This is part eight of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts. The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.
The objects of lying are mostly included within the eight: what is seen, what is heard, what is experienced, what is known; and what is not seen, what is not heard, what is not experienced, and what is not known. The intention requires that we must know we are lying, unintentionally providing mistaken information is not lying. We must be determined to lie, and we must be motivated by delusion. Lies can sometimes take the form of non-verbal actions such as making physical gestures, by writing, or even by remaining silent. The action of lying is complete when the person to whom the lie is directed has understood our meaning and believes what we have said or indicated. If the other person does not understand, then our action is not complete.
Of all the precepts, I think we transgress this one most frequently. Most of us lie all of the time, directly or indirectly, in big and in subtle ways. A very fun way of seeing this is to rent the movie Liar Liar with Jim Carey. In the movie, I cannot remember why, but he has to always tell the exact truth. This helps show us the many different ways we lie throughout our day because we see how we would likely lie in those situations. In a similar way, it is a very useful exercise to at least once a month take an entire day to focus on just this one aspect of our practice of moral discipline. Make a concerted effort to pay attention that you never mislead people, even slightly, and like Jim Carey you have to always tell the truth no matter what the consequences.
Will this get us into trouble with others when they hear what we really think? Yes, it will. So we might say, “then wouldn’t it be better to not say anything to them so as to not upset them?” In the short run, that might be true, but that is not a good enough answer. The correct answer is we need to change what we think about others so that we can tell everyone what we really think, and instead of that making them upset it makes them feel loved and cared for. We can always tell the truth if we only have loving kindness in our heart.
I think it is also useful to make a distinction between lying and speaking non-truths. The difference usually turns around whether there is delusion present in our mind or not. Not telling your kids what you got them for Christmas, or even telling them something that is not true, is not lying. Failing to mention that you are going to the Dharma center or to a festival to your relative who thinks you have joined some cult and you know saying something would just upset them is not lying, it is being skillful. Ultimately, there is no objective truth, so the question arises what then is a valid basis for establishing the truth. Geshe-la, Venerable Tharchin, and Gen-la Losang all say (in one manner or another) that “what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is most beneficial to believe.” For example, we might say strongly believing we are the deity or that we have taken on all of the suffering or living beings or that we have purified all of our negative karma are lies because they are not true. This is not the point. The point is what is most beneficial to believe. Believing these correct imaginations is how we complete the mental action of generation stage, purification practice, or training in taking and giving. Venerable Tharchin explains that from a Dharma point of view, what establishes what is true is “what is most beneficial to believe.” So if it is beneficial to believe something, it is truth. It may not be objectively true, but it is a belief that moves in the direction of ultimate truth. In other words, believing any idea that takes us in the direction of ultimate truth can be established as “truth,” and so saying or thinking it is not lying. Helping others believe these things is not lying, it is wise compassion.
But if we are misleading others for selfish reasons, or out of anger, fear or attachment, then there is no doubt we are lying. We need to know the difference.
It is helpful to consider the example of Donald Trump. Love him or hate him, no one can deny that Donald Trump was a serial liar. Virtually everything he said was a lie in one form or another. All of his lies were ultimately motivated by what best served his interests. Many people shared his interests, and therefore excused his lying as what was necessary to accomplish their desired policy goals. But many people wound up believing his lies. Because of the nature of his position, his lies would reach virtually everyone on earth. It is said that the karmic effect of our actions is multiplied by the number of living beings affected by them. He essentially lied to 7 billion people many times every day. Certainly all of these people did not believe all of his lies, but millions did. They would then repeat these lies as if they were truth and on and on the deceptions would spread causing people to lose touch with conventional reality.
What are the karmic effects of such behavior? First, it is clear that he will virtually never hear the truth again for a very, very long time in his future lives. Because he has deceived so many people, he will himself be deceived that many times in return. Insanity is losing touch with conventional reality. He will no doubt spend countless eons in a state of complete insanity. All the insanity he created in society he will experience in return. Second, he will continue to have the tendencies on his mind to lie again and again in the future causing such suffering to continue. And his lies had real effects on the lives of others. Those adverse effects will be the environmental conditions of his future lives. Further, every negative action also comes with a ripened effect of some form of rebirth in the lower realms. Animals exist in a state of great confusion, so it stands to reason that the ripened effect of lying is most frequently rebirth as an animal. I know a lot of people have profound hatred for Donald Trump for all of the harm they perceive him to have caused in the world. But it is perfectly possible to acknowledge such harm but to nonetheless feel great compassion for him when we consider all of the suffering that will come as a result of his actions. Was any of it worth it? The price he will pay will be terrible. He is a worthy object of compassion and so too are all of those who he has deceived and those who have perpetuated his lies.
Nowadays, many people have been sucked into the vortex of conspiracy theories which weave all sorts of elaborate stories trying to make sense of the unknown. What is always shocking to me is how the people who believe in conspiracy theories actually think they’re the ones who are being open minded and it is everybody else who has been deceived by these elaborate lies elites have told them. And when you challenge them on their views, they simply grasp even more tightly onto them. It is almost impossible for someone subsumed by such misinformation to escape. Why do some people fall prey to such misinformation and others see it so clearly as nonsense? Karma. The karmic effect of having successfully deceived others. Because they successfully deceived others in the past, they are now easily deceived in the present. Many of the conspiracy theories people believe in are often harmless, but some of them are not. Some of them have real-world effects that function to cost lives or destroy cherished democratic institutions.
I have been surprised actually at the number of Kadampa practitioners who have been sucked into such ways of thinking. Perhaps even they misinterpret the teachings on emptiness to think there is no conventional truth these are just different ways of looking at the same observable data. Emptiness does not deny conventional truth. There are things that are conventionally true and conventionally false, even though both are ultimately empty. We can consider the difference between unicorns and horses. A unicorn is something that can be believed in but is conventionally nonexistent. A horse is also something that can be believed in but is a conventionally existent. Both unicorns and horses are equally empty. In the same way, believing lies is like believing in unicorns. It is believing in a conventionally false or nonexistent thing.
So how then should other Kadampas respond when they speak with a Kadampa who has been sucked into misinformation? I don’t pretend to have a good answer, but I do have some experience in dealing with this. First, it is almost always counterproductive to call them out on their wrong views because this just causes them to grasp even more tightly onto them.
The definition of delusion is a mind projects something false and exaggerated that we believe to be true. This is a pretty good definition of somebody who believes in misinformation and conspiracy theories. To know how to deal with this, I think we should try divide their wrong views into two categories: those that are harmful and those that are harmless. For those that are harmless, it is probably better to just say nothing and leave them with it. For those that are harmful, it seems we have an obligation to help them return to conventional reality in the same way we would somebody believing any other delusion. For the harmful wrong views, I believe the best method is to ask questions that forced them to grapple with the contradictions of their wrong views. Kadampas our Prasangikas. A Prasangika is called a consequentialist. It is a form of reasoning where are the Prasangikas point out the absurd consequences of the wrong views held by others, but then they leave others to come to their own conclusions based upon contemplating these consequences. It is an extremely skillful way of dismantling wrong views without directly challenging them in a way that is going to provoke people grasping even more tightly onto their views.
Sometimes this form of questioning will work and sometimes it will not. If it does not, then unless the view is particularly harmful, it really doesn’t matter what they believe or how they perceive the world to exist and function. What matters from a Dharma perspective is that they generate virtuous minds with respect to how the world appears to them. So if the world appears to them in a false way, but they respond to that false perspective of the world in a virtuous way, then it’s OK and not that bad. They will be creating virtuous karma and engaging in virtuous actions despite the fact that their perception of the world is itself distorted. When we think about it, it is not that different than ourselves since we to grasp on to all sorts of distortions created by our delusions and other mistaken appearances and conceptions.
But from a personal point of view, we should use our observation of how others have been sucked into lies to reinforce our determination to purify all of our negative karma associated with having live in the past and to make the firm decision that we will abandon lying.