We are told in the holy texts of Buddhism, as well as in other traditions, to speak the truth. And what we say should be beneficial, should be pleasantly uttered, and should not cause excitement. When I speak, I can decide whether to tell the truth, say something that simply doesn’t matter, or perhaps just utter vicious lies. It is my decision. As a matter of fact, I often decide to tell the truth, but there is something quite different from this. If I speak the truth, I am a good man while I am speaking it, but there is something higher than goodness.
The Brahmins of India were not supposed to have executive power. They were to be men of piety and learning who taught the holy texts, and morality when it was needed. They would get a fee for this. They could even reprimand kings, but must speak the truth. The following is a traditional case that was told to me.
There was a famine. One of the local farmers had foreseen the coming calamity and had cornered the local rice market. He had bought the rice cheap and it was piled high in his granary which stood next to his house. As the shortage of rice began to be felt, he was able to raise the price and raise the price and raise the price. The poor were starving but the rich were willing to pay the high prices.
One day the poor met. Among them was a poor Brahmin who was also starving. The carpenter said that there was a weak place in the granary which stood next to the rich farmer’s house. He could make a hole in it large enough for a man to wriggle through, who could then pass out the rice in a bowl to the poor outside. And this they agreed to do.
The Brahmin said that he should be the one to do it. Burglary and theft were punishable by death in that kingdom, but he said, ‘As I am a Brahmin, they will not kill me. I shall be disgraced, humiliated publicly, and exiled. But they will not kill me.’
All went well. In the middle of the night the Brahmin got through the hole successfully, stood inside the granary and ladled out the rice with a bowl into the little sacks of the poor.
Meanwhile, next door to the granary, the owner was looking over his books and congratulating himself on making a real killing. ‘I can hang on for another three weeks and I’ll squeeze the last penny out of the rich,’ he gloated, ‘The poor will get by, somehow, and then I will be able to extend my holdings and become one of the most influential men of the district.’
And then, to his amazement, a voice boomed from the granary, ‘O deluded man, these things are merely passing. Repent! Devote your talents to serving your fellow men, not exploiting them.’
The owner at once called the strong-arm watchman and together they dashed into the granary and arrested the Brahmin.
Next morning they brought him before the magistrate. But the magistrate praised the Brahmin and said, ‘You have performed your duty as a Brahmin by speaking the truth and giving moral instruction where it was clearly needed. As your fee for the spiritual instruction which you gave, I order that half the remaining rice in the granary shall be made over to you to be disposed of as you wish.’
Then he stood up and made a reverence to the Brahmin and said, ‘May I do my duty as a magistrate with the same fearlessness as you have done yours as a Brahmin.’
This is the traditional story. A good person speaks the truth, but there comes a time when the truth speaks through a good person regardless of any circumstances or any consequences, and this story illustrates that. When some of the silt in the channel has been removed, then it is Truth declaring the truth, not a person declaring the truth.
Truth from the Old Zen Master
© Trevor Leggett