The Moral Compass


Wheel of the dharmaI have a laminated card beside me, wallet-sized so it can be carried around easily. I made it at my shop a few years ago; just a simple, two-sided business card with some text. It’s part of my personal moral compass. We all benefit from some guidance, at times, something to remind us of the higher things.

I look at it frequently through the day, as a reminder when I find myself in Dante’s dark wood. Every problem, every concern, every moment of doubt can be worked through using these basic principles, if you step outside the flow and think them through.

One side has the Four Noble Truths. These state the core beliefs of Buddhism in a simple, non-theistic manner.

My card says:

  1. Life means suffering. To live means to suffer, because the human nature is not perfect and neither is the world we live in.
  2. The origin of suffering is attachment to transient things, and the ignorance thereof.
  3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. It can be achieved through the unmaking of sensual craving and conceptual attachment.
  4. The end of suffering is through a gradual path of self-improvement described in the Eightfold Path. It is the middle way between extremes of self indulgence and self mortification.

Suffering isn’t always what you associate with the English word. The Pali word is ‘dukkha”  and it can also mean anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction, frustration, unease. A range of emotions. Wikipedia tells us:

Dukkha is commonly explained according to three different categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of developing insight into the nature of dukkha, the conditions that cause it, it how it can be overcome. This process is formulated in the teachings on the Four Noble Truths.

It’s not pessimism, but rather objective realism that informs this view. We all have anxieties over jobs, money, love, dying, sex, health, politics and more. They cause us stress, they cause us to suffer, to agonize, to hate, to conspire, to hurt.

“Life,” as this BBC page on the Buddhism says, “is not ideal: it frequently fails to live up to our expectations.”

So true. And we live in a culture where happiness is a marketable quality: we are brought up to believe happiness can be bought.

The Buddha also recognized happiness, but like suffering, he also knew it is impermanent.

We become happy when we get a new toy, a new car, a new pet, a new spouse, a new cell phone or computer, when we get drunk, when we get laid, when we watch a funny TV show, when we hear a good song on the radio – but suffering returns because the new becomes the old quickly. We become disenchanted. Happiness wears thin.

We always want the new, sparkly, shiny things. The newest model, the latest game, the puppy or kitten when the other pet has grown up. We want the emotional surge that new stuff gives us. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

We also get a surge of pleasure when we win a game, when we triumph over another, when we sink the ball into the basket.

Some feel pleasure when they hurt others, too. Suffering makes them angry, bitter, lonely. Frustrated. They attack others in a vain attempt to relieve their own distress. But it doesn’t work. They need to keep attacking and hurting to try to keep their suffering at bay. Hurting others alleviates their own pain.

But their satisfaction never lasts. It usually comes back to haunt them. As the Dhammapada says:

One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.

Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

Happiness, no matter how attained, is transient. So is suffering, but because of our nature, it often needs more work to escape it. It’s easier to dwell on the negatives, than holding onto the positives.

To understand and fix a problem, first you have to acknowledge it. See the pain for what it is: see what’s causing it.  Wikipedia also says:

The central importance of dukkha in Buddhist philosophy is not intended to present a pessimistic view of life, but rather to present a realistic practical assessment of the human condition—that all beings must experience suffering and pain at some point in their lives, including the inevitable sufferings of illness, aging, and death. Contemporary Buddhist teachers and translators emphasize that while the central message of Buddhism is optimistic, the Buddhist view of our situation in life (the conditions that we live in) is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.

Symbolic causes of sufferingSuffering comes because we want, because we become attached to material things, to faiths and ideologies; because we confuse material goods or group belief with happiness and accomplishment, and because we generally don’t look deeper than the surface of most things, events and issues. Suffering comes because we don’t understand the causes for the loss of happiness or satisfaction that inevitably follows. We crave, we desire, we let our emotions drive us, our passions, not our calmer logic.

Within the context of the four noble truths, the origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving or thirst (Pali: tanha) conditioned by ignorance (Pali: avijja). On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance (avijja) of the true nature of things. The third noble truth is that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible, and the fourth noble truth identifies a path to this cessation.

Suffering is a caused by attachment or clinging, by ignorance, by delusion, by hatred and destructive urges. It causes us to strike out, to attack others, to try to end our own suffering by making others suffer in turn.

That never works. The cause is in us, not outside.

Buddhanet describes is like this:

The Noble Truth that Dukkha has a causal arising. This cause is defined as grasping and clinging or aversion. On one hand it is trying to control anything and everything by grabbing onto or trying to pin them down, On the other hand it is control by pushing away or pushing down and running away or flinching away from things. It is the process of identification through which we try to make internal and external things and experiences into “me and mine” or wholly ‘”other” than Me. This flies in the face of the three signs of existence – Anicca, Dukkha. Anatta – Impermanence. Stress or Suffering and No-Self. Because all conditioned existence is impermanent it gives rise to Dukkha, and this means that in conditioned existence there is no unchanging and permanent Self. There is nothing to grasp onto and also in reality, nothing or no ‘one’ to do the grasping! We grab onto or try to push away ever changing dynamic processes. These attempts to control, limit us to little definitions of who we are.

The point of these observations is that, once we are aware of the situation, once we know what the problem is, we  understand that not only can it be cured, but that the solution is simple. We need to look past the immediate, past the momentary sadness and pain to the deeper cause: attachment. Clinging. Lust. Hard to avoid in this deeply consumerist culture, where creating and feeding our craving is a massive industry.

Getting above this involves self-discipline, stepping out of the river to watch it flow past, from the bank.  Which is one reason Buddhism promotes meditation: to create a quiet space to think on these things. Meditation is much more than that, but that’s a good place to start. Freeing yourself from the shackles of craving, of lust, of want, of passion is nirvana. The word means extinguishing. It’s the road to enlightenment: self-awareness of the causes and the escape. And to get there you must tread a carefully laid-out path.

The other side of my card has  the eightfold path, also called the wheel of the dharma; a wheel of eight spokes all connected to the centre, bound in a way that they all support the wheel equally.

This is the solution to suffering identified in the last noble truth; eight pointers to modifying and correcting our behaviour, broken into three categories (wisdom, ethical conduct, and mental development or concentration):

  1. Right view (wisdom)
  2. Right intention (wisdom)
  3. Right speech (ethical conduct)
  4. Right Action  (ethical conduct)
  5. Right Livelihood  (ethical conduct)
  6. Right effort (mental development)
  7. Right mindfulness  (mental development)
  8. Right concentration  (mental development)

Right view is also translated as right intention or right understanding. Again English translations tend to constrain the meaning.

The word right is an imperfect translation of the Pali word samma. It’s not right as in correct (versus wrong), but rather ‘proper.’ Buddhanet has this to say:

The word Samma means ‘proper’, ‘whole’, ‘thorough’, ‘integral’, ‘complete’, and ‘perfect’ – related to English ‘summit’ – It does not necessarily mean ‘right’, as opposed to ‘wrong’. However it is often translated as “right” which can send a less than accurate message. For instance the opposite of ‘Right Awareness’ is not necessarily ‘Wrong Awareness’. It may simply be incomplete. Use of the word ‘right’ may make for a neat or consistent list of qualities in translations. The down side is that it can give the impression that the Path is a narrow and moralistic approach to the spiritual life. I use variant interpretations so you consider the depth of meanings. What do these things mean in your life right now?

it’s not easy to be calm, to be considerate, to keep these rules in mind and reflect on words and actions. We are emotional beasts and we respond rather than reflect in most cases. That’s why I need the constant remidner, the wallet card with the shorthand message: pay attention, think, breathe, consider. And above all, do good: do the right thing, don’t cause hurt.

We all need guides, signposts, milestones, teachers to help us on the way through life. We need markers on our own moral compasses to point the right direction. This is one of mine.

I have for ready reference several Buddhist texts I also consider part of my moral compass, although they are longer and less portable.*

The Dhammapada for one has deep resonance for me (especially the Still Point version by Geri Larkin).

The Kalama Sutra, which encourages critical thinking, free thought, careful analysis and not to be bound by ideologies without first testing their truth.

Paul Reps’s  superb collection of stories, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones is also among them; these little wisdom tales shine like diamonds. Here’s one:

Buddha told a parable in a sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, mother tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other.
How sweet it tasted!

But I have other books, too, outside the Buddhist realm, books that offer me insight, thoughtful challenge and wisdom.

Idres Shah’s Nasrudin stories.

The meditations of Marcus Aurelius (“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill.” and “Remember this— that there is a proper dignity and proportion to be observed in the performance of every act of life.”).

The epithets of Heraclitus (“You cannot step twice into the same river; for other waters are continually flowing in.”).

The Tao Teh Ching (“Mastering others requires force; Mastering the self requires strength.”)

The Bhagavad Gita. Here are a few lines from Chapter 16:

 Fearlessness; purification of one’s existence; cultivation of spiritual knowledge; charity; self-control; performance of sacrifice; study of the Vedas; austerity; simplicity; nonviolence; truthfulness; freedom from anger; renunciation; tranquility; aversion to faultfinding; compassion for all living entities; freedom from covetousness; gentleness; modesty; steady determination; vigor; forgiveness; fortitude; cleanliness; and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor—these transcendental qualities, O son of Bharata, belong to godly men endowed with divine nature.

Pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance—these qualities belong to those of demoniac nature,

The transcendental qualities are conducive to liberation, whereas the demoniac qualities make for bondage… the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.

The signature in my email has the words, “ergo dum tempus habemus operemur bonum,” a quote from Galatians, meaning “while we have time, let us work good.” I read those words daily and consider them my political mandate.**

There’s wisdom everywhere, if you look for it, pointers to help your moral compass find its own north.


* For me, Buddhism is a practical moral and ethical philosophy, rather than a religion, because it is not about worship. This fits comfortably within my existentialism, my secular humanism. I find wisdom in Buddhism’s many insightful, yet practical non-theistic works, but not exclusively.
** The full line in Galatians 6:10 is: “Ergo dum tempus habemus operemur bonum ad omnes maxime autem ad domesticos fidei” – “While we have time, let us work good to all men, but especially to those who are of the
household of the faith.” I prefer the abbreviated, more inclusive, version. My personal email has what is the ancient  motto of at least one part of the Chadwick family:  “In Candore Decus”: Honour in Uprightness. It can also be translated as “There is honour in sincerity” and “Honour in truth.” Aspirations to candour, honesty, uprightness and truth run through my family’s genealogy.

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