, 2011 2:23 am

I agree with the above posts- but it is important to note that if you do lie intentionally (say, for a higher cause) then you are hopefully doing so and accepting the karmic repercussions of that act as well (which seems likely to be mitigated, in such a circumstance. There are no prohibitions in Buddhism. There are however wise choices when it comes to your thought, speech and actions, with particular consequences as a result, that you must be prepared to live with.
:namaste:

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby ground » Wed May 04, 2011 2:34 am

PeDr0 wrote:I understand the Buddha said that under no circumstances was it ever skillful to tell a lie.

But what if the Gestapo come knocking on your door and you have a family of Jews living in your basement?

Such kinds of questions touch ethics/silas in general, not only lying but e.g. also killing.
I would not recommend to even start questioning any of the silas.

Generally breaking one of the silas depends on the intention to do so.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby alan » Wed May 04, 2011 3:17 am

Depends on who is asking the questions.
Responding to a leading question with an honest answer that might hurt people is fundamentally different from the outright deception we associate with "lying."
It's all about intention.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby torqz » Wed May 04, 2011 8:49 am

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby nameless » Sat Jun 18, 2011 4:19 pm

I don't think the mom issue is considered a lie because all parties concerned know who "mom" refers to, regardless of the accuracy of the term. This is in contrast to for example, if mom didn't call and you said she did.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby Jhana4 » Sat Jun 18, 2011 4:25 pm

PeDr0 wrote:I understand the Buddha said that under no circumstances was it ever skillful to tell a lie.

But what if the Gestapo come knocking on your door and you have a family of Jews living in your basement?


See Godwin's Law :)

What does "okay" mean?

- in compliance with the wishes of a god who has the power to know you are lying and to punish you?
- not hurtful to yourself?
- not hurtful to someone else?
In reading the scriptures, there are two kinds of mistakes:
One mistake is to cling to the literal text and miss the inner principles.
The second mistake is to recognize the principles but not apply them to your own mind, so that you waste time and just make them into causes of entanglement.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby manas » Sat Jun 18, 2011 8:00 pm

I see the mind as my 'life's work'. What it's condition will be like by the end of my life, that's the single most important thing. Dhamma practice brightens it, little by little; unwholesome actions darken it, even just by a little.

I can recall a place in the suttas where the Buddha says that one should see Virtue as an 'ornament' for the mind. In that sense, telling a deliberate lie, unless for some urgent life-threatening reason, is always going to have a 'net' negative effect, even if no-one (else) is harmed in any way by our lie. Yes, no-one was harmed by our little 'white lie', but our own mind saw it! And so, it would be contaminating.

And no, I'm not perfect, either! So I'm not trying to sound preachy. I intuit that most of us could find some improvement we could make in the area of samma vaca. (?).


Regarding 'not wishing to hurt someone's feelings', let's look at an example from my own past. I was with my (now) ex at the time. She had just bought a new dress, but I did not know this. So when she asked me what I thought of it, I just stupidly blurted out the first thing that came into my mind - that I did not think so much of it. (Her response was less than pleased!). Now if I had been a bit more aware, I could have just said 'it's alright' or 'yes, it's fine' instead, and side-stepped the issue of whether I 'liked' it or not. Because, truthfully, it is fine - all functional clothing is 'fine' so long as it does it's job - and I would have kept the precept, but without hurting her feelings in the process. (Anyway, we live and learn!)

As for the question, 'does my butt look big in this?', that would take a whole new level of skill to negotiate...I guess we could say "well, 'big' is a relative term"...but that's not going to go down well either, I feel... :thinking:

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby cooran » Sat Jun 18, 2011 8:46 pm

Being mindful, helps. This prevents blurting out responses which are unskilful.

If you are hiding someone to save their lives, you would have already thought about various scenarios. If the Gestapo come to your door, you can smile and say ‘Come in! Cold day isn’t it? Can I get you a warm drink?’
You didn’t say what question they asked, but a skilful answer (in this case, one prepared beforehand) can sometimes remove the need for a direct lie.

If someone asks ‘What do you think of my new dress’ – even if you don’t particularly think it suits them, if you know bluntness will hurt their feelings, you can easily say ‘I love the colour’, or ‘what material is it?’, or ‘who is the designer?’, etc.

Right Speech from His Own Lips
http://www.suanmokkh.org/archive/rtspch1.htm
Right Speech – Samma Vaca
http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dham ... index.html

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby alan » Sun Jun 19, 2011 3:25 am

hi Pedro. I had forgotten about this thread. Here is your answer:
If the Nazis knock on your door and you are sheltering a family of Jews, you lie like hell. Convincingly, and with a smile. You can do this without regret because you are aware that your intentions are for the greater good.

The world is full of people who slavishly follow rules but have no self awareness. Don't be like that.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby whynotme » Wed Jun 22, 2011 7:58 am

Dear alan,

Do you believe in the Buddha or do you believe in your thoughts?

The Buddha once told a story about the war between devas and asuras, the devas lost and retreated and while was retreating, sakka the king of devas saw some beings on the way and didn't want to kill them by riding over them. So he came back to find another way, even it meant facing the asuras and sacrificing himself. But when the asuras saw him, they think he came back with reinforcements, feared and then retreated. At last, the Buddha said the devas win the battle by following the dhamma.

I think we should not try to out-lie the professionals. Because having intention for a lie, we could fear and make misstakes then enemies could reveal we are hiding something. While a truth could make the mind calm, and the enemies would not suspect us.

In my opinion, it is never OK to lie, but I will not judge other people if they lie in situations like in the first post.

It is never OK to lie, never.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby santa100 » Wed Jun 22, 2011 2:46 pm

As Jason and Cooran mentioned above, always try to use other skillful means without lying first. Hopefully it will resolve a majority of situations. But be prepared for exceptional cases which one has exhausted all options and having to use lying as the last resort. There will be cases which pretty much comes down to picking the lesser of the 2 evils. In the Gestapo case, provided that all options have been exhausted, and provided that one is pretty certain that by lying will give a much higher probability of saving the Jew family than not lying, then one should go with the more logical choice. One has to weigh 2 outcomes: create a negative kamma of lying and yet making positive kamma of saving lives OR create a very severe negative kamma of destroying lives while making a positive kamma of saying the truth...Let's pray that we'll never have to face such situation. But in case we do, then better to be prepared...

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby chownah » Wed Jun 22, 2011 3:11 pm

The next time you feel that you are forced to lie first be mindful of the fact that you will be telling a lie and then very mindfully tell the lie and then in your daily mindfulness try to see the results of this kamma.....don't worry about it....use it....study it....learn from it....
chownah

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby Bodhisurfer » Wed Jun 22, 2011 4:51 pm

rowyourboat wrote:... There are no prohibitions in Buddhism. There are however wise choices when it comes to your thought, speech and actions, with particular consequences as a result, that you must be prepared to live with.
:namaste:

With metta

Matheesha

I agree with Matheesha :thumbsup:
I dont see the use of the word 'mum' inacurate as it may have been as a lie. I often refer to my partner as my 'wife' even though we have never been through a marriage ceremony -I dont see that as a lie even though its technically inaccurate.

However, at this point on the Buddha's path, it seems to me that there could be situations when a deliberate attempt to deceive would be the right action. Though mainly this is academic, as I'm lucky enough to live under circumstances where people with hostile intent are not knocking on my door looking to kill the people hiding in my basement. :anjali:

But 99.999% of the time deceit is wrong and against the precepts and the 8np
Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby ground » Sun Jun 26, 2011 3:26 am

I think it is not advisable to openly advocate breaking any of the silas. I suspect that it has negative consequences for oneself and for others. One really should refrain from it and not take speculative fantasies as legitimations for openly advocating not to stick to the silas (in the fantasized cases).
It is like saying "Well a bit of alcohol cannot do any harm" when both, the one who speaks thus and the audience the said is addressed to are alcoholics.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby Lhamo » Tue Jul 19, 2011 8:26 pm

Of course it's ok to lie, under certain circumstances (key phrase). One can break the precepts if it is for a higher good, and if we are motivated by compassion. I doubt the Buddha said to never lie, I'm pretty sure there's a teaching about the "higher good" principle. But breaking a precept would require an extraordinary circumstance, and pure motives. The precepts aren't commandments. There's a measure of flexibility built into them.

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Re: Is it ever O.K. to lie?

Postby bodom » Tue Jul 19, 2011 9:18 pm

Lhamo wrote:Of course it's ok to lie, under certain circumstances (key phrase). One can break the precepts if it is for a higher good, and if we are motivated by compassion. I doubt the Buddha said to never lie, I'm pretty sure there's a teaching about the "higher good" principle. But breaking a precept would require an extraordinary circumstance, and pure motives. The precepts aren't commandments. There's a measure of flexibility built into them.


The Buddha made it clear that there is no flexibilty here. If one chooses to lie one must accept his kamma but the Buddha NEVER said that it was ok to lie or that there is flexibility.

Herein someone avoids false speech and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of people. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king's court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: "I know nothing," and if he knows, he answers: "I know"; if he has seen nothing, he answers: "I have seen nothing," and if he has seen, he answers: "I have seen." Thus he 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. - AN 10:176


:anjali:
The heart of the path is SO simple. No need for long explanations. Give up clinging to love and hate, just rest with things as they are. That is all I do in my own practice. Do not try to become anything. Do not make yourself into anything. Do not be a meditator. Do not become enlightened. When you sit, let it be. When you walk, let it be. Grasp at nothing. Resist nothing. Of course, there are dozens of meditation techniques to develop samadhi and many kinds of vipassana. But it all comes back to this - just let it all be. Step over here where it is cool, out of the battle. - Ajahn Chah


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