Sacred geometry

Sila and Soul (Part 1)

The talks in this series were recorded by Rob at his home. As well as addressing and inquiring into common Dharma themes such as emptiness, ethics, Awakening, and tradition, they attempt to clarify or explore further various aspects and implications of some of the Soulmaking Dharma teachings and practices, including their bearing on some of those common Dharma themes. PLEASE NOTE: Although not all of it, much of the material presented here will only be properly comprehended when there is already some basis of preparatory experience and understanding of Soulmaking Dharma, in addition to a good working familiarity with Insight Meditation.
Date9th June 2019
Retreat/SeriesFour Circles, Four Parables of Stone ...


I would like to speak about ethics (a loose translation of the Pali sīla), ethics and morality. And perhaps the first thing to say is that I think it's an endless subject. So this talk certainly will end, I hope, and I'm sure you hope, but in itself I don't think humanity will ever get to the end of its exploration, consideration, inquiry into ethics and that whole subject. It will never be finished for us, complete, all figured out. And in that way it's a subject like, for example, emotions, human emotion, which I've said before I also don't think humanity will ever reach a complete, a final understanding of the human heart, of emotions, or a subject like healing, or psychology in general, or certain philosophical subjects like ontology.

So these unfathomably deep and rich domains of our concern open themselves up endlessly. They're endlessly fecund for exploration, endlessly complex, endlessly open to different and competing perspectives and interpretations, views and opinions, theories, frameworks, etc. So there are all kinds of problems involved, all kinds of difficulties and challenges, but at least the way I relate to those kinds of subjects and that endlessness which they seem to open out to or contain within themselves, so to speak, is that rather than walking away from the complexity, the problematic, the endlessness of it, it actually invites us onward, and we have a certain calling or duty or destiny to take those explorations further as much as we can in our generation.

So it's important to talk about these subjects because they need us, in a way, to keep progressing the discourse, the consideration, the problematic, the inquiry, to keep wrestling, to keep experimenting. It's not easy, but it's endlessly fertile. And so one implication of that is whatever I offer here in this talk is going to be incomplete. It's incomplete because of what I've just said about the nature of the subject. So it's appropriate that it's incomplete. I mean, it's also incomplete because of lots of other reasons, but there's a fundamental reason why it's incomplete, and it's completely appropriate that it's incomplete, because that's, I think, the nature of this subject, of this realm of inquiry, this realm of concern.

Okay. So, ethics. I should say just right at the beginning, I'm going to use the words 'ethical' and 'moral' interchangeably. I know some people make distinctions in how they use those words, but for the purposes of this talk I'm going to use them interchangeably, so kind of at random. They mean the same thing as far as I'm concerned for now. And what I want to go into (a little bit at least) and open out again for our reflection, for consideration, for possible avenues of practice and conceiving, is the relationship of soul and ethics, soul and sīla, Soulmaking Dharma and imaginal practice and ethics, Buddhadharma and the wider range of Buddhadharma in its relationship with ethics, and then even wider, you know, the wider culture, our contemporary -- practically global -- culture now, and ethics in that setting. And I want to include particularly the need for, I think, a sort of expansion of our ethical thinking to consider our ethical relationship with the earth, with the planet that we come from, that we live on, that is our home, and with regards to such pressing issues as climate change and species extinction, etc. Okay, so big subject, and way too big, really, but let's see what we can do.

I should point out actually as we begin that tonight is really just an introduction to this larger talk on ethics. It's just the introductory part, so many of the pieces I touch on tonight I will hopefully pick up later as we go through, on future evenings. But to begin, let me just repeat something that I've said, a few things that I've said regarding the wider culture, our wider cultural inheritance around morality and Buddhadharma. Just a few brief things there. I don't want to spend too long there, and generally I don't like repeating; otherwise the talks will really go on forever. But this I've said before -- I can't remember where; perhaps in "The Necessity of Fantasy," perhaps a few other places. In the West, in the modern West, we have a complex inheritance, a complex heritage flowing down to us, so to speak, from the Judaeo-Christian outlook on morality, on ethics, and even more the Islamic outlook, the Abrahamic religions.

And their view with regard to morality, it seems to most people to have the flavour of good and evil, right and wrong, and there is in all that a fear of punishment, a fear of everlasting punishment from God, and a kind of guilt that accrues with that. And actually, I think there's a lot that's extremely beautiful in those traditions, so I'm just pulling out (as I said, too brief right now) in a grossly oversimplified way -- so apologies for that -- some salient features for our purposes right now. So a kind of dualism between good, evil, right and wrong, it's framed that way, and with that can go this fear of punishment, which in many cases can be really quite severe, and guilt that can also be really, really painful.

Of course, as individuals, how this complex heritage from the Abrahamic religions filters down into each individual life or the context of each individual life varies widely, dependent on all kinds of conditions and factors, and upbringing, and personality, and situation, and education, and all kinds of things. But as a society, that's there in the soup, in the mix. By contrast, to a certain extent, Buddhadharma -- and if you know Buddhadharma, especially from the Insight Meditation tradition, but really right from the start -- Buddha framed his ethical teaching more in terms of what's kusala and akusala, either skilful or unskilful. Sometimes it could be translated as wholesome or unwholesome*.* But basically what that means is: what leads to suffering, and what perpetuates suffering, and what alleviates suffering? So that the whole thrust of the ethics and the ethical training and the sīla is in the service of alleviating suffering, and is less cast in terms of good, evil, right and wrong.

And even that statement, even that contrast, is actually not so black-and-white true. But generally speaking, most people who come to Buddhadharma, if they've had a painful history with notions of good and evil, right and wrong from the Abrahamic religions' heritage, and the fear of punishment and guilt, find some more spaciousness and softness and relief from that in the Buddhadharma's presentation of it as we inherit it in the West, but certainly also from the beginning with the Buddha. Coupled with the fact that Western Buddhadharma, a lot of Western Buddhadharma -- certainly the Insight Meditation tradition -- has a large component of its offering that tries to address and alleviate self-judgment, the pandemic of self-judgment in our Western culture. So both the emphasis away from good and evil, right and wrong, onto the relief of suffering or the complication of suffering, and the softening of self-judgment, means that for many people the approach to ethics and the way it's presented and laid out in the Buddhadharma as they come to it is more spacious and palatable. But not for everyone.

In fact, as I said, it's not that simple, because if you take on board the Buddha's teachings of rebirth and karma, then if you do something in this life, you can pay karmically with -- I wouldn't call it a punishment; that's not the way karma is thought of, but it has karmic effects that are effectively similar to a kind of punishment, except they may not be eternal. They may still last a long time. But since a lot of modern Western Buddhism doesn't really buy into that whole paradigm of rebirth, etc., and the karmic punishments there, most modern Western Buddhism just focuses on the attention to and interest in how we compound suffering in the moment, in our lives, as patterns of psychology and behaviour, action, speech, and thought, and how we can alleviate that, and the ethics is generally set within that.

But right from the beginning, the intention of the sīla, of the ethical training, was really in the service of simplifying, calming and simplifying the mind so that even the thrust of the fourth hindrance, restlessness and worry -- one of the meanings implicit in that is that there's the putting down, the release of the kind of worry and restlessness that arises in the mind and in a being when they're worrying about what they've done wrong, about who will find out what they've done wrong, or regret, or remorse, or guilt, etc. So even that, in the context of the Buddha's threefold training, the sīla has this thrust towards enabling a simplifying of the mind, enabling a relative amount of peace which then opens the doorway for deeper samādhi, for jhāna, which serves insight, which delivers liberation and the end of rebirth. So the five precepts as they've come to us over history, five precepts for lay practitioners, are in the service of simplifying. They're a minimum. And one way of approaching them -- I'll come back to this -- is not to think about it much; just keep the precepts and then don't worry about it. The whole purpose is not to worry. So you keep within the parameters of those five precepts, and then just forget about it, and don't really trouble the mind and trouble the being wrestling with complex ethical issues, etc., because the function of the ethics is to simplify and to calm.

So they serve as a kind of minimum. Certainly in the presentations of Theravādan Dharma, one isn't really invited into a deep pondering and grappling with ethical issues in one's life. In some modern presentations -- I'm thinking now of Thích Nhất Hạnh -- the Buddhist ethical precepts, the five precepts, are expanded to include their positive manifestations. So "not taking what is not given" extends to include practising generosity, etc. Again, that's something I will come back to -- the practice of virtues, etc. Some people within the Buddhadharma still are drawn to or feel compelled to grapple with complex ethical issues. So there's a sort of minimum given in the five precepts; there's a sort of extra when we add the positive manifestations and the positive directions that Thích Nhất Hạnh points to; and then some percentage of people is drawn to really ponder and grapple with these issues.

So as Western Buddhists, if you like, we receive a very complex inheritance around ethics because even if we may have never been subject to the kind of heavy-duty presentation of Abrahamic morality in our personal lives, in our family, in our upbringing and education, it still, as I said, filters into the culture and it forms part of the fabric, the sort of, I think, almost fraying fabric of the Western cultural thinking and feeling around ethics. So we carry that inheritance with us to some degree or other, and then we also have this inheritance from the Buddhadharma and this other way of thinking. They're mixed. These two are mixed together. I think it's hard for us, for anyone in the West to completely remove themselves from that Abrahamic inheritance. So we get this mixture somewhere in our psyche, in our minds, the mixture of what we've received from Buddhadharma and the Abrahamic religions.

Throw into that mix the modernist, rising modernist inclination/tendency of individualism -- I can think what I want, I can do what I want, I can choose what I want -- also extends, to some extent, into the choices and opinions about right and wrong. But this culture of individualism, for the most part in our culture, and maybe it's a necessary evolutionary step (I think it is), but in its more immature aspects (which, to some extent, you'll have to decide how widespread you think that is), but in some of its immature aspects one can wonder: how deep and authentic is a person's autonomy here? As I said, how widespread is it? [Can] we talk about most people? I don't know. Is it just my right to pursue pleasure, and that's my individualism and my autonomy? And actually it's not really autonomous at all; I'm just driven, pulled like a puppet on a string towards pleasure, and I now have enough elbow room in society's thinking to insist on my right to pursue that pleasure no matter [what], or as far as I can, until the law stops me or it just seems outrageous in terms of its effects on other people.

So we've got this double inheritance from the Abrahamic religions and Buddhadharma, and then the emphasis also in modern Western Buddhadharma on letting go of self-judgment. They're mixed. Throw into that mix a kind of individualism and a sort of invitation to think for oneself (one questions how deep and autonomous that thinking is). One also has to throw into the mix the flip side, the shadow side, if you like -- maybe that's not the best word -- the flip side of the kind of individualism that is for the most part prevalent in the wider society, and that flip side is the inner critic.

So living in a world where we conceive ourselves individually and less communally, despite some of the rhetoric that goes in newspapers, etc., where there is this sort of emphasis on you can choose, you can have what you want, and all this array of choice in so many areas, with a degree of alienation from community, earth, etc. The flip side of the individualism is the inner critic and the pain that that can bring. And some of that can attach to anything, of course, in one's being, but some of it can attach regarding ethics, and of course that can hook up with the heritage of the tendency to a kind of narrow and unhelpful guilt that we get from the Abrahamic religions. Actually, I'll come back to guilt in later talks, because I think guilt is interesting and not so simple. But the inner critic is often the flip side of a kind of individualism, and when at its worst, it can actually be quite incapacitating, quite debilitating and limiting in what it does to our ethical capacity, our ethical sensitivity, and our ethical range and courage. We can become too self-preoccupied. The inner critic is a state of self-preoccupation and self-anxiety, and that can block our ethical sensitivity. We're just too concerned with our self and our own pain, too contracted that way.

So you've got all these factors in the mix; can throw in a couple more. On the one hand you've got a wider culture that celebrates a certain level of individualism, which we might say, certainly from the perspective of Soulmaking Dharma, is still a kind of immature individualism, an immaturely enchanted individualism. And at the same time what you've got in some -- maybe most -- Dharma circles, Buddhadharma circles, is a kind of anti-individualism, because there's all this talk about the emptiness of the self, and again, we get a little confused about what that means: am I trying to tone down my personality? Or erode it? Or hide? Or not stick out like a sore thumb? Or not be too colourful, etc.?

So you get these conflicting heritages all mixed together as part of our collective inheritance -- and of course impacting each of us very uniquely and differently, but this is all in the mix, and to some extent all of it will impact all of us. And then lastly -- again, I've pointed all this out before -- lastly, what you have is an inheritance in the Buddhadharma, certainly in Theravādan Buddhadharma and the Insight Meditation tradition, is certain images, stories of a certain archetype of what awakening looks like that tends to be quite limited in its range and is not also recognized as an archetype, as a fantasy, as an image, and therefore has a kind of insidious power over us. Because the Buddha statues are there, the stories are there, the tone is there, the presentation styles are there, something is communicated: "This is what awakening looks like, feels like, how it expresses itself," and the archetype of that is, as I said, quite limited. The archetype of it looks peaceful, equanimous, unemotional (except for perhaps some mettā or some compassion). It doesn't have a lot of wrestling with complex issues or difficult moral problems and situations. There is this simplicity of being that's part of the archetype, and there isn't, for instance, the ferocious warrior, certainly, as I said, in the Theravādan and the Insight Meditation.

So all of that is part of the heritage we receive, in that case less verbally, or as much non-verbally as verbally. I do think even in recent months, certainly in England, that is beginning to change, and there's a wider exploration of archetypal expressions, which I think is wonderful. As I said, I may come back to all of this, but the point now is just how complex this inheritance is, how multidirectional, how self-contradictory it is. So I've said all that before, but there are other issues that I haven't maybe touched on so much that I want to begin to open up tonight.

In regard to our contemporary culture, one thing is a little bit worth pointing out about the trajectory of our relationship, our collective -- there are always going to be individual variations; of course there will be, but if you like, our collective relationship with morality, with ethics. And borrowing again from Alasdair McIntyre in his book After Virtue, which I mentioned in one of the recent talks, he looks at the history of this word, 'moral*.'* Interestingly, he said 'moral' is the etymological descendent of moralis from the Latin. But moralis, like its Greek predecessor ēthikos (so we get our word 'ethical' from the Greek ēthikos), means 'pertaining to character,' and actually came into the Latin from the Greek. So the ethos is the character, the flavour of either a person's character, or the character of an institution, or the character of a society. We talk about the ethos, and that's where we get the word 'ethical.' So it pertains to character. And the word moralis from Latin, which we get the word 'moral' from, is also meaning 'pertaining to character.' And he says a person's character is nothing other than their set of dispositions to behave systematically in one way rather than another, to lead one particular kind of life. So it's really the kind of quality, flavour, tenor, character of the whole set of, yes, dispositions that pertain to a person or an institution or a society, etc. But he goes on -- and this, I think, is interesting -- to trace a kind of narrowing of the meaning of the word 'moral*.'* So:

It is in the late seventeenth century [he writes] that it is used for the first time in its most restricted sense of all, that in which it has to do primarily with sexual behavior.[1]

So it's a word that was quite wide, and then somehow got squeezed tighter and tighter, and ended up having to do mostly with sexual behaviour. And he asks,

How could it come about that 'being immoral' could be equated even as a special idiom with 'being sexually lax'?

And partly what he wants to write about is tracing that whole history there. But one of the important points is that with the Western Enlightenment there was a sort of divorce of morality from theology, aesthetics, and law. This was part of the separation, if you like, or a separating out of religious concerns and issues and concepts and assumptions from other concerns that were more based on the Western Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, etc.

And because morality as a sphere of concern got separated out from, say, religion, etc., and theological concerns, then it needed its own sort of justification. It was no longer justified with regard to divine law or religious proposition. So:

The attempts to provide a rational justification for morality in that historical period [and he traces it, say, 1630 to 1850, so around that period of the Western Enlightenment and the beginnings of modernity, that's] when it acquired a sense at once general and specific [he said]. In that period 'morality' became the name for that particular sphere in which rules of conduct which are neither theological nor legal nor aesthetic are allowed a cultural space of their own. It is only in the later seventeenth century and the eighteenth century when this distinguishing of the moral from the theological, the legal, and the aesthetic has become a received doctrine that the project of an independent rational justification of morality becomes not merely the concern of individual thinkers, but central to Northern European culture.

In other words, with the Western Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and (to an extent) the Renaissance, there's this kind of trying to remove the dominance and infiltration of religious dogma and assertions and assumptions, remove that, separate that out from the rest of human life and inquiry and society and science and law and morality, etc.

So religion is separated out from morality, and morality is separated out from religion. And then because it's separated out, it needs its own rational justification. Rational justification was exactly what the Western Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were about. So this sphere that's now separated out needs its own rational justification. And so enter the different philosophers, Hume, and Locke, Hobbes, and J. S. Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, and Emmanuel Kant, and later G. E. Moore, etc. What was interesting or what is interesting is that that project to come up with, to deduce, or derive, or elucidate a rational justification for morality, all this series of great Western minds attempted it and failed. There was not an answer that was completely satisfying to everyone in terms of rationally justifying morality.

So the project of modernity with regard to ethics in a way had this kind of very shaky foundation. It was attempted that foundations were built, but they never really got built very well. And as time went on and modernity segued, disintegrated, whatever, into postmodernity -- if we can even use those terms -- it became more explicitly voiced by some people that actually any insistence on a unifying morality, on a universal morality, was inappropriate, impossible, for the same reasons that we talked about when we talked about postmodernism the other day. Now, of course this is only one sector of thinkers, and of course in many respects (or in some respects) despite all this you could say that there has been -- if we can even say -- great progress morally over the last few hundred years. There's also been completely not, and one only has to look at the twentieth century or look around us these days to see the gaps, the problems, the shakiness, the uncertainties, the confusion and contradictions there.

But some postmodern thinkers at least ruled out the possibility of any kind of universal ethics, and so what entered the field was a sort of relativism with regard to ethics and morality. Now, that wasn't received without a sense of problem. People were saying, "This is a problem. Somehow we need to fix this," but it seems very unclear how to actually move out of that confusion and quagmire, that it's kind of taboo to insist on a universal morality and yet just a complete relativism of any morals is also felt by many people to be problematic.

So again, we're in a kind of conundrum at the present, in a cauldron of mixed pulls in different directions, of confusions, of gaps, contradictions, etc. And it may be that we can look around us and say what we have now -- to a certain extent there's a case, I think, to be made [that] what we have now in our society (and I'm thinking of UK society and the US) is a very confused state of affairs with regard to ethics. So in some respects we have law and a system of law that, in many ways, it's supposed to be based on ethics, but it's actually been divorced from ethics. Or another way of stating the problem is that the law is supposed to apply to everyone, supposed to be universal -- everyone is subject to the same law, allegedly. Underpinning that or supposedly underpinning that is ethics, but there is not an agreement or a universal agreement on a universal ethics. So there's a mismatch there and, to some extent, from that mismatch the law unmoors itself from an underpinning in ethics. So it kind of exists as something to respect, to preserve supposedly the stability and integrity of society, the law, but in many ways it's not always rooted in concern for ethics or in something deeper.

Obviously it's not a complete divorce between law and ethics or of the law from an ethical underpinning, and much, I'm sure, of the original intention behind laws and of how they get updated in the legislation at times is related to ethics, but there's a partial divorce, a partial disconnection, because there isn't the universal agreement on the ethical foundation of law. There's supposed to be and sometimes it's assumed that there is, but actually it's not completely congruent.

Two things about that. One is I'm thinking now of the Extinction Rebellion protests and things like that, and some of the clamour of objection and opposition to protesters. So some voices were saying, "Don't you care about law and order? You know, you're throwing that out the window by disrupting with your protests." But that kind of statement presupposes, or implicit in that kind of statement is that law and order in themselves are ultimately valuable or more valuable than some ethical consideration, which to me is ridiculous -- one only need to go back to certain societies, apartheid South Africa, or Nazi Germany, or you could mention many others, of course, where law and order might have held sway and been kept in place very well by the government and most members of society, either directly complicit or indirectly complicity, and yet it was holding up, it was part of the fabric, part of the structure of a fundamentally unethical system -- apartheid and Nazism, etc.

And the second thing in this confusion is that, in a way, what we have as part of the situation now is strident ethical cries from different perspectives that often conflict with each other but have this very strident tone. So you often only need to read headlines in some newspapers, The Daily Mail or whatever, and in some areas or from some perspectives, shouting very loud with a sort of presumption of moral righteousness, and at the very same time, huge areas of complete lack of concern or sympathy around other moral issues. So all of this is part of the mix of confusion, the confusing mix in our contemporary cauldron.

I mentioned Richard Rorty the other day, and sort of used him as an example of some of the lacunae, some of what's missing in our contemporary thinking about all this, coming out of postmodernism, etc. So as I said, he used to often repeat that the most important thing is to keep the conversation going -- that is, that we should prioritize over epistemological and ontological inquiries and approaches, we should prioritize continuing "the conversation of the West" was his phrase. And that was part of his concern with what he called solidarity and morality. Now, as far as I know, he didn't actually write much about morality, and part of the reason, I think, is because his approach left him with very little to say about it. Because we could ask, why is it good or important to keep "the conversation of the West" (whatever that means) going? Why is it good or important? And if we ask such a question, surely it leads, that question, perhaps via more questions, to some assertion and belief in some fundamental principle or principles which need or needs dogmatic allegiance or some epistemological and ontological support.

So in a way, his philosophy was a refusal of any inquiry into ontology and epistemology apart from deconstructing it, and yet this insistence on keeping the conversation going. But when you start to ask why, there's nothing underneath. Why is it good to keep the conversation going? As I said, I don't know his writings encyclopaedically at all, but from what I've delved into a little bit, he does seem to have very little to say regarding ethics and values. And the question I have is: do those areas, regarding ethics and morality, do they need some kind of underpinning and orientation, an underpinning at another level to explain, to give us a sense of their import, an orientation to what we call higher or more fundamental ideas, principles, values, psychologies, etc.?

And could it be that the reason that someone like Richard Rorty seems to have so little to say about ethics is because he absolutely refuses any kind of underpinning at a deeper level, or a dimensionality, or another orientation to a sense of what is higher? I'll come back to that in a moment. But we might also ask again: what if this conversation that he's referring to gets really silly, or becomes a waste of time, or is itself a distraction from other issues and demands? And when does, for example, hate speech and stupid conversation -- what do we do with them? And then this problem of the question of free speech, etc. But principally, as I said, his insistence, his project and his insistence within his project on what he calls -- he wants to get rid of what he calls 'numinous notions.' 'Numinous' is another word for 'divine' notions. Any notions of some other, deeper dimensions, higher sense of things, etc., he wants to get rid of that. So he wants to say morality just is.

We need to think of our distinctive moral status as just that, rather than as 'grounded' on our possession of [and then he gives a whole list of other things]. All these numinous notions are just expressions of our awareness that we are members of a moral community, phrased in one or another pseudo-explanatory jargon. This awareness is something which cannot be further 'grounded' -- it is simply taking a certain point of view on our fellow-humans. The question as to whether it is an 'objective' point of view is not to any point.[2]

So he's really, as I said, got this insistence on removing any kind of deeper level of grounding, or anchoring, or dimensionality, we might say. He absolutely refuses it. I guess part of what I want to say through these talks on ethics is: is not that exactly what we need? And that without a sense of dimensionality and reference to something higher, a sense of something higher in which to ground our ethics, we're just at sea in this quagmire of potential relativism.

So again what you get, what I sometimes find in Richard Rorty's writings is there are these slips where his language betrays him. So that he talks, for instance, about, by acting this way in a certain situation we hope to (quote) "decrease our chances of acting badly." But it's not explained -- what does 'badly' mean? And why is such an act a bad act? Where does he get the moral rules from? On what are they grounded? So he's insisting on not grounding morality on anything, and yet he's insisting on morality. But what morality? And where does it get its sense of import? And where can we even find then a passion in relation to morality?

And similarly, when he talks about epistemology more generally, he talks about someone might have a "good account" of why they think this, or why they believe this, or why they explain their own ethical behaviour this way or that way. They might have a good account or they might not. But again, what does it mean by a "good account"? If he's refusing any inquiry into epistemology apart from a deconstruction of it, any inquiry into ontology, what do these words, 'good' and 'bad,' mean? How do we decide what's good and bad? They slip into the writing, and again, to me, it indicates, it betrays gaps, lacunae, lack of consideration, lack of adequate explanation and adequate grounding. Just one more quote from him:

There is no inferential connection between the disappearance of the transcendental subject -- of man [let's say of the human being] as something having a nature which society can repress or understand -- and the disappearance of human solidarity.

So, in other words, his idea of any kind of depth to a human being, in the sense of dimensionality which could be understood or which could be blocked or repressed by society, etc., any notion of that, the disappearance of this notion of a human being having those transcendental dimensions, and there's no inferential connection, he says, between that disappearance in our time and the disappearance of human solidarity. 'Solidarity' is a word he uses a lot, overlapping with 'morality.' And then he writes:

Bourgeois liberalism seems to me the best example of this solidarity we have yet achieved.

So I'm not sure about his phrase, 'bourgeois liberalism.' He uses it quite a lot, and my suspicion is he uses it slightly provocatively. But I don't know. Can bourgeois liberalism -- whatever exactly he means from that -- be separated from capitalism and democracy? And so one of the things I think that's problematic right now is capitalism. I'll just return to that in a moment. But the other thing that's happened with postmodernity, again, is there's this separating out of ethics from law and theology, and the sort of atrophying of theology, and from aesthetics and from other concerns. And in a way, with the presence in the mix of the postmodern objection to and hesitancy about coming up with a universal moral code or understanding of morality, in a way, what also goes with that is a kind of suspicion of power structures and a suspicion of hegemony in terms of who's deciding what is moral and what isn't. A suspicion, you know, to some extent, of course, well-grounded in the history of the abuse from religious institutions over the years.

With that goes then the promise of democracy as a sort of equalizing, and everyone with their different opinions can get their say, etc. And of course that's a very wonderful thing in the democratic countries, and a real evolution in humanity. But I'm not sure, recently, in the last few years -- I doubt I'm the only one, but sometimes, much as I'm a believer and lover in democracy, I sometimes wonder whether I still believe in it any longer. I mean, I do, really, but I have some questions, and I'm sure, as I said, I'm not the only one. I'm not sure that I believe in the immunity of 'the people' to various forms of manipulation, whether they're gross and subtle manipulation by those in power, manipulation by those with wealth (and certainly excessive wealth), by the interests of corporations, by the runaway juggernaut of that corporate interest, or simply whether, again, 'the people' are immune to the manipulation by the popular, dominant view of things and of values and ethics, etc., let alone manipulation by Russian cyber hackers, and also what we've been reading in the news in the last few years about the fact of social media, infiltration in social media, but also the closed social media circles -- so you tend to get feeds into your Facebook or whatever it is that are selected based on what you like to look at. Someone with very different politics, very different views, a very different outlook will get a similarly closed feed and be involved in a similarly closed social media circle, but very different, espousing very different views, very different, divergent versions of the news. So seeing and receiving and sharing quite different versions of reality.

So democracy is then trying to function in that, in a world where all these problematic issues of manipulation and distortion and alienation are coming in through power, through wealth, through corporate interest, through the dominant view that just has its entrenched power and influence. Heaven knows what's happening with Russia and all that. And then this strange phenomenon of divergent, closed social media circles where we receive and share pictures of the world, implicit in which are values and ethical systems that are really quite divergent and without much actual dialogue or meeting or opening out of views there. So in that whole quagmire, really, confusion, in that whole mess, democracy is trying to function, and it's pulled a couple of pegs down from the ideal of what democracy can be. So when Rorty talks about bourgeois liberalism, can that be separated from capitalism and democracy, and democracy now with fake news and all of that, as I've just been talking about?

So again, if we just linger on the situation in our contemporary civilization, our contemporary society and societies, there is this issue from the beginnings of modernity, stretching through quite a while, tracing the history of the attempt to ground and make sense of and make rational justifications of morality in different ways; they failed. There's the opening up of the postmodern sort of anti-universalism and anti-truth, if you like, and the danger of the quicksand of relativism there, of total relativism, and the sort of appeal to democracy -- wonderful and yet increasingly evident that it's also problematic these days. And in all of that, then, we live as well, if we're considering our contemporary situation, we live in an increasingly globalized world, globalized society, so that when we consider ethics, the immediate thing that should hopefully be obvious is that our actions have consequences today. Our actions locally have consequences globally. So what we buy on the high street, certainly, what we buy on the internet, how we get our energy and feed our houses, all this has consequences across the globe, and we can no longer, as did the Buddha in his time, think of ethics as just pertaining to me and who it obviously involves: "These are the two parties. If I lie to this person, if I cheat this person of something, if I harm them in some way, it affects me and it affects them."

We're living in a globalized society, and it's almost like the whole system, the whole ethical consideration and actions becomes an infinitely more sensitive system. So what we do here has repercussions that we're beginning to learn more and more about them, but even that is only a drop in the ocean of the actual repercussions. There's an immense complexity in that. It's very challenging. Part of globalization also is a globalized capitalist thinking, globalized economy based on capitalist economy, with all the problems of the ideas of infinite economic growth on a finite planet with finite resources, etc.

There's also the problem with globalization of a decrease in diversity, diversities of all kind in fact. So the ethos of Western free-market capitalism and all the fashions, etc., that pertain to that, and the culture, the way of life, the aspirations -- all that increasingly has been globalized as well. So there's also a displacement and disappearance of more traditional cultures, traditional values, etc., traditional ways of life, traditional outlooks and aspirations. All kinds of decreases of diversity go with that globalization, because what gets globalized is a certain outlook on life, a certain way of going about life, a certain ethos, and with that a certain ethics.

But all this implies that we need, I think humanity needs to rethink and perhaps expand and deepen our moral considerations -- or try to; I don't think that's easy at all. And some of that might involve looking at ontological considerations. I don't feel, for example, that what Richard Rorty has written or said on the subject has done much at all really to help things. So it might involve further considerations of ontology, etc.

Again, if we linger just a little bit longer on our wider contemporary predicament in the wider culture, one of the things that's interesting to me is that, at some point along the way, we seem to have lost the ideal of moral education. So the development of character, especially in relation to moral values and aspirations, has disappeared, it seems, mostly from Western society. You see it in religions and spiritual institutions and schools, and only there is it deemed okay to instruct or direct or reprimand or encourage a person above, say, 18 years old. So it seems to be the sort of cut-off point, about 18 years, where you can subject someone to the order of the law. You can put them in prison or whatever, but there's not really this idea of moral education because, as I said, law has in some respects trumped or replaced ethics as a foundation.

But what is the law founded on? Of course, partly it's founded on ethics, as I said, but partly it becomes this sort of free-floating thing that is its own raison d'être. And something happens at about 18 years where it's considered a bit taboo to educate someone outside of very specific contexts. Seeing a person to direct or reprimand, instruct, encourage a person above about 18 years on the path towards what we might call higher and nobler and fuller and more sensitive and wise values and aspirations -- somehow it's not okay. It's okay maybe where there is some agreed-upon goal or aim to strive for. So for example, if you're in a football team, or if you listen to how football team managers talk about their players or the players talk about each other, or a military unit, for example, there the whole idea of character -- and remember that word, 'character,' is related to the word 'moral' and 'ethical,' so 'character' in this moral sense is something whose development is encouraged. So they talk about giving everything for the team or whatever it is, or courage and this and that, "he ran his heart out" and all this.

So it's only in these kind of enclosed circles where there's a very specific goal or aim that it's understood: if you're in this team, if you're in this military unit, this is what we're trying to do, and therefore we can use ethical language, and we can use moral language, and we can value people dependent on their development in those moral areas, and we can instruct and reprimand, etc. But in those limited contexts only really is that ethical development encouraged or spoken about, only really to the degree of breadth, height, depth that reflects whatever the breadth, height, and depth of the conception of the goal is. So if it's a football team, it's just about the football or whatever. And even prisons, as far as I can tell -- and again, I'm not really in that world -- but even prisons, certainly in the UK and the US, they don't seem to prioritize moral development. So there's punishment and there's maybe the opportunity to educate oneself in different ways, but the idea of moral development -- I could be wrong here, but it doesn't seem to be on the agenda, as if there's some kind of taboo with it that I think relates to this confusion around morality and the reluctance and taboo of imposing any moral system -- even in an educative way -- on someone else.

So part of the wider confusion, again, some people may pass judgment on, and some people do pass judgment on others' lack of moral sensitivity or moral refinement, evolution, aspirations. And other people would view that judgment or opinion as snobbish. But as a society, we don't really have anything other than the law to indirectly, and only hopefully, teach and encourage moral values. This is part of the lacuna and paralysis left by the kind of -- you could say postmodernism, or really the drift into postmodernism from the incompleteness and the failings of modernity. And all that is part, of course, of why some people turn to religious fundamentalism. It's what they fear and abhor, is this lack of moral concern, this drift into sort of ungrounded relativism and the lack of, we could say, the nobility and uprightness of moral education. There are all kinds of other gaps in our moral outlook, specifically with regard to the earth and nature and species. I want to come back to them later.

So, I don't know. Again, some of us, if you're listening to this talk, you're probably already involved in the kind of wider tradition and context of the Dharma where we do talk about ethics and values, and what's nobility, and developing the citta, developing the mind and the heart and the soul and the sensibility. But in the wider culture, it seems something of a taboo, and in fact even in the Insight Meditation tradition. So one of my teachers was teaching on the West Coast, I think it was, or somewhere in the States and -- I heard this secondhand, but -- he gave a Dharma talk one evening and made a comment about how the car park at the retreat centre was full of SUVs, and their gas guzzling and diesel emissions and all the rest of it. And that was woven into the Dharma talk, and then got a note from a retreatant, an angry note saying "I came here to learn to meditate. I didn't come here to be lectured about morality," or something like that, which I'm sure got an answer from my teacher in no uncertain terms. But again, since the Insight Meditation world is just an open world, anyone can walk in and walk out, and what they think they're walking into or what they think they're signing up for may be much more limited than what is actually on offer or part of the deal as I would see it.

So I wonder about this possibility of lifelong development of sensitivity, of aspiration, of attunement, of consideration with regard to ethics and values and virtues and all that. It might still be, of course -- and here, again, may be a very politically incorrect thing to say -- but it might be that there are also differences between human beings. We talk about soul-style. Maybe the moral character of souls also differs. So I realize that may be a very unfashionable thing to say, politically incorrect thing to say at the moment. It may be that even if we have an idea of what might be involved in sort of opening up the idea of open-ended development through one's life of the moral sensibility, the moral courage, the moral discernment and all that, if that's there -- and at the same time, like in any other endeavour of training, whatever it is (football, music, whatever), we recognize people also have different capacities. Of course that gets very dangerous: what does that then imply about things like democracy, etc.?

Again, I'm not involved in the Dharma world, so I don't know quite where it's at now and what sort of regulations have come in, but there was just a few years ago some concern among Dharma teachers who were involved in that world, and concern from others as well, that mindfulness was being taught in a way that was really uncoupled from its basis and root in sīla, in ethical concern and action. I think there were some examples of mindfulness for soldiers and in the job of killing people -- how can that be done more mindfully, and to make that more efficient, etc. And so people were trumpeting mindfulness as a kind of solution for all kinds of problems, but in a way that was really trying to shave off as much as possible of it that had anything to do certainly with Buddhism but also the wider concerns and teachings such as ethics, etc.

So that might be different now; I don't know. But I remember thinking back then, you know, I'd rather somehow we taught about Jesus in schools more than mindfulness. Of course, again, that's going to land in a funny way potentially. But there are stories there, if we take that example of Jesus -- it doesn't have to be Jesus, of course, but stories that illustrate a kind of radical goodness and compassion, and touch the being and teach the being through those kind of stories. But that's not really possible, certainly not with Jesus. Religion, or imposing any kind of religious education like that, again, it doesn't seem very PC, and it would lack credibility these days. Christianity is a bit old hat. It has, for the most part in mainstream society, lost any of its kind of capacity to shake things up, and to be vital, and a vital infusion, and to stimulate a vital reconsideration, etc. And as I said, we can't actually teach ethics, or it seems like we can't because there's no agreement on its basis, etc.

But sometimes I wonder, in the sort of dominance of non-religious secular outlooks, if something is also lost ethically. So I really don't want to make generalizations here yet, but when Nietzsche was writing, just before the turn of the twentieth century, poking fun at and deconstructing what had become then a sort of empty Christian morality that was more about -- part of his objection, at least, was people were just doing what they were told without considering it morally, keeping a moral code which was more about a sort of code of manners and appearances. It was empty of any real vitality or life or consideration deep in the being. And so he poked fun at the kind of vacuousness of that, and with that, the kind of shallow morality, and lack of courage, and lack of independent thinking.

But sometimes I wonder if the objects of ridicule and complaint that he found there in the superficial religiosity that was dominant at that time -- and it really was superficial, because by that time modernity was well along in its secularizing of things -- but I wonder sometimes whether those kinds of objection actually apply now less to people who are religious, in the sense that they really have chosen religion and it means something to them. So because religion is now not dominant, one actually has to choose it, to enter into it, to make a connection with it, to actively aspire to something there and find something important, as opposed to it's just given to us by the culture, by the family, and one just trundles along in this appearance of propriety, etc. So I wonder whether actually now that the people who have chosen religion may have more among their ranks of those who are actually passionate about morals, and who live morality, and who live kind of more radically on fire in relation to ethics, and conversely, whether those who have inherited and go along with the sort of atheism and secularism of modernity have among their ranks more of those who share the characteristics that Nietzsche was poking fun at -- the sort of shallow morality, a lack of courage, a lack of independent thinking. Sometimes just coming across people and the whole sort of way they might relate to moral questions, or even questions of life and death, of course, which are not divorced from moral questions, it sounds so flaccid, so sort of flabby, so sort of lacking in depth and passion and integrity and oomph and vitality. There's something just a bit blah about the whole thing. Or, on the other hand, they might be very bold and strident in their sort of rhetoric of secularism, but somehow when you look at the life, it's not very inspiring. It's not very noble. It's not very beautiful. So somehow it could be that sort of pervasive secularism has just replaced the kind of pervasive and somewhat lifeless pseudo-religiosity, superficial religiosity that used to be there. But again, I want to be careful about making generalizations here. But this is partly tied into the larger point I hope to make over these talks.

It seems to me, to some extent, or to a large extent, there's this loss of the ideal of moral education, even in schools. I don't remember in my secondary school ever being taught anything about moral living or nobility or anything like that. And that loss of that ideal of moral education is part of our wider conundrum, the difficulty of our wider situation. The word Vinaya that some of you will know, Pali word Vinaya*,* is the word for the monastic discipline or the set of rules, the precepts that the monks and nuns keep specifically. And actually its etymology, naya, vi + naya, means to lead away from or lead apart. So it's very much related to our word 'education*.*' Vinaya, the monastic discipline, is an education. Education, in Latin educare. So ducare is *'*to lead,' and e- is 'out of.' So they have very similar roots. It's an education, and for the monks, that Vinaya is a part of their larger moral education.

So it's there in the tradition, this idea of the possibility of moral education. We seem to have lost it. Anyway, in these talks, I want to try a little bit to open up, have a look at this wider situation. I don't think there are any easy answers, and I certainly don't have any, nor kind of simple prescriptions. I'm aware -- and you've probably heard it already; I feel conscious of it already -- that at times I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy. I may sound kind of judgmental about some of these things. I may even sound conservative [laughs], which is somewhat surprising to me. And I may sound elitist. I mean, that last one, I can't hide the fact -- I unabashedly admit that I am an elitist in all kinds of ways. But I'm going to take that risk just to start a widening of this conversation, and hopefully others will pick up these larger considerations around ethics, soul and ethics, etc., and the wider global situations. So I'm going to take that risk just in terms of stimulating some conversation.

Actually, maybe the first thing to do before we continue is just to clear a little space with regard to the imaginal and imaginal practice and ethics. I remember much more particularly at the beginning -- it doesn't seem to happen much now, but it could be I'm just not hearing from certain people -- but certainly at the beginning of my teaching of the imaginal, a number of people voiced concerns. They were attracted to the imaginal, but quite ambivalent, and voiced concerns about the seemingly problematic ethical implications that might be wrapped up in imaginal practice. So I'll just take a little time -- it's probably not necessary at this point, but I will take a little time anyway to do this, or it may not be necessary for most of you, but some of you will be in conversations with other people, or someone else might hear something, so it's worth addressing. Because the imaginal for me is certainly not immoral, and neither is it amoral in the sense that it doesn't have any regard for morality or any connection with morality. So it's neither immoral nor amoral.

Someone asked me, really at the beginning of my teaching of the imaginal, she was quite taken to it and had quite a few experiences, but kept struggling with different kinds of ambivalence, one of which was with regard to ethics. And she said to me, "Well, a lot of what you say about the imaginal could refer very easily to some kind of, I don't know, fundamentalist religious terrorist or something, and so what about that?" So let's just pause for a little bit and address some of those concerns and issues. We have these teachings of the nodes of the lattice, the elements or aspects of the imaginal, and we can look at that and say, with regard to things or elements like duty and trust and other elements of the imaginal, we could actually discern several crucial differences between a practitioner practising with the imaginal and, say, a religious fundamentalist terrorist, etc.

That was her example, so we'll use that example. This terrorist conceives God as separate from themselves, and therefore as an objective reality. The way we talk about divinity, in contrast, in the paradigm of soulmaking and the imaginal, is not as separate from ourselves, certainly not completely separate from ourselves, and not as an objective, because we participate in the creation of the divine. We've talked about this. So that would be one difference, and that's a really significant difference.

We could add more. By engaging, for example, in a terrorist action, that terrorist might believe or think, they might conceive that they are participating in (quote) 'God's plan,' for example, but they don't conceive or sense that they are participating in God's being. So there's a big, big difference there: "I'm participating in God's plan, who wants the world, the whole world to be this religion, and other religions to be eradicated, and non-believers to be killed or whatever it is, and that's God's plan," so the story goes, the belief goes. But they're not participating in God's being.

There's also no sense or conception of being involved in creating, as I said, the sense of divinity, and that it's not separate from them. So there are very different ontologies going on. There's no unfathomability and no meaningfulness or mystery. On the contrary, they are certain, this terrorist person, they are certain they know and are clear about what their duty is: "My duty is to kill these people, blow up," whatever it is. There's a single meaning -- not meaningfulness, this infinity of potential meanings, but there's a single meaning or, at best, a small, finite number of very clear meanings rather than meaningfulness. And we could continue, if we consider the elements: the boundaries of self, other, and divine, they're not soft-edged and elastic at all. These things have hard boundaries, self and other, divinity. And there's no concertina of images; there's just a single image, whatever that is, of the divine, of my role, etc., and it's regarded as reality. It's regarded as a reality, rather than the imaginal Middle Way. The sense of duty there is not refracted in any way. It's just literalized. The echoing, the mirroring -- again, it's all very literalized. So there are many differences there that we can point out, and could probably point out more when you just, "Hold on. Slow down. Let's consider. Let's consider the differences here."

Many of you will know Viktor Frankl, who was the founder of logotherapy, and you probably know him more from Dharma talks where sometimes I and other teachers have quoted him -- a beautiful quote from a passage he's got in his book Man's Search for Meaning, which is partly a chronicle of his, report of his time in Auschwitz, a concentration camp where he was imprisoned as a Jew, and survived, and came up with this kind of psychotherapy that he called logotherapy, which is basically the healing, he would say, is in the making of meaning, giving your life a meaning. So it's a meaning-making therapy. And it got questioned on a number of fronts. The quote that you probably know is something like, "We who lived through the camps can remember those who were able to choose their own way, to give away their last piece of bread," for example.[3] He said it much nicer. His conclusion was this was testimony -- we bear witness and they bear testimony to the fact that you can take everything from a person except their right and their capacity to make meaning and to choose their own way.

And he said that the people in the camps who tended to survive the ordeal and the torment, the tribulations of the camp, were people who had some meaning, something worth living for that was meaningful to them. And he said that the camp was the crucible in which he came up with this logotherapy, this idea of meaning-making therapy. Afterwards, over the years, decades after that, it was questioned and kind of attacked on a couple of grounds. One was whether he actually had come up with this theory beforehand rather than in the camps, and whether his report of what he saw in the camps wasn't actually true in terms of who survived and didn't. Secondly, several people pointed out, "Well, that's actually an amoral therapy. There's no morality there. This meaning-making could be equally applied to, say, the Nazis who found meaning in exterminating Jews and homosexuals and Gypsies and communists and political opponents."

So again, there can be this concern, I think, and it's an understandable concern, that if you put something like the imaginal or soulmaking to the fore, what about ethics? Or if you put meaning-making to the fore, what happens to morality? Does the meaning-making trump the moral? Does it make it irrelevant? If I just find meaning in something, does that mean I can do whatever I want without any regard for morality? If I have some image, does that mean that I can then disregard morality? But again, there's not a full understanding or not consideration of what we would mean by those elements, an inclusion of what we would mean by those elements of the imaginal. Those twenty-eight elements (or maybe more, depending on how you count them), when they're taken into consideration, you start to see that, oh, when I'm following an image, and working with an image, and inspired by an image, I have a duty from an image, all those elements together make it very different than this idea that anything -- for example, a Nazi finding meaning in exterminating Jews and homosexuals -- that's not going to have those twenty-eight elements illuminated and ignited. It's simply not. So I don't know about Viktor Frankl, but if we just take it at a simple explanation of, "All you need to do to find fulfilment in life is find a meaning and make a meaning, find a meaning and then follow that meaning," just that as a simple sort of strapline would not include the depth and richness and other aspects of, for instance, the imaginal that we've talked about.

So we have concerns as human beings, obviously -- we have ethical concerns, and most practitioners, of course, should and will have concerns ethically about their behaviour, how to discern, what to choose, what to do. "Can I trust this desire? I want this. Is it okay ethically? Can I trust it? How do I know?" And sometimes I ask people in Dharma talks, in different Dharma talks over the time, I might ask, "What do you want? What is it that you really want?" And someone was saying to me that she was listening and moved by the question, just me asking and in that context. The question went very deep in her. It touched her very deeply. But it brought some agitation and some confusion, as well, because she wondered: how does one discern? I have this want, or this desire, or this eros or whatever. How do I discern what is conditioning, and what is indoctrination, or what is just ego, etc.?

We were talking about it, and I suggested that it might be better to look at -- rather than looking to discern, "Oh, can I see that it's coming from ego or it's coming from conditioning or indoctrination?", that might be very hard to discern where it's coming from, but what you can look at is the effect. So, for example, the effect on the sense of soulmaking of different desires or different answers to that question of what I want. So if I just drop that question into a meditative space -- I can't remember the exact context that she was talking about -- and then maybe I get an answer like "I want to be rich," for example, but that answer, if I look at the effects, the resonances in the being, rather than find, "Is that just conditioning? Is that just ego? Is it fear?", and actually try and discern where it came from, what's easier to observe and probably more helpful in discerning is the effects on the resonances in the soul, in the being, and the effects on the sense of soulmaking. So "I want to be rich," if that comes as an answer -- she didn't say that, but it's just an example -- that may not feel as deep, as soulmaking, as opening of the devotional sense, as rich in the soul-sense, as beautiful, as moving as another desire.

So that "What do I trust?", in terms of discerning between what may be more petty, more self-concerned, more fear-driven, more just an indoctrination and therefore not so authentic, more just conditioning, it may be that in looking at the effects in the being of the sense of soulmaking, I start to get a feel for what are the deeper currents of my soul and my being, what are the deeper soul-desires. And then there will be an encouragement from me to trust in that soulmaking sense and the fullness and the multidimensionality and the beauty of what that means to the being. And I trust that ethics will be implicit in that, partly because, remember, values -- which includes ethical values -- are an implicit element of the soulmaking dynamic, an implicit element of the imaginal. The imaginal Middle Way is there, so there's not this tendency to just literalize, concretize, reify in that way. There's also the fullness of intention as one of the elements, and so, again, it's not just about me and what I can get. There's a fuller intention there. All of these elements and aspects tend to not just safeguard ethics and preserve it, but actually enrichen the ethical soil of what is happening and what is involved and what's moving in the soul.

And of course there's the energy body as well. We've talked about that. We could go through it in a lot more detail than I'm doing right now. We've talked about how the energy body can be a guide of what to trust as well. Again, I don't think that will open up with that same beauty and the same harmonization and energization as it will if the ethics aren't there. It's one of the reasons the Buddha said, "I don't teach jhāna with an unskilful object." I can't remember the exact words, but he might also have said, "I can't teach jhāna with an unskilful object," because the mind doesn't tend to settle down. The body, the energy body doesn't tend to open up in the same way when something's really unskilful, when there's craving. When there's craving in that way -- we've talked about this -- it agitates and closes and contracts the energy body. It ties it in knots when something's unskilful ethically. It's all related. So that, the energy body opening, harmonizing, etc., aligning, being part of the imaginal, it's also a safeguard of the implicit ethics, implicit beauty of values there.

As I said, still, sometimes people get nervous. People haven't asked me this for a while, but back a few years ago, "Isn't imaginal Dharma crazy or dangerous? What about ethics? Shouldn't you place ethics first? Shouldn't they be given priority, and then you can have image? Safeguard the ethics first and then have your imaginal?" or whatever. But as I just said, because values are an element of the image, the ethics are included in an image, implicitly or explicitly, and in imaginal practice, and in the duty that comes out of it. Also, I have to say -- and this is partly what I want to elaborate on in these talks -- putting ethics, placing ethics as primary, as this person would want, or was concerned, saying, "Why don't you put that first?", putting ethics as primary is a deceptively simple idea, because despite the soul-stirring allegiances that, in some cases, ethical talk and talking about those kinds of things can stimulate in us, the actuality of moral life entails all sorts of confusions and difficulties, antinomies -- meaning pulls in different directions: I want to care for this ethical value, but at the same time, in this particular situation, I'm also pulled towards this other ethical value, and my choices offer me a contradiction. I either preserve this one or preserve that one. I either emphasize this one or I emphasize that one. I'm going to elaborate on this, hopefully, as the talks go on.

But that's the actuality of our moral life in all kinds of ways, so placing ethics as primary is deceptively simple. It doesn't tell us or instruct us or guide us with regard to these kind of difficulties, challenges, confusions, antinomies, incompletenesses, and also ultimate impossibilities: I cannot fulfil, I cannot care for this ethical value and that ethical value in this situation. It's actually impossible, because I have to choose one thing. So all those complexities and confusions and impossibilities and contradictions and incompletenesses, they are unavoidably part of moral life and choice, especially today. And in a way, actually, that's mirrored in what Hillman would call the polytheistic psyche, the multiplicity of images which also pull our life in different directions, towards different imaginal characters and their particular beauties, their particular domains and concerns, and their particular duties as well. So it's understandable that people a few years ago voiced these ethical concerns when they first started to hear about imaginal practice, but it's more complex, I think, than those initial concerns really understood.

As I said, just to repeat before we move on, I would say soulmaking, imaginal practice, is ethically oriented, and not just because values is an element of the imaginal, but also because of aspects like the cosmopoesis and the sensing with soul, or sensing self, other, world, eros -- all these things come more and more to be conceived and sensed, actually sensed and felt as sacred, divine, worthy of our reverence, etc. So as we've explained with the soulmaking dynamic, that's part of what happens. So not just because values are an element -- they are an element -- but when there's the cosmopoesis, when there's the sensing with soul of the self, of other human beings, of the world around me and the world of nature, even of my desire, then the very way that I sense and conceive and think of those aspects of being and those aspects of existence, my relationship with them becomes very different, becomes sacralized. There becomes the sense of holiness. There comes the sense of reverence implicit there. And out of that, we start to have a different relationship. We start to live and choose differently. And of course there comes with that respect and care, all of which are foundational and implicit in ethics.

There are also other ways, of course -- and I've touched on these, and I will return to them -- in which soulmaking is ethical, and even, I would say, an expansion of our maybe typical range of ethical practice and perspectives. So in those talks (I mentioned them the other day as well[4]) "The Meditator as Revolutionary" and "The Necessity of Fantasy," I was talking there about the range of archetypal models that we receive through the Dharma being a little bit limited -- the Buddha not so much an activist; quite given to equanimity and inwardness, and kind of a danger of 'letting the world burn,' so to speak, and the range of, let's say, archetypal characters of response being quite limited by what we receive through image, and story, and modelling from teachers and other students in the Dharma world, or certainly in the Insight Meditation world. So we could say that there's a certain unwitting limitation on the scope of what moral care and expression looks like. And through expanding the self-sense and the imaginal sense, and being open to more images, receiving imaginal images, and how they open up the scope and the range of then what our moral care and expression may look like, the fantasies of how that might be embodied, how it might express itself and look like and sound like.

So in addition to all that, it might also be -- and I'll come back to this later -- it might also be that we can talk about soulmaking itself being a kind of moral value, perhaps even a kind of relatively new moral value. But I want to expand and elaborate and consider a lot of this further, particularly the lacunae, the gaps and holes in the fabric of our conceptual framework of morality nowadays -- what are some of the needs there? What's the relationship between soulmaking and all that potentially? The notion of values and virtues and a little bit about the psychology and the philosophy that might be wrapped up in all of that. Okay. Let's stop there now just for an introduction.

  1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 46. ↩︎

  2. The Postmodern Turn: New Perspectives on Social Theory, ed. Steven Seidman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 56, 61. ↩︎

  3. Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 68. ↩︎

  4. Rob Burbea, "Dharma(s) Discovered and Created (Part 3)" (8 June 2019),, accessed 31 March 2021. ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry