Filed in Zen (Chan)

Non-lying

The fourth Zen preceptRoshi Nancy Mujo Baker

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Lying is something we learn not to do as small children. Aesop’s fables and many children’s stories teach us about lying. I remember well my mother reading Pinocchio to me, not just as a story but as an amusing warning about the dangers of lying. One of the most famous of Aesop’s fables is “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” And then, perhaps when we are a little older, we learn about George Washington and the cherry tree he cut down. The words attributed to the boy Washington, “I cannot tell a lie,” were strong medicine for those of us who were his age when we first heard the story. The word fib seems to be used more for the lying we do as children and not for what we do as adults. It actually means a “trivial lie” and comes from the same root as fable. Pinocchio was probably at the fibbing stage, whereas George Washington was clearly conscious of some kind of moral precept. And then, of course, we have Plato’s “noble lie” in his Republic, the lie told to the members of various classes of citizens that being in one class and not another was somehow natural and not conventional, not up to us.

The science section of The New York Times ran an article in April 2013 titled “The Lies We Tell in the Exam Room,” emphasizing that doctors nowadays are rarely untruthful to their patients, but many easily tell white lies on their behalf. The following Sunday, the Book Review covered a biography whose subject was described as “not above deceit” and as having “bluffed his way into art schools.” He and a young friend were described as having “scammed their way down south.” So, in addition to the noble lie and white lies, we also have bald-faced lies, scams, swindles, bluffs, and many other failures to tell the truth. Fortunately, we have whistle-blowers, too...

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