The precept “not to lie” is particularly important for healthy community life. There is usually an element of deceit any time we act outside any of the precepts. When we lie to ourselves or to another, we falsify reality and lose the benefit of honest and open communication. If we are to live and work in harmonious community, open and direct communication is essential. When we are working on a family or community project, we are each entitled to straightforward, complete information. In this way, we can feel confident that all our conversations and activities take place in an atmosphere of trust.
There are three elements that must be present in a violation of this precept. First, we need something to lie about; second, an intention to deceive; and third, an expression of falsehood. This means that if one says an untrue thing while sincerely believing it is true, that would not be a violation of the precept. It would be a mistake. However, this does not excuse what lawyers sometimes refer to as “reckless disregard for the truth”. Recklessly spreading false information without making an honest and diligent effort to check it out is not practicing the fourth precept — even if we believe the information is true.
Another way of looking at the precept against lying is to realize that all speech based on self-concern is false or harmful, because speech based on self-concern is designed to promote ourselves, protect ourselves or get what we want out of some situation. Right speech, on the other hand, arises naturally when we speak from selflessness. In other words, speaking truth comes from a practice of truthfulness, of deep honesty. It helps us escape the fetters of selfishness.
Sometimes we lie to defend a self-image, a concept or an institution. We want to be known as warm and compassionate, so we deny that we were ever cruel, even though somebody got hurt. Sometimes we lie to protect people, animals, plants and things from getting hurt. The Dalai Lama has said that he would lie to a hunter to protect a deer that had just passed him on a trail.
Telling the truth requires mindfulness of what is true. It also requires that we examine our own motivations when we speak to be sure there isn’t some trace of self-clinging behind our words. For example, people active in social or political causes sometimes become addicted to self-righteousness. Their speech in favour of their cause becomes tainted by their need to feel morally superior to others.
Working with the fourth precept is a deep practice that reaches into your whole body and mind and all aspects of your life. It is also a great gift to others. Like all the precepts it is an essential part of the Zen path.
Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, notice when you intend to speak, consider what you intend to say, and then ask yourself if what you are about to say true.
Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-6500.