In the previous post in this series we finished exploring the Collective Context of your life and how society hijacks the spiritual path and leads you astray. From this point on, we’ll get into some actual practices and work our way through the areas listed in the Overview post. And we start with an important area that underpins the whole practice: Ethics.
If you want to follow a spiritual path you need a strong ethical foundation for what you’re doing because your actions have consequences. Ethics are moral principles that govern your behaviour and choices. It can also refer to a specific area of philosophy, usually divided into three: Aristotelian, Kantian, and utilitarian, which I won’t get into, but you can read the basics here.
Morals cover the principles of right and wrong behaviour and how we can live together in society. They’re often codified into a set of rules or customs that cover your responsibility to others. Most religions and spiritual disciplines have some sort of ethical guidelines that you’re expected to uphold. So this part of the practice includes things like:
- Precepts or Codes of Conduct
- Vows and Oaths
- Ethics and Moral Inquiry
- Will and Intention
- Cultivating Virtue
Practising ethics and living a moral life is a foundational part of the spiritual path. But this shouldn’t be about forcing yourself to live up to impossible standards or scaring yourself into ‘being good’ through fear of everlasting hellfire. It’s not even about generating good karma.
When you approach spiritual practice by following a set a rules imposed from the outside you’re just training the ego to be good. These rules are often a minefield of ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘thou must nots’, and they don’t work.
If you’re being good because you think you’ll be rewarded, then you’re not really being good; you’re trying to manipulate God to get a result. This kind of goodness is fake. It’s pure selfishness – being good because you want to be seen as good, not because you are good. All you’re doing is making your cage (ego) a little more comfortable, instead of breaking out of the cage into freedom.
This isn’t the best way to approach spiritual or religious practice. To understand why, you need to answer the question: Why be good?
From a certain perspective, it looks like being bad is more rewarding. Our culture tends to reinforce self-serving and egotistical behaviour, and being unethical certainly pays well. But in the long-run, living your life at the dictates of the lower self doesn’t make you happy, as any Buddhist will tell you. In Free to be Human, David Edwards explains:
“The question ‘Why be a virtuous person if I can get what I want by being a sinful person?’ is absurd to Buddhism, because being virtuous is precisely about finding out what is truly best. It is like asking ‘Why be a sane, alive, happy person when I can get what I want by being a deluded, deadened, suffering person?’ It is a logical absurdity.”
In other words, being unethical doesn’t solve the ultimate problems of human nature, it just brushes them under the carpet or pretends they’re not real. To solve the problem of suffering, you have to turn inwards because this is where true ethical behaviour comes from.
It’s interesting that the original meaning of the word sin was ‘missing the mark’ – the mark being your true nature. If you believe you’re here to wake up and fully incarnate your divine being, then missing the mark means falling short of achieving that – i.e. not being enlightened. So the point of spiritual practice is to align with your true nature as divine, or as Buddha nature, and act from there.
In Buddhism, there are five Precepts that form a basic code of ethics that are designed to help you achieve freedom from suffering. They’re aimed at the lay practitioner – the monks get something more hardcore – and are meant to act as guidelines rather than strict rules. There’s no need to be too dogmatic in your approach or beat yourself up every time you fail – you just do your best. The five precepts are:
- To refrain from killing and harming living beings
- To refrain from stealing and taking what isn’t yours
- To refrain from causing harm through sexual misconduct
- To refrain from false and harmful speech, gossip, and slander
- To refrain from the misuse of intoxicants that cloud the mind
The idea is that an enlightened person – or Buddha – would live in accordance with these precepts without giving it a second thought. It would simply be natural for them to live this way.
By practising the precepts, you’re acting as if you’re a Buddha. It doesn’t matter how many times you mess up or lose the way, you can change how you act from this point on. Every moment is a fresh opportunity to remember who you are and to be awake. More on the Precepts here.
Buddhism also includes various vows you can take that help to focus your practice and keep you on the path. For example, the bodhisattva vow is about making a commitment to awaken for the benefit of all sentient beings. This means honouring life and living with compassion and wisdom, as far as you’re able.
You can also take the refuge vow which is about committing to your awakening by taking refuge in the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Taking refuge means having faith and recognising Buddha nature as a guide to how you should live. This is done by studying the Dharma, or teachings, and sharing your journey with the Sangha, or spiritual community. More on the Three Jewels here.
Another useful practice is the Four Immeasurables. These are virtues that are cultivated through meditation and are used to dedicate your practice to the enlightenment of all beings. The Four Immeasurables are loving-kindness (or metta), compassion, joy, and equanimity. Dedicating your practice like this puts it into a deeper context and helps you remember why you’re practising. Here’s the simple version:
- May all beings have happiness
- May all beings be free from suffering
- May all beings find joy that is free from suffering
- May all beings be free from attachment and hatred
The Four Immeasurables are similar to the metta bhavana prayer which is practiced to cultivate benevolence towards yourself and others. Here’s the essence of it:
- May I be happy and free from suffering
- May my loved ones be happy and free from suffering
- May those around me be happy and free from suffering
- May my enemies be happy and free from suffering
- May all beings be happy and free from suffering
More on the Four Immeasurables and the metta prayer here.
Cultivating virtue and undertaking spiritual practice to align with your true nature sounds like a sensible thing to do. It should be straightforward and obvious and create predictable results. But it’s not that simple. No matter how dedicated your practice, there’s often a backlash from the unconscious and being good can easily turn into its opposite. In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (pdf), Alan Watts explains the problem:
“It is not for man to be either an angel or a devil, and the would-be angels should realise that, as their ambition succeeds, they evoke hordes of devils to keep the balance.”
This happens because good and evil are interdependent so you can’t get rid one side of the equation or pretend it’s not a problem. When you transcend the ego, you automatically trigger a reaction from the shadow because they’re connected. If you try to be good and exclude the bad (or vice versa) you’ll just keep flipping back and forth between them.
There’s no way around this as long as you live in the world of duality, so you have to honour both sides. That doesn’t mean you have to act out all the bad and evil stuff lurking in your unconscious. It means you need to be aware of its consequences and honour it.
Alan Watts goes on to explain that the problem comes from taking yourself too seriously and not recognising the true nature of reality. You can overcome this by taking a playful approach to spiritual practice and remembering that:
“no species, or party to a game, can survive without its natural antagonists, its beloved enemies, its indispensable opponents. For to ‘love your enemies’ is to love them as enemies; it is not necessarily a clever device for winning them over to your own side.”
And this game only works as “long as the angel is winning, but does not win, and the devil is losing, but is never lost.”
In other words, be very careful if you want to create heaven on earth because you’ll end up creating hell. This is why all revolutions fail and all utopias become dystopias in the end. And why saints are closer to hell than sinners.
None of this means you shouldn’t try to wake up or follow the spiritual path. The consequences of not aligning with the truth of who you really are will make you miserable, and they’re not much fun for anybody else either. As Doshin Roshi says, there are fates worse than death, and that in the end:
“You’ve got no choice but to become the Buddha that you already are – no matter what.”
Just remember that everybody else is Buddha too. You’re nothing special – so get over yourself! – and keep practising.
Next time we’ll explore practices for the Body…