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I find it very hard to get a clear understanding what is considered a breach of this precept and what is not. Different perspective offers different answer.

For example: Some people considered social niceties such as "I'm fine" as an answer to "How are you?" is not lying (when someone is not fine). Some people do not make such exceptions, when you say something untrue, that means you are lying.

Receiving foods and say "Thank you, it's delicious" is a lie since the food is not eaten yet. Some people said that is not lying but an expression of gratitude.

One person views others as justifying lying. The other person views others as being (too) dogmatic, which is not the core of Buddhist teaching.

How can we have a clear cut understanding about this particular precept therefore put them into practice? To what extent it can be considered misrepresenting untruth?

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The precept is very clear:

I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
Musāvādā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

Musāvādā comes from two words: musā, which means neglectfully, falsely, or wrongly; and vadati which means to speak. Musāvādā as a noun simply means "a lie". The language is clear: this precept means not to tell lies.

If you are asked how you are and you respond with "I'm fine" when you're not fine, you've told a lie: it is false speech.

If you say food tastes delicious but it really doesn't, you've told a lie: it is false speech.

Do these "white lies" break the precept? By the simple language of the precept, yes. One might tell these kinds of lies to avoid giving lengthy explanations of our health or moods, or to avoid offending someone when we don't like their cooking. But to lie is to break the fourth precept, regardless of the reason for the lie.

What can we do? Use a skillful approach to responding that does not require telling a lie. "How are you doing?" even if you are miserable can be answered with another truthful statement, such as "Oh, I've been very busy" (assuming you've been very busy). "How is dinner?" could be answered with "I'm enjoying it greatly" if you are in fact enjoying it (which isn't the same thing as liking the taste specifically; it's entirely possible to enjoy a meal without liking the taste if you're enjoying other aspects of the meal, such as the opportunity to be with friends and family, or perhaps the opportunity to eat mindfully and regard the flavors of the food even if they're not your favorite).

To follow this precept is to keep your speech pure. If the precepts were easy to follow, we wouldn't need them! Avoiding false speech requires great skill and thoughtful responses, but we can all do it.

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    Ok, so I guess it seems depend on the individual. The receiver of the food was not me but a monk who was offered food by someone. I don't know why he wanted to tell a lie when offered food. Regarding "I've been busy", what if the answer you really want to tell is "I'm not fine" but choose to answer "I've been busy", I guess there is a little dishonesty there, is that right? – B1100 Nov 29 '15 at 9:12
  • The question "how are you" is so broad, that to answer it truthfully and throughly would take hours. It's OK to answer with a truthful statement, even if you choose to conceal some other piece of information that you'd rather not discuss. Some people consider concealing information to be a form of dishonesty, but whether that's the case or not is irrelevant in the eyes of the fourth precept, which is squarely focused on speech. So: answering the question truthfully is fine, even if you didn't answer it thoroughly. – newbold Nov 29 '15 at 16:37
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    I'm starting to think "how are you" can be asked in a different manner as well. Some strangers on the street can ask "how are you" when we passed them by. Some other people such as our family member or best friend can also ask this kind of question but in a serious, caring manner. So I think the same answer can be deceiving in one context but not in the other context. But this is just my thought, please correct me if I'm wrong. – B1100 Nov 30 '15 at 10:28
  • I completely agree. The question is most often asked as a form of greeting; rarely does the asker actually expect a serious reply. Better to just greet people with "hello" or "hi" than to ask a question that needn't be answered! – newbold Nov 30 '15 at 13:57
  • Wait a minute. If the same answer can be deceiving in one situation but not in other situation that means it depends on the asker rather than the answerer. I think it's possible for the answerer to answer both questions from different people in the same manner, presumably the same intention as well. We can't know what is the purpose behind those questions, we just assume a stranger greets me, a family member greets me, etc., right? – B1100 Dec 1 '15 at 5:41
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Your confusion is due to the fact that you are misconstruing the precepts legalistically as referring to actions rather than intentions. Buddhist precepts are not laws or rules that can be judged externally or objectively. Rather, they are merely guidelines and pointers towards good intention. If you lie with good intention, there is no negative karmic result. The essential karmic factor is not the act but the intention.

  • But white lie is still a lie in Buddhist precept, whatever the reason is. – B1100 Dec 5 '15 at 2:27

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