In my opinion, if you promise something to someone and don't keep it, it is equivalent to lying. But what if the promise is to myself and I don't keep it; is it violating the precept on lying?

Does the lying precept apply to oneself, i.e not lying to yourself?

Sutta / Vinaya references would be very much appreciated.

Edit: I meant one vowed/ promised with honest intention at the time did it, but later change mind and don't want to keep it anymore

  • 2
    I wonder if it is proper to include your opinion like this as a premise. Your opinion that breaking a promise is equivalent to lying does not accord with Theravada Buddhism, afaik. They are two very different acts. Maybe better just to ask whether lying to yourself constitutes breaking the fourth precept. Jun 24 '14 at 1:32
  • It should not be changed to failing to keep a promise, as that is not what I meant. I assumed one promised with good intent but later change mind and does not want keep it anymore intentionally, not failing to keep Jun 25 '14 at 15:44

In order to answer this sort of question, you have to be clear on what the precepts are and what they are not. They are a set of intentional statements of will to keep a finite set of basic moral precepts. They are not an all-encompassing treatise on morality.

So, the fourth precept, as Sankha Kulathantille says in his answer, relates to a specific type of speech; it does not include all types of wrong speech, it only refers to speech that is intended to deceive another person, as per the Cunda Sutta (AN 10.176) for example:

There is the case where a certain person engages in false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty [i.e., a royal court proceeding], if he is asked as a witness, 'Come & tell, good man, what you know': If he doesn't know, he says, 'I know.' If he does know, he says, 'I don't know.' If he hasn't seen, he says, 'I have seen.' If he has seen, he says, 'I haven't seen.' Thus he consciously tells lies for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of a certain reward.


Therefore, your premise,

if you promise something to someone and don't keep it, it is equivalent to lying.

is not in accordance with a strict Buddhist understanding of lying, since there need not be at any time during the change of heart an intention to deceive.

As to whether breaking a promise is wrong, Thanissaro has a discussion of this in his BMC:

The Mahavagga (III.14.1-14) imposes a dukkata on the act of making a promise with pure intentions but later breaking it. Since the texts make no mention of any circumstances beyond one's control that would exempt one from that penalty, a bhikkhu should be very careful of how he states his plans for the future. A special instance of breaking a promise -- accepting an invitation to a meal but then not going -- is treated under Pacittiya 33.

Interestingly, the Mahavagga passage in question does use the word for lying (musāvādā):

Nanu mayā, moghapurisa, anekapariyāyena musāvādo garahito, musāvādā veramaṇī pasatthā?

"Has not falsehood been reproved, and abstinence from falsehood been praised by me in many ways?"

But the Buddha only charges him with a dukkata rather than a pacittiya (which would be the case in a true lie), so a distinction is clearly made.

So, first point to make:

Breaking a promise is wrong, but outright lying is worse. Breaking a promise does not, therefore, break the first precept as it is understood in Theravada Buddhism.

Now, on to your question :)

"Lying to oneself" would literally mean knowing something to be false and yet telling yourself that it is true, with the intention that you should believe it to be true. Psychologically, it is certainly possible that over time you could come to convince yourself of something, but only if you let yourself believe it to be true, in which case you would no longer simultaneously know it to be false. This sort of self-deception goes on all the time in our world, of course, but is it lying?

First of all, the five precepts all require physical or verbal acts to be broken; morality in its conventional form always refers only to physical and mental commissions or omissions; mental immorality is considered a lapse of concentration, not morality. (I don't have a reference for this, but if I can find one, I'll pass it along). So you'd have to actually tell yourself out loud, knowing that what you were saying is false, intending to make yourself believe something to be true. I guess that is theoretically possible, but in most cases I think it would be difficult to convince yourself that you were seriously capable of such deception.

More common, I'd say, would be the simple intention to cultivate a belief in what is false; rather than trying to deceive yourself, per se, you simply want to cultivate a distorted belief; e.g. believing that a loved one is still alive, because it's too difficult to acknowledge they are dead. The difference here is there is no breach of trust; you are accepting that something is a lie, but deciding to believe it anyway.

A similar situation would be in the case of hypnosis, where a hypnotist tells the patient to imagine themselves in certain situations, or helps them convince themselves they were never afraid of something, etc., e.g. "You have never been afraid of spiders." The patient allows the hypnotist to make them believe something that is false; the hypnotist cannot be considered guilty of lying to the patient, as the patient knows it is false but simply wants to change their belief.

In short, lying to yourself, while it may be damaging, can't be considered truly lying, since it doesn't involve a breach of trust or an act of deceptive communication. Self-deception is voluntary and occurs after the 'lie' has already been told.

  • Many thanks, Bhante, for your detailed analysis. It cleared many doubts in me.___ But I still think telling a promise with the intention to deceive is a lying.____ And if I promise to myself but not keep it, it shows ignorance and weakness but if I didn't say it, it is just a thought, it is not a lie since lying needs verbal action. Jun 26 '14 at 3:26

Yes, the way I understand the fourth precept is: lying to myself is still lying. However, in my view, breaking the promise is only lying if done deliberately. If at the moment of making the promise I believed I would do it, then it was simply a case of ignorance on my part. Ignorance is Ok, as long as we learn from mistakes. To people who made serious mistakes in their past, Buddha suggested to admit their faults and stop feeling remorse but concentrate on being more skilfull from now on.


"VIJJA -CARANA SAMPANO" is a quality of the Buddha. He says as He acts and He does what He says. Only a fully enlightened Buddha can keep to his word 100% all the time. So breaking a promise is not a lie, unless you had the intention of lying when you made the promise. In that case, you have already lied, even before breaking the promise. Lying to oneself is not technically possible as you always know what you are upto.

Four conditions must be met to break this precept.

i) The statement must be untrue.

ii) There must be an intention to deceive.

iii) An effort must be made to deceive.

iv) The other person must know the meaning of what is expressed

  • But he could have intention to change his words into false at the moment of breaking promise.
    – catpnosis
    Jun 24 '14 at 21:47
  • Being whimsical is not the same as lying Jun 24 '14 at 21:52
  • No, I meant person could have intent to make his promise (his words) false at the later time. (When he break promise intentionally, and not by the lack of capability.) This is not unpredictability. Don't just review moment of telling promise, there is also moment of breaking it, and at that that moment you could deliberately make your speech false. Percept didn't say that only moment of telling matters. Plus, how could you be truthful at the moment of telling promise if future in truly unknown?
    – catpnosis
    Jun 24 '14 at 22:31
  • Making a promise is one moment and breaking or deciding to break the promise is another. If one didn't have an intention of deceiving at the moment when one makes the promise, it's not a lie. Deciding to break the promise later is simply an act of changing one's mind. ex: I promise to give you some money and later I find out that you are a drug addict. So I change my mind. Or I promise to lend you my car and later I find out that you are a car thief. So I change my mind.That's not a lie. Jun 24 '14 at 22:42
  • Yes, it's two moments. But, like in a killing - one moment of intention (or order to subordinate to kill), other moment of victim's death, but both play in karma. Thus, no problem for moments being separated in lying too. One moment a speech is told, other moment it became a falsehood.
    – catpnosis
    Jun 25 '14 at 6:56

In my own tradition — Nyingma school of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism — vows/promises made to oneself are definitely binding, and, as @Sankha Kulathantille has explained, if those four conditions were present, that would certainly break the vow. And, of course, breaking the vow has a consequence.

However, I think that there is quite a lot to be said about this particular instance of 'making vows to oneself'. As @Sankha Kulathantille has stated so clearly, only a Buddha can keep their vows 100% of the time. For us beginners in the path, we have purification practices, where we remember our vows (yes, even those made to ourselves), notice which ones have been broken, understand the circumstances why they were broken, apply an antidote (if we promised to do X but never did it, then we strive to do X), and make a new promise to ourselves to refrain from breaking the vow in the future. Of course, that doesn't give you the 'right' to break the vow over and over again, in the hope of purifying it — that doesn't work (it would be just hypocrisy — to ourselves!!).

But as @zvolkov has pointed out, it's pointless to feel remorse all the time for having broken a promise to ourselves. Instead, we just have to recognize that we're not yet Buddhas and do our best to stick to our promises from now on.

On the other side of the coin, it's also pointless to make a vow to oneself without having the intention, or the ability, to keep it. It's far better to reflect on that vow, very seriously, and work with yourself so that you come closer and closer to the point where taking that vow will not be seen as a 'burden', but something you do with pleasure.


Keeping Silas and train in virtue requires being honest to oneself at first place so that it is of use for path and fruits. If approaching Vinaya and and virtue like a lawyer it's of nobodies use.

Thought that my person will better refrain from contributing something here he changed his mind, trusting that it is of use for some and something he is currently able to do. Comming accross similar question this days, my person tried to give a graspable answer for those willing to increase faith in the Dhamma:

Is changing your mind same as lying? Breaking promises

asked by Digity on DW:

Suppose someone asks you to do something that you're on the fence about doing, but you agree to it anyway. Now suppose time passes and you regret the initial agreement and decide not to follow through on it, but give some sort of explanation for why you aren't. Do you consider that a form of lying, since you told the person something that you didn't follow through on?

In short:

Yes, breaking promis is unskilfull and a misconduct in regard of virtue.

If done deliberatly it's a classic ly, what ever reson it was. If changing one mind later, it's false dealing similar to break a contract.

If a promise can not be fullfilled, out of reasons they are not in the sphere of the promis-maker and the promis-maker did also not possible had a chance to foresee this, than it is not a fault.

When one looks carefully and honest, one might see that most of the promises he/she did and did not fullfill have been faults.

A very serious matter is the matter of vows. Think how many take precepts, knowing that they will break them. Doing such is breaking the precepts while asking after them.

Changing ones mind from unskillful to skillful is not wrong, nevertheless one will face consequences of the breaking of promises, since mostly not understandable for others.

That preasure is mostly the hindrence for changing ones mind to a better.

Lets see, maybe my person is able to record a short talk on it.

Talk on it: Record of words on it (amr-file)

Maybe useful in addition:

  • Success/fail in trade. (Link see origin)

  • Depts, but to whom? (Link see origin)

One may look also at the source of it and use its possibility to discuss and ask further (links could not be given):

[Q&A] Is changing your mind same as lying? Breaking promises

(Note: This is a gift of Dhamma and not meant for commercial purpose or other wordly gain.)

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