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What would Sid do? Buddhism and Lying

lying Buddha
“Geez Buddha, don’t get up on my account.”

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.

Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I’ll probably get to it!

Q: Is it okay to lie? – Anonymous

When Sid became a buddha he laid out some basic ground rules for his monastic community, one of which included no false speech. The most straight-forward interpretation of that is no lying but the precept often is expanded to include no slandering others, no gossip, and no abusive speech.

As I discussed in the somewhat controversial Buddhism and Drugs post we each need to figure out what these precepts mean to us lay folk 2500 years later. On an absolute level, no, it’s not cool to lie. But then on the mundane level remember that time when your friend was totally awkward with that guy/girl and they were like “He/she’s into me right?” and you were like, “Oh yeah. Totally. You’re in girl/bro”? Yeah, welcome to the prestigious ranks of everyone who has lied.

So what would confused-working-on-his-spiritual-path Sid say about lies, big and small? I imagine he’d have a couple of key points of advice to share:

1) Look at your motivation to lie. Is it to keep things easy and simple for yourself or are you trying to be compassionate in the midst of a difficult situation? If you are only trying to protect yourself from harm lying may not even work too well for you. So many lies get discovered over time so another thing to think about is:

2) Is it ever going to be okay to tell the truth? Is this something you are going to keep to yourself fo eva eva or at some point do you think you might be able to come clean?

3) Another thing: we don’t always have to say something. There’s a certain level of discipline required of us if we want our speech to be helpful to others. Sometimes holding back or saying “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about that” can save us from lying. We might be tempted to over-share all of our secrets and our friends’ secrets but we really don’t have to. So reign it in.

Overall I’d say the key point is to be genuine with yourself. Don’t lie to yourself and ideally your speech will flow from that point of view. Also, we need to remember that we are on a spiritual path and it’s important not to beat ourselves up if we do catch ourselves lying. In fact, gently catching ourselves is the first step to breaking whatever habits we’ve gotten into with our speech.

To summarize, lying’s not awesome. Being genuine is. But when we stray from perfection let’s at least try to keep our speech uplifted and not harmful. Good luck being awesome.

Comments read comments(13)
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posted June 19, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
“It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.”
— AN 5.198

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Your Name

posted June 19, 2009 at 6:54 pm

Honest Injun: Do you make some of these questions up yourself so that you can write about whatever it is you feel like writing about?

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Lodro Rinzler

posted June 20, 2009 at 12:47 am

Dear Honest,
What a funny name you have! That is a good question. Thus far there have only been five posts. I have not made up the topic for any of them. They have either been strangers e-mailing me from the link above or friends writing to me requesting the topic. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t resort to writing my own question if the well of great opportunities for discussion ran dry. So please ladies and gentlemen, feel free to send in some questions!
Yours in the dharma,
P.S. I will be away from the computer for a few days but I imagine that my absence will not quell any debate. I look forward to reading the dialogue when I return.

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Patrick Groneman

posted June 21, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Lying always comes back to bite you!
“If you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all”

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Your Name

posted June 22, 2009 at 12:31 pm

To acknowledge and accept the absolute truth of all moments and all situations is a form of enlightenment. That is why it’s so difficult. If it was easy, we would all be on the path, and the struggle and contemplation of the journey would lose all meaning. I’ve often heard the phrase, “the world behind the world,” and it is in precisely this near-transcendental fashion that I think of the most basic of truths. It is what exists when all else has been stripped away. Greed, illusion, human emotion; when these have dissolved, only pure truth remains. So as our gracious host Mr. Rinzler already covered: Do we all lie at some point? Yes. Does this make us horrible people? Not at all. It simply means that we need to learn and concentrate more in order to get to where we ultimately need to be.
“Beauty is truth; truth, beauty.”

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posted June 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

the writing is fun and enjoyable, but really has little connection to the Buddha.
To assume that the Infinitely Transcendent Masters have any real connection to an ordinary human being is a great stretch.
The only ones who have any real insight into who they were and what they did, are saints themselves. Maybe Gandhi can interpret Christ or Buddha for us…but ordinary folks? We are just making wild guesses.

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posted June 22, 2009 at 1:34 pm

anonymousnj – Really? That seems like a rather isolated view of the world that essentially tells people aspiring for enlightenment to not even try because it’s out of reach.
In my opinion (subjective and flawed as it is) that’s what is so wonderful about the story of Sid (I can call him that becaause he and I are like this [fingers twisted]). He was human, not some supernatural being, and thus his path can be followed by people hoping for enlightenment in this life, not just looking to score enough points to get into some cosmic amusment park after death.
Sure, all religions layer on supernatural stories and dogma over the centuries in order to survive in the marketplace that is humanity’s search for meaning and cultural cohesion, and Buddhism is no different. Unfortunately that makes people start using terms like “saint”, “messiah”, “Infintely Transcendent Masters”, etc. which creates the impression that these were not just great men and women, but an unachievable standard that we can barely comprehend.
Until I meet a supernatural being, or see any evidence of one, I’m going to continue to hope that us normal folks have what it takes to investigate life’s greatest mysteries.

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posted June 23, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Sometimes I think about the Buddha refusing to get up from the Bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment: as in, I will not get up from this desk until I have finished my term paper much as the Buddha refused to get up from the Bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment.
I wouldn’t try the meditating until I reach enlightenment bit though. Reaching enlightenment requires multitudes of lifetimes, so really having your heart set on THIS lifetime just seems like a grasping behavior and grasping does run the risk of making the object further out of your reach (think of chasing after a lover).
I also wonder if an enlightened being would care so much that they had reached enlightened status: it might be like, oh, I’m enlightened, I guess I’ll keep saving sentient beings and keep on doing whatever I was doing that got me enlightened in the first place.

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posted June 24, 2009 at 12:18 pm

“Reaching enlightenment requires multitudes of lifetimes” – IMHO that’s purely based on faith and ultimately stems from desire. For all we KNOW (not wish) this life is all we have.

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posted June 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm

I don’t believe that faith has to imply desiring something to happen. I don’t believe in multiple lives because I want to keep on reincarnating, I believe in it because I think it’s true.
I think it’s more a leap of faith to think that we were born as blank slates and we just happen to have the talents and interests and phobias that we have, for no real reason, even the ones we can’t explain and make no sense (for example I know a woman who’s incredibly scared of drowning, even though she’s never set foot in a body of water in her life).
Also, since one of the benefits of enlightenement is that you can escape the cycle of birth and death if you so choose, doesn’t that imply that believing in the concept of enlightenment means believing in reincarnation?

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posted June 24, 2009 at 2:56 pm

I have recently gotten involved in a 12 step program to kick a 20 year heroin addiction. This is by no means the fist time Ive tried to get “clean” but it is the first time Ive actually worked any type of program. What I have found interesting and very helpful are the similarities between the program of NA and buddhist teachings, more specifically the results attained by both.
I wont list th 12 steps here but they could almost be entirely replaced by the eightfold path. Especially, in my experience, right effort and right mindfullness.
One of the favorite sayings in NA is “one day at a time” which, I think, is the same as the sixth aspect of the eight fold path, right effort. A conscience and ongoing engagement with each moment. We are only given this one moment in time so concentrate on that realizing that we are “clean” in this moment. We cant change yesterday or see tomorrow so live in this moment.
In NA it is important to take inventories of ourselves and our thinking. We have to be aware of our thoughts and actions. We have to understand how and why we react to situations and life in general. Through these observations we learn some of the situations that caused us to start using in the first place and also ways we can change the ways that we engage life. Right mindfullness.
I have gained many benefits and much enlightenment from working these steps and following the eight fold path. Ive realized that my addiction had less to do with the actual drugs and more to do with my desperate attempt to avoid duhkha.

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Your Name

posted June 24, 2009 at 3:20 pm

Hi Lauren,
I’m sorry, I wasn’t very clear. What I meant is that poeple want to believe in an afterlife/reincarnation because the idea that this is our one shot is amazingly lonely and frightening. Therefore the desire for some more cosmic meaning for our lives leads to one having faith in that idea.
And I would contend that given everything we know, and even more so what we don’t yet know, about human psychology, evolutionary biology and the complexities of the mind – it’s a far far greater leap to assume a supernatural explanation for the hard to explain aspects of personality.
Human history is one continuous chain of supernatural beliefs ultimately dispelled by a better understanding of the physical world. You never see it go the other direction. The world isn’t flat, humanity appears to have evolved, the subconscious exists and manifests in certain ways, and so on and so on. To assume that the supernatural explanations that have survived so far are any more valid than those of the past seems to me to ignore the obvious pattern.
And to reincarnation, that’s a circular argument that assumes that enlightenment and reincarnation are related. I suppose that’s ultimately a semantic debate about what “enlightenment” means. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are seekers.

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posted June 25, 2009 at 12:19 am

You do have a valid and widely supported argument. I do take comfort in my belief in reincarnation and it does give me peace. The alternative is not that pleasant. But in non-metaphysical categories, such as politics, my views are grimmer than most (I read independent media) and make me feel all sorts of negative emotions. I haven’t changed my views because of this.
I don’t think that human psychology, evolutionary biology and the complexities of the mind necessarily cancel ‘”supernatural” explanations out. They could theoretically complement each other, our collective karma could have shaped our evolutionary biology, our past life karma could drive our psychology and the way our mind has formed.
There are some articles on past lives, if you want, there’s one on how the current Dalai Lama was chosen:

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