Ethics 5: Honesty

ahimsaaparigrahaasteyaBrahmacharyaethicsfive yamashonestypreceptssatyaToronto

The second ethical precept is called Satya. It’s often translated as truthfulness, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with this idea. It gives the sense that there is some final truth, a last and forever word that never stops shining. And it doesn’t take into account the shifting grounds of truth. Truth is not separate from the one who is experiencing it, honesty is not something out there, like a hammer that punishes us, or a rainbow that we need to be chasing. In the practice of satya, we become honesty, it arises out of the real time situations of our loves and livings. So I’ve translated satya as honesty, being honest with what arises in body, speech and mind.

The deepest value of practice comes through our commitment to honesty. If you look at non-violence or greed, it’s hard to enter those principles unless there’s honesty at the base. There’s three levels of honesty. The first is the literal level. In terms of honesty it means being honest with yourself. And when you bring together the first precept and the second — non-harming with honesty — it means that you don’t need to punish yourself for being honest, or being dishonest. The practice is about being as clear as you can manage, and to open to this transparency with softness and non-harming. What happens when we get tight and judgmental about honesty? I think it encourages us to be less honest. Some of us are rewarded as children for being dishonest, we might be told we should be honest, but the underlying message is: if you’re honest, and tell me about what you’re doing wrong, you’re going to get punished. This is a good way to foster dishonesty. The precepts aren’t another arena for self-harm, but a place where the clarity and softness one brings to oneself is then extended to others.

In Japanese, the word for repentance or atonement is sangay. I like the English word for atonement because it’s actually at-one-ment. The Japanese term sangay is made up of two words: sang is confession, and gay means regret. I think this is a fabulous way of translating atonement: confession or regret, or confessing what we might regret. When we use these words—confession or regret—I think we can boil it down to learning. This is how we learn. We do something unskillful and then we see it. It gets brought to our attention, and when it’s brought to our attention we have an opportunity to learn. It really reduces our blindness because seeing clearly is the practice of atonement.
The second level of the precept of honesty is the compassionate level which is the underground garage of ethics. Why am I speaking to myself this way? Why am I not looking at this situation honestly? Why do I want to speak to someone in this way? It’s a level of investigation that is not ideological or philosophical. And that takes us to the third principle which is committing to a life of honesty by becoming honesty itself. The koan level means living honestly, living simply, and it’s also a riddle. It’s an invitation to practice the impossible, to enter the impossible, which means living in the interconnectedness of life with a real commitment to being honest with the faces that meet our face.