Kinda weird question about Right Speech

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  • hbh
    Member
    • May 2012
    • 11

    Kinda weird question about Right Speech

    I will preface this by saying I don't have children so this isn't terribly applicable to me right now. This is more of a theoretical question, I guess.

    With the Five Precepts, one vows to abstain from false speech. The Noble Eightfold Path teaches of Right Speech as well. So....what about telling children of Santa, the Tooth Fairy and whatnot. I know these fall under the common category of "white lies" the sort of thing we sweep under the rug while telling ourselves nobody got hurt. But a lie is a lie.

    Is there a gray area within the teachings on Right Speech or should one abstain from all untruths....even the itty bitty ones. :lol:
  • Jundo
    Treeleaf Founder and Priest
    • Apr 2006
    • 39074

    #2
    Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

    Originally posted by hbhippo
    I will preface this by saying I don't have children so this isn't terribly applicable to me right now. This is more of a theoretical question, I guess.

    With the Five Precepts, one vows to abstain from false speech. The Noble Eightfold Path teaches of Right Speech as well. So....what about telling children of Santa, the Tooth Fairy and whatnot. I know these fall under the common category of "white lies" the sort of thing we sweep under the rug while telling ourselves nobody got hurt. But a lie is a lie.

    Is there a gray area within the teachings on Right Speech or should one abstain from all untruths....even the itty bitty ones. :lol:
    Hi,

    Well, Buddha kind of "truthfully-fibbed" all the time, except he called it "skill in means" (Upaya). The Buddha gave several good examples in the Lotus Sutra, in the Parable of the Fire ...

    An old, wise man returns from his travels to his large and crumbling mansion to find that it is on fire and his many sons are trapped inside. He tells them the situation and calls on them to come out, but they do not understand what the statement "the house is on fire" means, and they are absorbed with their playthings. So the father tells them that he has presents outside: goat carts for some, deer carts for others, and bullock carts for the rest. The children then hurry to come out and ask for the carts, but the father does not have them. Instead, he gives each child an enormous and magnificent cart, of a type far beyond any splendor they could have imagined, drawn by white oxen.... The Buddha explains that the father in the story is himself; the house is samsara, which is subject to decay and death and is on fire with the passions; the children are disciples; the promised carts are the various apparent rewards consequent upon following Buddhist teachings and practices; and the ox carts are true liberation.
    ... and the Parable of the Phantom City ...

    A group of people are being led by a knowledgeable guide through a wilderness to a place where, they are told, they will find great treasure. After some time, the group become weary and disheartened and wish to turn back. The guide tells them that, just a short distance ahead, there is a city where they can lodge and refresh themselves. They enter the city, and, when they feel better, the city vanishes. The guide explains that he had created it by magic to satisfy their needs, and, now that it has fulfilled its purpose, he has made it disappear. The treasure, he says, is near, and if they make one more effort, they will find it. We are then told that the guide is the Buddha; the group of people are disciples; the phantom city is Buddhism; and the treasure is the Buddha Nature.
    I tell my young children that there is a Santa, and that he lives at the North Pole ... but also that he represents the spirit of giving and generosity. Now that my 9 year old does not exactly believe in the "North Pole" part anymore, I have still taught him that Santa is real, but the North Pole is the human heart, and he is alive whenever people are giving and generous.

    In fact, I teach about our seeing the Great Bodhisattvas and many of the other more magical figures of Buddhism in much the same way. Taigu and I have given talks a few times on, for example ... Kannon or Jizo as love and compassion (and the same can be said about whether the "devil" really exists or not in the damage that people do) ....

    Actually, I had a hard time, for many years, incorporating into my practice many figures such as Kannon and Jizo ...

    I have some cautions I would offer both to people who say (a) these things do exist in a concrete way, and those folks who say (b) they do not. While both those extremes may be correct (only the universe knows for sure, and I remain an open minded mystic-skeptic), I have come to see "them" as archtypes, representing real characteristics of human life and (since we are just the universe) thus the universe.

    In other words, in a nutshell: When we feel in our hearts and act upon love and compassion, thereby love and compassion exists as a real, concrete aspect of the world which our hearts and acts create. And since, in our view, there is no "inside" or "outside" ultimately, what is inside you is just as much "the universe" and concrete reality as the moon, gravity and the stars. That is "Kannon", in that way a real and concrete aspect and 'force' of the world.

    I believe in Buddhist Heavens and Hells, Buddhas (apart from the historical Shakyamuni) and Boddhisattvas, and all the rest of the Buddhist cosmology, in much the spirit of that famous essay ... "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus". Did you ever read that? A little girl wrote to a newspaper editor, back in 1897, saying that she'd heard from friends that there is no Santa Claus. "Is it true?", she asked. Part of the response ran like this ...

    What? You don't believe in Santa Claus?

    GassHo Ho Ho, Jundo


    VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

    Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

    http://www.newseum.org/yesvirginia/
    Gassho, J

    PS - I also approve the use of "white lies" to make bitter messages go down a little easier, or to keep peace in a home. Any dress my wife wears ALWAYS makes her look great! 8) We will discuss this and related questions during our annual reflection on the Precepts for Jukai ...

    viewtopic.php?f=7&t=4361

    AND THAT'S THE TRUTH! :wink:
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

    Comment

    • Jinyo
      Member
      • Jan 2012
      • 1957

      #3
      Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

      It would be difficult to live in the world without white lies. We all do it - probably a lot of the time - to be diplomatic, kind, avoid unecessary
      conflict etc, White lies can be a skillfull means (like Jundo said - Upaya). The Buddhist system of ethics flows in a neat way - right views, right intentions, right speech,etc - it involves thinking things through and appreciating grey areas and sometimes it means a white lie is exactly the right response

      Gassho

      Willow

      Comment

      • Khalil Bodhi
        Member
        • Apr 2012
        • 317

        #4
        Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

        Forgive me if what I'm about to say is unpalatable but you did ask...

        I don't lie intentionally to my kids even about things like Santa. It's gotten to the point that my four year old will argue with me trying to convince me about the reality of Santa despite being told that he doesn't exist. It's interesting that the Buddha is shown to lie in the Lotus Sutra because in the Pali Canon he never does so, not even once. In fact in the early texts and commentaries it is said that in all of his lives as the bodhisattva the one precept he never transgressed was that of Right Speech. Without honestly and integrity it's all too easy to avoid inconvenient truths about ourselves and the way we live. Also, keep in mind that there is always an alternative to lying: when asked about something that you don't want to speak about you can always plead the 5th (just keep your mouth shut).

        Anyways, Right Speech is incredibly difficult for me and I am sure most of us here so I wish you the best with whatever you decide. Mettaya.
        To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
        -Dhp. 183
        My Practice Blog

        Comment

        • Jundo
          Treeleaf Founder and Priest
          • Apr 2006
          • 39074

          #5
          Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

          Originally posted by Khalil Bodhi
          Forgive me if what I'm about to say is unpalatable but you did ask...

          I don't lie intentionally to my kids even about things like Santa. It's gotten to the point that my four year old will argue with me trying to convince me about the reality of Santa despite being told that he doesn't exist. It's interesting that the Buddha is shown to lie in the Lotus Sutra because in the Pali Canon he never does so, not even once. In fact in the early texts and commentaries it is said that in all of his lives as the bodhisattva the one precept he never transgressed was that of Right Speech. Without honestly and integrity it's all too easy to avoid inconvenient truths about ourselves and the way we live. Also, keep in mind that there is always an alternative to lying: when asked about something that you don't want to speak about you can always plead the 5th (just keep your mouth shut).

          Anyways, Right Speech is incredibly difficult for me and I am sure most of us here so I wish you the best with whatever you decide. Mettaya.
          Hi KB,

          If you were a father who could only get his children to leave a burning building quickly by promising them that Santa was waiting outside with toys, what would you do? I would not consider that a lie in a strict sense. Would the Buddha, in order to save the life of a sentient being tell a lie? (Telling a lie to Nazi soldiers to protect Anne Frank hiding in the attic of a house, for example). I hope he would! Would that be a lie that maintains or destroys integrity? So, how about a fib or fiction or fable meant to save people in other ways, leading them to freedom and nirvana?

          In fact, the roots of Upaya are found in the Pali Canon. In the Tevijja Sutta, the Buddha promises two young Brahmins a means to "union with Brahma" as a way to free them from seeking union with Brahma, only later directing them away from such a goal. (http://www.buddhanet.net/skilful-means.htm).

          It is also a fact that the Mahayana Sutras tend to write off most of the Pali Canon as merely themselves "upaya/expedient means", tailored by the Buddha for that audience who was not "ready" spiritually for the Mahayana and so not really "meant" by him as conveying the total truth. Of course, that is probably only sectarian BS, but I also feel that the overly idealized, superhuman image of the Buddha present in both the Suttas and Sutras is a kind of holy lie itself meant by later authors to glorify the founder of the religion (much like the founder George Washington was glorified in legend to "never tell a lie"). That Buddha is a paradigm we should all aim for, an ideal for human behavior, a symbol of the best in us. But actual life is filled with many gray areas, ambiguities, "Anne Frank" situations large and small that the Buddha is spared ... because the Sutta and Sutra writers conveniently left most of those out of the tale.

          Unfortunately, it is no more realistic than to believe (as we discussed a few days ago) that one can totally get through life without killing termites and bed bugs. In theory, ideal. In reality, hard to uphold when the little critters are biting one's child in his bed.

          I am not justifying lying in most of its forms. Not at all. I am merely saying that there are times it is appropriate, and letting a child believe in Elmo, Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus seems to me to be generally beneficial if conveying positive values ** ... much like having people believe in an ideal, semi-fictional Buddha or Bodhisattva story if conveying positive lessons!

          Gassho, Jundo

          ** Using the myth of Santa to teach the virtue of giving ... not simply lessons in consumerism and receiving! :?
          ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

          Comment

          • alan.r
            Member
            • Jan 2012
            • 546

            #6
            Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

            I would just like to add that if followed right speech without any sort of personal interpretation I would be out of job. I write fiction, which is all lie. However, I think that many lies are beautiful and often offer more compassion than the truth: Jundo's excellent example about Anne Frank, for instance. Also, I often find the most wonderful truths about human life, all life, conveyed in and through fiction, and thus, if fiction (a lie) conveys some kind of truth, is it really a lie? I think these easy lines, black and white, truth and lie, can get blurred quite quickly. It's a kind of morally transparent thing, not just a Buddhist thing, that certain types of lies cause harm. But other types of lies (and I'm not talking about "white lies" like "oh yeah, I saw that movie"), but lies with deeper moral implications are often incredibly compassionate. In another thread started by Kojip, some of us have tossed around some lines from J. Alfred Prufrock, and I think, what's really wonderful, is that though this poem is completely fictional, and though this poem is about a man who is the exact opposite (so-to-speak) of typical "zen" person, seeing the wrong-headedness of the character is illuminating about our own practice in some way.

            Just a few thoughts.

            Hope all are well on this lovely day.

            Gassho,
            Alan
            Shōmon

            Comment

            • Khalil Bodhi
              Member
              • Apr 2012
              • 317

              #7
              Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

              Rev. Jundo,

              I completely get what you're saying and I most definitely would lie in the case of my children or protecting someone from the Nazis--I would just do so knowing I was breaking a precept and resolve do better next time. Luckily I have not yet been in either of those hypothetical situations (I hope I never will) so it is relatively easy to keep the 4th precept. Mettaya.
              To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
              -Dhp. 183
              My Practice Blog

              Comment

              • Jundo
                Treeleaf Founder and Priest
                • Apr 2006
                • 39074

                #8
                Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                Originally posted by Khalil Bodhi
                Rev. Jundo,

                I completely get what you're saying and I most definitely would lie in the case of my children or protecting someone from the Nazis--I would just do so knowing I was breaking a precept and resolve do better next time. Luckily I have not yet been in either of those hypothetical situations (I hope I never will) so it is relatively easy to keep the 4th precept. Mettaya.
                Hey KB,

                Yes, most all flavors of Buddhism teach that, even should one be forced to break a Precept in a big or small way, one should bear the Karmic weight, reflect on having had to do so, seek as one can not to do so in the future.

                The case I usually mention is a friend of mine, a Buddhist policeman, who had to kill someone in the line of duty in order to save an innocent person held hostage. It was a perfectly justified, necessary shooting. However, from that day he always felt a kind of mental scar, a heavy weight ... even though he knew he had to do the right thing. He always felt the need to bring peace into the world in some measure to make up for what he had had to do.

                On the other hand, telling my wife that her dress makes her look 10 years younger ... well, only a little bad Karma perhaps, and much good Karma in my house! 8)

                Gassho, Jundo
                ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

                Comment

                • Khalil Bodhi
                  Member
                  • Apr 2012
                  • 317

                  #9
                  Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                  Gassho
                  _()_
                  To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
                  -Dhp. 183
                  My Practice Blog

                  Comment

                  • RichardH
                    Member
                    • Nov 2011
                    • 2800

                    #10
                    Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                    I have taken the precepts, and do my best to keep them. But the keeping of precepts depends. I can never say never. It is situational.

                    Comment

                    • hbh
                      Member
                      • May 2012
                      • 11

                      #11
                      Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                      You have all given me much to think about and I thank you for your replies.

                      I look forward to delving deeper into this for the annual reflection on the Precepts for Jukai.

                      Comment

                      • Risho
                        Member
                        • May 2010
                        • 3179

                        #12
                        Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                        Originally posted by Kojip
                        I have taken the precepts, and do my best to keep them. But the keeping of precepts depends. I can never say never. It is situational.
                        I wholeheartedly agree. Life is not black and white, and we cannot live a life in a natural way by following a strict set of unchanging rules. That is very problematic. We start following a religion to focus on adherence to something rather than practicing a religion out of true wisdom. I'm not saying the precepts aren't good, but they are not meant to be accepted and adhered to exactly.

                        Gassho,

                        Risho
                        Email: risho.treeleaf@gmail.com

                        Comment

                        • Khalil Bodhi
                          Member
                          • Apr 2012
                          • 317

                          #13
                          Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                          I feel that the beauty of the precepts is bending our lives to fit them rather than the other way around. There's freedom of desires and then there's freedom from desires which is the path that the Buddhas and the enlightened masters have taught.
                          To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
                          -Dhp. 183
                          My Practice Blog

                          Comment

                          • Risho
                            Member
                            • May 2010
                            • 3179

                            #14
                            Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                            I'm not saying that we should bend the precepts to fit our lives. I'm saying that the precepts aren't black and white. Just because a precept says refrain from lying, doesn't mean there are times when the precept can't be broken. Of course, it's really just common sense. I mean in Hagen's book Buddhism: Plain and Simple, he brings up the point about a Nazi officer asking someone if they know where Jews are. They happen to be harboring Jews, so if they don't tell the Nazi officer where they are they are breaking the precepts. Oh no, what to do? Of course I'm being sarcastic, but sometimes a precept has to be broken in order to preserve the nature of the precepts, which are to live a balanced and compassionate life.

                            Gassho,

                            Risho
                            Email: risho.treeleaf@gmail.com

                            Comment

                            • RichardH
                              Member
                              • Nov 2011
                              • 2800

                              #15
                              Re: Kinda weird question about Right Speech

                              Originally posted by Khalil Bodhi
                              I feel that the beauty of the precepts is bending our lives to fit them rather than the other way around. There's freedom of desires and then there's freedom from desires which is the path that the Buddhas and the enlightened masters have taught.
                              I cannot know why someone might keep or break a precept, and am in no position to judge. People do their best. It is presumptuous to see that in terms of bending precepts to fit lives... presumptuous is putting it lightly in fact.

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