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Can lying be the correct action in certain situations? Bhikkhu Bodhi gave an example of a situation where lying might be appropriate: In World War II some nice people would hide those oppressed by the Nazis. If Nazis come and ask these nice people if they are hiding Jewish people, would it be the appropriate action to tell the truth?

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    The end of this answer quotes Bhante Dhammika as saying, "If I had good reason to suspect that the second man was going to do serious harm to the first I would, as an intelligent caring Buddhist, have no hesitation in lying."
    – ChrisW
    Jun 12 '15 at 15:33
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    I've just amended your title to make it a bit more descriptive. Please roll back if it doesn't suit Jun 12 '15 at 15:35

13 Answers 13

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Of course lying is sometimes called for. Morality is not about mindlessly following rules, but in seeing beyond our egoic concerns and doing what the situation calls for (Skillful Means). Mindlessly following rules is how cults and death camps get started.

Moral guidelines have a place, and more often than not, they should be followed. However, there is no replacement for using our brains to study the situation and decide if these rules are applicable there.

Buddhism is about overcoming suffering, with a special focus on the self as the axis upon which suffering revolves. So look at all Buddhist teachings through that lens. Don't ask what the Buddhist teachings tell you to do; rather, ask what lies behind that teaching. What is it about the self that lying perpetuates? Is it really lies per se, or is it that...

  • Lies often inflate our egos?
  • Lies often hide our shame?
  • Lies are ways we try to bail ourselves out of trouble and as such are enablers of immoral behavior?
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    What situation would call for lying?
    – Ryan
    Jun 12 '15 at 23:47
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    @Ryan saving a life, keeping a critical secret, sparing feelings, planning a surprise party, telling a joke...
    – R. Barzell
    Jun 12 '15 at 23:55
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    Do you have a reference in any of the suttas where the buddha told a lie to keep secret a surprise party
    – Ryan
    Jun 12 '15 at 23:55
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    Are we supposed to be that robotic? Maybe the Buddha didn't think of every situation that could possibly come up to put rigid rules to the test.
    – Lowbrow
    Jun 13 '15 at 13:28
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    I humbly disagree with this answer. How does one save a life by lying? Secrets almost always harmful. There's the concept of tough love, sparing feelings is coddling which doesn't do a service in the long term and only serves to protect their egos which is not an enlightened notion. Even planning a surprise party is tricky--if you lie to your significant other, and they believe it, then in the future they might question whether you're lying believably, and it weakens trust. You can omit the truth without telling falsehoods. My intuition tells me that lying is virtually never a good policy.
    – sss4r
    Jun 13 '15 at 16:01
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There are no Enlightened lies. Fourth precept is the one precept that the Bodhisatta has never said to have broken since he started cultivating Paramita, many Kalpas ago.

Four conditions must be met to break this precept

  1. The statement must be untrue.
  2. There must be an intention to deceive.
  3. An effort must be made to deceive.
  4. The other person must know the meaning of what is expressed.

Causes of False Speech

The root causes of false speech are greed, hatred and delusion.

  • Greed is the root cause when false speech is used to obtain material gain or status for oneself or someone dear to oneself.
  • Hatred is the root cause when false speech is used to cause loss and bring harm and suffering to others.
  • Delusion is the root cause when it is used neither for one's gain nor to cause loss and harm to others, but for the sake of enjoyment such as lying for the sake of a joke, exaggeration to spice up a story, or flattery to please others, etc.

But what people forget is that not giving information is not the same as lying. In the case of the Nazis example, they wouldn't have taken your word even if you did lie. They would have searched your house in any case. It's not like they needed a warrant back then. So, instead of saying "yes we do have jews hiding in our house", you could improvise and say something to throw them off.

ex: "What?? You think we are that crazy? Heil hitler!!" :)

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    A question that has the "intention" to make others have a false impression of reality is a lie to me and where
    – Lowbrow
    Jun 14 '15 at 11:58
  • Wait a minute, "Four conditions must be met to break this precept" doesn't the example break rules 3 and 4?
    – Lowbrow
    Jun 14 '15 at 12:12
  • All 4 should be satisfied. The statement is not untrue. Therefore, it does not break the precept. Jun 14 '15 at 14:31
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    An effort isn't being made to deceive? The Nazis would know the meaning of what is expressed? By saying "Heil Hitler" what the Nazis would think is that the meaning of "Heil Hitler" is that they are Nazi supporters and that breaks rule 4 doesn't it? Am I missing something? Where can we find these 4 conditions in the Suttas or Sutras? Metta:)
    – Lowbrow
    Jun 14 '15 at 22:59
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    @Uilium Page 245 of this document (i.e. the Vinaya) says lying is an offense of confession, with only two factors: "1) Intention: the aim to misrepresent the truth; and 2) Effort: the effort to make another individual know whatever one wants to communicate based on that aim." Whether it is a lie doesn't matter (only intention i.e. whether you intend to tell a lie), and result doesn't matter (only effort i.e. whether you try to tell a lie). OTOH the 4th precept isn't narrowly about lying but more broadly about right speech.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 14 '15 at 23:42
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If lying is the most appropriate thing to do, then developing the heart of compassion for the tormentors, so that they may not add to their evils by killing the victims, and developing the heart of compassion for the victims so that they may be saved, the aspiring Bodhisattva (please read Shantideva's Bodhisattvaharyavitara) may come forward to lie. By taking on the negative effects of the act, if there be any, upon the self,the Bodhisattva steps forward to save others, and that is the very definition of the Bodhisattva.

The Bodhisattva is not afraid to live countless lives until all are saved, and can face the consequences bravely for their heart is pure and stainless.

When an aspiring Bodhisattva isn't afraid to even lay down their life in the service of others, will the consequence of a lie in this life or in next lives matter?

It is never about the action, but the quality of the heart. Such a pure heart has a way of altering reality. When in the presence of such a resolute and pure heart, the tormentors may themselves turn back. Or, the victims may themselves take the opportunity to practice as Bodhisattvas and appear before their tormentors rather than allow a genuine heart to be hurt. The energy of goodness thus generated will bring out the best in others around it.

Dhammapada Verse 1
Cakkhupalatthera Vatthu

Manopubbangama dhamma
manosettha manomaya
manasa ce padutthena
bhasati va karoti va
tato nam dukkhamanveti
cakkamva vahato padam.

Verse 1: All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, 'dukkha' follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.
[source]

Having seen the emptiness of conditioned phenomena such as this life, the aspiring Bodhisattva is unfazed at every turn, guided only by the Dhamma.

Intention matters.

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    There's the Jataka story about the hungry tigress and her cubs: I didn't know whether that's saying that preserving the tigress' sila by preventing her from eating her cubs is more important than preserving the Bodhisatta's life (and therefore saying that sila is more important than life); or whether it's saying that saving another is more important than saving oneself. I suspect too that we're supposed to somehow see all (Bodhisatta, tigress, and cubs; or tormentors, victim, and self) as in some way equal.
    – ChrisW
    Jun 13 '15 at 19:00
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    "The Short Essence of True Eloquence" by Je Tsongkhapa, the 13th century Buddhist Pandita is hard to penetrate, but it is the guide to understanding how to make emptiness and relativity work together, and not be captured by either extreme. When one has made relativity and emptiness work together, then all that you say will be simultaneously true. Then the Dhamma becomes the only reality. youtube.com/watch?v=Zcaz9HoEpTk // If we fear for our lives, we are captured by conditions, if we fear for no one's life we are captured by emptiness, avoiding both, we exist in the Dhamma.
    – Buddho
    Jun 13 '15 at 19:28
  • Thank you: there's a transcript of it here. You say it's hard to penetrate; I think that the core (excluding the praise) are the three paragraphs which begin "Your position is that when one sees" and end "Nor as existence through intrinsic reality". Another important (relevant to this topic) paragraph, "For the sake of this, You gave away Again and again during innumerable aeons, Sometimes body, other times life, Loved ones, and great wealth of possessions."
    – ChrisW
    Jun 14 '15 at 11:10
  • This is the best answer from the POV of Mahayana. Jun 13 at 16:06
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I believe morality is more important. If we lie to cheat someone or to gain an advantage, then it would be wrong, but...to lie to save a persons life or lessen suffering, i think that is commendable, and it should be the foucs of all humans, regardless of race, ethnicty, religion or even viewed as an enemy or friend. We all know what pain feels like, we all know what suffering feels like, and if we have the opportunity to help reduce or end that suffering, then the opportunity should be taken regardless of who the other person is!!

Metta

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Is it all a matter of perspective and/or perception? Each of us sees a circumstance from a set of values embedded in our experience & personality. Our culture, spiritual aspirations and social interactions also impose on us group expectations of how we should behave and in some respects what we do or do not say. There is most definitely the capacity to lie by commission which is not always considered [that bad, if at all] in the moment a lie is conceived.

Yes lying can be a predictor of mental illness (Why Some Narcissists and Borderlines Lie), if not a manipulative and deceiving personality (The Truth About Lying — Deception is rampant, and sometimes we tell the biggest lies to those we love most) but I urge consideration of the maxim 'walk a mile in their shoes'.

If we are being lied to, does it not auger well to consider what it is about our behaviours that creates in that person the need to lie to us [whether that be to not hurt us, to leave a relationship or whatever]. Unless dealing with a psychopath, a dynamic that involves the intent and then the energy of concocting the details of the lie and then more than likely having to hold the lie for a period of time, must hold some resonance from the lie-ee. We are not always so innocent in these situations.

I work with offenders who can be deceitful and manipulative. When I get out of my professional 'presence' and consider what the future [and in fact the past] is for them, their families and others who have been impacted by their poor choices and associated behaviours [not least of whom is the victim of any crime] I still have to consider that my luck has held out.

There but for the Grace of God go I, most of the people I have worked with in the forensic setting were not bad people. They were people who did what they could with the information and choices [mostly limited at the time] available to them when offending. Who am I to judge? I doubt that I would make similar choices, but quite frankly I don't know. What would I do if I suddenly found myself unemployed, on the streets or in what ever set of circumstances that might cause me to lie, deceive or manipulate so that I could increase my chances of surviving the next 24 hours, or may the next hour.

Yes I know there are some pretty mean and nasty people out there, but before judging perhaps we should consider such things. We might also like to consider that the concept that lies can be elicited because of a fear of being judged and many who lie regularly are judged not because of what they have done but because of the expectations by others that they continue to misbehave or act in the judge's eyes inappropriately. The fallout of deceit can sustain negative attitudes and behaviours even when the person who betrayed the trust has in fact changed their ways.

The point I am making here is that if I become aware that someone is lying to me or has done, then it is, in my view, my responsibility to consider my response to the situation. That is the only thing I have any chance of adjusting. I can't make someone not lie to me. I can't change them or the situation unless they have gained some insight into their behaviours and the repercussions of same and are ready to commit to a course of change.

All I can do to change the dynamic is to behave in a manner which is protective of me and those around me and maintain my own moral and philosophical values. It is important also that whatever I do or say does not reinforce positively or negatively that person's behaviour. If bad enough and the trust is completely gone it is my duty to walk away, if the situation and/or person has not become so intractable that meaningful communication can be had then the long path to forgiveness and acceptance can begin.

It may even be that things evolve to a point whereby there is an acknowledgement that this lie may well have been the best thing that could happen to the connection [would be a pity to lose the lesson in all that pain and reactive moments] - for instance, had the situation not come to a head, attitudes, affections, friendships, etc would never had had the opportunity to become one in which an authentic existence had any potential of being achieved.

Sometimes people do bad things to us. Sometimes life evolves into and out of bad situations. It is a testament to our individual resilience that is born out in our response to each and every one of those events.

Finally... gotta say in my experience and seeking of information from many philosophical, religious, spiritual and psychological books/tomes I am minded that without exception the role of forgiveness is a significant one for all involved.

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    You only need to encounter one sociopath whose constant lies turned your world upside down to know that lying is virtually never acceptable to anyone with integrity and no one with any self-respect should tolerate lying by others.
    – sss4r
    Jun 14 '15 at 7:07
  • Might some people learn how to tolerate lying (if lucky, see through the lies) in order to relate with someone who lies, perhaps criminal, an addict, someone with a mental illness and/or destitute. I hope that a professional at least can do that, without lies "turning their world upside down". This answer points out that lying is conditioned behaviour, an adaption to a person's relationships: so not just "they're lying", but be aware of the relationship between you (but see also "duty to walk away"). However you suggest intolerance ("sociopaths are incurable therefore lying is intolerable").
    – ChrisW
    Jun 14 '15 at 9:51
  • Maybe a key-word in your comment is "integrity" (i.e. "never acceptable to anyone with integrity"). If someone else lying destroys your integrity then there's the "loss of trust" and "duty to walk away".
    – ChrisW
    Jun 14 '15 at 9:54
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We do not have a choice when we are faced with this condition, as we are conditioned being! How ever we act (i.e lie, or not lie) if we have not attained the state of an ariya (one of the 4 noble ones) our views are based on (avijja)ignorance or not knowing, because it is base on self ( us and others). Whatever views or actions that results from avijja are simply actions that are based on intentions.

Whereas the views and actions from the noble ones mainly come from wisdom and not intentions (ref somewhere in the Abhidhamma) as they are free from the delusion of self and others.

As kamma is based on our intention then our true intention to lie or not to lie is paramount!

And how does wisdom come about?

From mindfulness (sati), clear-comprehension (sampajanna) arise, from clear-comprehension wisdom (panna) arise.

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  • If I understand the question correctly, it's about the specific situation of lying to try to protect another from harm or something similar. Presumably the intention is basically wholesome. So how does this factor in with wholesome intention vs breaking a precept?
    – Robin111
    Jun 13 '15 at 12:24
  • What's the kamma consequences of breaking the precepts? What's the kamma consequence of keeping the precepts & knowing that human lives will be sacrificed? The onus is on knowing, once you know you cannot back out by rationalistation.
    – Samadhi
    Jun 13 '15 at 12:50
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    Two intentions: one to keep precepts and the other to save lives; Which is the more skilful action (kamma) of the two?
    – Samadhi
    Jun 13 '15 at 12:54
  • By telling a lie, someone will be saved from death, being allowed to live forever?
    – Ryan
    Jun 13 '15 at 19:41
  • What would your answer be if that someone is your close relation, your enemy or just a plain human being? What would you call that act of preventing someone related or not, from probable death, timely or untimely?
    – Samadhi
    Jun 13 '15 at 20:06
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I hope you don't mind a personal story. Perhaps my earliest introduction to any Buddhism would have been my dad reading to me Kim (a novel set in late 19th century India, in which a boy becomes friends and travels with a Tibetan Lama). The other characters are colourful, many of them working for the British secret service and acting against the Russians in Afghanistan. One is a Muslim horse trader.

The Lama (an abbot who has come to India on a pilgrimage) is oblivious to such goings-on, but stops to explain the wheel of life and so on to people if they ask.

Anyway, towards the end and after the action is over, there's a conversation while other sleep between the Lama and the horse trader (who also works as a spy and who leads a complicated life). The contrast and conversation between the two characters is comedy.

Anyway, a fragment of that conversation I've always remembered:

'Thou hast never lied?'

'What need?'

'O Allah, hear him! "What need" in this Thy world! Nor ever harmed a man?'

'Once—with a pencase—before I was wise.'

So, when the Lama is asked whether he has ever lied, his question is reply is "what need?"

The chief lesson I got from that was to live a life in which you don't need to lie.

I suppose a secondary lesson is that he (remembering that this is an idealized character in a novel) is willing to ask whether there might be a need, just that now as an old man he hasn't ever found a need yet.

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Lying is never the correct answer. The answer to this question is explicitly stated in the fourth precept; to refrain from incorrect speech. You lying to "save someone" from some harm or danger will not break them free from the bonds of their karma, all it will do is weaken your own morality, cultivating delusion, aversion, and craving. If someone is to be murdered, they will be murdered. You have no say in this. I don't remember exactly which sutta it was, but the Buddha illustrated this very point. He was walking somewhere with a man, when the Buddha stopped, told the man to go ahead by himself, and the Buddha turned and went the other way. The man was mistaken as a deer by a hunter and shot and killed. When asked why he let the man continue ahead, knowing full well the danger that lie ahead for him, the Buddha said : even if he had gone north, south, east, or west, this man could not escape this fate.

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    I wonder if there is a difference though, between the Buddha who was fully enlightened and knew the karmic outcome for someone and the rest of us who are just doing the best we can with what we know. Exposing someone to grave danger, as in the example, to avoid breaking a precept seems questionable.
    – Robin111
    Jun 13 '15 at 14:09
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    Not lying doesn't mean you have to say anything! Even if it means exposing YOURSELF to danger, you always have the choice to just say nothing at all. If someone else has the intention of ill will to you or others, this is not your problem, it is theirs. Obviously you would not want them to committee any sort of act for their own benefit, but nonetheless at the very worst you'd just end up dead, which you're going to anyways.
    – Ryan
    Jun 13 '15 at 19:38
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    @Robin111 - well said, accepting reality as it is, you know the difference between one who knows and one who presupposes.
    – Samadhi
    Jun 13 '15 at 20:14
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There was a discussion in medieval Tientai about whether the Buddha was capable of evil - which I assume includes lying - as skilful means.

The monks who claimed he was, won the argument.

In general, I would advise lying if you really have to, at least in order to keep the other precepts (to save a life is the standard example of a virtuous lie)

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I have read in one of the suttas , don’t remember where, that one should not lie even for a joke. It makes sense to me because we as Buddhists are married to the Truth. If we start lying then what should we expect from commoners ? Having said that we have the right to remain silent. We can refuse to answer questions especially if somebody’s life is under danger. Or we can help guide the prepetrators of crime to avoid it. That is what Buddha would have done.

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    Nice to see a sensible answer among wicked people giving wicked advice
    – user8527
    Mar 21 at 18:45
  • I believe that's in the Vinaya, I don't know about its being in a sutta. Although apparently "outrageous lies meant as jokes—to amuse rather than to deceive" aren't an "offense" because it's not a lie if there is no intention to deceive. But teasing people and sarcasm are forbidden. dhammatalks.org/vinaya/bmc/Section0016.html
    – ChrisW
    Mar 21 at 20:06
  • If you're married to X then can you put X down or has clinging arisen? Mindfully misinforming someone is not the same thing as abandoning truth.
    – Lowbrow
    Apr 2 at 2:23
  • Being labeled a liar by the world is not your karma. Saying "oh but then your a liar and nobody will trust you even if you lied for wholesome reasons.", is a blatant intellectualization that is not Dhamma.
    – Lowbrow
    Apr 2 at 2:35
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There is a lot of utilitarian answers given here, I mean an approval to lie to save a life.

If the measure of virtue is to save a life, how about telling a lie to get killed a mass murderer like Hitler? will that count for you all a virtuous act?

The all-knowing is free of attachment and doesn't lie.

The Buddha is all-knowing (Sabbannuta Nana) and has no attachment and doesn't lie.

The Buddha is all-knowing ( Sabbannuta Nana) there is nothing wrong in saying that.. But it is very wrong to say the Buddha is a liar! which most of the answers provided here gravitated to.

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Five things that can’t be done. A mendicant with defilements ended can’t deliberately take the life of a living creature, take something with the intention to steal, have sex, tell a deliberate lie, or store up goods for their own enjoyment like they did as a lay person. -dn33

According to Buddhism situations such as prosecution of the innocent doesn't happen without a past cause and if it is destined/determined then it becomes unavoidable. Maha Moggalanna was hunted by villains due to his past life actions and there was no way to escape even by means of magical powers let alone lowly trickery. Therefore lying to avoid bad things from happening simply doesn't work and is counter effective.

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  • In summary an enlightened monk deliberately lying is not possible or non-existent.
    – ChrisW
    Mar 21 at 19:55
  • If one lied with pure intention how could it generate negative karma? Is there something inherent in lying that causes a cosmic retribution? Or is the motivation or intent of the mind doing the lying that is the deciding factor? Jun 13 at 15:43
  • I say it is the intent that is the deciding factor with one very very important caveat: wisdom. That is if one acts with an otherwise pure intent but lacks wisdom to discern the effects of ones action, then any pure intent will be based upon ignorance. And any intent based upon ignorance cannot be pure. Jun 13 at 15:45
  • Therefore, if a Realized One with perfectly pure intent and perfectly pure wisdom understanding the complete ramifications of action chose to speak a “lie”, then by definition it could not be a lie. Jun 13 at 15:47
  • This is only so precisely because no “lie” is an inherently existing lie, but rather lies - like all things - are completely empty of inherent existence. Jun 13 at 15:48
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It seems obvious to me that a lot of people posting answers in here have never actually been in an opportunity to protect the innocent when questioned by a corrupt entity.

I work for an entity. There is an employee with cancer. This employee walks with a cane at work because they are currently undergoing radiation treatment. They continue coming to work even though they have trouble doing anything and are extremely fatigued. It's heartbreaking to watch because this individual was very full of life before. This individual is afraid of losing their job because then they would not have insurance.

My brother is this person's manager. He is allowing this person to work four hours a day and sleep the rest of the day but is counting it as full time on the books so that this person doesn't have to pay for their insurance. The payroll knows this is happening and is looking the other way.

There is an employee who works with the cancer employee. This second employee is now repeatedly asking pointed questions to payroll about how sick time, vacation time, and full time hours work. It is fairly obvious that this employee plans to go to the top level and complain about what my brother and payroll are allowing to happen.

I am in a position where if the highest level finds out that payroll has been looking the other way, and payroll denies it, I will likely be asked if payroll knew this was happening. If I am asked, I plan to lie. I will accept the karma generated by ensuring this little bit of humanity necessary to keep my coworker from losing their job and dying.

Edit: there will probably be responses mentioning that the employee will likely get fired anyway, or will die even if they don't get fired. That I might lose my job for lying. These things are not the point. Buddhism is not nihilism.

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  • How does this answer relate to Buddhism?
    – ruben2020
    Mar 19 at 17:14

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