If we have good reason to suspect that someone’s life is at stake, we should use our wisdom in how we reply to a question. We can give a nonsensical response, change the subject, or respond to another question instead because our intention is to save lives.
We need to be very mindful in bending the precepts and only do so in extreme cases. We should not allow “exceptions” to become the norm. We need to be very careful and look deeply, to see if we are bending the precepts for our convenience and then calling them “white lies” to justify them.
Our motivation for lying often is to conceal another action we did that we do not want someone to know about, and frequently that other action was a negative one. In this case, there are two non-virtues: the original action, such as sexual misconduct, and then the lie that is told to cover it up. Here we have to examine why we did the original action as well as why we want to conceal it.
If we reflect deeply, we will find that very often, we conveniently turn to white lies when confronted with difficult situations. In fact, if we are determined to keep the precepts, wisdom will grow. In other words, we use our resolve to deal with difficult situations without violating the precepts.
In my personal experience, when devotees brought food (dana) to the temple, they are usually fond of asking the monastics “Does it taste good?’’ or “Do you like the dish?” I knew they were not ready for a negative answer and they would feel discouraged or disheartened if I said I did not care much for the dish. Initially I told white lies, so as not to upset them. However, to me a lie was still a lie. I aspired to keep my precepts pure, yet I did not wish to hurt anyone. This required skilful means. As time went by, I began to think of better ways to respond. Instead of answering their questions directly, I chose not to answer. I would acknowledge their virtuous act of offering dana and supporting the monastics, and encourage them to continue with their kindness.
In doing so, I did not lie, and I did not upset anyone. When I got to know the devotees better and when I felt their minds were ready, I would give them positive suggestions on how to improve their dish!
Hence, when confronted with difficult situations, it is our cowardly mind that leads us to tell lies and conveniently use “white lies” as a license to lie. It is only when we are mindful, that we can see our intentions clearly. Our courage, determination and wisdom will grow if we keep the precepts faithfully.