When I first started studying the 10 paramis I couldn’t understand why the seventh one was truthfulness.
I’d come to see the paramis as a progressive description of the path to enlightenment, and truthfulness seemed to already have been covered in the second parami, sila, or virtue, where one of the five precepts that in a sense define virtue is skillful speech.
At first I thought that truthfulness was separated out and reiterated for emphasis. The Buddha repeated things over and over in many different suttas. He was particularly concerned about speech.
Skillful speech is one of the eight steps in Noble Eightfold Path. In a teaching on the 10 unskillful acts of body, speech and mind, four of the 10 things he spoke of regarded speech. But that didn’t seem like a strong enough answer to explain how truthfulness fit in at this point in the sequential nature of the teachings.
With further investigation, I came to see that as you go deeper into the practice, truthfulness takes on a different flavor, deeper meanings, beyond the actual restraint of speech that is usually taken as the meaning of the precept.
The path isn’t a straight line; it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.
As your practice deepens, at a certain point you are simply unable to be untruthful. Mindfulness is a practice of seeing things as they really are. As your mindfulness deepens, as you continually see through the veils of mind that obscure the truth, you become truth. Truthfulness is no longer just an act of will, it is a state of being. To live truth, to be truth, is a great service to everyone around you. They can put down their emotional armor, knowing that they can trust you completely.
To be honest, I only understand this from what I have read and been told. Though I have strong inclinations in this area, I’m not there yet. Knowing this leads to the question, “If I don’t yet embody truth, why not?” Answering this question leads to another layer of truthfulness, being honest with yourself.
As you practice, all the things that you have put away, been afraid to look at, don’t want to think about—they all arise in the mind.
Thoughts and feelings full of self-doubt, memories of when you have acted unskillfully, emotional issues that you find painful or frightening—they all come front and center. You don’t want to pay attention to them, even though these thoughts are what have arisen in the present moment in your mind. Instead of mindfully looking at these thoughts, you get lost in strong aversion to them.
This is when the deeper level of truthfulness can arise. You need to be honest with yourself, accept all these dark and unpleasant thoughts and emotions. They are as much a part of you as the times of bliss and joy that also arise. There is a saying that I believe is attributed to the 3rd Zen Patriarch that sums this up beautifully:
“A wise man is one who is content with his own imperfections.”
This is an extremely difficult part of the practice because you often don’t even see these imperfections. Your perception of what is actually arising is clouded by your deeply ingrained habits of mind, your personal, cultural and social views of what is “right” and “wrong,” your tendency to blame and judge others. In addition, you have the strong tendency to seek what is pleasant and avoid what is unpleasant.
All of these difficult mind states that arise as you deepen your practice have stories attached, and you get lost in these stories. You’ve told them to yourself many, many times. You are always the star of these stories, maybe the victim, maybe the hero, but always at the center, and the “other” is always to blame. It’s their fault that you are angry, sad, lost in depression or full of fear. This is the opposite of mindfulness, of just being in the present moment, and, on top of that, it simply isn’t true.
For example, look at anger. As it arises in the body/mind the story is always that “someone has made you angry.” It’s not your fault. Actually the opposite is true.
The Buddha said that all anger arises from either thwarted desire or wounded pride. You are angry because you wanted something and didn’t get it, or because someone has acted disrespectfully (from your point of view) towards you. Your anger is not caused by “them,” it’s a result of your reaction to them.
You have to own the anger, understand where it really comes from, from perceived threats to your fragile ego structure. You have to accept that you are capable of anger, that it is as much a part of you as your joy. You have to be truthful with yourself, acknowledge that this is “your stuff.”
Why don’t you do this then? There is a great line from the Gospel of Matthew (7:3) that asks this question metaphorically.
“Why do you see the splinter in your brother’s eye but not notice the plank in your own eye?”
The answer, of course, is that it is simpler and more pleasant to see other’s fault, to judge and blame, then to see your own imperfections and accept them. As your practice deepens, as you become more truthful with yourself, this gradually changes.
This is one of the sweetest fruits of the practice.
This is the seventh of a series of 10 articles on the Paramis, the “perfections” of character that Theravaden Buddhism encourages you to develop.
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Ed: Elysha Anderson & Brianna Bemel