what is morality? and why do we need it?
What is the cause of a troubled mind?
And why does almost everyone in the world find their mind becoming troubled and uneasy, even if their outside circumstances seem perfect and all their life has been easy?
The reason is not what you think.
We are often told in society that the key to happiness lies within us and we are given hundreds of methods of making ourselves happier. (Check any self-help section in a bookshop for a multitude of examples!)
We are not told that this has anything to do with morality, with doing good and avoiding wrong actions.
Yet if you think about it, and if you check your own experience, you will see that there is something obvious that we are not told: what causes us the most anxiety, the most guilt, and the most pain are those times when we act wrongly, or even think wrongly, times when we do harm rather than good. These are the start of a chain of mistakes and complications which are all designed to bring you into depression, anxiety and regret – to name just a few of the many troubles of the mind that may arise out of the seeds of immoral actions.
So why don’t we address the root cause of the problem and correct our actions, rather than bandaging them over with distractions, pills and other comforts which will ultimately be only temporary and not address the source of our pain?
In our practice here, morality is considered a protection that we put for ourselves against having a troubled mind. Our aim is to become concentrated, so that we can develop our wisdom; and with a troubled mind caused by wrong actions that we do, it is impossible to become concentrated enough.
Without morality, all the practice that we do could be like growing a garden in Chernobyl – the plants may be good, the seeds may be good, but the soil in which they grow is infected and toxic. It would be like having a hole in the boat that we want to use to get us across the ocean.
We have five rules, or precepts, that we follow absolutely and form the base of morality.
Importantly, this does not mean that we follow them blindly, with blind faith – we have to choose to follow them because we see the truth and wisdom of them.
The five precepts to which we hold absolutely are as follows (in no particular order): No killing, no stealing, no lying, no taking alcohol or drugs, and no sexual misconduct (actually, in our case, no sex whatsoever.)
Before I begin to explain more about what exactly these rules mean and why we have chosen to follow them, it is important to stress that always in deciding whether an action is right or wrong, the element that counts the most is the intention behind the action, not the physical action itself.
If you offer somebody a gift of a peanut butter cookie, knowing they are allergic to peanut butter, what counts is not the fact that you seem to give the person a gift (which looks like generosity) but your intention to hurt and harm the person (which is the opposite of generous.)
A thought can be wrong too, even if there is no physical action attached to it. Anger and thoughts of taking revenge are always wrong, even if you take no act of revenge against somebody; although it is, of course, even worse to follow through with an act of harm than it is just to think about it.
When we say no killing, we mean that we respect all life, and that we understand that in all beings there is the desire to live, there is fear of death, and we have no right to take the life of another being. There are degrees of seriousness of this, which have all to do with the intention behind the action.
Murder is worse than killing out of carelessness, and killing another human being is worse than swatting a mosquito; but we choose to follow the rule of non-killing for all beings, including even insects; this implies understanding that even in insects feel fear and even insects want to live – and we respect their life equally as we respect our own.
Once we understand why killing is wrong, if we then kill anyway, it is always caused by a wrong action inside: either lack of mindfulness, fear, carelessness, anger, or in the worse cases of deliberate murder, extreme greed and selfishness, and complete lack of compassion. We want to avoid having these destructive states of mind, just as much as we want to avoid the act of killing itself.
Non-killing does not necessarily mean that we go to extremes of caution such as never digging in the ground for fear of bothering a worm, never walking on the road for fear of crushing an ant, or never driving in a car for fear of insects that will smash into our windscreen. In all cases the important thing is to see inside whether or not we have the desire or intention to kill, and if we have no such intention and are taking as much care as is reasonably possible, this is all that we can do.
Stealing means intentionally taking away from somebody else. When we decide not to steal, we decide to never take anything that does not belong to us, and is not given to us. Stealing is both a harmful action and a highly disrespectful one. To steal from somebody else implies a lack of compassion for them and lack of regard for their belongings. It is the opposite of how we want to behave and what we want to have inside us: we want to be full of compassion and kindness, and to look out for the welfare of those around us.
As with killing, there are different degrees of how wrong it can be to steal: to steal out of pure greed, from somebody less well-off than yourself, is worse than stealing a piece of bread out of starvation, or desperation. No matter the cause, it is still a wrong action, which we want to avoid. People who steal cause themselves probable guilt and regret, on along with all the problems that follow when they are caught.
For us, the act of lying is really the act of hiding our wrong actions, or wrong thoughts inside: greed, anger, laziness, carelessness, selfishness, or any number of other things. Often we lie out of fear of the anger of others, and this fear itself is another wrong action that we wish to avoid.
To lie means to speak with a deliberate intention to deceive. Especially, it means to deceive so as to hide a wrong action. Always when we speak we should know whether it is complete truth that we speak, and if we choose to hold something back, to not tell everything completely, we have to know why we do so.
It might not always be wrong to hold back some information: for example, if somebody asks you the pin number for your bank account, it is not wrong to decline to answer, or to find a way not to give them the direct truth. But if somebody asks you what you did yesterday, and yesterday you worked for half an hour and slept for ten hours, it might be wrong to answer “I worked.”
When we lie, we not only protect the wrong that we have done and help ourselves to continue doing wrong, but we create the conditions for more problems and more lies. One lie often leads to another as most liars know.
Lying also shows a tremendous lack of respect for the person to whom you are speaking. When you speak to somebody with respect, you will speak to them honestly, and by pledging to be honest, we want to cultivate this respect in ourselves.
No Alcohol or Drugs
There are two main reasons that we do have chosen not to take any alcohol, any drug, or any intoxicating substance.
One is that we want as much of the time as possible to act with awareness and wisdom; not mindlessly and not automatically. When we are intoxicated or drunk, even a little bit, we cannot be aware, and it is rare that we are wise.
Another is that we know when we are intoxicated or drunk, we are more careless and more easily disturbed emotionally. We are more likely to have strong emotions take over and act for us, especially toxic emotions such as fear and anger, and do things that we know are wrong and that we would never do if we had not been intoxicated. By taking alcohol and drugs we are therefore creating conditions or ourselves to have a troubled mind; conditions in which we are more likely to do actions that will cause us regret, shame or guilt later on.
It is a matter of choosing a path; we want to keep to our path and avoid the things that will take us away from it.
No Sexual Misconduct
What is sexual misconduct? At a basic level, misconduct means any sexual act that is considered deviant in society. If two people are in a couple, they should stay faithful to one another. If they are not, they create an enormous train of problems for themselves in the future. They risk losing everything: their security, their family, the respect of their children, and their peace of mind.
Even two unengaged people who have sex without being in a couple, will have their minds troubled long afterwards. It is too big a subject to enter into and leave your mind light afterwards.
For us, our group, we go one step further: as we want to completely avoid all agitation and trouble in the mind, to be able to become completely concentrated, we have decided not to enter into the subject of sex whatsoever. Even to let the mind roll in the subject creates too much disturbance and too many problems for us, and we are lighter and easier without it.
Therefore, we have decided to remain celibate, and anyone who comes to stay with us is asked to do the same. This is simply the path we have chosen to follow, to make our practice go easier and faster. We are trying to run a long Marathon, and we don’t want to be handicapped in any way! It does not mean that sex by itself is wrong. It is just that for us it does not fit into our aims and how we want to achieve them.