The Fourth Precept: Abstain from False Speech

This is from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.

The Precept

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
I will respect truthfulness

Conditions Under Which A Violation Is Considered to Have Occurred

• Object: A human being other than oneself
• Intention: The intent to misrepresent the truth and to deceive
• The Act: The act of communicating the untruth through words or gestures or by being silent
• Consequence: The person comprehends the meaning of the lie. If he or she does not, then our words are idle talk


• Unintentional misrepresentation

The act of untruthfulness is communication with the intention of deceiving another. The use of speech to deceive is obvious, but the body too can be used as an instrument of communication – such as in writing (email, SMS, etc), hand signals, and gestures – all can be used to deceive others. The key element in this transgression is the intention. Therefore, there is no offense if a person misrepresents the truth unintentionally. For example, speaking too quickly and saying one thing while meaning to say another, such as a slip of the tongue.

The Intensity / Severity of Violation

The intensity of violation depends on the content of the untruth and the consequence of the untruthfulness. For example, it is a serious offense, if out of greed, a person claims that he/she has attained arahanthood to deceive another, and to boost his/her status or for material gain, and the other person is deceived.

The Purpose of the Precept

The aim of observing this precept is to respect truthfulness. Speech is a way of expressing our thoughts. By being mindful with what we say and how we say it, we train ourselves to be more skillful speakers.

By giving up false speech, one becomes a speaker of truth. He does not deceive others, thus becoming a trustworthy and reliable person. Giving up slander, he reconciles those who are divided and brings them closer together. He strengthens friendships by living with love and harmony. Giving up harsh speech, he says what is gentle and pleasant, pleasing to the ear, affectionate and liked by most. Giving up idle chatter, he speaks at the right time in accordance with facts appropriate to the purpose, in accordance with the Dhamma. He speaks words worth treasuring, reasonable, appropriate, discriminating and to the point (DN 1).

Quotes from Scriptures

Furthermore, abandoning lying, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from lying. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fourth gift… (AN 8.39)

Fourth Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I will not spread news that I do not know to be certain and will not criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

Although technically speaking, the precept does not include a reference to listening, Thich Nhat Hanh has wisely brought this element of listening into his interpretation of this precept. It is noteworthy that by listening carefully, one listens with heart and is then able to connect better with the person with whom we are speaking. We are then able to touch the hearts of others, bringing greater joy and harmony.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Fourth Precept

In order to sell my product or to close a business deal, keeping the precept of not lying is not realistic to me.

Many business people may think that it is impossible to keep the precept of not lying. However, consider this. If a business person is truthful in his/her claims and perhaps makes a little less on a honest transaction, the chances are that by creating trust, he/she would have gained a loyal client. In other words, being truthful does not conflict with doing business and can instead bring about long term success. I once read of a very successful businessman in Malaysia, whose success was due to his truthfulness and sincerity. The story goes like this…

After the businessman entered into a contract, the price of the necessary raw materials went up. If he stuck to the contract price, he would have lost money. Since there was no way to change it, the only choice would have been to “cheat” with cheaper, substandard materials. However, the businessman decided to courageously tell his customer the truth about the situation. His truthfulness and sincerity touched the customer, who then agreed to an adjustment of the contract pricing. The businessman is now one of Malaysia’s most successful.

Let us now take a look at the state of affairs in the consumer market today. There are many shoddy and fake goods that have harmed consumers. The Chinese use the term “black heart” (黑心产品) to describe such products. Just to quote an example, the 2008 Sanlu Milk incident in China killed four babies and left thousands ill. Business people who want to maximise profits produce such so-called “black hearted” products. These are harmful and are detrimental to public safety.

There are always ways and means to make money ethically. Therefore, we should always strive to be truthful and honest about our products or services, and the fourth precept sets out the guideline for us.

I want to attend Dharma events but my parents don’t want me to go. I don’t want to lie to them but I want to attend them because the Dharma is the real source of happiness. What should I do?

Communication is important. When one does not understand a culture or religion, there is a tendency of mistrust and misunderstanding. It will be good to share with your parents what you plan to learn or have learnt from the Dharma. Be careful though, not to impose your ideas on others when you are sharing information with them. You may also want to invite your parents to attend Dharma events with you, so that they are aware of what you are involved in. Let them know where you are going, what you do in the Dharma centre, what you learn, and who your Dharma teachers and friends are. They will feel more at ease if they are informed and know what you are doing. The best and most effective way to convince your parents is through your actions and behaviour. If your parents see a change for the better in you, they will certainly allow you to go the Dharma centre.

I once had a student in Australia, a divorcee who used to have problems with her children. After coming to the Dharma centre, learning the Dharma and applying it in her life, her children noticed a positive change in their mother. Then came a period when she got too busy to go to the Dharma centre and started becoming cranky and reverting to her old behaviour. Her children were the ones who reminded her to go back to the Dharma centre.

What is the Buddhist view on instant messaging?

With modern technologies, communication has become very vast and sophisticated. Besides the telephone, we send instant messages online. In fact, we spend a lot of time talking. Yet if we look deeply, we do not need to talk as much as we think. We need to reflect on the content of our chats and our motivation behind the chatting.

Loneliness is one of the afflictions of modern life. People in modern societies often feel lonely, and many engage in chit-chatting via SMS and instant messaging, in the hope that the feeling of loneliness will then go away. However, idle-chatting/surfing the Net is never an answer to loneliness. Instead, it may bring more “toxins” into the mind. Each time you feel lonely and turn to your handphone or the Internet, you are cultivating the habit of idle talk, which may make things worse. If we are not mindful, we can easily get addicted to these modern technologies, and in fact, many young people do. They feel uneasy if they are unable to access the Internet. We need to be discerning in our use of information technology and help our young ones use it wisely.

During the Buddha’s time, there was no IT and hence, no precept set to guide its use. Today, we can use all the precepts based on the principle of non-harming, as a guide for IT use. If we look closely at the content on the Internet today, we detect a lot of violence, hatred, greed and fear. If we spend hours surfing aimlessly, we unconsciously sow seeds of violence and ignorance in us. When we do that, our children follow our example. We need to be careful of unhealthy content which is destroying the social fabric of our families and ourselves. Discussion within our communities about this can bring about greater awareness. It can also bring about ideas on how to protect children, families, as well as society from destructive websites. We should boycott those websites that spill harm into our societies and make an effort to warn others of their danger.

Is it okay to tell little white lies?

If we have good reason to suspect that someone’s life is at stake, we should use our wisdom in how we reply to a question. We can give a nonsensical response, change the subject, or respond to another question instead because our intention is to save lives.

We need to be very mindful in bending the precepts and only do so in extreme cases. We should not allow “exceptions” to become the norm. We need to be very careful and look deeply, to see if we are bending the precepts for our convenience and then calling them “white lies” to justify them.

Our motivation for lying often is to conceal another action we did that we do not want someone to know about, and frequently that other action was a negative one. In this case, there are two non-virtues: the original action, such as sexual misconduct, and then the lie that is told to cover it up. Here we have to examine why we did the original action as well as why we want to conceal it.

If we reflect deeply, we will find that very often, we conveniently turn to white lies when confronted with difficult situations. In fact, if we are determined to keep the precepts, wisdom will grow. In other words, we use our resolve to deal with difficult situations without violating the precepts.

In my personal experience, when devotees brought food (dana) to the temple, they are usually fond of asking the monastics “Does it taste good?’’ or “Do you like the dish?” I knew they were not ready for a negative answer and they would feel discouraged or disheartened if I said I did not care much for the dish. Initially I told white lies, so as not to upset them. However, to me a lie was still a lie. I aspired to keep my precepts pure, yet I did not wish to hurt anyone. This required skilful means. As time went by, I began to think of better ways to respond. Instead of answering their questions directly, I chose not to answer. I would acknowledge their virtuous act of offering dana and supporting the monastics, and encourage them to continue with their kindness.

In doing so, I did not lie, and I did not upset anyone. When I got to know the devotees better and when I felt their minds were ready, I would give them positive suggestions on how to improve their dish!
Hence, when confronted with difficult situations, it is our cowardly mind that leads us to tell lies and conveniently use “white lies” as a license to lie. It is only when we are mindful, that we can see our intentions clearly. Our courage, determination and wisdom will grow if we keep the precepts faithfully.

Shi Faxun

Shi Faxun

VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.


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