The Suffering of lies

When is a cat a dog?

“Rahula, for anyone who has no shame at intentional lying, there is no evil that that person cannot do.” – The Buddha to his son, on lying.

This week, I am going to touch on something that has hit close to home recently.  Sadly, I discovered that a close and dear friend of mine had been lying to myself, and others, about both unimportant and important things.  I was angry and reactive at first, thinking about the wrong that had been done to me.  Over the course of a few days, I let go of the attachment of being wronged, and began reading up on lying, trying to gain and understanding of where it comes from.  I re-read portions of the 5 precepts in Buddhism, but also the reasons of why we lie and the effects on us. The major discovery I unearthed is that lying is usually born out of shame, and essentially, a twisted method to trying to be happy.

Let me start at the end of my research, as understanding the causes of lying can lead to more compassionate understanding of others, ourselves, and the purpose of the fourth precept which is “to not lie, to be truthful”.

Born of shame

It would be easy to blanket “lying” as morally wrong, and a result of a conscious decision to cause someone harm.  This may sometimes be the case, but more often than not lying seems to be more of psychological process aimed at defending ourselves.  It is used as a defence to keep others from seeing our foibles, our vulnerabilities, our mistakes, and our flaws.  It is meant to keep ourselves “looking good”.  Lying is a result born out of fear and shame.  It is a short term protection to being exposed, without any consideration to the longer term consequences.

How does shame contribute? A simple example is if, let’s say, I started to smoke, and i was ashamed of the decision, and did not want others to know about it, I would lie.  I would lie so that others would continue to see me as strong, fit, and healthy.  I would lie so that others would not know about my secret addiction, my weakness for nicotine.  If I was underage, I would lie because of the potential repercussions from my parents. In my mind state of wanting to continue to “look good”, I justify lying to others.

Internal Suffering

But where does the choice to lie lead? Internally, it can lead to increased shame; shame of hiding and not being able to be one’s fully empowered self.  Increased suffering due to the mental trouble not only resulting from this shame, but the constant guarding of the truth; an ever-increasing complex and fragile web.  Who have I lied to?  What have I told them?  What if they find out?  It is such an interesting result: lying, thought to protect oneself from shame, only results in more of the same.

Lying also brings into question our commitments in life.  If one cannot commit to the truth, no matter how apparently difficult, how can one commit to the harder things in life? Commitment to a partner, to a business, to one’s health?  How can one proceed to have excellence in their lives if the shame of an action dictates their actions?

External Suffering

What about external effects?  Consider the resulting pain and suffering it can cause to others:  by lying to someone, I am deliberately providing false information, information considered to be truthful by the recipient.  The recipient then proceeds to make decisions and create actions in their life based on the best information they have about particular situations.  If the information one has about situations is incorrect, this can lead to misinformed and incorrect decisions, and result in inappropriate actions, creating pain for those we care about.

And what happens if, the lie I have told is discovered?  What is the effect on my personal and professional relationships?  This is something one can only answer for themselves.  Most certainly, however, there shall be a breach of trust, and trust is not easily rebuilt.  Trust is what our most personal and fulfilling relationships are built on, and if someone lies about if they smoke, or where they may have been on a particular evening, or their financial situation, how can a trusting relationship be built with them?  With difficulty, with caution.  This applies to business partnerships also: would you be willing to share financial stakes with someone who lies?  Even given our best intentions to forgive and forget, a certain amount of doubt will cloud over many of the interactions that follow.  One is well to be cautious of those people that hold you close with apparent love and respect, yet mask deceitfulness and ulterior motives!

Finally, consider the following story where the Buddha explains the effects of lying to his son Rahula.  It is interesting to notice that the Buddha begins contrary to perhaps how our modern society would list the effects of lying on those being lied to, and instead focuses on the effect it has to the liar.  This, in combination with the above, perhaps gives us a greater insight into why we, and others lie, and some space to consider the effects that could result the next time we consider telling an untruth.

Once, the Buddha got a pot of water and calling Rahula to his side said to him:

“Rahula, do you see the small amount of water in this pot?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Even so, little is the training of those who have no shame at intentional lying.”

The Buddha then threw the water away and said:

“Do you see this small amount of water that I have thrown away?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Even so, Rahula, thrown away is the training of those who have no shame at intentional lying.”

The Buddha then turned the pot over and said:

“Do you see this pot that has been turned over?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Even so, turned over is the training of those who have no shame at intentional lying.”

The Buddha then turned the pot upright again and said:

“Do you see this pot now empty and void?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Even so, Rahula, empty and void is the training of those who have no shame at intentional lying.”

The Buddha then impressed upon his son the importance of speaking the truth.

“Rahula, for anyone who has no shame at intentional lying, there is no evil that that person cannot do. Therefore, you should train yourself like this: ‘I will not tell a lie, not even in jest.'”

Having explained what has to be done, the Buddha went on to explain to Rahula how it could be done.

“What do you think about this, Rahula? What is the purpose of a mirror?”
“The purpose of a mirror is to look at yourself.”
“Even so, Rahula, one should act with body, speech or mind only after first looking at oneself. Before acting with body, speech or mind, one should think: ‘What I am about to do, will it harm me or others?’ If you can answer: ‘Yes, it will,’ then you should not act. But if you can answer: ‘No, it will not,’ then you should act. You should reflect in the same way while acting and after having acted. Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself thinking: ‘We will act only after repeatedly looking at ourselves, only after reflecting on ourselves.’

Leave a Comment.