There are some situations in life when we cannot help telling a lie.
False speeches or lies in Buddhist law are divided into three levels, which are whopping great lies, little lies and white lies. Of which, those who commit the first one are people do not achieve enlightenment yet but they claim that they do; not becoming Buddha yet but considering themselves as Buddhas; not seeing Buddhas, Bodhisattvas yet but state that seeing them firsthand. In case people who proclaim themselves to attain the fruits of enlightenment such as Arhat, Stream-Winner (the first stage of sainthood), etc. in order to swindle the followers, hoping to get respect and offerings from them. or those who call themselves an avatar of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, commit a very serious sin, which is sorted into one of the most severe sins.
Apart from sins of whopping great lies are sins of little lies, such as saying what we have never seen, heard and known. This sin benefits ourselves but harms other people or harms both. Meanwhile, a white lie is a harmless lie that you tell to avoid hurting somebody. Telling a white lie does not harm ourselves and other people at all; it even benefits listeners. The one in the above example about the sick mother and her child is quite acceptable while it is unacceptable if you brag something that are absolutely untrue.
In fact we occasionally need to use “white lies”. For instance, there is someone who runs into your house to hide from a killer. In order to save his/her life, you should tell a lie “I have never seen that person passing by”. Assuming that the killer may ask “I just saw that person get in here” you’d better be careful and think up another lie to rescue his/her life.
Telling truth may sometimes upset others in communication, so you should choose white lies, as long as they do not hurt any people. While communicating, you should tell white lies effectively and usefully whenever you can. In some cases, chance just comes once, so if you do not take advantage of it, you may never be able to do it again, which may cause the listener to misunderstand that he or she is right. However, you also have to consider listener’s mentality. If telling the truth may humiliate the listener, you’d better keep silence.
Words themselves are innocent. It is a good thing to do If you can make a good use of it cleverly for good deeds; but it is quite bad if you use good speech for evil purpose. Speech is a mean of communication and sharing emotion; on the other hand, if you do not know how to use it properly, you will get trouble because of its counterproductive effects.
Venerable Master Sheng Yen.
Translated into English by Nguyen Thi Tham