Seeking the truth
by Neil Amas, School Director
Sacca (pronounced ‘sat-ja’) is a Pali word meaning “real” or “true.” It means to uphold integrity by speaking and acting according to the truth and keeping one’s word. It is a wise habit of profound importance, perhaps the most important, and yet in daily life it is one of the most difficult for us to consistently practise.
In early Buddhist writings sacca is often found in reference to ariya-sacca, or ‘noble truth’ and, specifically, the Four Noble Truths, the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. In this context, sacca can be translated as ‘reality’, where the Buddha expounds the absolute truth of suffering, its cause, cessation and the path out of suffering. At a deeper level, therefore, truth is not just a verbal statement of fact but is the nature of things as they are. Respected Buddhist scholar and monk Bhikku Bodhi explains, “Much more than an ethical principle, devotion to truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on reality rather than illusion, on the truth grasped by wisdom rather than the fantasies woven by desire.’’
One way to define truthfulness is by looking at its opposite, false speech and action. Untruthfulness is not only telling lies. We also have a tendency to add things in or leave things out. We often exaggerate in order to make ourselves and our lives seem more interesting and exciting. We exaggerate because we want to be liked and do not think we are lovable enough as we are. Or we use understatement, saying things like, ‘No, no, I’m not upset’ or ‘It’s no bother at all’ when clearly the opposite is true. We simply want to please others or fear disapproval and in fact we are being quite false. And there are also times when what we say is not a lie, as such, but because of what we leave out it is not the whole truth. Here the intention can be to convey a completely wrong impression, such as describing someone we don’t like in a one-sided way or describing events without certain unfavourable details to show ourselves in a good light. When the truth suffers, so do others and so do we. Venerable Ajahn Jayasaro further comments, “You don’t have to reveal the entire contents of your mind to others. You must ask yourself, to what extent is it beneficial to yourself and to others, to what extent is it harmful? Will it increase the amount of dukkha (suffering)?”
Untruthfulness stems from being afraid, of our teachers or parents, of being punished, or being looked down on or scolded. The ability to be truthful, on the other hand, is a sign of confidence and emotional maturity. Sacca is a great strength of the mind. Venerable Jayasaro has said, ‘’People don’t have much faith in telling the truth all the time. But sacca is the foundation to all the other wise habits.”
In 12 Ways to Happiness, he suggests that children are particularly prone to being untruthful because they are so dependent on others for their well-being. It is natural they may have doubts or anxieties that the people they depend upon will disapprove, or even abandon them. To create a love for sacca from children, we should point out how beneficial it is to speak the truth. We should help them see what feelings arise when we are truthful, especially when it is tempting to create a false picture just to get praise; or how good it feels when we keep a promise, particularly one which was hard to keep. By the same token, we need to show our children the suffering and complications we have to endure when we do not tell truth. ‘’We should teach children that if we do something wrong, we should accept it, and make up our mind not to make the same mistake again. It is up to parents and teachers to gain trust from our children by demonstrating our sense of justice, integrity and our readiness to forgive.”
This most challenging of wise habits is a trial for all of us. Every day we are faced with the dilemma of whether or not to bend the truth, to leave something out or to put too much in or to do what we said we would do. If we are able to model this most pure and precious of virtues to our children, we will give them a most wonderful gift for life, and one which creates a harmonious and peaceful society for all.