Telling the truth in a misleading or partial way, and thus not 'the whole truth'

I am wondering whether there are any suttas that can shed light on the following point about not lying. There are situations in which you can say something which strictly is not a lie but that you know will mislead the listener.
This can be done for supposedly good reasons: for example there is a story I heard from a monk about a guy who was protecting jews in his house in Nazi Germany. When soldiers asked him whether he had any jews in his house, he said with an innocent face: ‘You can have a look inside if you want’. Technically this was not a lie, but of course he said that to imply that there were no jews and indeed the soldiers went away.
Another example is President Clinton saying that he ‘did not have a sexual relationship with that woman, Monica Lewinsky’ and then explaining this by the fact that technically what he did was not a sexual relationship in legal jargon.
A third example was a monk who wrote on a forum in answer to a question of mine ‘I cannot comment about the higher jhanas since I have no experience of them, but concerning the first jhana etc’. So he did not say that he got first jhana, but he implied it. Would that have been a lie had he not attained the first jhana? Technically he did not claim it, but anyone can see that that way of writing boosted his image in the eyes of most readers.
So in all these cases you are not technically lying, but you are not telling the ‘whole truth’. For a long time I just accepted the idea that it’s sufficient not to literally lie, but I saw a really interesting video by a thinker I admire who compared telling partial truths, with the idea of possibly manipulating the listener in believing something that is not the case, to ‘Naming God in vain’ in the Bible (which for him does not mean blasphemy but invoking God’s name and thus truth as a way to mislead) and to something bad.
So I am wondering whether there are any suttas addressing this question?

Here in Russia this is called “Cathar Truth” - because of the Cathars, religious gnostics of the Middle Ages, who were brutally persecuted, and their religion forbidded them from lying outright, so they had to use more subtle ways to not tell the truth at the interrogation.

I think, this won’t be acceptable in Buddhism, because it’s the intention that counts. And if your intention is to lie, then… But that’s only my opinion, and I know very little.


Very interesting, thanks. For a long time I lived near a Cathar castle so I had heard about their story but did not know that you had this expression!

I don’t know, if that is something that is uniquely Russian (I doubt it, there were no Cathars in Russia after all :laughing:), or if this expression exists somewhere else, but I’m glad you like it. They were really interesting guys, the Cathars!

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Right Speech doesn’t necessarily mean telling the “whole” truth. More importantly one should speak with kindness in a timely manner when it is beneficial to the listener and truthfully, with good will. This can imply that if one is angered or it isn’t beneficial to the listener at the time one can tell a partial truth but not with the intention of misleading the listener. Avoiding a direct answer isn’t lying. Intentionally misleading would be, I think. Welcome correction if this is incorrect.

I believe this is an individual decision and ultimately based on wisdom, the third pillar of Buddhist teachings. IMO one should not forget that the kilesas are training rules, not categorical commandments as with Judaism or Kant. Once you’ve crossed the river you (possibly) discard he raft.

Perhaps this formulation of the rule on not lying can be of relevance?

They give up lying. They speak the truth and stick to the truth. They’re honest and trustworthy, and don’t trick the world with their words.

You find it in a number of Suttas, for example in DN 2:44.1 or AN 4.198:8.4.

Honesty doesn’t necessarily imply that you literally say everything you may know, but what you say should be true; and “not trick the world with your words” seems important in this context.


Thank you! This makes a lot of sense! :pray:

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Someone’s been lying about what the word “lie” means for too long …

:thinking: Sounds cool but not specific enough for me

Words leading to a better, Compassionate outcome are words of truth. Words, may they be factual or not, leading to a hateful and pitiful outcome do not represent the truth, and are categorized as if coming from a liar. If one must keep a secret to save an innocent person’s life, so be it, it is the liar at heart who would reveal it. One can’t lie to themselves and expect to be telling the truth.

Right speech, as the Buddha Intended, means to speak the truth. If we are telling partial truth, or misleading truth, then we are not practicing right speech. As simple as that. No compromise.

Of all the Precepts, the Buddha said, practicing the Precept of Right Speech is the most difficult.

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Is there not something like privacy and sense of honour too?

Depends in large part on one’s intention.

As long as there is a sense of a “doer” or a “self” then there will be kamma and vipāka, (results).

See AN5.167 regarding Right Speech, AN3.23, AN4.171, and MN57 regarding bright, dark, bright-and-dark kamma, and kamma neither bright nor dark.

From MN57:
" “Puṇṇa, I declare these four kinds of deeds, having realized them with my own insight. What four?

  1. There are dark deeds with dark results;
  2. bright deeds with bright results;
  3. dark and bright deeds with dark and bright results; and
  4. neither dark nor bright deeds with neither dark nor bright results, which lead to the ending of deeds."

Sometimes our intentions are mixed, leading to mixed results. An example is if a person tells a white lie – they speak an untruth (not good), but for the sake of maintaining peace, (good). So the karmic results are mixed.

Hope this is helpful.