In the modern Western spiritual scene “ethics” and “nonduality” seem like strange bedfellows. Since nondual spiritual practice, which is sometimes conceived as nonpractice (and therefore certanly not as containing ethical practices and commitments) is about transcending the efforts and evaluations of the illusory separate self, it is frequently thought that attempting to improve the illusion of the self, to care for other illusions, or to train or consciously transform the illusion of oneself, is, well, illusion begetting illusion.
There is some truth to this perspective. Our ethical commitments are frequently much more grounded in our “self-project” than we realize. To put it differently, our ethical concerns, whether for our own behaviour or directed outwards to saving or serving the world, are often woven so tight with our concern to justify, maintain, and improve our self-image that in practice we cannot tell the difference. It is often wise to loosen the reigns on our ethical or salvific merry-go-round rides while we begin to look inward at how we are constructing who we are and to question our reality. Epictetus, the great Roman stoic, advised his students: “Until you know what to desire, it is better to desire as little as possible.”
That said, there is a problem here. Attitudes, habits, and actions which have been traditionally considered “vicious” (vices), or as immoral/unethical are considered so for good reasons: they cause long term harm and suffering, the very things that the spiritual path sets out to overcome. As Francis Lucille, a contemporary teacher of the “direct path” (vicara marga) and student of Jean Klein, says, the whole purpose of the path of Advaita is happiness.
The Buddha taught his students to cultivate “sila” (restraint) not for the grandiose purpose of saving the world or the endless struggle of becoming better people but for the purpose of “freedom from remorse” which leads to “joy” and from there to the ability to meditate and contemplate reality free from obstruction (Anguttara Nikaya 10.1). The actions he advised his students to refrain from include killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated from alcohol or drugs. These actions are ill advised because, as he put it, they lead to the “long term harm and suffering of both oneself and others” and to therefore to remorse, sadness, and darkening of the mind (Anguttara Nikaya 4.99 and elsewhere). The Buddha also classed certain internal states as harmful: greed, anger, and confused thinking.
The point I am getting at is that as nondualists failing to care for our mind and bodies, and/or failing to care for the ethical quality of our mental states and actions will lead, as a natural law (dharma) to complications, remorse, and suffering in a way which will obstruct our path to awakening to what we are. The qualities advocated by Shankara as prerequisites for awakening (though few sages regard them as literally prerequisites and I am unaware of any recent sage who has advocated for them being necessary) are all impossible to attain even a semblance of without ethical behaviour. Although some will balk at the idea that practices should be undertaken to make it easier to awaken, out of fear that a gradualist deferral of the ability to awaken is being advocated, that is not so. There is a difference between a precondition and a favourable condition. Jean Klein frequently affirmed that physical yoga practices (done in the right way) prepared the body in a way which made awakening easier and also advocated for eating in a mindful, sattvic way for the same reason. It seems obvious to me that cultivating sattvic behaviour and mental states is useful for the similar reasons, though these must not be fetishized.
To my way of thinking there are two possible reasons to pursue ethical behaviour and internal virtue on the nondual way. These are 1) simply out of natural love and concern for the beautiful and the true; ie. because it makes us happy to do so; and 2) to develop a sattvic condition of body and mind which makes awakening easier. Though this sattvic condition is not a precondition it is a favourable condition, and if awakening is our hearts desire, than aside from our natural desire to care for ourselves and others, why wouldn’t we cultivate favourable conditions?
Recently I came across a wonderful discussion of ethical decision making from the previously mentioned modern Advaitin sage Francis Lucille. In a recent satsang (April 2015) Francis was asked how to make decisions about whether and in what way to help other people. Francis’ answer, although it addresses that question, seems to me to offer a broader approach to ethical decision making which is very useful and is uniquely grounded in the internal logic and goal of nondual practice.
What Does a Nondual Ethic Look Like?: Francis Lucille
Francis: “I think the decision we make in any situation can not be predefined. It always has to be made in context, and the context is never twice the same. In any given context the first question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do I really have to make a decision?’ Then, if the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then ‘what is the appropriate decision?’, meaning, ‘what is the impersonal decision in this context?’ The impersonal decision is one in which I am not identifying with any party in the situation, in which my endeavour is to make the decision which is in line with truth, love, and beauty. So that’s how we can come to the good within these situations.
The first thing is to ask oneself, ‘do I really have to get involved?’ My teacher (Jean Klein) told a story that once he was travelling in Italy and there was this man and woman vehemently arguing, screaming at each other, and then starting to hit each other. He went there and tried to separate them and then they both started to hit him! He said, ‘I took my lesson’. I don’t have to get involved in situations! It is your ego that you feel so important that you have to be there and to play God. So the first question is: does the situation really require my intervention? My teacher used to say also we shouldn’t completely deprive people of their suffering because the suffering is somehow the ‘homing device’, that which puts us on the path to truth. We should rather give them the means, the knowledge, to save themselves, rather than to save them. Of course if someone is drowning it is very clear, if there is an accident on the freeway it is very clear, you call emergency services. There’s all kinds of situations where what to do is extremely clear. But there are other situations where it is difficult and we have to remember that sometimes we are not going to be certain that we have made the right decision. All we can do is to try to do our best given our knowledge of the situation and our impression that some action is required, and in innocence we try to do our best.”
“Two different human beings in the same circumstance may have chosen two opposite decisions coming from the same place of innocence and truth because they have different means to look at the situation and therefore two different decisions in a given situation can be equally impersonal, and the converse is also true. In a given situation with a similar decision from two different persons one may be impersonal and the other come from ignorance: the magic is that the consequences of the impersonal decision will be harmonious and the consequences of the ignorant decision will be disharmonious because the universe in its wisdom knows and will reshape itself accordingly. That is the beauty, and it is very important to understand that. For instance, since it was mentioned with regards to politics, you can have two different attitudes in a given situation that are taken by two different human beings but each of them coming from a pure heart but with different experience and different knowledge of the world, of the events, etc. They may take two different, even opposed decisions with good heart and good intelligence but they will both be impersonal, and conversely the same is true.”
“The universe will respond to intent. It corresponds to the Christian saying, ‘It is the intention that makes the actions holy, that sanctifies the action.’ So the intention of a pure heart in fact makes the action holy. In other words, an action cannot be judged by itself but rather by the intention it comes from.”
This answer contains quite a lot. Francis here first of all cautions against dogmatism and “precepts”, or predefined ethical rules. He then warns against being quick to intervene in other people’s problems or attempting to play God. This could be called humility, but of course it also resonates with the Advaitin teachings on de-emphasizing doer-ship and decreasing attempts at control and self-assertion. He then says that when a moral decision is needed, one should attempt to take as impersonal a perspective as possible and choose the action that reflects the values of truth, love and beauty. Elsewhere he calls this “the just position”. It is a thought exercise where one tries to view the situation from everyone’s perspective and make the most just, most true, most loving, most beautiful resolution for everyone involved. He warns that certainty cannot here be attained and we must make our best decision “in innocence”. Francis also warns against judging other people’s decisions, and emphasizes that what matters in making moral decisions is not technical perfection but intention. The intention, here, simply put, is to benefit everyone involved, not merely oneself. So here we have, in effect, an impersonal ethic to meet an impersonal spirituality.
Upon reflection it seems clear that the ethics Francis elucidates here attempt to approximate enlightened action, or the way a liberated person would act. The liberated person does not act out of self-interest or attempt to control external situations or play God, and also is wise enough to be nondogmatic about right action and hesitant to judge the decisions of others from the outside. Francis’ ethic is designed to bring us closer to the position of the awakened mind while navigating the circumstances of the world. This position is both a modelling of the Self (atman) in the world and an approach to action which will bring us “closer” to the Self in terms of resonance with it and openness to it and therefore be favourable to to our awakening.