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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, June 7, 2009

To Be Perfectly Honest: Another Reflection on Truth

Someone said that (the Zen Buddhist precept against lying) was the one they found most difficult to keep. Afterwards, I thought about that. Why is that? I think it is because, of the types of behavior described by these five precepts (at the heart of the Buddha’s ethical code), lying is the one that is most accepted. We all basically know that you don't kill people, that you don't steal, that you don't mess with people over weird sexual stuff, and it's not a good idea to get drunk and abuse people either. But, somehow, lying is the one that's accepted. " Well, everybody does it." In one sense, this is also the most central of the five precepts, because our practice is all about the truth and being honest. Right from the start, "The wall is white, the floor is brown." That's the truth. That's what our practice is about. Our practice is about waking up from our dreams and perceiving the truth, acting the truth, and speaking the truth. So this is a very important precept.

We say in the temple rules: know when the precepts are closed and when they are open -- when to keep them and when to break them. This is Zen style precepts, which we talk about in the Precepts Ceremony. With Zen precepts, the purpose of the precepts is to ask why you are doing what it is that you are doing. It's not necessarily that this particular action is good and this action is bad; it's why do you do it? If it's "I want something," then return to your practice at that moment. Practice is just paying attention. Return to your practice and ask, "What is this?"

So, the mouth opens and you see a lie coming out. Why is it that you feel this need to violate the truth? It may be that upon looking closely, you'll see that it's a situation where it's appropriate to break the precepts. That's probably several orders of magnitude more rare than we like to think. In that moment, inquire, "Why do I feel this need to violate the truth?" Which means, to violate my practice, my commitment to the truth. Why do I feel this need to abandon that?

It's a great moment, because that's your practice right there. Perceive your karma. If you just perceive it and see, and probably struggle with it for a while, and stay with it through the struggle, and then let it go... in that moment, you're Buddha. What a great liberation. The precept says, "I vow to abstain from lying." So, start with the person you spend the most time with. You're vowing not to lie to yourself anymore, which is a great gift to give yourself. It may sometimes be painful. It's a lot easier to abstain from lying to others than to abstain from lying to yourself. Someone once said to me that, since there isn't really a self, you have to make up a self in order to lie to yourself, so how can you lie to yourself? Well, we say in the Precepts Ceremony, if you're not thinking, you don't need the precepts. If you have no mind, then you don't need the precepts. But if you have a mind, if a little bit of thinking appears, the precepts are necessary.

—Neil Bartholomew, from his essay "Take the Five Precepts: What Does It Mean?"

There’s a famous Mullah Nasruddin story, one of those lovely trickster tales from the Near East. This version has been slightly adapted by me. One day late in the morning Nasruddin heard a knock at his door. He went and opened it to find his annoying neighbor Fred standing there. Fred said, “I have a load of dung I need to take to my fields. May I borrow your donkey?” Nasruddin hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “I’m so sorry, Fred. But my nephew has already borrowed my donkey and is riding it to Damascus.” Fred looked confused and said, “But, Mullah, I can see your donkey from here.” He pointed right at it. “You have it tethered to that post over in front of the well.” Nasruddin snorted. “If I don’t want to loan you my donkey, then any excuse is good enough.”

I understand this one. I rather suspect most of us do. Lies as social conventions such as, “I’m sorry, I’m busy tonight.” Sometimes they’re even meant to be kind as in “That looks great on you?” or, “Oh, I hadn’t noticed.” Who among us hasn’t told a lie? Come on, tell the truth…

Against which I recall the admonishment of my childhood Baptist upbringing, how breaking one commandment is just as bad as breaking any other. That is, lying is right up there with killing or coveting your neighbor’s slave. Actually if you’ve ever looked at the Ten Commandments, you’ll notice in fact there is no explicit prohibition on lying. But before you start working up a real whopper, in my childhood household lying was considered breaking the ninth commandment (which is, I gather in Catholic reckoning the eighth commandment). Of course, in the various versions of what are called the Ten Commandments, the actual words of the ninth (or eighth) are about perjury, bearing false witness in court. Still one can reasonably infer a larger perspective against lying in general, and I gather this broad interpretation of the commandment is pretty much universally understood.

The Buddhist prohibition is rather more straightforward. Do not lie. Or, speak truthfully. On the other hand, as you may have picked up from Neil’s commentary on this precept from a Zen perspective, for the most part these are not so much hard rules, imperatives, but rather guidelines, markers along a path of awareness, which need to be skillfully engaged.

Back in January I explored truth and lies a bit. The title I chose for that sermon was from something the journalist H. L. Mencken observed, “It is hard to believe a man is telling the truth when you know that you would life if you were in his place.” Much of that reflection was an attempt at a sympathetic consideration of why someone might lie, and specifically why a preacher might plagiarize, while still holding that we must strive for truth.

I held up the various lies we tell ourselves, and called us to a place of truthfulness. This is very important, I believe, for anyone wishing to live an authentic life. So, today, as we barrel down to the end of our formal church year, I want to continue that thought and expand upon it a bit. Today let’s focus a little on truth, a slippery thing, and see what we can grab hold of.

In our times the idea of truth has taken quite a beating. There is a compelling relativistic argument, one I accept in large part. It is that truth changes based upon where we stand. It is the beauty is in the eye of the beholder argument. And there’s a lot to it. Much of what we believe to be true, possibly most of what we believe is true, does not hold up as objective, but rather is a feeling or a sense that is informed, very much, by context.

This is not a new observation. In the fourth century before the common era, Zhuangzi wrote a little story that has been repeated around the world. It goes, “Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But (now) he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi.”

Here’s my problem, and I suspect the problem for most of us in this Meeting House. Unless one posits a God at the center of things who has planned everything and has set out rules for the world, which, frankly appear only to be knowable not from observation and reason, but from a dictated text, truth becomes very, very situational. And as I find no text claiming such absolute authority particularly compelling as self evident, I sit with those forced into the situational camp.

Now, how goes that line? Everything before the “but” is just noise? I don’t think that’s true. However, there is a “but” here. The question that begs to be addressed is the sense, the deeply held intuition so many of us have that there are in this relative world, nonetheless some standards by which we can judge behaviors and to which we need hold ourselves if we hope for any chance at joy in this life as we live it. What I think we can be sure of, is that when we surrender to any pure relativism at some point it fails us just as surely as clinging to rules that someone claims were given by God.

Have I used the word slippery yet? On our quest for some ground upon which to stand, some standards by which to live, honestly, is intuition any better than revelation? In October of 2005, at the opening episode of his spin-off from the Daily Show, Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness.”

“I will speak to you in plain, simple English.” Colbert explained in his best deadpan. “And that brings us to tonight's word: 'truthiness.' Now I'm sure some of the 'word police,' the 'wordinistas' over at Webster's are gonna say, 'hey, that's not a word'. Well, anybody who knows me knows I'm no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They're elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn't true. Or what did or didn't happen.

“Who's Britannica to tell me that the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I want to say it happened in 1941 then that's my right. I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart…

“Because that's where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen, from the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? Look it up. Now somebody is gonna say - "I did look it up and it's wrong. Well, mister, that's because you looked it up in a book. Next time, try looking it up in your gut. I did and my gut tells me that's how our nervous system works. Now I know some of you may not trust your gut, yet. But with my help, you will. Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

Stepping away from the crazed right wing news commentator persona he plays on television, Colbert reflected on why he coined the term. “Truthiness is tearing apart our country… It used to be; everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything… What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?… Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.”

I think the viral popularity of this riff, which pretty much established Colbert as a household persona, and Colbert’s brutal analysis has much, if you’ll forgive the word, truth to it. Absolute relativism, whether of the right or the left, and don’t miss how popular this is with the left, too, is ultimately a narcissistic assertion. Which would be okay if it were, forgive me, true.

But here’s the problem. You are not the center of the universe. Nor am I. Solipsism is confining, narrowing, and simply not the way things are. No one is an island, much less the center of all that is. Anyone who wishes to live a healthy life must engage the world, and to do that be open to bruising and challenge and finding constantly broader perspectives. Truth turns out to be a path.

The world is complex and a path of truth is also going to be difficult. In some ways truth is as relative as can be. In other ways there are common truths. Reality is in many ways a consensus statement. But some parts of our take on reality are on more solid ground than others. I think we can safely assume the Panama Canal was indeed finished in 1914. And if I walk out into traffic, it doesn’t really matter if I deny the existence of that bus barreling down on me.

In the ethical, the moral realm I argue we have some biological basis that seems hard to ignore. Our brains are hard wired to seek order. And we are herd animals. We need to relate. Our joy is dependent upon finding ways to relate. There are truths to be found within this, truths of enormous importance to us. And it doesn’t matter a whit if they’re not operant at the farther reaches of the cosmos. They are, for us the substance of life, of possibility, of hope.

And to find them we need the wisdom of both heart and mind. Emotions and feelings, intuitions, are slippery things, best informed, I suggest by our honest read of facts on the ground. And, yes, facts on the ground also change, as does the ground itself. So what we see as irrefutable truth, and this includes just about anything, needs actually to be held lightly. That’s why in science the best you get is theory. That said, morally, as a practical matter for people in relationship with others, I think we can safely assume, theorize based upon observation; that in most situations lying is harmful.

We see what happens in people’s lives when wracked by untruth. We’ve seen the wounds in our own lives when we allow lies to overtake us, whether of someone else’s doing, or of our own. We’ve experienced in this church the damage from lies told, from untruthful claims of authorship. So, it seems to me fairly obvious that maybe not a moral imperative in the sense of direct from God’s mouth to our ears, but definitely within a sense of harmony and balance and a desire to find one’s way to the deepest possible, honesty is indeed the best policy.

I suspect our moral compass is best found within that sense of relationship, always, always brought through the fire of reason. I was quite taken the other day when President Obama cited the Koran, sura 33 verse 70, in an eloquent rendering, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” While I’m not up for the God who sits at a control panel at the center of creation, God still is a valuable word for that bigger of which we are a part, as a critical reminder I am not the center of things. And more, that the cosmos is something vast and beautiful and holy. So, I can find wisdom in the ancient texts, if slightly relativized as the wisdom of people striving to find the true. Certainly I find such wisdom in my childhood Bible. I find wisdom in the Koran and elsewhere.

But to the phrase itself: Be conscious of God and speak always the truth. For me that consciousness of God is two things: As, I said, a sense we belong to something bigger than we are. And that sense the mind itself, your mind, my mind, our ability to reason and to weigh, when set within the context of larger responsibilities, means the truth we might speak becomes a healing truth. That is within that larger, you and I are precious, and what we think and feel counts. If we speak from this place then I have no doubt good can follow.

We do this and our path will indeed be one of truth.

And that is what it is all about. At least I believe this is true.