The Profound Wisdom of Lying
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People like rules. Even rebels are rule-lovers, as they have a rule to not like other people’s rules. Rules are like roads for us. We can best travel through the world if we have nice, clear rules. Throughout time and the globe, we have come up with all sorts of ways to bring some order to the group. Sometimes, rules are enforced through customs. Customs are rarely written down—yet they are usually pretty powerful and, more often than not, people follow the rules of customs. In fact, so often is the case that while a law is put in place by a government—if it is in contradiction with a custom—people will often break the law and keep the custom. Sometimes, people even rebel if they feel the government is straying too far from custom. Besides custom, there are written rules. These can be written and enforced by the government, by a company that you work at, or by a church or religion. I would say a few of the most famous rules would be the golden rule, the ten commandments, and, in the U.S., our Constitution.
In Buddhism, there are loads of rules, especially for monks. Various sects of Buddhism have their own sets of specific rules that range from lifestyle to beliefs to vows or promises. One of the most important sets of rules in Buddhism is curious because unlike the Ten Commandments or physician-patient privilege, their important set of rules has a very peculiar name: The Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is a set of 8 rules that are often compared to the Ten Commandments. However, immediately one can see that in one case it is commanded that one follow the rules and in the other case, the rules are presented more like a choice—as in ‘this is the best path to travel through life.’
One of the most intriguing rules on The Eightfold Path is Right Speech. Now, because The Eightfold Path is often described to Westerners as the sort of Buddhist Ten Commandments, most people get Right Speech wrong. They usually plug in the closest commandments that deal with speech and sort of smash up a definition like: do not lie or disrespect your parents verbally and because it is Buddhism, and people often think Buddhism is all soft and lovey, they then add a bit of ‘one should only speak kind words or not use words to hurt someone’s feelings’. In truth, none of those definitions are correct. Right Speech specifically means: to say the correct thing to aid in bringing a person out of the agony of delusion and into enlightenment. What is even more interesting is that one of the biggest and most often repeated examples of Right Speech is of lying. Yes, lying. You see, sometimes the only way to save a person from suffering the burning pain of delusion is to lie to them. The most common example is of people being like children who are so wrapped up in playing in the house they do not notice the house is on fire. When a passerby (a monk) sees the house is on fire but is unable to convince the children of the danger, he says, “Now, listen children, if you think the toys you are playing with in the house are fun, I have a hundred times better toys out here. If you come out of the house, I will give them to you.” The children, of course, run out of the house to claim their prize only to see they’ve been deceived. However, they are soon happy and relieved they did not die in the house fire.
In Buddhist lore, there are countless tales of various saints in various forms of lying, seducing, and plotting all sorts of foils to help save a person from suffering the world of samsara or the material world that we live. Often, the words used to describe the material world we live in is as ‘a city on fire’ and we humans are viewed as dwellers in the city on fire with monks and saints running around banging on houses and trying their best to come up with a good lie to get us to run out of our burning houses. The house on fire is a metaphor for our constantly burning desire. I first learned about The Eightfold Path many, many years ago and while many of the rules have gently faded into the background, as I continue to study many wisdom and religious traditions, Right Speech has always stood out to me. I just love the idea that lying is not only a rule but is considered profound wisdom.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.