What does lying mean?

Looking for clarification on the fourth precept.

When I started following the five precepts, I took it to mean any intentional false assertion, and it consequently made me stop telling certain types of jokes that involved false claims (even things like exaggerations). This became a problem for three reasons:

  1. Since questions don’t, in themselves, have a truth value, they can’t be lies, so I allowed myself to tell those same jokes in the form of questions that prompted wrong conclusions. However, asking and asserting felt like the same thing;
  2. I saw monks and serious Buddhists telling jokes that involved false claims many times. One example that I can remember now is when Ven. Ajahn Brahm told the prince that if he got any balder, he would need to ordain and become a monk. Needless to say, this is false, but it isn’t intended to be taken literally, so shouldn’t it be taken to mean what the Buddha referred to when he said, “don’t tell a deliberate lie, not even for a joke” (MN 61)?
  3. Lying through words or gestures or facial expressions feels very, very similar to spoken lies, so maybe the precept encompasses more than just spoken and written language.

My second approach to it was to assume that a deliberate lie would be intentionally making someone conclude something false. This view, though, also had its problems:

  1. Many people defend that it isn’t against the precepts to deceive with the truth. One example of this is the following story I once read on tricycle:

The Buddha was doing walking meditation in the forest when he perceived with his “all-seeing eye” an incident about to occur, and planned how to respond to it. A moment later a terrified-looking man ran past. The Buddha then stepped a few feet to the left and waited. A gang of brigands approached and asked, “While standing there, did you see a man run past?"

“No,” replied the Buddha. He was, of course, telling the truth. He had been standing somewhere else when he saw the man run past.

  1. Another problem was irony. An ironic joke is something intended to make the person conclude the opposite of what’s being said, but, at the same time, it’s only funny because it’s mutually recognized as false. So shouldn’t it be seen as lying? Isn’t it one of the things that the Buddha referred to when he told Rahula not to lie even for a joke?

  2. This definition assumes that lying depends on what the listener understands, which contradicts the intuition that it’s completely possible for a person to say the truth when they’re sure that the listener may, either by ignorance or carelessness, understand it incorrectly. In other words, you shouldn’t be blamed for someone else’s misunderstanding.

Besides these two, I’ve also applied many other interpretations. Some showed to be so bad that spotting the intention of lying before the actual lie was impossible, which made them impractical interpretations. The sensation that we’re going to lie is something noticeable even before we have the sentence fully formed, and my goal was to find an interpretation that could make me stop even after breaking the precept.

Now I just take lying to be any intentional distortion of the truth, by any means of communication. This includes even the prompting questions that I used to tell because the underlying assertions were intended to be communicated (by facial expressions or context). Moreover, Ven. Ajahn Brahm’s joke doesn’t seem to have any intention of lying. Even though, when analyzed literally, the sentence is false, I don’t think he had felt like lying. Saying that probably felt just like saying, “hey, you’re getting very, very bald” but in a more playful way. Finally, deceiving with the truth indeed doesn’t seem to be lying insofar as it feels more like distancing oneself from the situation; however, if it feels just like lying (i.e. the person feels like they’re communicating something false through gestures, comments, or facial expressions), then it may be regarded as lying.

The only texts I’ve read on the topic of lying are the writings of Ven. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Vinaya’s Musāvāda, and eventual suttas, so other sources, books, diverging views, and criticisms would be very welcome :slight_smile:

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They lie. They’re summoned to a council, an assembly, a family meeting, a guild, or to the royal court, and asked to bear witness: ‘Please, mister, say what you know.’ Not knowing, they say ‘I know.’ Knowing, they say ‘I don’t know.’ Not seeing, they say ‘I see.’ And seeing, they say ‘I don’t see.’ So they deliberately lie for the sake of themselves or another, or for some trivial worldly reason. AN 10.211

Mendicants, there are these four ignoble expressions. What four? Saying you’ve seen, heard, thought, or known something, but you haven’t. These are the four ignoble expressions. AN 4.250

Lying, when cultivated, developed, and practiced, leads to hell, the animal realm, or the ghost realm. The minimum result it leads to for a human being is false accusations. AN 8.40

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. DN 2

What do you think, Vāseṭṭha? This being so, doesn’t their statement turn out to have no demonstrable basis?” “Clearly that’s the case, Master Gotama.” Good, Vāseṭṭha. For it is impossible that they should teach the path to that which they neither know nor see. Suppose there was a queue of blind men, each holding the one in front: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. In the same way, it seems to me that the brahmins’ statement turns out to be comparable to a queue of blind men: the first one does not see, the middle one does not see, and the last one does not see. Their statement turns out to be a joke—mere words, void and hollow. DN 13


Not speaking, stepping aside, being a perfect fabrication/projection is lying in ignorance.

A joke, especially against any aspect of self, negates the non-bodhi or sleeping unskilful precept pusher, sutta savoury or other tasteful temporary.

In other words the joke is not only on us but if questioned is us. A raised flower is a smile at a rampaging elephant. How we still and unravel, generates our karma and influences our field of being.

Hopefully others more senior will laugh in a more helpful posting?

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When one intentionally deceives someone, the fourth precept doesn’t remain intact merely because the manner of deception happens to be via some amphibology or equivocation.

That being so, I think Tricycle’s ridiculous story almost certainly belongs on @Bodhipaksa’s Fake Buddha Quotes site. Morally what it presupposes is something like the Roman Catholic doctrine of mental reservation. As far as I know there’s no counterpart to this conception in Buddhist texts, not even in those places where we might expect to find such a thing (e.g., Mahayana treatises on skilful means and the secondary bodhisattva vows).


Welcome, Lobster, nice to see you here.
I used to like ice-cream.:yum:

The purpose of a joke is not to deceive someone, so I think you need to consider your intention here. When you say “A rabbi, a mormon, and a bhikkhu walk into a bar,” no one is going to assume you’re telling the truth. They’re simply looking forward to the punchline.

Incidentally, questions can have either skillful or unskillful values, as Sariputta pointed out:

Whoever asks a question of another, does so for one or other of these five reasons. What five? Someone asks a question of another from stupidity and folly. Or they ask from wicked desires, being naturally full of desires. Or they ask in order to disparage. Or they ask wanting to understand. Or they ask with the thought, ‘If they correctly answer the question I ask it’s good. If not, I’ll correctly answer it for them.’ Whoever asks a question of another, does so for one or other of these five reasons.
AN 5.165

I like to bear this in mind when people say they are “just asking questions” — a statement that usually, in my experience, is a cover for nefarious activities.

Telling a lie for the sake of a joke might mean something more like telling a false story about a person in order to generate a laugh — one where, unlike with the hypothetical “a rabbi, a mormon, and a bhikkhu walk into a bar” example, people believe you’re telling the truth. I’ve seen this happen when person A has exaggerated or distorted events that happened in the past, often making person B look foolish. People listening to that story are going to be misled.

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I have seen the precepts written to say ‘no lying’ and I have seen it written to say ‘no wrong speech’.

Lying is purposely misleading someone. Politicians are expert at lying by using partial truth. An obvious joke is not meant to deceive anyone. You will see many teachers using humor in their lectures. Telling someone if they lose any more hair and they will become a monk is not meant to mislead anyone. But you do need to know your audience. If the balding man would be offended by such a joke, then although it is not a lie, it could be wrong speech.

Well, then that would clearly be a wrong translation. Wrong speech includes not only false speech, but divisive speech, harsh speech, and useless speech. Even the Vinaya doesn’t have a rule about useless speech. Obviously we shouldn’t engage in any wrong speech, but I believe that if the Buddha wanted them to be precepts he would have done so. Just my $.02.

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I believe there are eight Vinaya ordinances relating to samphappalāpa. Possibly more, as there may be others I’ve forgotten about.

Three have to do with frivolous speech in general, namely, those which make such speech grounds for an act of censure or banishment or suspension.

When a monk has another three qualities, the Sangha may, if it wishes, do a procedure of banishing him: his bodily conduct is frivolous; his verbal conduct is frivolous; his bodily and verbal conduct are frivolous.


The others have to do with specific forms of frivolous speech:

  1. A frivolous insult is a dubbhāsita.

If one who is fully ordained, not wishing to revile, not wishing to insult, not wishing to humiliate another who is fully ordained, but wanting to have fun, says what is low to one who is low—an outcast, a bamboo worker, a hunter, a carriage maker, a waste remover—saying, “You’re an outcast,” “You’re a bamboo worker,” “You’re a hunter,” “You’re a carriage maker,” “You’re a waste remover,” then for every statement, he commits an offense of wrong speech.


2-4. Making a joke about any of the three refuges is a dukkata.

“Monks, you should not joke about the Buddha, the Teaching, or the Sangha. If you do, you commit an offense of wrong conduct.”


  1. Ordering or suggesting that someone hide another monk’s requisites as a prank is a pācittiya if the order or suggestion is acted upon.

‘If a monk hides a monk’s bowl, robe, sitting mat, needle case, or belt, or he has it hidden, even just for a laugh, he commits an offense entailing confession.’


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I any case it hardly matters in this discussion. The types of jokes mentioned by the OP are not lying because they are not meant to deceive anyone. You will see many teachers, Rinpoches etc. use humor in their lectures. Many of their jokes are to make a point - but are not necessarily based on fact. Such as the balding man is going to have become a monk. An obvious joke, not a lie.

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Absolutely. But they are very specific. My point (which I agree is probably off topic, sorry) is that it doesn’t make sense to imply a general useless speech precept for lay people when there isn’t even one for monastics .

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relating a personal story.

One day, a friend of mine, also a Buddhist, give me fake information. I forgot exactly what. It could be something like, “Hey you know friend A is having a birthday today. You should prepare a gift”
Me: “Eh, really?”
Friend: “Nope. I lied. I am just joking with you. hehe”

And then I pointed out that she technically transgress the precept of not lying.
She protested, “But it is just a joke! It should not count!”
No, in my opinion, it count as lying. Worse, it is in my opinion the worst kind of lying, lying for a joke.

If you lie to protect someone’s life, or your own life. Or if you lie to gain profit. Or if you lie to protect someone’s feeling. At least your act of lying means something. You traded your negative karma with something meaningful.

But just joking? You don’t gain anything except a moment of laugh, but you still get the negative karma.

In my opinion, as a Buddhist we should try to tell some jokes without lying or any other wrong speech.


There are many ways of saying funny things without lying. People seem to forget that. It’s true, though, that those things require a more sophisticated/subtle sense of humor.

Now you just like the memory of what you were like …