Saturday, April 21, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The Fourth Precept

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticise or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small. -- Thich Nhat Hanh

Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez. I thought this one was just supposed to be about lying.

I'd like to say I could live with not lying, but that would be untrue. (See how much fun this is already?) I lie. Not to deceive, particularly, but as a substitute for the truth when I feel my privacy is a higher value than someone else's desire to know something. Why did I decide not to go to the movie or concert or party or lecture? How much money did I spend on that anti-aging eye cream or that new helleborus foetida in the garden? What did I eat yesterday?

There are times when the right and desirable thing to say is, "It's none of your business. Bugger off." But of course we don't always have the luxury of saying the right and desirable thing. Sometimes the social contract demands that we at least offer the interrogator a show of respect in the form of a reasonable-sounding answer.

I know this is skirting very close to bullshit. I admit that my decision to lie is at least partly motivated by avoidance of shame: I'd rather most people didn't know about some of my lazy or selfish or unwise behavior. But on the other hand, is it really anybody else's business? If I'm going to be the one to handle whatever consequences arise from the behavior itself, am I also required to submit to other people's scrutiny or offer myself up as something for them to form opinions about?

Apparently, yes. As in all things, the Buddha's stance on lying has a practical focus: If we don't reveal the truth of who we are, we can't really know each other or trust each other, and if we don't trust each other, life is going to be really hard for individuals and really hard for communities. Also, if we depend on lying to make ourselves seem better than we are (less unwise, less lazy, less selfish), then we never learn that we can tell the truth and still be loved, respected, valued, etc., so we cultivate feeling secretive and ashamed.

J.R.R. Tolkien's character Gollum is a wonderful, powerful manifestation of that idea: that we can only thrive in the air and light of being known by others — in particular, having the hope of being forgiven. Without that, even though we might successfully avoid blame and punishment, we shrivel and moulder and rot, unable to tolerate warmth, always looking for a safer, darker place to keep our chilly secrets.

Maybe I should take a clue from the intensity of my feelings about Gollum. I get him. I get why he's always having those crazy, tormented dialogues with himself. The problem isn't the Ring or its magical power to "master" him; it's that he can't tell anyone what has happened and is still happening to him. He can imagine no response other than horror, disgust and rejection, so he inflicts these on himself, forever ruling out the possibility that there are wise people who could help him, that compassion and forgiveness exist. Yet he cannot entirely forget the person he was; he cannot entirely squelch his human longing for acceptance and friendship. Sméagol still lives and agitates within.

So if I tell you I can't come to the concert or party or lecture tonight as planned because I suddenly got plowed under with a ton of work I could not have foreseen, but the truth is that I finally scored my neighborhood video store's only copy of Weeds, Season One, and plan to watch it in my jammies while wearing ridiculously expensive eye cream, I hope you'll take my lie as respectfully submitted and trust that I'll do the same for you — and neither of us will ever need to hide in a cave catching fish and stalking hobbits.

Most renditions of Gollum that I see seem too vicious and not vulnerable enough. I like the imploring aspect of this one. Sculpture and photo by Artifex Creations.




  1. more more more!

    iam a liar, and i want to quit lying..

  2. Not using bad words is also a precept. Following the noble path is the way to free your mind from all mental suffering (eventually physical.) Only way to study pure buddhism is by studying Suttas