Thursday, 6 February 2014

A Buddhist Position on Telling Lies

My freshly gained FB friend, Mike Dickman, posted a link on the FB timeline to a review (“The Unbearable Truth: Why we must tell lies”) by Clancy Martin (a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City). Here is it: It is a review of the book, Lying by Sam Harris, and made me reflect on the problems of telling lies from a Buddhist axiological (i.e. ethical-moral-spiritual) standpoint. 

(a) Although lying is one of the four cardinal transgressions, let us say, for a bhikṣu, a fully ordained Buddhist monk, it is not any kind of lie and not by any standard. It has to be a lie about one’s extraordinary (better übermenschliche) spiritual accomplishment or abilities (e.g. the lie that I have uprooted once and for all all my intellectual-emotional defilements such as anger, desire, and ignorance, when it is actually not the case). Also the act of lying would become full-fledged (or fully committed) only if these four criteria are fulfilled: (1) There is a clear motive for deception. (2) There is the credulity of the “intended dupe” (as the reviewer calls). (3) The act of lying is complete/consistent/successful. (4) There is no immediate regret (but rather there is even a sense of success). 

(b) The review also reminds of me a reported accusation (of course jocularly) made by the Tibetan mendicant Mi-la-ras-pa against the Buddha that the latter had deceived sentient beings by lying to them about the true reality. That is,  Mi-la-ras-pa considered  propaedeutic and therapeutic teachings of the Buddha as “lies.” But by traditional standard, and particularly what one might call Mahāyānic standard, it seems that the ethical-moral justifiability or culpability of an act of telling the truth or an act of telling lies is to be determined, not by the act itself, but by the motive behind it. Theoretically, telling the truth out of maliciousness or with an intent to cause harm to the intended target would be (ethically-morally) as problematic or at least as questionable as telling lies with the same motive/intent. Thus, if to use Nāgārjuna’s Mahāyānic ethical-moral yardstick, we could sum up the Mahāyānic position on the problematic issue of telling lies thus: “If it benefits, tell even lies. If it harms, do not even tell the truth.”


  1. Yes. In the parable of the burning house from the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra one lies to the children playing in the burning house in order to save them from dying in the fire. This is upāya - expedient.

  2. I could find you some nice quotes from Sutras where the Buddha says that he has no choice but to speak in lies, since he has to communicate within the realm of conventional illusions, which are just one big tissue of lies (OK, Buddha didn't say that last subordinate clause, which was my commentarial mchan-note; I'm sure you know of such quotes yourself and don't need me to tell you). Wanting to lie to get some advantage for yourself is another matter. The Buddha I can imagine would never lie like that (or am I lying to myself?).

  3. A lie is a lie, going by the standard meaning of the word. The 'truth' has its own parameters. Now does it o on to say that one should not go by the meaning of the word and concludes to 'If it benefits, tell even lies. If it harms, do not even tell the truth.' Then ...

  4. Thank you for the comments. (a) The whole complex issue of nītārtha–neyārtha distinction (according to different systems and sources) would become relevant here. If I am not mistaken, some have maintained that all teachings of the Buddha are neyārtha, and according to some all nītārtha. We also know of some sources which, as Seyfort Ruegg would have put it, “zero down” (things) by maintaining that the Buddha did not teach a single word. (b) It is true that when we talk of “lies” we do not mean in the sense of neyārtha but always as a kind of deliberate utterance of falsehood so as to wilfully manipulate the intended dupe and sell falsehood as truth. I personally think that (in Buddhism) the notion of self and self-interests do play a role in considering false statements or propositions “lies” and the epistemic invalidity of statements/propositions as such is not enough. In the end, it does depend on how we define “lie,” “falsehood,” or, “truth.” A simple dictionary meaning of “lie,” or, “truth,” I am afraid, would hardly be adequate for our given purpose.

  5. Hello everybody, only a hasty, short note; I also think that´s a question of upaya – but simultaneously, here we enter the delicate problem of “authority”. In buddhist context, who other as the Buddha can competently apply “lies”? [evidently meant in the Mahayana pedagogical sense: “If it benefits, tell even lies. If it harms, do not even tell the truth.”].
    The problem with „considered pedagogical lies“ lies precisely in the well-disposed intention itself: We want to help someone but if we would tell „the truth“ (assumed that the vis-a-vis would understand it) perhaps or most probably, „the truth“ appears so overwhelming/disappointing that our vis-a-vis would never shake up from his/her unconsciously more or less depressive situation [so "intelligence" (prajna in buddhist context) is not enough…]; but here we would relocate the topic more in the psychiatric area of therapeutical skillfulness.

    If we enter philosophical topics, we are oblidged to „falsify to a certain degree“ a difficult point of issue for giving others a chance (the „soteriological ladder“ seen as pedagogical attraction and orientation) to penetrate and eventually solve the stabbing problem (we see that even in the run-up, we are already involved with „lies“). Surely, when the related issue is personally overcome, we could throw away the ladder. But who, endowed with bodhicitta-motivation would do this?
    Since it´s the ladder which one has allowed to find the appropriate solution, a bodhisattva will give the ladder to others as well!
    Often, in Mahayana Sutras the Buddha rests in silence and the bodhisattvas eagerly discuss doctrinal details. Buddha´s silence shows us that ultimately he has nothing to say because the „philosophical expression“ of cognition´s cognition already (as soon as he opens his mouth, he already enters in pedagogical measures = bodhisattvic intention) represents a deviation of "reality-descriptive-penetration". So, he (the Buddha) calmly, gladly and attentively listens to the noble conversation of the bodhisattvas and at the end he confirms their fine, intelligent, farsighted findings and encourages them never to slide away from bodhicitta [indicates the hidden relation of buddha and bodhisattva].

    Probably out of this „philosophical upaya-dilemma“ brilliant buddhist philosophers developed differing systems (the „soteriology“ of buddhist systems seen in the Indo-Tibetan „grub mtha“ sense) to offer kind-hearted, intelligent „seekers“ a gradual approach towards Buddha´s cognitive reality-empathy.
    I also suggest, that for arriving at „philosophical sureness“ („seeing“ Buddha´s authority in relation to the knotty problematic nature of upayakausalya) we should or could try, even it seems tremendous, to train in Dignaga and Dharmakirti´s fantastic „pramana elaborations“ for eventually becoming cognitively strengthened to understand better deep abhidharmic, metaphysical issues. But on the other hand, when I think on this particular philosophical embarkation, I must confess that I feel nearly knocked-down by the immensity of subject-matter and the related study to manage within our meagre time disposition. No wonder, that the bodhisattva´s, gnoseologically applied, „liberating-others-quest“ takes infinite eons of eons…;
    sincerely, mikael.