Sometimes during everyday conversation, you can notice based on someone's subtle feedback, that they may be misinterpreting something you are telling them. For the sake of the question, please suspend doubt in the premise itself:

This literal truth causes confusion and ignorance for them, but our hypothetical lie communicates the truth effectively and even helps gently erode away the delusions they suffer from. (Because our words were exactly what they needed to hear, so that when their delusions distort their understanding, it lands on the truth.)

Is this really a lie, or is it perfect language? (Is it a corrupted compromise between them?)

EDIT: More specifically, is it breaking the precept of false speech?

I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.

Is a lie still false if it communicates the truth?

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    Hello Selfless Psychopath and welcome to Buddhism.SE. Your question does not appear to be directly related to Buddhism. You may wish to clarify how this relates to Buddhism (wrong speech, breaking precept) or the question may be closed as off topic. Be well. – Robin111 Apr 21 '15 at 16:44
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    Noted, and done. Is the edited question now in a more appropriate form? – Selfless Psychopath Apr 21 '15 at 17:14

As a counter to the other answer, Wikipedia's article on upāya ('skillful means') describes the Parable of the burning house:

The Lotus Sutra contains a famous upaya story about using the expedient means of white lies to rescue children from a burning building.

There's a similar, modern. non-Buddhist term for this called Lie-to-children:

Because some topics can be extremely difficult to understand without experience, introducing a full level of complexity to a student or child all at once can be overwhelming. Hence elementary explanations are simplified in a way that makes the lesson more understandable, though technically wrong. A lie-to-children is meant to be eventually replaced with a more sophisticated explanation which is closer to the truth.

Some lineages also apparently have secrets which may be similar to this.

I wonder whether to deduce that it's OK as long there is no intent to deceive. But saying "there are toys" (in the 'Parable of the burning house') seems like an actual deception. It's beneficial/compassionate, at least. And skillful/necessary. Maybe it's not even deceptive (it's hard to tell when it's a parable or metaphor).

So, yes: "portraying the truth via a careful miunderstanding" seems to have a basis in literature (Mahayana and Vajrayāna, even if not Theravada). Upāya is apparently a Mahayana concept.

Havig said this I hope you won't use it as an excuse to deceive people. I think there's some justification for saying that ignorance is a cause of suffering, and that deception goes with ignorance, so I hope you won't be deceiving people.

  • So, intentions are important. – ruben2020 Apr 22 '15 at 3:59
  • @ruben2020 People sometimes say that intention is very important. Buddhist understanding of karma says, "The Buddha defined karma as intention" however "How this emphasis on intention was to be interpreted became a matter of debate in and between the various Buddhist schools". I think that, in order to qualify as "skillful", the 'effect' as well as the intention is also important. For example your answer said that words must be "beneficial" which means that they do/make/create good. – ChrisW Apr 22 '15 at 9:19

The answer comes in the Abhaya Sutta from the Buddha himself, on the topic of Right Speech:

[1] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial (or: not connected with the goal), unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[2] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, unendearing & disagreeable to others, he does not say them.

[3] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing & disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

[4] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be unfactual, untrue, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[5] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, unbeneficial, but endearing & agreeable to others, he does not say them.

[6] In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, and endearing & agreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them. Why is that? Because the Tathagata has sympathy for living beings."

  • But what about the case: "unfactual, untrue" but "beneficial" and "endearing & agreeable to others" ? – Selfless Psychopath Apr 21 '15 at 17:09
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    Wherever it is unfactual and untrue, we should never say it. You can read here for more info on Right Speech. – ruben2020 Apr 21 '15 at 17:12
  • Isn't an intention to deceive required for untruth to be a lie? The dictionary defines it both ways with "a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive;" and "an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood." It's very hard to decipher here. – Selfless Psychopath Apr 21 '15 at 17:19

It depends on whether you believe statements have a power to transform your consciousness.

For instance, assume two statements -- X and Y. Now assume that you utter X and later utter Y, with identical intentions. If X impacts you differently than Y, then you are making a claim that the statements themselves have causal power over you -- apart from your own reactions to them.

Now whether this is a problem or not depends on a few things:

  1. Do you believe that your personal development is driven by intention?
  2. Do you subscribe to a modern, scientific worldview?

If the answer to either of the above is true, then the idea that a statement in and of itself would affect you in such a way is clearly absurd.

I believe one of the key criticisms the Buddha had with Brahmanism was in Brahmanism's focus on rituals as acts, whereas the Buddha stressed the intention behind the act as the causal principle. I don't recall where this critique occurred sadly, so I can't give a reference. Still, it seems to support this reading, and leads to the implicit critique of anyone who clings to actions in and of themselves as missing a key point of Buddhism.

In fact, Buddhism's atheistic or non-theistic stance can be read as an implicit critique of this clinging to acts as having causality. For if your own intentions play no role in an action, then clearly you are calling upon a higher power to reward or punish you for this act, even if you don't explicitly hold belief in such. In this sense, Buddhism's stance is not one of rejecting a particular cosmology, but in attempting to bring people back to bearing responsibility for their actions and putting their focus where it belongs: on intentions.


Part of the answer to your question is already provided in your post. To your standards, there is nothing inherently wrong about your choice; you've even acknowledged why you must say what you have to, and that you are concerned about lying.

Truth depends on context, but your question is subtly attempting to mix levels. To them, your words may be understood as truth, but to yourself, you are knowingly communicating limited information, and between you there is a seeming paradox. It is an unfair criticism on yourself to expect a 'perfect language' to use, which must arise out of idealism and the hypothetical. Or on the other hand, no better to think you are deceptive, when you've opted for the most suitable exchange (at the time). If the truth is communicated effectively, then perhaps there is no need at all for further reconciliation.

Language itself is limited and prone to reinterpretation and revision. If you had asked for your message to be translated, it may be subject to error, but you cannot expect the 'same message' to remain the same once it is changed. Overall, it is inevitable that judgement and compromise must come into play for effective communication. Otherwise you would be uttering dull phrases, and not reading those signals that once registered something within you.


A lie is a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive, what you describe is not actually a lie at all.

protected by Lanka Jul 25 '15 at 23:19

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