Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Does Buddha Always Tell the Truth?
Sam Harris thinks
honesty is the best policy. KAREN MAEZEN MILLER
argues for a more nuanced understanding of right speech.
By Sam Harris
Four Elephants Press, 2013; 108 pp., $16.99 (hardcover)
I was thirty-six years
old when I encountered truth for the first time.
sleepless, up too late wandering around the house where I lived alone, keeping
company with too much wine and sorrow, I spied a slender red spine on my
bookshelf. I must have walked past it a hundred times but had never noticed it
before. The book was Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching,
left behind by someone who had since disappeared. Although I had no interest in
philosophy or religion and couldn’t even pronounce the title on the dust
jacket, I sat down in the hush of that long, unforgettable night and read every
Afterward I would
recall the event as a spiritual awakening. With hindsight it’s easy to see your
irreversible turning points—how the casual flick of your finger topples a
domino that reveals a perfect pattern to the chaos—but that night I didn’t
think I’d found any particular answers. I didn’t yet see a path beyond my pain.
I was still sad, confused, and afraid. But I’d heard something.
As I read those
pages, I heard what sounded like the truth, so true I would have given it a
capital T. It was the truest thing I’d ever read, and if someone could put this
much truth into words, I thought, then maybe I could find it in my life. Maybe
I could find relief from my mind’s torment.
Up until then, I’d
been as susceptible as anyone to lies: I’d bought and sold my share of them.
I’d had a short career as a journalist, where my professional weakness was
believing well-told lies, an unfortunate few of which I rendered as fact under
my byline on the front page of the morning paper. I followed that embarrassment
with a long career in public relations, where my professional strength was
telling lies. To be sure, mine were hardly criminal lies, or at least they were
never prosecuted as such. They were simply the distortions fashioned by
commercial and corporate self-interest—white-collar lies. But even ordinary,
everyday lies can accumulate into unbearable discomfort and shame, at least
until you’ve scraped the bullshit from the bottom of your shoes.
The tao that can be told
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
Is not the eternal Name.
—Tao Te Ching
The Tao had
given me a hint of a larger truth, one that couldn’t be manipulated with words,
knowledge, or artifice. It sounded like a benevolent rock bottom you hit when
all your make-believe has shattered, when your heart breaks and your head
spins, when hope dies and strategies fail, as they will, because trading in
lies leads to no good. It ends in long nights at wit’s end wandering an empty
house, an eye cocked open to find the way out.
Why do we lie?
We lie to serve
ourselves. That much is obvious. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris,
author of The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape, has written
another provocative book—an essay, to be honest—examining the art and ethics of
the dodge. His timing is propitious. Living in samsara, the egocentric world of
suffering, we are continuously misled, deceived, and exploited. But it sure
seems to have gotten worse lately. As a result, we are living in what could be
called the age of disbelief. Even if you don’t trust the numbers (and I admit
to caution), the numbers don’t lie. A survey by Pew Research Center in October
2013 found that Americans distrust the federal government 80 percent of the
If you’re looking
for an honest face, you’d better hire Tom Hanks. In an annual poll of the most
trusted people in America, six of the top 10 were movie stars and the eighth
was the host of Jeopardy. In a 2012 Gallup survey of honesty and ethics
in professions, clergy were only half-trusted. A majority of the public has
little or no trust in the media. Stockbrokers, ad execs, members of Congress,
and car salespeople are crawling at the bottom of the credibility sinkhole. Only
nurses, doctors, and pharmacists are as yet untarnished by our cynicism, a
sign, perhaps, of our steadfast reliance on medical attention and
disagreeable. If we don’t agree on that, there’s no sense in having a
conversation about honesty. But Harris wants to prod us beyond easy ethics and
into inconvenient territory. He argues that the most egregious lies are the
liver-bellied ones we tell to save ourselves from momentary distress. “Lying,
even about the smallest matters, needlessly damages personal relationships and
public trust,” he writes.
“My daughter will
be absent due to illness,” I say to the attendance secretary at the school
“As it turns out,
we have other plans that night,” I reply to the unwanted invitation.
“Not really,” I
answer my husband, who has pricked my icy silence by asking, “Are you mad at me
None of those
statements was completely true, but were they wrong?
“To lie is to
recoil from relationship,” Harris writes. “A willingness to be honest—especially
about things that one might be expected to conceal—often leads to much more
gratifying exchanges with other human beings.”
As evidence, he
cites the time an unsuspecting friend asked whether Harris thought he was
In fact, he was
probably just asking for reassurance: It was the beginning of summer, and we
were sitting with our wives by the side of his pool. However, I’m more
comfortable relying on the words that actually come out of a person’s mouth
rather than on my powers of telepathy. So I answered my friend’s question very
directly: “No one would ever call you fat, but if I were you, I’d want to lose
twenty-five pounds.” That was two months ago, and he is now fifteen pounds
lighter. Neither of us knew that he was ready to go on a diet until I declined
the opportunity to lie about how he looked in a bathing suit.
dispassionately with issues that are troubling for most of us. To his thinking,
if you tell a woman That dress makes you look fat, it allows her to
choose a more flattering fit. When you admit to your friend, the struggling
actor, that he’s really a bad actor, it liberates him to find a more productive
life purpose. And when you break the news to a friend that her husband is
having an affair, it rescues the victim, saves a friendship, and relieves you
from the burden of keeping a secret.
Reading this blend
of simple logic, good intentions, and best-case scenarios, I arrived at a
different view of the matter. Just because you’re no longer deceiving someone else
doesn’t mean you’re not deceiving yourself. Whenever I think I know what
someone needs or wants, what is good or best for them—wagering how things are
going to turn out—it’s a good time to shut up.
An untroubled mind,
No longer seeking to consider
What is right and what is wrong,
A mind beyond judgments,
Watches and understands.
Why would a
Buddhist have to think twice about lying? “Right speech” is codified into the
eightfold path, the Buddha’s teaching on the way out of suffering. Isn’t it
right there in black and white: “Don’t lie”?
Only it’s not black
and white and it doesn’t say that. The “right” in right speech (and each
element of the path) does not mean the opposite of “wrong.” It is not a
Right speech is
whole, perfected, wise, skillful, appropriate, necessary, and non-divisive.
Those are a lot of words to describe the language that arises out of the
undistracted awareness of your awakened mind, free of judgments about this or
that, right and wrong, if and when, you and me. That’s why right speech is so
often expressed by silence.
The Abhaya Sutra
categorizes what a buddha does not say:
Words known to be
unfactual, un-true, unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be
factual and true, yet unbeneficial, unendearing, and disagreeable to others.
Words known to be
factual, true, and beneficial, yet unendearing and disagreeable to others,
because it is not yet the proper time to say them.
Words known to be
unfactual, untrue, and unbeneficial, yet en-dearing and agreeable to others.
Words known to be
factual and true but unbeneficial, yet endearing and agreeable to others.
Right speech is not
only a lesson in how to speak. It is also an admonition to practice: to
watch and wait until the mind opens and intuitive wisdom finds its own
compassionate expression. In the real world, abstract discussion about honesty
doesn’t go far enough, because living beings are not abstractions. That’s the
most inconvenient truth of all.
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
Then you can care for all things.
—Tao Te Ching
stress that the steps of the eightfold path are not singular or serial; they
are eight actualizations of one fundamental truth: no separate self. When that
one domino tips, your view is irretrievably altered and the world changes from
the inside out.
Harris credits a
college philosophy seminar with triggering his epiphany about lying. Called
“The Ethical Analyst,” it examined the practical ethics of a single question,
“Is it wrong to lie?” The course opened his eyes to the suffering and
embarrassment that could be avoided by simply telling the truth.
“And, as though for
the first time, I saw all around me the consequences of others’ failure to live
by this principle,” he writes. That’s close, but not quite close enough to the
In other instances,
his insights sound eerily akin to the Buddha’s own. “Honesty is a gift we can
give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity.
Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances,
leaves us with little to prepare for. Knowing that we told the truth in the
past leaves us with nothing to keep track of. We can simply be ourselves in
Harris has spoken
favorably about the ethical benefits of contemplative practices. Lying
makes me wish he would go a little bit further to broaden his view of truth,
widen his view of the self, and deepen his connection with the world around
him. But it’s not my place to say so. Perhaps one day he’ll ask even more
difficult questions of himself, questions he can’t answer with simple rules or
reason alone. That’s how the dharma works.
Does this make me look fat?
If I were you, I
wouldn’t answer that. And if you were me, you wouldn’t ask in the first place.
Practicing utmost honesty with ourselves, neither of us would cause the other a
moment’s pain. No vanity or self-righteousness; no lies, regrets, blame, or
excuses. Can you imagine living like that? Me neither. That’s okay. There’s no
use imagining a different world, but we can each keep trying to live
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen priest and teacher at the
Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. Her new book, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, will be released