Sunday, April 25, 2010

Do not lie, except when …

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.


  1. Richard

    As far as my view is worth anything, I think both views are valid & don't really conflict.

    Lies are usually for personal benefit at the expense of others and as such are wrong speech. However, any rule can become ridiculous if applied rigidly. Say I had the opportunity to save someone from abuse at the hands of others by not divulging their whereabouts, even though I knew it. If I were to give away the information on the basis that I must never lie, would that not conflict with the principles of non-harming and compassion.

    But to know which is right in any situation requires awareness of our own motivation and honesty with ourselves.

  2. @Julian,

    I think you're on to something, but your rationalization is based upon a personal perspective rather than on the canon. What is the defining difference between the Rahula Sutta and the Lotus Sutra that clearly shows that both teachings are correct?

    P.S. The answer occurred to me while reading your comment.

  3. Richard

    Well, not entirely a personal perspective.

    From a Mahayana viewpoint expediency & "the greater good" has the upper hand. In the commitments of the Bodhisattva vow, acting for the benefit of others, supersedes the more fundamental precepts, when that's appropriate. But you have to be careful and honest.

    I confess, I'm not familiar with the Rahula Sutta. But, regarding the defining difference, from one point of view its Sutta versus Sutra, Theravada rather than Mahayana.

    But if all Buddha's teachings are to be taken as person advice, then there has to be a way to resolve the difference within one's practice.

  4. OK, I won't tease you Julian. The defining difference was much simpler than that.

    In the Rahula Sutta, the Buddha is addressing his son. It is believed that his son was between 8 to 10 years old at the time.

    In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is addressing a multitude of monks and other holy people, some lay, some ordained.

    So the defining difference between the two is the audience. And given the different types of audience, the message was altered to fit the audience. To a child, the message is "Never lie." But to the monks and other renunciates, the message is, "telling a faleshood to encourage someone to accept the Dhamma can be a skillful means."

    This is something that followers of all religions tend to forget when "citing" their scriptures, and that is CONTEXT!

    Thank you for your comments Julian! Hope to see you around some more!

  5. Ah, that never occurred to me. I agree, context makes a difference. Perhaps one reason why the sutras begin by setting the context.

  6. Hi Richard,

    As we all know, the Dhamma is a holistic teaching, and yet, when discussing a breaking of the precepts, rarely does anyone bring in Right View, or more specifically the Right View of the Law of Kamma. This Right View is that for every action there is a result, or more precisely for every unwholesome action there is n unwholesome result and for every wholesome action there is a wholesome result.

    When discussing the adherence or breaking of the precepts, we need to keep in mind the proper understanding of kamma (intentional action). Harming living beings, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and false speech are all unwholesome actions - full stop. The commission of an unwholesome action for the "greater good" does not change an unwholesome action into a wholesome one. It remains an unwholesome action. One can, however, for the greater good, understand that one will commit an unwholesome action and reap unwholesome results for oneself. The intention is compassionate and wholesome (relieving the suffering of other beings), the action itself is deluded and unwholesome, and the subsequent result of the act is unwholesome*. But the person who performs said unwholesome action understands this, that for the greater good, they will sacrifice their own "salvation" and reap the fruit of that action. This seems to me to be the height of compassion - the complete disregard for one's own "self" for the good of others.

    If we take the Buddha as an example, never is an unwholesome act performed, no matter what the situation or audience. As a Buddha, he never harmed another living being, never took that which was not given, never performed sexual misconduct (the commitment to celibacy certainly allowed for no gray areas!), and never spoke a false word. This is the ideal. As unawakened beings, we have more "liberty", if you will, in deciding to act unwholesomely, but we need to keep in mind that such unwholesome actions will bear unwholesome results. A Buddha would never act unwholesomely.

    Alas, it has been eons since I read the Mahayana suttas, in particular the Lotus Sutra. That said, I do not believe this contradicts in any way the Mahayana view of performing compassionate acts with unwholesome actions, but perhaps gives greater understanding of how we should approach performing said acts - with Right View (sammāditthi)

    I hope this helps, but recognise that given the complexity of the topic and my own limitations in expressing myself in writing, might create additional confusion. Please feel free to continue the discussion so that we can come to a mutually beneficial understanding.

    * The saved lives is not the result of this particular action, but of previously performed kamma of the individuals, i.e the survivors. Please note that the tracing of kamma, that is a particular act to the ripening of a specific result is impossible. (c.f Acintita Sutta)

  7. Thanks Ashin for your comments! I think, however, I am bugged by the use of the term "unwholesome" and "wholesome" to describe unskillful and skillful acts. Maybe it's my Western mind, but the term "unwholesome" carries a connotation that I do not think is shared with the term "unskillful."

    Given that, I wonder about your assertion: "If we take the Buddha as an example, never is an unwholesome act performed, no matter what the situation or audience."

    What about what happened in the Culasaccaka Sutta (MN 35)? As the Buddha is debating Saccaka, a deva appears with a thunderbolt prepared to split open Saccaka's head should he respond incorrectly to the Buddha's inquiry. While the Buddha is not performing the threat per se, he is nonetheless aware that the deva is prepared to split open Saccaka's head and is willing to let that happen. In that manner, isn't the Buddha no different than a king or gang leader who allows harm to be inflicted on another via proxy? In which case, isn't the Buddha performing an "unwholesome" act?

  8. My apologies for the length of the reply; I am awful with soundbite Dhamma.

    Unskillful/unwholesome, skillful/wholesome are all acceptable translations of akusala and kusala respectively. My preference is to use unwholesome/wholesome, because to my mind it covers the full range from act to result, whereas unskillful/skillful seem to be purposeful and thus can only relate to the intentional action. That said, they are just fingers pointing to the moon, so whatever works for the individual to help in getting one's mind around the concepts is OK by me! I'll stick with your preference here.

    The overarching principle of kamma is that for every action there will be a result (the exception is below). That result is determined by the original flavor of the intentional act committed, be it unskillful or skillful. That means, of course, the each kamma is a new push turning the wheel of saṁsāra.

    For a Buddha, however, his/her actions are considered "kiriya", or functional. Interestingly, this type of kamma is neither really kamma or kamma resultant. There is, of course, activity, but it is not kammically determinate. In other words, they are a kind of "non-action action" (my term). We see instances where the Buddha performed what we would consider to be skillful kamma, i.e. when he bathed and helped the monk with dysentary, when he posed between the two warring armies preventing war, when he tamed the rampaging elephant, etc. For a normal person, these would be skillful actions planting seeds for "skillful" results (bit awkward, that term!). The Buddha, on the other hand, non-performed these same actions with absolutely no seed planted for future ripening. It kinda blows the mind when one thinks about it!

    So with your example above. There are only two or three instances in the entire Tipiṭaka where Vajirapāni* appears, threatening to cleave the respondent's, or rather non-respondent's, head, unless he answers the Buddha. In every case, though, it's just a threat, never is that act committed. With the caveat that we can never really know what the Buddha thought, I suspect that he knew the bolt would never be thrown, thus allowing this rather extreme scare tactic. It would SEEM to be unskillful, but then that is second guessing the Buddha. But again, we go back to the "non-action action" of a Buddha. Even if he were to instruct Vajirapāni to throw the bolt, which I believe would have been an impossibility, it would have been kiriya, that is a non-action action with no result.

    One more thing as this is already rather lengthy, one is the owner of one's kamma, conventionally speaking (I believe you chant this everyday, right? sadhu! sadhu! sadhu!). Even if the Buddha were able to perform kamma that would have a result, he would not have been the one tossing the lightning bolt, so he would not be the recipient of that particular kammic action. It might something else entirely - not sure what, to be honest - but it wouldn't be a "killing" kamma. As he doesn't instruct Vajirapāni to perform, then Vajirapāni doesn't become a tool of the Buddha in the commission of a murder, thus again, there is no "killing" kamma on the Buddha's part. (need further discussion on kammapatha, or completion of a kammic act)

    Does this answer your question?

    * If I recall correctly, the Commentaries state that Vajirapāni is another name for Sakka, the yakkha who appeared to convince the Buddha to teach the Dhamma. At that time, he promised to protect the Buddha should he decide to teach and this is a fulfillment of that promise.

  9. Thanks Ashin! I get what you are saying, but I also realize that this is a point that many non-Buddhists get hung up on and view as a rationalization over personal responsibility. For example the meat thing: whether eating meat is a violation of the First Precept because even though you may not personally kill an animal for meat, by eating meat you are supporting an industry that does. But don't let that comment distract you!

    Are you the same Ashin from the blog A Raft?

  10. Hi Richard, yes, I am the same one! Also on Heartland. Not sure why "Sopaka" doesn't accompany Ashin!

    Funny you should mention the meat thing - I was going to say something about that, but for a couple of reasons decided not to. Perhaps a blog post is necessary.

  11. Deep bows to you venerable sir! I am honored that you have taken the time to engage us here! Very pleased too! And I would be thrilled if you were to write a guest post for me. We should talk about that offline. Do you have a Facebook page?