Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

A Word of Truth

Talk two of five on the ethics of speech

Without truthfulness there can be no society. Without truthfulness human communication breaks down and distrust, hostility and force take over. Truthfulness is, therefore, of fundamental importance to a harmonious and peaceful society and of fundamental importance to the harmonious and peaceful individuals who constitute that society. To be truthful we need to be faithful to both the spirit and the letter of our experience and events. We can perhaps best define truthfulness by looking at untruthful or false speech. Broadly speaking false speech falls into the two categories of commission and omission. The most obviously active false speech is simply telling lies. Although, of course, there are degrees of lying. Any variation from factual accuracy could be construed as lying, although usually we think of a lie as simply being the direct opposite of what is true. The so called ‘white lie’ is considered to be the least harmful and indeed not a lie at all. Perhaps an example is the fiction of Santa Claus which parents maintain for their children’s pleasure. Because the intention is kindly and in fact a great deal of pleasure is derived, this could hardly be seen as unskilful. But there are other occasions when the motives are less pure and the ‘white lie’ emerges, say, from fear, when it seems more likely to be unskilful. It is really best to avoid any lying in normal day-to-day discourse and to try, as far as possible, to be factually accurate. Exaggeration and understatement can both be forms of false speech. We can exaggerate in order to make ourselves seem more interesting and to make our fairly ordinary lives seem very exciting. We exaggerate because we want to be loved but don’t think of ourselves as interesting and attractive enough to be loved. Not only is the exaggeration unskilful but the lack of self-esteem is too. Understatement can have the same root cause. English people are especially prone to this. It can be a sort of exaggerated politeness, niceness leading to falseness. So you will hear people say things like, “no, no, I wasn’t upset” when clearly they were and still are, or “oh no, it’s no inconvenience” when again it very clearly is and so on. In wanting to please, to be nice, to be polite, people can sometimes end up being quite false. You see this sometimes in people’s faces; endlessly smiling in a sort of desperation to be liked and from fear of being disapproved of. So there is false speech of commission such as lies, exaggeration and understatement. There is also a false speech of omission. This is when what we say is strictly true but because of what we leave out it is not the whole truth. In fact, it may even convey a completely wrong impression. And that can be the intention. For instance, if we don’t like someone, we may describe them in such a one-sided way as to give the impression that they are monstrous, because we are either blind to their good qualities or we don’t want to believe they have any redeeming features. Or in describing particular events we may want to show ourselves in a good light, so we leave out what is unfavourable or embarrassing to us. The truth suffers, communication suffers and inevitably that means that we suffer and others suffer. Behind false speech lies egotism in one form or another. Whether we simply want to get our own way or we want to control people and events or we are frightened or we are out for revenge, it all comes back to me, me, me – the ‘I’ at the centre of the Universe. So one important step on the way to more truthfulness is an honest self-appraisal, to see how much we are motivated by fears, or by a desire to control people and events, which may be just another species of fear or how much are we motivated by revenge, or how much is it just a question of childishly wanting to get our own way. So truthfulness or honesty can begin with ourselves and be built up from there. If we are honest with ourselves then we will more and more be living in an honest world, a world or truthfulness. And our honesty with ourselves is not just confined to our faults or weaknesses or murky motivations. An honest self-appraisal also takes into account quite fully our better qualities and our aspirations and efforts to grow. One sided views, whether of other people or of oneself are rarely honest appraisals. So by being honest we create a world of honesty and also by being untruthful we create a world of dishonesty, which is an unpleasant and tiring place to live. Dishonesty, once embarked upon, has to be kept up and becomes more and more complex. So much so that people sometimes end up believing what started out as a straightforward lie. In the case of Donald Crowhurst, whom Vessantara writes about in Tales of Freedom, he started out with what he saw as a white lie – a lie of convenience. He was sailing around the world as part of a race and he began to give false records of his whereabouts and eventually found himself in the situation of being in the lead because others had dropped out. But the tension of the lies and the isolation he had put himself in to keep up the pretence, eventually drove him mad. He just wanted to give himself a little advantage but one thing led to another and eventually he found himself in a world that he had created which was completely false and actually impossible to live with. Donald Crowhurst’s experience is just an extreme and dramatic version of what can happen if we are prone to lying or exaggeration or understatement. It happens to politicians and other public figures from time to time. For those of us not in the public eye, it’s likely to lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. If we are dishonest with ourselves and others it becomes very difficult to trust others and, therefore, to confide in anyone. If we cannot trust and cannot confide we cannot have friendships and love in our lives. A life without friendship and love is barren. So a second step on the way to more and more truthfulness is to confide. To have someone in our lives that we can be honest with and confide in. We start by being honest with ourselves and then with at least one other person. If we want to confide in someone then they have to be able to confide in us. That means that we have to be able to keep a confidence. So part of living in a world of truth and honesty is knowing when not to speak and what not to say. For a healthy emotional and psychological life we need to be able to confide in someone, we need to trust someone. For a healthy spiritual life we need to be able to confess as well as confide. Confidences can be of an ethically neutral nature, but confession is about purifying ourselves of unskilfulness. By experiencing remorse and confessing our faults we can let go of something weighing on our minds and feel the freedom of a clear conscience. Confession as well as involving regret, should also involve making amends where possible, whether by way of apology or recompense or whatever is appropriate. So a third step on the way to more and more truthfulness is confession. To avoid an over-emphasis on faults this needs to be in the context of rejoicing in our spiritual aspiration. We need to recognise that a confession of faults is only possible because we aspire to greater purity, wisdom and compassion. So a recognition of our faith in a spiritual ideal is another step on the way to greater honesty. Truth is essential to friendship as well as to the wider human society. And friendship and emotional warmth is essential to our psychological well-being. Friendship can go further than that and be the means by which a spiritual ideal becomes a more real influence in our lives. The friendship of someone who can guide us spiritually need not necessarily be close and intimate in an emotional sense, but it does demand trust, honesty and confession. Truthfulness, therefore, is essential to human life on all levels, from the functioning of society to the highest spiritual realms. The other side of the coin of truthfulness is believing others when they speak the truth. Unless we have good reason to doubt someone’s veracity, we ought to believe them. A good reason has to be something objective, some evidence of falsehood or a tendency to falsehood. If we rely on our subjective feelings and hunches, we are quite likely to make mistakes and be either unnecessarily suspicious or overly credulous. Within a spiritual community it is essential to give the benefit of the doubt to our fellow spiritual aspirants. Without that, trust breaks down and the spiritual community disappears. A spiritual community is a community of trust by definition. When trust is absent then the heart and life of the spiritual community withers and dies and all that’s left are institutions and empty words. Truthful speech is essential to human life because it is a reflection of reality. To live out of harmony with reality is to cause suffering for oneself and others. In reality all human beings and indeed all life is interconnected and interdependent. Falsehood denies this because it is selfish by nature. But reality always triumphs in the end, it cannot be otherwise. That is what is known as the doctrine of conditioned co-production, or the law of conditionality, which in terms of ethics is the law of karma. Put simply, the law of karma is that actions have consequences; skilful actions have beneficial consequences and unskilful actions have bad consequences. So false speech can only bring bad consequences. The fundamental falsehood is selfishness and the brightest truth is compassion. According to the Lalitavistara Sutra, just before the Buddha gained Enlightenment he was assailed by Mara, the personification of evil. Mara confronted him in three ways – first with violence which symbolises the forces of hatred, then with seduction, symbolising craving and finally by trying to undermine his confidence, which of course is doubt. The Buddha just observed all this going on and was unmoved by it. The forces of selfishness no longer had any hold on him and he could look at them quite squarely and honestly. He touched the earth with his right hand and received confirmation of his spiritual achievement from the Earth Goddess. This represents objectivity, an honest self-appraisal. Then being free from craving, hatred and doubt, in other words from selfishness, he was able to look beyond himself. The leader of the gods, Brahma, appeared to him and asked him to teach the Dharma and he assented. Compassion flowered in his heart as it must inevitably when the realisation of the unity of life is firmly established. The naga prince, Mucalinda, appeared and gave protection to the Buddha. The energy of the Truth is a powerful protection and an energy that sends waves of influence throughout the world and down the ages, unlimited by space or time. Truthfulness is much more than not telling lies.