April 12, 2022

Little Lies and Other Lessons from the Five Precepts

Reflections on the Five Precepts from IMS Resident Teacher Chas DiCapua

Is it wrong to tell a lie? What if it’s only a little lie, and you’re telling it to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

These are the types of questions we might find ourselves facing when practicing with Buddhism’s Five Precepts. These five commitments or guidelines of training form the basis of conduct and understanding for lay and monastic dharma practitioners. They are:

  1. To refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. To refrain from incorrect speech.
  5. To refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

Perhaps when we first hear the teachings on the Five Precepts, they make some sense to us. For example, maybe initially, we can get behind the notion of not telling lies as a form of incorrect speech.

But what if it’s a little lie told to protect the feelings of someone we love? Is that okay to do?

Or maybe we can understand that it’s a good idea to refrain from harming living beings (including ourselves), but does this extend to swatting mosquitoes that are harassing us?

We might agree that it’s not right to take something that we know belongs to someone else. But does this include keeping something we find that we don’t know who it belongs to?

We begin practicing the Buddha’s path to liberation—including the Five Precepts—right where we are. There’s nothing right or wrong about where we are in the moment. We begin with this body, heart, and mind—just as it is.

In the beginning, we might think that it’s ok to tell a little lie, especially to avoid hurting another person. Or we might think it’s ok to swat annoying mosquitos or keep something we find when we don’t know whose it is.

As we continue to walk the Noble Eightfold Path, our mindfulness grows, and we become more aware of all things. We become more connected to or intimate with life, including our own hearts and minds. As this unfolds, our hearts naturally become more sensitive. We don’t need to try and make that happen; it just does.

As our hearts become more sensitive or we become more aware of what blocks the sensitivity of our hearts, our understanding of and relationship to the Five Precepts changes. Certain speech and actions that once felt okay, might no longer feel right to us.

As this happens, our thoughts and feelings about telling a little lie may change. When once it felt okay, now it doesn’t feel right. Not because we’re trying to improve or be a better person, but because, through increased mindfulness, we’ve noticed that in the past we told little lies to make ourselves look better because we didn’t feel okay with how we were. Now we don’t want to feed that sense of not being okay. We want to be okay just as we are and so now we avoid telling the little lies because we know that doing so won’t be congruent with being okay with ourselves as we are now—in this moment.

As we notice the habit patterns of our own heart and mind that cause ourselves and others suffering, we naturally understand that others have very similar patterns in their hearts and minds. The result of this awareness is greater compassion and kindness toward other beings. Again, not because we are supposed to, but because, based on what we know through our own experience, it becomes the only sane response.

The cultivation of the Five Precepts is ongoing throughout our entire lives. Working with these five guidelines is not a rule-based, linear process. It evolves naturally and organically as our understanding of the world—which includes ourselves—deepens.