A Spiritual Ethic
By John Beasley
In exploring modern spirituality, which has largely cast off the religious appurtenances with which it has long been associated, it can be extremely difficult for someone with a religious background to understand the ethical and moral stance that emerges with spiritual maturity. In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert M Pirsig describes how his alter ego Phaedrus spends a long time in India at the Benares Hindu University struggling to understand “the illusory nature of the world” as taught in the philosophy department there.
Finally “Phaedrus raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes.” Phaedrus “left the classroom, left India, and gave up.” The ethical gap between conventional religion and spirituality is, I think, as vast as the gap uncovered in this little anecdote.
If I was to offer a form of words to encapsulate the ethical stance of modern spirituality it would be something like ‘an acceptance of what is’. Because it is possible for anyone to create a mental picture of ‘acceptance of what is’, we assume its meaning is therefore known. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Zen understanding of ‘a finger pointing to the moon’, the irony is that the observer seizes on the finger, while totally ignoring the moon. To really know ‘what is’ is to endure a long and painful unravelling of our fantasies of ‘what is’. Only the experience of losing our fantasies and in the process encountering reality can flesh out the meaning. So in this article it is important to recognise that words can only ever be ‘fingers’ pointing to the ‘moon’ of experiential knowledge. The problem is not that nothing can be said about the fruits of experience – the problem is that words can never convey the taste of a fruit to someone who has not actually tasted that fruit for themselves.
Nonetheless, some things can be said. In Christianity, as in Western forms of religion more generally, human beings are said to have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In this parable, man assumes a power previously reserved to God, the power to judge what is good, and to separate it from what is evil. Ironically, man is punished for this knowledge by being cast out of the garden into a harsh world. There is a sense in which modern spirituality is a return to the garden, but not as a retreat from the world into a protected Eden. No, the transformation is more fundamental. The liberated man (or woman) can no longer play the role once reserved for God, assuming that he knows what is good and what is evil. He is no longer the judge. He recognises that he never really does know what would be a good outcome in any given situation. If he really doesn’t know what would be a good outcome, then it follows that he acts without prejudice. He does not hope for one outcome over another. He is, in a profound sense, impartial.
Western morality is predicated on an assumption that human needs are mostly interpersonal in nature. Undeniably we need air, water and food if we are to continue to live, but the issues that dominate our moral battles have to do with the legitimacy of the expectations we make on others and that they make on us. It takes a profound shift, and experience of essential states not usually noticed in everyday life, to begin to see that for the most part this is simply wrong. The needs whose satisfaction demands input from others are mostly fantasies, at best the residue of our experiences of infancy, where we really were dependant on others for our very survival. As adults we carry within ourselves the qualities we so desperately seek outside us; that we seek from others. When this is profoundly understood, the usual pursuits of society; power, wealth, pleasure and status, are seen as irrelevant to our fulfilment.
This is amusingly illustrated in the attempt to interrogate Eckhart Tolle, author of the best-selling book “The Power of Now”, about his wealth while on a recent visit to Australia. Tolle’s success had not been harmed by his friendship, and a later business partnership, with the American talk show icon Oprah Winfrey. The reporter who interviewed Tolle demanded to know how much he was worth.
Tolle gave a little chuckle and said that he understood it was about three million dollars. The reporter pressed on. How, he demanded, did Tolle justify the prices being charged for attendance at his workshops in Australia. Tolle explained that he left that to others, but he assumed there were costs to be met. At this point it is expected that the recipient of wealth will rush to justify his good fortune, or explain what good deeds he plans with the wealth he has accumulated. Not so Tolle.
Pressed, he thought it possible that some of this money would eventually be used to set up a foundation, but he clearly was not greatly interested in this.
The air of somewhat injured outrage that this interview created in some people is fascinating. There is an assumption that someone who claims to care about others will want to distribute his wealth in humanitarian good works. This fits comfortably with the Christian ethic as it has developed in a Capitalist society, but is almost irrelevant to the spiritual seeker.
If liberation consists of finding within ourselves what we have long assumed will come from others, giving others money is almost counterproductive in terms of their true welfare. This is not to deny the exercise of generosity in situations where the need of others is clear and present. To a person who is able to transcend the usual boundaries between self and other, it makes no more sense to withhold help to another than it would to harm one part of my body in supposedly promoting the welfare of another part. That said, giving alms is rarely likely to help the recipient in accessing what is of most value for them.
This point can be teased out a little in exploring the attitude of a spiritual teacher such as A H Almaas to the virtue of compassion. Compassion is generally assumed to be “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it”, or so my dictionary states. But the Buddha drew a distinction between pain and suffering that still holds. Pain is something that occurs, but suffering is something that we create for ourselves. A spiritual teacher who truly cares for others will want those others to learn how to stop doing those things which ultimately create their suffering. This learning may be difficult, even painful. So the spiritual teacher will recognise that some pain, at least, may be to the long term benefit of the student. In this context, compassion may be to inflict no more pain on others than they are able to bear at that time in the service of truth.
And this brings us at last to the fundamental moral issue underlying spirituality – the quest for truth. In a Western world much influenced by a range of views generally identified as ‘postmodern’, the quest for truth is viewed as rather naïve, or perhaps simply unattainable.
Truth is contextual, we are told, and if my truth appears to differ from your truth, who can say which might be right? Indeed, it is considered very bad form to be too critical of others beliefs, no matter how outrageous. In this ultimately nihilistic mix of attitudes and opinions, the very idea of truth, let alone hardwon inner truth, is inclined to be viewed with condescension or contempt. In this respect, at least, the inner spiritual journey is very much out of sync with the spirit of the age.
Yet spiritual schools have always viewed the spiritual quest as something for those who have outgrown the prevailing wisdom of society. Sometimes early success in life might induce disillusionment sufficient to bring a young person to a school or teacher, but generally it was assumed that only those who had suffered a long while would want to make the effort to seek transformation. Also, it is of the nature of the egoic self, the construction of which enables the person to cope with the travails of life, that it is most effective in young adulthood. At this stage of life the self appears able to deliver what it promises. Even as it becomes clearer, as the years pass, that the promised success is proving rather elusive, often the assumption is that just a bit more effort will eventually bring the anticipated rewards. Disillusionment deep enough to force a radical reappraisal of one’s life is rare in youth and by no means common in later life.
Astute observers have commented that modern spirituality is closer to science than to religion. The quest for inner truth is not so different to other forms of quest for knowledge. It involves education, but an education that remains conceptual will not be enough – it must also be based on experience. Ultimately it is intensely personal, but initially the assistance of a teacher is necessary. To find one’s way through the difficult terrain of inner exploration on one’s own would be like studying advanced mathematics without textbooks, and reinventing the calculus for yourself. It is not impossible, but it is rather unlikely. And while there are commonalities in spiritual paths these should not be exaggerated. The different logos of spiritual schools do not necessarily lead to the same outcomes. Choice of a teacher matters.
There is much more that could be said about the moral stance of spirituality, but I will close with one further comment. It is possible to identify some meta values, values which underlie the processes that might lead to spiritual growth. In particular, I would point to the value of curiosity, or even wonder, in spiritual development. Christ’s words about becoming like little children may well reflect this valuing of interest in ‘what is’ for its own sake. Indeed, one of the central paradoxes of spiritual development is that while the truth will indeed set you free, desire for freedom will inevitably keep you from the truth and the resultant freedom. Curiosity indicates an interest in the truth of ‘what is’ that is not based on desire. It is open and fluid and present in the moment. It is not instrumental – designed to get you somewhere.
Where religion attempts to make us more loving, faithful or just, spirituality is at base unconcerned with these outcomes. It seeks to bring us to an awareness of ‘what is’ that may well transform our relationships, but not through guilt or promise of eternal reward. In becoming mature human beings, we may have to endure much, feel the pain we have repressed, give up on all the ambitions we have harboured. Only thus can we enter the eternal now where life is lived more abundantly, and love is its outflow, and not a duty.