What if one thought it wiser to tell a lie, because the truth could potentially endanger one's own life?

For instance, someone might lie that they believe in a supreme being, in reply to a question being asked by their parents who have strong faith. This is a very sensitive topic in some cultures or countries, to the point that parents might kick their son or daughter out of the house.

This is an example where the intention is to maintain personal security.

Does this violate the precept of not-lying? Or, instead of being a lie, might this be considered like the "noble silence" that Buddha once exhibited when the listener was incapable of understanding the Dhamma?

  • According to the quote in this answer, yes, it would be breaking the precept.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 17:08
  • I tried to edit. I hope that it is still the question which you wanted to ask.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 1:14
  • Thank you for editing! Yes, it looks better now.
    – Bwrites
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 1:25

3 Answers 3


The motivation DOES make a difference to the karma of an action. The classic discussion about karma stresses motivation.

Karma as action denotes an act of mental volition (cetanā), and the bodily and verbal actions that stem from it.

(Classical Indian Buddhist Philosophy, by John Powers)

This is almost literally from Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kośa (4th century CE).

So the mental volition (that is - motivation) is the whole point. That makes sense: everything in Buddhism is about consciousness first.

So if you lie to protect jews from the Nazis, to use a modern example - that is not necessarily negative karma. If you had taken lay vows, as a Tibetan Buddhist you would probably do some purification ritual to be sure, but since the motivation is to help someone & you are also preventing people from harming (the nazis) - on balance it is better to lie in such circumstances.

Your example is a bit less clear. I do think it is better to stay silent than to actively lie about your faith. If you have taken lay vows, you have at the very least taken on the attempt not to lie. Staying silent does not break your vow.

The vow to not-lie is also sometimes explained as follows:

Do not distort fact ... Sometimes the use of words can make something seem acceptable, when it could have been said very differently and be totally unacceptable. This is not a lie, but a distortion of fact.

(Essays on Karma, by Katinka Hesselink)

  • Is that true and according to the Dhamma? Or certain doing a favor colored, an excuse?
    – user11235
    Commented Aug 25, 2019 at 8:37
  • yes, the concept of motivation, Cetana, is dhamma. Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 9:57
  • Householder might confuse object, aim with intention. Aims do never justify means. Because a worldling is not able to trace mind qualities, the tool of Sila protects while concepts do not as based on defilements. Cetana that conducts a lie is always akusala. Not possible to lie if not relay on wrong view, moha, out of greed or aversion. Householder may like to read more about how the rabbit became judge.
    – user11235
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 10:10
  • Actually knowing the clear answer, it's defilments reason, fear, that causes one to speak of what is not true, even if already in refined form, but still lack of saddha, or knowing, hindering the reach of Jhana, path and fruit.
    – user11235
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 10:14

The simple answer is "Yes" However, there are different weight in each Kamma. A person who tells a lie to protect his life has the least weight. It also depends on the person. Monks are expected to follow the precepts more vigorously than a lay person.

See the current discussion on a similar subject.


  • Could you add, as a quote, one or two bits that you think are the most relevant quote from the discussion you referenced? Perhaps a quote which answers the OP's question (e.g. about lying), or a quote which supports your answer.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 22:14

Any statement meeting the following conditions is ling.

8. Fourth Precept: Abstention from False Speech


So there will be dilemmas like if you tell the truth someone may lose their life or similar situation. One must weigh one's commitment to the precepts and the consequences.

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