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Protecting the Peace through the Fourth Precept

Fundamentally, Buddhist practice is a training in peace—and Buddhist ethics serve as a protection of this peace. As our sense of ease, harmony, and calm deepen with our practice, we begin to understand how our ethical choices impact our experience of peace, and we see that the five Buddhist precepts safeguard our well-being.

Because we so frequently talk and communicate with others, the fourth precept—avoiding false speech—is particularly relevant in our daily lives. Living by this precept protects us, and those we interact with, from the hurt, betrayal, and conflict that come from lying. Avoiding false speech promotes social concord and the interpersonal trust that social harmony depends on. It also supports the foundation of Buddhist practice, which bases our lives on what is true. For those who are motivated to walk a path of peace and freedom, lying is counterproductive because it moves us in the opposite direction.

Honesty is key to mindfulness practice. There can be no mindfulness practice without honestly acknowledging what we are experiencing. Telling lies interferes with the purpose and power of mindfulness. On the other hand, speaking truthfully—i.e., “mindfulness out loud”—keeps us in the flow of mindfulness, and our communications have the chance to be in harmony with the goodness that arises through careful attention.

States of calm, relaxation, and peace provide us with important reference points for living by the fourth precept. In the same way that a clean cloth will better reveal a new stain than a cloth that’s already saturated with dirt, a calm mind will better highlight mental agitation than a mind that is unsettled. Because lying agitates the person who lies, a peaceful mind can reveal the way dishonesty disturbs the quality of our inner life.

Lying involves a tension, tightness, and narrowing of the mind, and it often produces a fear of being caught. It can also lead to a stressful preoccupation with keeping the lie going. When we lie we create distance from others because dishonesty blocks our ability to build relationships based on genuine rapport and mutual understanding. Furthermore, lying leaves a legacy of shame and guilt to be experienced sooner or later.

The common motivations for lying—greed, hostility, and fear—bring their own unease to our minds and hearts. Sometimes these are called “afflictive emotions” because of the pain they cause. Lying doesn’t free us from these afflictive states; if anything, it strengthens them.

While avoiding these negative consequences can be reason enough for avoiding false speech, a commitment to the fourth precept can also be supportive in maintaining states of peace and ease that may exist within us. Experiences of settledness and peace can be deeply satisfying and nourishing. When we are experiencing such states, it’s good to take care not to lose them too easily, especially by doing or saying things we might later regret. When we know for ourselves that telling a lie disturbs our peace we have greater motivation to avoid lying. In this way, the fourth precept is more than preventive medicine for avoiding affliction; it is a tonic that supports our well-being.

Avoiding false speech does not mean we have to say something just because it is true. The truth can be hurtful, and it is important to take into account the impact our words have on others. Buddhist teachings emphasize that the truth should only be told if it’s timely, useful, and delivered with goodwill. This means that truthful speech should work together with wisdom— with our ability to discern the context, purpose, and the likely consequences of what we say.

Wisdom is nurtured by states of peace. When we are agitated, in a hurry, or impulsive, it’s hard to be wise. We don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to take into account the range of information that wisdom needs to function. We’re less likely to recognize when speaking is useful or not, and less likely to know what is or isn’t true.

The fact that wisdom operates better when we’re peaceful is certainly a good reason to protect our peace. And while various factors contribute to remaining peaceful, the commitment to the fourth precept can be particularly useful when it comes to our social life. The care and ongoing attention needed to “avoid false speech” develops our ability to be mindful, discerning, and free of compulsive speech. It entails pausing just long enough—perhaps imperceptibly to others—to recognize what we are about to say before we say it. It allows us to investigate the reasons we want to say something.

Buddhist precepts are not obligatory moral rules. They are, however, required if we want to safeguard both our personal and interpersonal peace. The greater our peace, calm, contentment, and clarity, the more we have something that is worth protecting from the agitation that results from lying. Similarly, the greater our interpersonal harmony, friendships, and trust, the more these are worth safeguarding from the disruptive consequences of deceiving others.

This is one reason why people who engage in contemplative practices, such as meditation, tend to value ethical behavior. Knowing all too well what is lost through unethical behavior, they understand they are better off being ethical. When it comes to speech, they know they are better off not deceiving anyone, including themselves.

—Gil Fronsdal