All wisdom traditions have moral precepts that act as guides for proper conduct. They can be found in the ten commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Buddha’s instructions for practitioners and the precepts for Taoist meditation. Moral precepts are universal. Many are quite specific, such as prohibitions against killing, stealing and lying. Others are more general. For instance, nearly every tradition has a variation of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The behaviors encouraged by spiritual practices and religious institutions are not limited to sacred territory. They also exist in general society in the form of legislation. Every group of individuals, regardless of size, attempts to codify acceptable conduct. The larger the group, the more formal are the rules. Legislating behavior, to some extent, is necessary for the good of the whole. Society cannot function without rules of appropriate behavior.
Many regulations, such as laws against killing and stealing, are generally accepted. However, even reasonable restrictions involve complicated issues. Although it is commonly agreed that we should have laws against killing, consider the controversies surrounding abortion, capital punishment and assisted suicide. No one would argue that taking a friend’s car keys away when he’s had too much to drink is not a prudent action, but it violates laws against stealing nonetheless.
In many areas, the the consensus concerning appropriate behavior is tenuous. There is strenuous debate concerning obscenity and pornography. What one person considers to be obscene, another may consider to be artistic. Similar divisions exist over the use of intoxicants and sexual behavior. A casual study of the failure of Prohibition in the United States between 1920 and 1933, would seemingly foreshadow the futility of laws against drugs and prostitution, yet many would argue that these laws should exist, regardless of whether they can be effectively enforced, because the behaviors that they restrict are inherently injurious to society.
Even within spiritual traditions, precepts are open to interpretation. The ten commandments instruct us not to kill, not to steal, and not to lie. The Buddhist precepts tell us the to the same things. However, the degree to which these precepts are observed is left to the individual. For some, not killing applies to other human beings; for others, it is a prohibition against harming any sentient being. For some, precepts restrict us from lying; for others, improper speech also includes gossip or any words that are meant to harm. It is a much more difficult morality that, on occasion, forces us to choose between telling the truth and not saying anything that causes harm. In these instances, morality is a choice. Morality is personal.
Even within the wisdom traditions, are those precepts that are more nebulous and left to the interpretation of the individual. The Buddhist precept against improper sexual activity, for instance, is deliberately vague because sexual mores vary between cultures and societies. What is perfectly acceptable practice in one group may be considered an abomination in a different group. Beyond the group level, however, what is proper and what is improper varies according to the individual. While there is an important social component to Buddhism, as there is for any spiritual or religious tradition, Buddhism is a practice that focuses inward, and moral precepts that conflict with personal beliefs or the practical needs of society, are detrimental because they create an internal conflict.
The Judeo-Christian prohibitions against killing, stealing and lying are seemingly clear enough. But other commandments caution us against coveting our neighbor’s goods or our neighbor’s wife. Clearly, doing so does not harm society – or our neighbor’s wife or goods, for that matter – but it can be argued that these prohibitions exist because coveting plants the seed for possible action. Moreover, violations of these commandments are considered a sin. But who do we sin against? We sin against ourselves. Coveting is desire, and desire is detrimental to spiritual practice and progress.
Yes, morality is deeply personal, but in a way that is different from our customary viewpoint. More than personal, morality is internal. Spiritual traditions espouse moral precepts for a very different reason than society imposes laws. Internally, morality is cleansing; it purges our minds of incongruities between the way we live our lives and the way we think we should live our lives. This is evident in the precepts themselves.
The moral precepts of spiritual traditions are designed to benefit us, not others. The protection of individuals is the domain of society and its statutes. Spirituality is the domain of wisdom traditions and their moral precepts. We refrain from killing, stealing and lying because it creates a deep conflict within us between our actions and our spiritual goals. We refrain from improper sexual activity, and from coveting, because desire and attachment impede our spiritual progress. We avoid using intoxicants because it clouds our thinking and leads us to take actions that otherwise violate our personal moral code.
The Taoist meditation precepts are few: simplify our lives, eradicate desire and quiet the mind. These can be looked upon as individual precepts which, when examined, are quite comprehensive despite their brevity, or they can be viewed as a progression. By simplifying our lives, we lessen our desires and attachments, which leads to a quiet mind. A quiet mind is necessary to make spiritual progress. A quiet mind is also necessary to attain any real progress in mundane affairs as well.
The real purpose of moral precepts is to reduce internal conflict and to give us peace of mind — to give us fewer things to worry about, or to “stress over.” The real purpose of morality is to cleanse our minds by lessening any anxiety we may experience as a result of actions or thoughts that are incompatible with our understanding of right and wrong.
But we cannot completely purify our minds if we engage in disagreements over the moral precepts followed by others, or if we argue that our personal moral code is superior to that of another. Laws prohibiting actions that harm society or its members are necessary, but actions and thoughts that are fundamentally indefinable must be left to the individual. We can be true to our own values while recognizing that others have the same legitimate personal authority to establish different values. To divide ourselves over ambiguous standards creates a conflict within us that inevitably translates into society. Any notion of moral superiority is immoral.