Introduction - Honest Living


Morality, in our present days, is a delicate subject. Possibly at no other time in history has there been so much uncertainty worldwide as to what the concept of morality means. Why, many people might ask, should one struggle to live honestly? On whose authority does the state or our religion tell us what to do? In this scientific age, with the erosion of religious and social values, many people are left wondering whether an acceptable basis for a moral code even exists. Faced with so much contradiction and uncertainty, they prefer to live their lives just as it pleases them, or for immediate short-term goals.

If we choose to follow the way of the saints, it means that we want to use our life to realize our divine potential and that we have said to ourselves that there is more to life than short-term goals. The gift of initiation provides us with a practical method to realize our objective, and to support our spiritual practice we make a commitment to live by specific values. These, we must remember, are not values imposed on us from any outside authority; we make the commitment to ourselves, within ourselves, to help us on our way.

By examining our values rationally, we can refresh and deepen our understanding of them. No code of conduct can give one all the answers, but if one understands the principles that underpin it, it becomes easier to find the answers within oneself. It is the purpose of this small book, therefore, to try to understand the principles that support moral living and their far-reaching implications for daily life.

Before the invention of steamships, the success of a voyage was dependent on several factors: understanding the sea; understanding the tides, currents and winds so as to use them to one’s advantage; and maintaining the seaworthiness of the ship. Even if one owned the finest sailing vessel in the world and knew everything about one’s ship, without knowledge of the sea and the forces moving and driving the vessel, one’s journey might prove disastrous. In a similar way we are setting out on a journey of self-realization. To complete it successfully we need to understand life and the forces that drive us. Only then, and keeping in view our objective, can we formulate our code of conduct – can we understand how to keep ourselves seaworthy.

Our understanding is based upon a spiritual and moral perspective that is common to all scriptures and wisdom writings of the world. This perspective is not the property of any religion. It belongs to everyone. It arises from the pool of our common humanity and flowers naturally when a person reunites him or herself with our common spiritual source. The people who embody it most clearly are the mystics – saints and God-realized souls – of all religions.

To demonstrate the universality of this understanding, we have included quotations from as wide a variety of sources as possible, but it is on the mystics’ knowledge of life that we primarily rest our case.

The spiritual perspective

In essence, the entire mystic perspective may be expressed in three simple points: There is only one supreme power which is the foundation and support of everything. We have all come from this power – we are all drops from the same one divine ocean. And each one of us is accountable for everything we do.

However it is described in different cultures, all mystics agree that the fundamental reality of life is spirit. Our essence is spirit – not the physical or mental. Soul or spirit is the real nature of what we think of as ‘me’. Mystics highlight our common confusion by pointing out that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, not (as we more frequently think of ourselves) human beings looking for a spiritual experience. Anyone who gets in touch with his or her spiritual essence, the life-giving Word or Shabd within them, will be naturally led by it to its source, beyond the limitations of time and space.

This, then, is the object of our journey. But we are handicapped because we experience life through our senses and usually fail to recognize what we are. Just as a child has difficulty accepting that the atmosphere is vibrant with radio waves, so our spiritual immaturity hides from us our divine potential. Saints tell us that as long as we remain busy with the world around us, we will continue to be limited – seduced and fooled into thinking that only the physical world is real. We start to think we can know everything with the intellect. Like Job in the Bible,1 we presume we are in control when we are simply understanding words and concepts. It was to shake this viewpoint that God addressed Job from “out of the whirlwind”, demanding that he reflect upon his arrogance:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ... Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.
Book of Job2

The great physicist, Albert Einstein, spoke of the way in which our “understanding” is distorted:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences his thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Albert Einstein3

To “free ourselves” we need to “widen our circle of compassion”, to recognize that we are spiritual beings – drops of that one ocean that is God. For this the saints give us specific guidance. They teach us a technique that ultimately will enable us to embrace not just “nature”, but the creation and the Creator. We are guided how to withdraw our attention from the world and concentrate it so that ultimately we can detach ourselves from the distortions of body and mind. But the saints also tell us that it is not simple: there is a catch, and that is the law of karma or cause and effect. This law is the force that runs the creation. Because of it, we can never know pure spirit apart from matter – or separate our soul from the world – until we have settled our life’s account.

What is this account? It is the record of everything we have ever thought or done since our soul left its source and became encased in a mind and body. This record binds us to the creation, because we have to remain in the creation moving from life to life to account for all we have done. Freedom lies in settling this account from the past and in not incurring new debts. Once we understand that what we do now binds us in the future, then we have a practical basis for a moral code that will guide us as to what we should, and should not, do to become free.

Applying our understanding of the law of cause and effect to our daily lives, living consciously so that we are always aware of the consequences of what we do, is therefore our way of making ourselves seaworthy for our voyage to God.

The law of cause and effect: the imperative for moral living

The inescapable principle of compensation, or karma, is recognized by all the great religions and wisdom literature throughout the world. Though the scope of the law is vast, its application is very simple: Whatever we give, we have to take; whatever we take, we have to give.

Judge not, and ye shall not be judged:
Condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned:
Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.
Give, and it shall be given unto you. ...
For with the same measure that you mete
Withal it shall be measured to you again.
Gospel of Luke4

Since nothing in the creation exists without some degree of action, so all life is eternally caught in the web of its ever-adjusting account. Across the vast span of creation, the law maintains a perfect record of giving and taking. No account is ever settled. However far the pendulum swings in one direction, it swings to the same degree in the other. In this way we are all captive – limited to the realms of mind and matter. And as long as we are victims of this duality, we cannot know the perfection and bliss of spiritual unity. As stated in the Jewish teachings:

Everything is a loan given against a pledge, and the net is cast over all living so that none may forfeit paying by escaping. The shop is open; the shopkeeper extends credit; the ledger is spread out and the hand makes entries. Whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow, but the collectors make their rounds daily, and exact payment whether or not one is aware of it. They go by an unfailing record, and the judgement is a judgement of truth.
Ethics of the Fathers5

Fundamentally, it is this one law that drives the creation. Through the principle of opposites, actions and reactions, this universal law generates the force that produces the multitude of natural laws governing the visible physical universe – the laws of physics, genetics, environmental balance and much more – by which modern science explains life. It also governs all activity at the more subtle levels of mind which cannot be known or quantified by the intellect. The simple principle of cause and effect creates all diversity. It marks the formidable dividing line between the oneness of spirit and the complexity of mind and matter.

The law of compensation, of giving and taking, is inescapable. Unlike our secular laws, we cannot bypass it or manipulate it. If we choose to ignore it, saying “This is not how life works. There is no justice, no need to think of right and wrong” – still the forces of action and reaction will drive us. If on the other hand we become sensitive to their workings, then we can work with this principle so that it takes us where we want to go.