My actions are my only true belongings.” – Thich Nhat Hahn

This week we turn our attention to Truthfulness, the seventh in the set of 10 paramitas or perfections of Buddhism.

Today we will consider truthfulness in everyday life as distinct from truth in the sense of the truths of Buddhism as expressed in the Four Noble Truths:

1. The truth that suffering exists (Dukkha).
2. The truth as to the cause of that suffering (craving).
3. The truth that suffering can be ended.
4. The truth that there is a way to eliminate suffering known as the Noble Eightfold Path.

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” – Mark Twain

It is easy to see why truthfulness is one of the perfections of Buddhism. Honest behaviour is the foundation of a decent and secure society.

I have been unable to find the original source of the following worthwhile list in praise of honesty:

Honesty is Trust
Honesty is Truthful
Honesty is Guarantee
Honesty is Confidence
Honesty is Consistence
Honesty is Convincing
Honesty is Certainty
Honesty is Credibility
Honesty is Reliability
Honesty is Authenticity
Honesty is Integrity
Honesty is Accuracy
Honesty is Commitment
Honesty is Sincerity
Honesty is Security
Honesty is Reality
Honesty is a Must!

This is an impressive list because without truthfulness and honesty there can be no properly functioning society. In the absence of truthfulness, trust breaks down and distrust takes over.

It takes patience and practice to develop the art of delivering the truth with kindness and compassion bearing in mind that the truth should be delivered in a way that is constructive.

In the first place we have to be truthful to ourselves about ourselves. We notice ourselves with our gifts (which we need to develop) and our shortcomings (which we should try to overcome).

Lying diminishes trust between human beings. When you set the goal of always telling the truth you gain the trust of others. We all know people whose word cannot be taken to be true in respect of anything they say because we have discovered that the people concerned lie some of the time. If you do not consistently tell the truth then people rightly begin to distrust you. If you are not trusted then you may not be believed when you really need help. We are all familiar with the story of the Boy who cried Wolf.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) refuse to take oaths for the reason that there should not be two standards of truth, a lesser one for everyday use and a higher one when under oath in court.  They dedicate themselves to being truthful at all times.

Here are some examples of failure in respect of truth:

  • Direct lies
  • Exaggeration
  • Spreading information that we do not know and believe to be true

From all the above we can see the importance of truthfulness but next we must turn to the difficult question of whether it is ever morally justifiable to tell a lie. The uncomfortable answer must be “yes sometimes” . Clearly it is wrong to tell a lie to further your own cause, to project yourself as a better person than you are, or to gain an unfair advantage over another person. But as will be recalled from stories of World War Two there are grave situations where, for example)\, the saving of someone’s life depends upon putting a pursuer off the track. To save someone’s life it is found necessary to tell a lie.

This means that there is in fact a hierarchy of values relevant to moral decision-making and in extreme cases our compassion for others (as distinct from the selfish saving of our own skins) makes it the lesser of two evils to depart from the important everyday principle of truthfulness. When this happens we are faced with the need for mindful decision-making.

In the week ahead can we keep a check on our tongues, and ask before we speak, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” with special emphasis on truth. We will find it extremely rare to be in a postion where we must ever deviate from fundamental moral principle.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.”
― William Faulkner


This page is part of a set which decribes the 10 paramitas in Buddhism

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