The Function of Virtue

Contrary to the secular doctrines of our day, moral judgments are neither arbitrary nor subjective. They are founded on the universal intuition of an Absolute, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent Consciousness which, though It Graciously Authors all forms of distinction, Itself Transcends any distinction, including and especially, the primordial distinction between subject and object, I and other, self and world. In other words, the Moral Law, in whatever local dress it appears, everywhere reflects a reality that is ultimately Selfless, as evidenced by the fact that all the virtues—Love, Honesty, Courage, Generosity, Humility, Patience, etc.—have as their common denominator the principle of selflessness; whereas, all the vices—hatred, deceit, cowardice, greed, arrogance, impetuosity, etc.—are spawned by a delusion of Selfhood, or selfishness.

In its 'objective' derivation, then, the Moral Law (like scientific laws) has an implied explanatory function. What it explains is the opposition between virtue and vice in the field of human action as a manifestation of the opposition between Reality and Delusion in states of human perception. Specifically, selfless actions are deemed virtuous because, being based on reality, they are realistic. Conversely, selfish actions are condemned as vicious because they are motivated by delusion and, hence, unrealistic.

But the Moral Law (unlike scientific laws) also serves an explicitly normative function insofar as it judges actions in accordance with their contents and consequences. Thus, actions motivated solely by a desire for self-enhancement or self-defense are judged morally 'wrong' or 'evil' because, in the absence of any substantial 'self' to be enhanced or defended, they lack any real or valuable content. And just because they lack any real or valuable content (a 'self') the consequences of such actions must inevitably be frustration, disappointment, failure, and defeat.

Virtuous or selfless actions, on the other hand, are judged to be morally 'right' and 'good' for the opposite reason. Being pure and transparent expressions of that Cosmic Playfulness which informs but does not veil Absolute Consciousness, their content is absolutely real, hence, possesses absolute value. Or put another way, the sole content of selfless actions is that Timeless Performance of a Perfectly Self-Fulfilling Grace which is predicated on nothing else save the Naked Bliss of Being. As such, selfless actions are intrinsically free of any expectations and, therefore, of any consequences.. Virtue, in truth, is its own reward because it has in view only its own Divine Delight.

Accordingly, the whole problem of Good and Evil boils down to the difference between suffering and happiness—whether you spend your life in shadowy self-imprisonment, gnawing the woeful bread of death; or as That Consciousness which Eternally Satisfies Itself in every form of Its existence, from the subatomic giggle of a solitary electron to the mad whirling rapture of the whole Milky Way. The quintessential question to which the Moral Law points, then, is: How can one attain this Consciousness?

Strictly speaking, of course, one cannot; for, how can you attain That which, in reality, you already are? All that is truly required (or possible) is that you shake off the delusion that things are otherwise—particularly and primarily the habitual experience of your 'self' as some real and substantial entity distinguishable from a real and substantial 'world.' This can be accomplished through cultivating a series of direct (non-conceptual) insights, not into the nature of Consciousness (which at all times is obvious), but into the nature of the delusion which obscures it.

The first step is to vividly and clearly identify whatever it is you believe your 'self' to be. Most people identify themselves with a shifting complex of phenomena, including bodily sensations, emotional feelings, thought-imagery, and a sense of self-will. Lucid and prolonged observation, however, will convince you that all these phenomena are merely impermanent forms or objects arising In Consciousness and, therefore, cannot be the I, self, or subject to Consciousness (the one who observes these objects come and go). It is by relinquishing identification with these various, impermanent phenomena that the mind is gradually purified of attachments, the heart illumined by insight, and the Way is opened for that Supreme Insight or Gnostic Realization that I, the imagined subject to Consciousness, am none other than Consciousness Itself.

This brings us to the third and highest function of the Moral Law which is to be of spiritual service to those seekers dedicated to Realizing their own identity with this Consciousness. By enjoining specific practices of virtue (in the form of vows and precepts) the Moral Law provides an indispensable methodology for the destruction of delusion. Indeed, most of the world's Great Schools of Mysticism have regarded practices of virtue as the very cornerstone of the Whole Spiritual Quest, for without practices of virtue, other kinds of spiritual practices are unlikely to produce any lasting fruit.

This is because other kinds of spiritual practice (meditation, devotional rituals, study of scriptures, etc.) usually require some measure of isolation from the experiences of everyday life. Consequently, insights gained during these practices, no matter how profound, are often overshadowed or forgotten when the practitioner returns to his or her normal routine—a routine characterized by endless and entangled projects of self-enhancement and self-defense. Vows and precepts, however, are designed precisely to address and 'spiritualize' the experiences of everyday life—and this by bringing to bear upon even the most mundane events the four guiding principles of all spiritual practices: attention, commitment, detachment, and surrender.

To understand how this works, let us consider a precept common to virtually every spiritual tradition: Do not lie for selfish reasons. One begins by making a solemn vow or commitment to observe this precept at all times and in every detail. If the vow is firmly and sincerely made, you will discover that the precept automatically comes to mind in any situation in which you are tempted to lie, or find yourself already in the act of lying. In this way, the precept serves to focus attention on a particular project of self-enhancement or self-defense as it actually unfolds.

With attention focused it then becomes possible to ascertain what exactly is prompting the lie? For example, you might catch yourself fabricating or exaggerating some story out of a selfish desire to gain admiration or respect? Or perhaps you are covering up some mistake for fear of being thought incompetent? Having thus identified the lie as being motivated by some selfish desire or fear, you next attend to the feeling-sensation of the desire itself (not any thoughts generated about it). Observe directly how this feeling-sensation arises, intensifies, and passes away. Then, by detaching from the desire or fear you can realize vividly and clearly that this feeling-sensation is merely an object arising In Consciousness. Thus knowing that you cannot be this desire or fear, surrender all identification with it and ask yourself: if I am not this feeling-sensation, who then am I?

In asking this question it is important not to accept any intellectual answers your mind may offer. What you are after is not any concept about your Identity but a direct Realization of It. Therefore, simply abide in the formless space of the question. Intuit it as an Unqualified Presence, Pure Selfless Awareness, or Consciousness Itself.

To be effective, of course, virtues require repeated disciplined practice. Nevertheless, something of their great spiritual power may be gleaned from this one example. By interrupting the habit of delusion at the point of its origin-that is, at the very moment in which selfish action begins—practices of virtue serve to convert even our deluded activities into endless opportunities for insight.

When this happens, you reach a turning point. The Spiritual Path ceases to be something you merely think about, or dream of, or practice only during periods of seclusion. Instead, the Spiritual Path becomes something you actually live, moment-to-moment, day-to-day, amid all the circumstances of an ordinary life. Outwardly, nothing need change. But inwardly the knots of delusion begin to loosen and unravel so that the ancient and implacable habit of suffering becomes increasingly punctuated by bursts of real spontaneity and bewildering joy, until finally, through the Grace of the Real, the last shreds of selfhood drop completely away and you Stand Naked of all paths and circumstances, boundaries, and distinctions, as you truly are, have been, and always will be, world without end, Amen.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1990. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.

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