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Barbara O'Brien

Deep Honesty

By November 29, 2011

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This week's main feature article is on the Fourth Buddhist Precept -- do not lie, or refrain from falsehood. On the surface, this is one of the more uninteresting Buddhist Precepts. Number One on the "interesting" countdown must be Number Three, on sexuality. Precepts one and five, on killing and intoxicants, probably come after that.

The Second Precept tells us not to steal, and the Fourth tells us not to lie. Some of us might be inclined to check those off pretty quickly. They sound like what we learned in Sunday School, after all. But as in most things, the Precepts go much, much deeper.

Speaking truth comes from a practice of truthfulness, or deep honesty. One of the things I first appreciated about Zen practice is that it requires self-honesty. Whatever shtick has gotten you through life is revealed to be a hindrance instead of a crutch, and the myriad little lies and rationalizations we tell ourselves about ourselves fall away. (And they're still falling away.)

Another aspect of deep honesty is remaining open to truth. So often we "make up our minds" about the way things are, and then we are closed. Certitude is a dead end.

Always leave room for new understanding, even if you like your current understanding. Especially if you like your current understanding. Be particularly mistrustful of "facts" that fit too neatly into your worldview. Stay open to the realization that your worldview is an illusion, even if it doesn't seem to be an illusion.

Ultimately, speaking truth can only be built on a practice of truth. Deep honesty does not try to protect our ego, serve our self-interests or confirm our biases. And if we're not being sincerely honest, how can we be truthful?

November 30, 2011 at 9:49 am
(1) Lee says:

some years ago i was priviliged to attend a meditation retreat. I had no previous experience within a temple and had meditated alone for about 5 years. During retreat i signed up for ‘spiritual counseling’ not even knowing what that was. Eventually a monk came and fetched me for my counseling. We sat in a beautiful garden. “And what is your question?” she asked. “I don’t have a question?” We looked at each other. “Well’ I said, ” this meditation it’s hard stuff can you help me with that?” She looked at me for a bit .. “How about keeping the precepts?” she asked. “Oh I do all of that.” I said “I’m honest, don’t lie … I’ve always been a good person.” I thought I saw her snicker at me but she later said that was not the case. “How about you make a deal with me.. for the next 6 months read the 10 precepts each morning when you meditate.” I happily agreed. Within a month i noticed that sometimes when talking with people I was allowing misstatements, inuendo’s and other means of controlling and manipulating discussions to manifest in my mind and out through my tongue. I realized I was lieing… I was breaking the precepts. And it continued to grow more and more noticable … my brain would ‘niggle’ at me when i was about to do something contrary to the precepts. (Not that i didn’t do it anyway) but I was getting earlier warning. Later I called the temple and the very monk who sat with me answered the phone… I said “Thanks to you I have learned I don’t keep any of the precepts!” and that’s how training has gone for me … whether a translation is ‘accurate’ whether I understand or not if I practice my view changes … and love, compassion and wisdom expand … not that the others poisons are not still present .

November 30, 2011 at 10:22 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Thank you so much, Lee. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

November 30, 2011 at 10:58 am
(3) David says:

Thanks for this posting, Barbara and to you, Lee, for your moving story. As it happens, last night I auditioned in community theater for a part in ‘Twelve Angry Men’, a classic play about a jury trying to decide if a young man is guilty of killing his father. Not the best written play on earth, I suppose, but still a good illustration of what it means to keep open to doubt and the truth. In the play, a single juror holds out for a not guilty verdict because he has the gut feeling that the defendant had not been well represented by counsel and that it was too easy to condemn him because he was a ghetto kid with a police record. By insisting on discussing the case further, he and the other jurors find good reason to hold a reasonable doubt about the kid’s guilt and it soon becomes clear that several jurors had only been voting their prejudices. In effect, they had been lying to themselves about their own motives for their decision. In the end, everyone changes their vote and the kid is exonerated. The Fourth Precept in action.

December 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm
(4) Lee says:

is your site having trouble? I received a strange email from supposedly this site notifying me of a comment. but it looks real suspicious and I never opened it.

December 1, 2011 at 1:23 pm
(5) Yeshe says:

Ditto on that. I did not sign up for notification, but received two, one of which was unrelated to the topic.

December 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

I’ll alert tech support.

December 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm
(7) Mila says:

One thing I find interesting and challenging in relation to working with the fourth precept — “not to lie but to be truthful” (Norman Fischer’s rendering here) — is how in a particular situation it might seem to contradict the sixth precept — “not to speak of others’ faults but to speak out of living-kindness” — or the seventh — “not to praise self at the expense of others but to be modest.”

Sometimes this feels frustrating but mostly it brings me back to how at their root the precepts are tools for increasing our sensitivity, our awareness, our “awakeness” — and if held as such, over time, they seem to create an environment in which right action happens more-or-less spontaneously; and makes it easier to forgive others’ apparent breaches of the precepts, since I’m more and more tuned into the complexities of human interaction.

December 1, 2011 at 1:34 pm
(8) Yeshe says:

I’m a Truth-seeker and Truth-speaker. Always ferreting out the truth in self and the world as much as possible. I did, nonetheless, anger a friend recently because I mentioned something to a caregiver when his psych condition got to the point where he was becoming hostile and paranoid and threatened another friend. He challenged me about the truth, because I had told him that I would keep his ideation private. And I did, up until the point where someone else as well as myself was in danger of assault. I felt that the truest thing to do was to bring the situation to light to benefit all of us, and I only spoke the details to the actual caregiver. So then I told him that I am a truth seeker and truth speaker, but sometimes I lie when compassion requires it. And this is the truth!

December 2, 2011 at 10:11 am
(9) George Deane says:

I was moved by Lee’s honesty about how he courageously confronted his previously erroneous self image. I just wished he had fleshed out some details of exactly how his lack of honesty manifested. Obviously it was very subtle in nature, as he would have known about it before Buddhism activated his introspective investigation about some dark force lurking deep within him.

The problem with dishonesty among basically decent people to me has a subtle texture. We of course eliminate the dishonesty of most politicians whose blatant dishonesty, especially sexual in nature, has become virtually accepted behavior, despite its repugnance. I would prefer to see the conversation on dishonesty dwell on the subtle manner in which it manifests in us, the basically very honest people ,the type who would he usual reader of this blog.

December 2, 2011 at 10:44 am
(10) Lee says:

In my case I feel what has happened is: As I read the precepts each morning they became part of my focus more and more … the understanding deepened … then in daily activity I may have been in a conversation and knowing that if i said nothing the person would go away with a perspective that I may have preferred but was not correct. So I began to question the ‘honesty’ of not speaking. I began to see more and more that it was indeed little attitudes, greeds effecting what was coming out in my actions. (whether speaking or not speaking) It just began to get more and more fine grained and there is an awarness that has heightened. (and that can become a challenge) Eventually i came to understand I really truly do not keep any of the precepts and breaking of one is breaking them all. As Mila said “over time, they seem to create an environment in which right action happens more-or-less spontaneously; and makes it easier to forgive othersí apparent breaches of the precepts, since Iím more and more tuned into the complexities of human interaction.”
I think you are right it is the little things … it’s in our intent … when we have time to think about things (the big things) we can usually do the ‘right’ thing but when we have to act quickly… spontaneously ..or it’s just a little decision??… training i think helps us in reducing the suffering our acts may be causing to self and others.

December 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm
(11) phyllis neffkaydus says:

i am jewish and this is my lst time reading your newsletter. i am a ‘questing beast’ and my housemate is a buddhist and gave me some basic literature on buddhism. happy to see that the lashon-ha ra.(bad tongue in hebrew) is condemned also in buddhist thought. we are what we say, and lying to oneself is the lst and most important way to lie to other people too. i lied to my self for a long time about what i believed before i became jewish. i still have a long way to go, and buddhism is also a gift from my housemate before she leaves. i am no buddhist, but i do agree with you about the lying.

December 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm
(12) Ed Vaisvilas says:

My only question about honesty is something encountered in nearly every social gathering I attend. Is flattery considered contrary to the fourth precept?

December 12, 2011 at 3:30 pm
(13) About Support says:

Hey Guys. As far as we know you shouldn’t be getting an email about notifications.. can you please send a forwarded copy of that email to Barbara please?

About.com Support

December 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm
(14) lee says:

where do i send it to???? I have nothing but this location..

December 13, 2011 at 8:20 am
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

My email address is buddhism.guide@about.com

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