There's a conflict regarding Right Speech has been gnawing at me for some time, and I’ve still yet to find a satisfactory resolution. And perhaps unsurprisingly, this conflict shows up when examining how the Pali canon treats the issue of lying versus how it is discussed in Mahayana texts.
In the Lotus Sutra, there are numerous examples of “expediency” when it comes to telling lies. The parable of the father saving his children from the burning house is a good example. He tells his children a lie to lure them out of the burning house to save their lives. The lie is that he has beautiful carts drawn by different animals for his children to play with. However, when they come outside, there is only one cart. The implication in this metaphor is that the Buddha taught other methods of attaining release as an expedient device to show his followers eventually there was really only one vehicle to follow.
Later in the Lotus Sutra there is another story of a physician whose children took poison while he was away. He prepares a cure, but not all of his children take the cure; they are satisfied merely with the fact their father has returned from his absence. So the doctor concocts another expedient device by leaving again, this time having a false message relayed back to his children that he had died. Because he was dead, they would need to take the medicine to remove the poison, which they did. He then returns to show that he did not die; rather he lied to them to get them to do something beneficial for them.
This again alludes to the Buddha teaching the “lesser vehicles” as an expedient device to lead followers to the “greater vehicle.” All quite convenient, if you ask me. But snarky comment aside, I get the message: telling a lie can be skillful if the lie gets another to do something beneficial.
But does that conflict with the Pali canon when it comes to the teachings about lying in the suttas? I don’t think you can get any clearer than what the Buddha told his son Rahula:
“… Rahula, when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do. Thus, Rahula, you should train yourself, ‘I will not tell a deliberate lie even in jest.’”
I get that too; perhaps even more so than the “expedient device” concept presented in the Lotus Sutra. Because if we believe that something is being done to accomplish a greater good, then we can rationalize anything we say or do. History is filled with examples of when cruel and horrible acts were justified because a “greater good” was being sought. So I’m just not convinced that the teaching about “expedient devices” within the Lotus Sutra is a skillful one. But I admit the jury is still out.
I'm a content director for a television company, guiding content on Web sites. I'm an avid listener of Frank Zappa and a practicing Buddhist who follows the Theravada vehicle. I'm an insatiable traveler who calls Chicago home.