This month, our morsels will be focusing on healing, in honor of Bhante Gunaratana's new book, Meditation on Perception. Today's morsel comes from the collection The Arts of Contemplative Care. This watershed volume brings together the voices of pioneers in the field of contemplative care—from hospice and hospitals to colleges, prisons, and the military. In the selection below, Lin Jensen writes on when it is perhaps okay to lie to those near the end of their physical lives.
At one point in the Buddha’s teaching on abstaining from false speech, he describes a person who speaks truth, saying, “He never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.” The situation in Room 302 was one wherein a temptation to resort to falsehood for the sake of my advantage or for the advantage of those gathered in the room was virtually unavoidable. But is advantage what’s really at stake when a lie is told out of concern to spare another’s feelings or to soften a difficult time for someone? If someone benefits from a lie, it seems to me that the intention behind the lie and the nature of the benefit accrued needs to be weighed.
The Buddha’s teaching of right speech is offered in the light of his teaching on the nature of right intention, a step in the Eightfold Path that I draw upon for guidance as much as upon anything traditional Dharma has given me. The Buddha taught that our choices of speech and action should be consonant with an intention of selflessness, kindness, and harmlessness. If I’m torn between truth and falsehood, I have to ask myself if the choice taken is self-serving or selfless, harsh or kind, harmful or harmless. Only then can I know what’s best to do. Surely the ancient Buddhist precept of “Do not lie” is to be honored in the spirit of truth with an eye toward probable consequence. Right speech isn’t a matter of legalized ethics. The mere fact of a lie is a quality unknown without consulting the heart’s intent.
Zen concurs in seeking the heart’s consent, and it does so because it’s the circumstance of the given moment rather than any generalized rule—regardless of how applicable the rule might seem to be—that ultimately determines what needs to be done. George Orwell, in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” lays down six rules of good writing having to do with the use of metaphor, brevity of expression, passive and active constructions, and so forth, but his sixth rule is “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” Orwell speaks pure Zen when he frees the writer’s pen from compliance with any preconceived rule. You can neither write nor live by rules.
When it comes to right speech with its injunction forbidding lying, what’s needed is an Orwellian rule of exclusion, a rule that frees the heart to determine when it might be best to lie, perhaps something like “tell any lie rather than speak some pointlessly harsh truth.” Nothing in a Buddhist rulebook will tell you when and how to do this, which is perhaps why Zen insists that you shoulder the responsibility on your own. That being so, I’m asked to feel my way into the moment and determine on the basis of that very moment what’s best said or not said.
But it’s essential that I be skeptical of my own advice to “feel my way.” There are times when I choose not to tell the truth, judging that out of consideration for a fellow being it’s best not to do so. But am I reading the circumstance rightly and am I truly acting out of selfless consideration? Am I assuming too much in supposing that I know what’s best for another to be told? Am I being merely manipulative, imagining myself capable of skillful means that I may in fact lack? I ask these questions of myself precisely because of my very real conviction that, in the end, I have no alternative but to find my own way in this matter, consulting heart and intuition to determine when it’s best to lie or not lie.
Yet however intuitive and sensitive to circumstance I imagine my feelings to be, they must be tempered by doubt and reasoned self-editing. Otherwise I can end up deceiving myself, acting upon self-interest while convincing myself otherwise. It’s not enough to simply “feel” that it’s best to withhold truth: the strongest and most convincing of feelings often spring from the vanity and fear that fuels attachment. The egoself acts in its own defense, and when any of us abridges the precept regarding falsehood, we need to be searchingly honest about why we’re doing so.
Truth is a beautiful thing—the only thing that liberates us from the falsehoods ego fabricates in service of its own cause. One of the ancient and original precepts of the Buddhist path is the vow to tell the truth and not lie. There are good reasons for this, but the real truth is that of the inborn buddha, the one who transcends all rules and who invariably speaks and acts with a wisdom tempered by kindness.
How to cite this document:
© Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller, The Arts of Contemplative Care (Wisdom Publications, 2012)
This selection from The Arts of Contemplative Care by Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/arts-contemplative-care.
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