I understand that the Buddha used different teachings styles, depending on the audience/people that were listening. Also, I understand that there seems to be a ,superficial', easier accessible Buddhism and a more advanced, transcendental one.

In the light of this, I am wondering if it is seen as ethically correct, that the Buddha taught some people differently than others, especially by using, I would say, manipulative techniques.

There are two examples I'd like to bring up.

One is the parable of the burning house, in which the Buddha promises playthings to get the children out of the burning house. ..."Then straightaway, intentionally devising a lie, he announced to the children, "I have various precious playthings, one for each of you, here outside the door. For one, a goat-drawn cart. For one, a deer-drawn cart. For one, an ox-drawn cart. Come out, all of you! For your sakes I have made these carts, following the desire of your own thoughts."

Thereafter, he is offering them even more valuable carts than promised (the Dhamma I assume). But he used the first promise to lure them out of the house. Of course, as it is a parable, it can be interpreted in varying ways. However, in this case he intentionally lied to the children in order to get them to the right path. Isn't that manipulative?

The second example is about Karma and re-birth. After reading about the topic from different sources and books, it seems to me that the mechanism of Karma and re-birth primarily serves as to bring the common people to act ethically (good karma, bad karma, different realm of re-birth). However, in my understanding there is actually no self that can be re-born, as the 5 aggregates dissolve at the moment of death (where there is actually no death also). When there is no self, nothing can die nor be reborn, nor can there be a ,bookkeeping' of good and bad karma. Therefore, it seems that the teachings here bring the karma and re-birth theory up only to attract the common people and have them behave in line with Buddhist ethics. However, in fact after realising that there is no self, this whole construct becomes redundant (Simpler vs. more advanced Buddhism?).

I would be very happy to read your view on this, as this issue has kept bugging me for a while. I am convinced that there is a justification in this method, which makes it ethically acceptable (does the end ever justify the means?). Also, please point out if my line of thought is flawed.

Thank you so much.

  • it would be helpful if you could let us know from which Sutta / Sutra that you took this the parable of the burning house. I have not come across this before. So it could be a Mahayana Sutra (words such as Karma, Sutra, Dharma... are found in Mahayana text). If it is of the Theravada, the same is spelt (spelled) as Kamma, Sutta, Dhamma. Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 9:44
  • it is from the Lotus Sutra, ch. 3. Thanks.
    – tomodachi
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 11:13
  • so yes, the parable is from a Mahayana text. What I have written about Karma is just a general understanding I have of it. So far, I was not able to understand it satisfactory.
    – tomodachi
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 11:26
  • two ways to answer your question. 1. only the path to liberation is really true 2. in what ways can the buddha be evil
    – user2512
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 22:12

5 Answers 5


The parable of the burning house is not universally accepted by all buddhists.

First because it comes from a text that is not universally accepted. As it was pointed out, the sutra it appears in is regarded as Mahayana, and some buddhist traditions don't accept them.

And second, because many regard that parable as a stretch that is incompatible and inconsistent with the attitude of the Buddha shown in other texts.

I believe in all buddhist tradition this topic is known as "skillful means". In the pali corpus, this skillful means encompasses similes and recasting of terms to new meanings. For example, karma was part of the vocabulary of people in the buddha's time with established meanings, but he rebranded it: "intention, i tell you, is karma". In another occasion, a person told the Buddha he learned he should worship the six directions (north, south, west, east, up and down). In reply, the Buddha recast that practice completely as a buddhist practice, but using the same idea and terms (i.e. the directions).

So, in essence, he appears as a skillful teacher in that he takes the context and language of his audience and use it to show truth, always focusing on meaning and never on terminology (so he never seem to fall into traps of, for example, debating semantics).

Where in the early sutras it seems the Buddha never sacrifices truth (he himself said arahants don't lie), In the Lotus Sutra, many interpret, like you did, that the Buddha lied. So it seems Mahayana take "skillful means" to a greater extent.

But mahayanists may interpret the burning house parable in many ways, not necessarily approving "white lies" or approving of "end justify the means".

For example, in Zen, the words themselves are secondary, sometimes irrelevant. Sometimes, The only thing that matters is whether it's utterance summons truth or not in the mind of those who hear it. But yet, deceiving is still considered unskillful, though usually zen practitioners avoid evaluating hypothetical cases and generalizations, sticking to real and case by case evaluation.

As for karma and rebirth (as in life after death) the traditional stand is that these are actual laws and facts. They are not lies, but factual. So they are not artificial expedients to attract people to Buddhism.

One way of seeing it is that the path to happiness here and now is in the same direction of the path to a happy destination after death, which is in the same direction of the path to Nirvana -- the ultimate goal. Just like if you are in Argentina, the path to Mexico is in the same path to US which is in the same path to Canada. That's how the teaching goes from "mundane" to "supramundane".


Please point out if my line of thought is flawed.

It is an established principle since the time of the Buddha there are two types of teachings:

  1. mundane, worldly or moral teachings (lokiya dhamma)

  2. supramundane, transcendent or noble teachings connected to emptiness (lokuttara dhamma)

The moral teachings bring moral (non-harming) benefits but do not remove attachment.

These teaching exist because the majority of people are unable to remove attachment.

Therefore, your line of thought is certainly flawed because how can it be expected of most people to give up attachment towards sexuality, reproductive drives, partners, children & family?

If you expect all people to give up attachment & realise not-self, when they are actually incapable of doing so, it is you rather than the Buddha that is deceiving people.

Please refer to MN 117 (linked).

Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path. MN 117

Please also refer to MN 12 & MN 26 (below):

Again, the Tathagata understands as it actually is the world with its many and different elements. That too is a Tathagata's power...

Again, the Tathagata understands as it actually is how beings have different inclinations. That too is a Tathagata's power...

Again, the Tathagata understands as it actually is the disposition of the faculties of other beings, other persons. That too is a Tathagata's power...

MN 12

Then, having understood Brahma's invitation, out of compassion for beings, I surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As I did so, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good attributes and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard, some of them seeing disgrace & danger in the other world. MN 26

As for 'rebirth', the Buddha did not deceive or lie. Again, this is a long established principle.

The Buddha used certain well-defined words & it is not the Buddha deceiving people but people interpreting the Buddha's words in different ways that generate various ideas about 'rebirth'.

The commentaries state:

The Awakened One, best of speakers, Spoke two kinds of truths: The conventional and the ultimate. A third truth does not obtain.

Therein: The speech wherewith the world converses is true. On account of its being agreed upon by the world. The speech which describes what is ultimate is also true, Through characterizing dhammas as they really are.

Therefore, being skilled in common usage, False speech does not arise in the Teacher, Who is Lord of the World, When he speaks according to conventions.

(Mn. i. 95)

  • 1
    I feel this line of thought is correct and I tend to also think of it using the analogy of teaching young children vs. adults in issues of morality. The 'arguments' one would use to stop a 2yr old from hitting others would certainly be different from those to a 15yr old. Both sets of 'arguments' would have the same goal but would be quite different in their content and presentation. Though each would be very different, neither would be wrong - given their intended audience.
    – GVCOJims
    Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 22:47

When I look at this translation,

  • The text says "skillful means", not "lie"

  • Sariputa is asked twice whether that's deception:

    • The first time he replies "no" because the children get carts instead
    • Even if they weren't given carts, it wouldn't be deception because the man's thought was to help the children escape

I am convinced that there is a justification in this method, which makes it ethically acceptable (does the end ever justify the means?). Also, please point out if my line of thought is flawed.

This answer for example suggests that the end can be justification for the means.

And Andrei's comment was that's a "Mahayana-style" answer, which of course the Lotus Sutra is too.

I'm inclined to think of it as a 'simplification' rather than a lie (see Lie-to-children for example). Most of the Physics that I was taught at school, for example, wasn't a 'lie' but rather a 'simplification' of the 'truth'.


The Buddha uses parables to illustrate points of the Dhamma. These are not intend to deceive, not untrue statement but example. The conditions for lying are:

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.


The Buddha used many techniques to teach the Dhamma but lying and deception was not one of them. See:

With regard to teaching of Karma, the Buddha spoke of the dangers and pitfalls of Karma. One intention of doing this is to encourage the cultivation of morality. But this does not make it untrue, but making the truth to be know so people will know the dangers which might befall them.

Also your of the Pāramitā one Pāramitā is Sacca Pāramī which is truthfulness, honesty. Also one of the Sila that the Bodhisattva never broke after definite prophecy is false speech.

  • Thank you so much for the useful links. I will take a closer look there.
    – tomodachi
    Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 11:29

If the action is beneficial for either party or not unbeneficial for both parties it may be ok to pursue irrespective of the term you use to describe that act. (tactic etc.)

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