Morality

Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.

Morality can be a scary word for many of us drawn to Buddhist meditation in the U.S.  At least, it always was for me. Morality conjures up conservative politics, shaming self-restraint, and external codes of discipline that I strive to unlearn from my Catholic upbringing. In fact, I was originally drawn to Buddhism precisely because it offered teachings that I could verify through direct experience and without judgment from a supreme deity. But morality is the second of the ten paramis, or perfections, that the Buddha shared with his students.

Darn it!

I thought I’d left that behind along with confessing my sins and giving things up for Lent. Still, since we’re on this path of developing compassion, wisdom, and continuous awareness, let’s give the Buddha’s call for morality a second chance.

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines ‘morality’ as ‘conforming to a standard.’ Whose standard? For many in the U.S., spiritual standards mean Judeo-Christian standards—the Ten Commandments. Native folks and immigrants from the diverse nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America uphold many other cultural standards.

No matter our tradition, it can be helpful to look at our perceptions of standards. The Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments I was taught as a child seemed fixed and permanent. They came from God with a capital ‘G.” We had to follow these commandments because God and the local priest said so. They didn’t allow for calibration and retooling. But other cultural standards, and their perceptions of these standards, do. Take the Native American medicine wheel—a spiritual standard that encourages humans to find balance. In this world view, balance is an ever-changing, ongoing dynamic action. Balance for one person might look a little different than balance for another person, and when life circumstances change, balance shifts to accommodate different conditions.

The Buddha offered a list of spiritual standards, too—the five precepts. They are, in brief:  Do not kill, do not steal, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not lie, and do not take intoxicants. This Buddhist list is pretty familiar, isn’t it? It’s a short-hand version of the Ten Commandments. They also encourage folks to live with balance.

But what perception of the standards will we apply to the Buddha’s five precepts for morality? Will we pick a fixed and rigid stance? Or fluid and changing?

For the longest time, whenever I heard the word ‘morality,’ my heart tightened. That’s because my relationship to morality felt as solid and fixed as the Catholic spiritual standards I had been taught. Turns out, perceptions can be more fluid than I realized. In the past few months of practicing, my perceptions have loosened a bit and ushered in a new relationship to morality.

What was the turning point or life experience that allowed for this shift? There were two.

Last spring, I participated in the Buddhist Studies Class at Common Ground and Mark led us through an investigation of morality. We reviewed the five precepts through a unifying question, “How can we live a life dedicated to non-harming?” This broader question eased up my hardened habits of mind around morality because I want to live a life of non-harming. This affirmation helped me see how the Buddha’s five precepts could lead to a life dedicated to peace and non-violence. Further reflection led me to see that people can apply the five precepts differently. Take the precept on not taking intoxicants. For one person, it may never be OK to drink alcohol, while for another having a beer at a birthday bash might be the absolutely right thing to do. Each person gets to choose their own response to circumstances arising in each ever-changing moment.

The other shift happened this fall when I encountered a difficult personal situation. As the soft full belly of the autumn moon rose into the night sky, it occurred to me that the Buddhist precepts aren’t meant to be only directed outwards—to friends, family, and the world. We can direct the moral practice of not-harming to ourselves, too. I investigated the options in my situation and saw that by not taking care of myself, I would get wounded and I would hurt the other person involved. So I made a difficult choice and ended a meaningful friendship. It wasn’t easy, but in doing so I have discovered that when acting in a non-harming way to ourselves, a beautiful clarity and strength arises. This isn’t a rigid strength. Not at all. Instead, by practicing morality—even to protect ourselves from harm—an easeful centeredness radiates from the heart-mind, or citta. Like the autumn moon, this centeredness casts a soft light on all that comes nearby. This place of non-harming is a safe harbor. That’s a far cry from feeling shame or being bossed around—the place where I had started thinking about morality. Instead, this practice of morality is an ever-changing course of living with peace—at home in the heart and, from there, in the whole wild world.

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2 comments on “Morality
  1. It might be helpful to understand the purpose of morality when defining it. Morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities.

    The problem with morality only arises when authorities take it upon themselves to determine what is healthy and well-being for others. To live and seek health and well-being is a personal path, which we share with others. The art and skill of preventing illness and misery is something each individual learns over a lifetime. The balance you speak of comes from finding balance between our own health and well-being, and those of others we live with.

  2. Nora Murphy says:

    Good point! For sure, finding the balance point of individual morality and the larger group’s morality is an ancient challenge. My son just came home from college after reading Greek classics for the first time and reminded me about some ways they found the balance–gotta follow the rules, at least in the play Antigone. Not dissimilar from the Bhagavad Gita’s call to Krsna to do what he must–go to war. In some ways we’re really lucky in this 21st century American society to get to make any choices at all!