The Role of Ethics in Spiritual Practice

It’s important for us to understand the role of ethics and morality in our spiritual practice. For many cultures religion has been the traditional means of providing mandates for ethical and moral behavior. In our modern culture morality, religion and spirituality have become somewhat conflated; many people tend to equate these terms with one another–but they are not the same thing.

Ethical behavior is an essential part of spiritual practice. The purpose of spiritual practice is to awaken to our true nature. A spiritual practice may transcend any particular religion or belief system; it does not necessarily depend upon any particular religion (or any religion at all) for its foundation.

Our ethical practice is not imposed upon us from an outside source; instead, we see it as a natural consequence of living as an awakened being. In the awakened state we recognize that we are inherently connected with all of life and with every being that exists; ethical behavior is a natural consequence of this realization.

In spiritual practice we live as if we are already awakened—and then we discover everything within us that doesn’t believe this! We see all resistance to practice as a defilement of the mind which is born from ignorance, fear and grasping. In spiritual practice our intention is meet these energies with compassion and with clear nonattached awareness; this will eventually dissolve the defilements.

We practice ethical behavior by creating the intention to follow a particular ethical guideline. We do this for the purpose of spiritual awakening, not for the purpose of being “good” or escaping criticism–either internal or external. Creating the intention of enlightened (ethical) behavior we then become aware of those times when we behave otherwise. We consider each infraction as an opportunity to see parts of self that are lost in fear and ignorance. Our intention then is to respond to these with compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps the most universal ethical guideline– one that is found in virtually every religious tradition– is the so-called Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we find ourself behaving otherwise then we use that opportunity to become acquainted with the lost part of ourself that is driving this behavior, bringing in wisdom and compassion as best we can. Sometimes we may need external help in the form of a teacher, therapist, or support group.

Another universal ethical mandate is to Do No Harm. We see this reflected in the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, as well as in the Buddhist ethical precepts. The Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path includes the Five Precepts of Right Behavior, which is a further delineation of the mandate to Do No Harm. These Precepts specify non-harming by not killing any living being; by not taking what is not given; by refraining from sexual misconduct; by avoiding the misuse of intoxicants, and by practicing Right Speech, which is defined as speech that is true, kind and necessary.

These precepts are subject to some interpretation– as is any teaching. “Am I violating the precepts if I use pesticides in my garden, or eat meat, or take antibiotics? What if I am member of the armed services, or I drive a gas guzzling vehicle?” Practicing the Precepts in our complex modern world reveals many gray areas that are subject to our personal understanding.

But the point is to not get lost in searching for an absolute “right meaning” of an ethical precept but rather to ask “How can I best use this precept to support my spiritual practice?” Rather than getting lost in a debate about legalisms, it is far better to return to the intention of spiritual practice which is to awaken spiritually and to help others awaken.

I find it helpful to use the precepts as I would use the “rumble strips” on the edge of a freeway: to let me know when I am straying from my intended path. If I find myself violating a precept or doing harm in any way then I can take a deep breath and look at that part of self that is suffering from ignorance and fear and bring awareness and compassion into that dark place.

If I discover that I am violating an ethical precept then it is very important that I not respond with guilt or self-criticism; this is not helpful. Rather, I look honestly and compassionately at the energy within my own psyche that is calling for my attention. I then hold that part of myself as a mother would hold a troubled child: with compassion, wisdom and a gentle discipline, as may be needed.