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.