World Scripture, A Comparative Anthology Of Sacred Texts

Editor, Andrew Wilson


Honesty And Expediency

This section deals with the virtues of honesty and expediency. Expediency is not always compatible with honesty, and the tension between these two values creates misunderstandings for the encounter of diverse cultures and religions.

The first group of passages deals with honesty as truth-telling; see also related passages on Lying and Deceit, pp. 486-88. The question, What is truth? does not have a simple answer. Truth-telling can sometimes mean to report the facts of a situation, as in the correspondence theory of truth, but most religious truth deals with ideas and realities beyond the level of fact. Hence a second meaning of truth-telling is to be true to the principles and doctrines of religion, and to teach them truly. It is an attribute of truthful words that they be beneficial and instructive, not just factually true. That is probably the sense of truth meant by these passages.

The second group of passages deal with honesty as promise-keeping. In the Abrahamic faiths, promises have often been sealed by oaths, sworn in the name of God. But as Jesus' admonition illustrates, oaths can be abused and sworn falsely, particularly when the person does not truly believe in the God to whom he swears. All religions elevate promise-keeping as a central virtue of human relations.

The last group of passages are on the topic of expediency. Blunt honesty may sometimes conflict with what is most helpful for a person; for example, in time of war it may be necessary to lie to an enemy in order to preserve a life. In leading people to recognize the truth of religion, expediency may also be required, for the truth is sometimes hidden in a package that is outwardly unseemly. Thus when Paul preached the gospel among Jews, he observed the Jewish dietary laws--even though he himself was free from those laws--in order not to cause offense. The Buddhist doctrine of Expedient Devices, or Skill in Means, as expressed in passages from the Lotus Sutra, attempts to reconcile the various schools of Buddhism by showing that Buddha preached various doctrines according to people's temperaments and inclinations. In Nagarjuna this is the doctrine of the two truths: relative truth and absolute truth. It is first necessary to grasp the relative truth of worldly phenomena before one can comprehend the absolute truth which is beyond appearances. But once the aspirant has realized the deeper teaching--the absolute truth--and gone beyond to realize enlightenment, the various outward forms of the teaching become insignificant.

The seal of God is truth.

Judaism. Talmud, Shabbat 55

Keep your conscience clear.

Christianity. 1 Peter 3.16

One should utter the truth.

Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

Let your conduct be marked by truthfulness in word, deed, and thought.

Hinduism. Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.1

Be honest like Heaven in conducting your affairs.

Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

May the true-spoken word triumph over the false-spoken word which destroys the holy order.

Zoroastrianism. Yasna 60.5

Putting away falsehood, let everyone speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.

Christianity. Ephesians 4.25

Ephesians 4.25: Cf. Psalm 24.3-6, p. 203; Psalm 101.7, p. 422.

Straightforwardness and honesty in the activities of one's body, speech, and mind lead to an auspicious path.

Jainism. Tattvarthasutra 6.23

He who utters gentle, instructive, true words, who by his speech gives offense to none--him I call a brahmana.

Buddhism. Dhammapada 406

Master Tseng said, "Every day I examine myself... In intercourse with my friends, have I always been true to my word?"

Confucianism. Analects 1.3

One should speak the truth and speak it pleasingly; should not speak the truth in an unpleasant manner nor should one speak untruth because it is pleasing; this is the eternal law.

Hinduism. Laws of Manu 4.138

If a lie runs for twenty years, it takes truth one day to catch up with it.

The truth got to market, but it was unsold; lying costs very little to buy.

African Traditional Religions. Yoruba Proverbs (Nigeria)

O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it concerns rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts of your hearts lest you swerve, and if you distort justice or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do.

Islam. Qur'an 4.135

Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth; that I may pardon her.... O Lord, do not thy eyes look for truth?

Judaism and Christianity. Jeremiah 5.1-3

Analects 1.3: Cf. Yoruba Proverb, p. 237. Dhammapada 406: Cf. Qur'an 16.125, p. 867. Yoruba Proverbs: Cf. Yoruba Proverbs, pp. 237, 422f. Qur'an 4.135: Islam does not value expediency or the competing goods of loyalty to family and kindred as highly as it values honesty. Compare Analects 13.18, below.

When man appears before the Throne of Judgment, the first question he is asked is not, "Have you believed in God," or "Have you prayed and performed ritual acts," but "Have you dealt honorably, faithfully in all your dealings with your fellowman?"

Judaism. Talmud, Shabbat 31a

If you plot and connive to deceive men, you may fool them for a while, and profit thereby, but you will without fail be visited by divine punishment. To be utterly honest may have the appearance of inflexibility and self- righteousness, but in the end, such a person will receive the blessings of sun and moon. Follow honesty without fail.

Shinto. Oracle of Amaterasu at the Kotai Shrine

Tzu-chang asked about getting on with people. The Master said, "Be loyal and true to your every word, serious and careful in all you do, and you will get on well enough even though you find yourself among barbarians. But if you are disloyal and untrustworthy in your speech, frivolous and careless in your acts, even though you are among your own neighbors, how can you hope to get on well?"

Confucianism. Analects 15.5

When a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth.

Judaism and Christianity. Numbers 30.2

Fulfil the covenant of God once you have pledged it, and do not break any oaths once they have been sworn to. You have set up God as a Guarantee for yourselves; God knows everything you are doing.

Do not be like a woman who unravels her yarn after its strands are firmly spun. Nor take your oaths in order to snatch at advantages over one another, to make one party more numerous than the other. For God will test you by this.

Islam. Qur'an 16.91-92

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, "You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn." But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply "Yes" or "No"; anything more than this comes from evil.

Christianity. Matthew 5.33-37

Shabbat 31a: Cf. Psalm 24.3-6, p. 203; Micah 6.6-8, p. 742; Amos 5.23-24, p. 255. Compare Matthew 25.31-45, p. 840. Analects 15.5: Cf. Mirhir Yasht 10.2, p. 68. Matthew 5.33-37: Jesus said this because oaths sworn on God or the Temple were frequently broken and even used to deceive.

You may modify a statement in the interests of peace.

Judaism. Talmud, Yebamot 65b

It is always proper to speak the truth. It is better again to speak what is beneficial than to speak what is true. I hold that this is truth which is fraught with the greatest benefit to all creatures.

Hinduism. Mahabharata, Shanti Parva 329.13

Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you.

Christianity. Matthew 7.6

Do not share this holy truth with anyone who lacks self-control and devotion, lacks the desire to learn, or scoffs at Me.

Hinduism. Bhagavad Gita 18.67

The Duke of She addressed Confucius saying, "In my country there was a man called Upright Kung. His father appropriated a sheep, and Kung bore wit- ness against him." Confucius said, "In my country the upright men are of quite another sort. A father will screen his son, and a son his father-- which incidentally does involve a sort of uprightness."

Confucianism. Analects 13.18

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law--though not being myself under the law--that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law--not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ--that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I become weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

Christianity. 1 Corinthians 9.19-22

Mahabharata, Shantiparva 329.13: Cf. Mahabharata, Shantiparva 37.11-14, p. 406. Matthew 7.6: A precious truth, a gift of God, should not be given to those who would treat it with contempt. Teaching should be given in stages, and to those who are open to receive it. Cf. Chuang Tzu 14, p. 620. 1 Corinthians 9.19-22: Cf. Doctrine of the Mean 14, p. 615; Lotus Sutra 4, pp. 444f.

The teaching of the Dharma by the various Buddhas is based on the two truths; namely, the relative [worldly] truth and the absolute [supreme] truth. Those who do not know the distinction between the two truths cannot understand the profound nature of the Buddha's teaching.

Without relying on everyday common practices [relative truths], the absolute truth cannot be expressed. Without approaching the absolute truth, Nirvana cannot be attained. A wrongly conceived Sunyata can ruin a slow-witted person. It is like a badly seized snake or a wrongly executed incantation. The Wise One once resolved not to teach about the Dharma, thinking that the slow-witted might wrongly conceive it.

Buddhism. Nagarjuna, Mulamadhyamaka Karika 24.8-12

Mulamadhyamaka Karika 24.8-12: Cf. the Parable of the Raft, Majjhima Nikaya i.134-35, pp. 694f.; Bhagavad Gita 2.42-46, pp. 698f.; Diamond Sutra 21, p. 692.

On a certain occasion the venerable Nanda, brother of the Buddha, the son of the Buddha's aunt, thus addressed a number of monks, "Without zest I follow the Brahma-life. I will give up training and go back to the low." Someone informed the Buddha... who summoned Nanda and said to him, "How is it, Nanda, that you have no zest for the Brahma-life, that you cannot endure it, that you will give up the training and return to the low?" "Sir, when I left my home, a Shakyan girl, the fairest in the land, with hair half combed, looked back at me and said this, 'May you soon come back again, young master.' I am always thinking of her, and hence I have no zest for the Brahma-life, I cannot endure the Brahma-life, I will give up training and return to the low." Then the Exalted One took Nanda by the arm, and together they vanished from the Jeta Grove and appeared among the devas of the Thirty-Three. There, as many as five hundred "dove-footed" nymphs had come to minister to Sakka, lord of the devas. The Exalted one said to Nanda, "Nanda, do you see those five hundred dove-footed nymphs?" "Yes, sir." "What do you think, Nanda? Which are the more lovely, more worth looking at, more charming, the Shakyan girl, the loveliest in the land, or these five hundred dove-footed nymphs?" "O, sir, just as if she were a mutilated monkey with ears and nose cut off, even so, sir, the Shakyan girl, the loveliest in the land, if set beside these five hundred nymphs is not worth a fraction of them and can- not be compared with them. Why, these five hundred nymphs are far more lovely, far more worth looking at, far more charming!" Then the Exalted One, taking Nanda by the arm, vanished from the devas of the Thirty-three and reappeared in Jeta Grove. The monks heard the rumor, "They say that Nanda, brother of the Buddha, leads the Brahma-life for the sake of the nymphs. They say the Exalted One has assured him of getting five hundred dove-footed nymphs." Thereupon the monks who were comrades of Nanda called him "hireling" and "menial."... Now the venerable Nanda, being thus worried, humiliated, and despised since he was called a hireling and a menial by his comrades, living alone, remote, energetic, ardent, making the self strong, in no time attained in this very world, himself realizing it by full comprehension, that for which the clansman rightly goes forth from home to homelessness, even that unsurpassed goal of the Brahma-life, and so abided. He realized, "Ended is birth, lived is the life, done is what was to be done; there is no more of being here." The venerable Nanda had become one of the arahants....

At the end of that night the venerable Nanda came to the Exalted One, and on coming to him saluted him and stood at one side and said, "Sir, as to the Exalted One's standing surety for me for the getting five hundred dove-footed nymphs, I release the Exalted One, sir, from that promise." "I also, Nanda, grasping your thought with my own, have seen that this is so... Since, Nanda, by not grasping, your heart is released from the cankers, I too am released from my promise."

Buddhism. Udana 21-24, Nanda Sutta

Udana 21-24: This is a good example of the Buddha's skill in means, to lead Nanda by means of a small desire to realization of higher truth. For another example, see the Tevigga Sutta, p. 187. On the use of seemingly evil beings to realize a high purpose, see Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti 6, p. 384.

"Suppose, for instance, a good physician, who is wise and perspicacious, conversant with the medical art, and skillful in healing all sorts of diseases. He has many sons, say ten, twenty, even up to a hundred. Because of some matter he goes abroad to a distant country. After his departure his sons drink his other poisonous medicines, which send them into a delirium and they lie rolling on the ground. At this moment their father comes back to his home. Of the sons who drank the poison, some have lost their senses, others are sensible.... The father, seeing his sons in such distress, in accordance with his prescriptions, seeks for good herbs altogether perfect in color, scent, and fine flavor, and then pounds, sifts, and mixes them and gives them to his sons to take, saying thus, 'This excellent medicine with color, scent, and fine flavor all perfect, do you take, and it will at once rid you of your distress so that you will have no more suffering.' Those amongst the sons who are sensible, seeing this excellent medicine with color and scent both good, take it immediately and are wholly delivered from their illness. The others, who have lost their senses, seeing their father come, though they are also delighted, salute him, and ask him to heal their illness, yet when he offers them the medicine, they are unwilling to take it. Wherefore? Because the poison has entered deeply, they have lost their senses, and even in regard to this medicine of excellent color and scent they say that it is not good. The father reflects thus, 'Alas for these sons, afflicted by this poison, and their minds all unbalanced! Though they are glad to see me and implore to be healed, yet they are unwilling to take such excellent medicine as this. Now I must arrange an expedient plan so that they will take this medicine.' "Then he says to them: 'Know, all of you, that I am now worn out with old age and that the time of my death has now arrived. This excellent medicine I now leave here. You may take it and have no fear of not being better.' After thus admonishing them, he departs again for another country and sends a messenger back to inform them, 'Your father is dead.' And now, when these sons hear that their father is dead, their minds are greatly distressed and they thus reflect, 'If our father were alive he would have pity on us, and we should be saved and preserved. But now he has left us and died in a distant country.' "Deeming themselves orphans with no one to rely on, continuous grief brings them to their senses; they recognize the color, scent, and excellent flavor of the medicine, and thereupon take it, whence their poisoning is entirely relieved. Their father, hearing that the sons are recovered, seeks an opportunity and returns, showing himself to them all. "Good sons! What is your opinion? Are there any who could say that this good physician had committed the sin of falsehood?" "No, World-honored One!" The Buddha then said: "I also am like the father. It has been infinite countless hundred thousand myriad billions of kalpas since I became Buddha. But for the sake of all living beings, I say expediently, 'I must enter Nirvana.' There is none who can lawfully accuse me of falsehood."

Buddhism. Lotus Sutra 16

Lotus Sutra 16: After having revealed the eternal life of the Buddha, the Lotus Sutra explains the apparent demise of the historic Sakyamuni Buddha as an expedient device. Knowing that if the followers knew of the Buddha's eternal life span, they might become lazy and not vigorously apply themselves to attaining Nirvana, the Buddha uses his power of expedient devices to show his death. The sutra then illustrates this expedient device by the Parable of the Good Physician, given here. For another expedient device, see the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Lotus Sutra 4, pp. 444f.; on Buddha as the Great Physician, see Garland Sutra 37, p. 458.


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