Nondual Ethics? The Case of Francis Lucille

Francis Lucille

In the modern Western spiritual scene ethics and nonduality seem like strange bedfellows¹. Nondual spiritual practice is often conceived of as nonpractice, and therefore not about ethical discipline. This is because nonduality is about transcending the efforts and evaluations of the illusory separate self, and so it is frequently thought that attempting to improve the illusion of the self, to care for other illusions, or to train or consciously transform the illusion of oneself, is, well, illusion begetting illusion.

There is some truth to this perspective. Our ethical commitments are frequently much more grounded in our “self-project” than we realize. To put it differently, our ethical concerns, whether for our own behavior or directed outwards to saving or serving the world, are often woven so tight with our concern to justify, maintain, and improve our self-image that in practice we cannot easily tell the difference.

It is often wise, then, to stop the propulsion of our ethical or salvific merry-go-round rides and take a look at how we are constructing who we are. Epictetus, the great Roman stoic, advised his students: “Until you know what to desire, it is better to desire as little as possible.”

That said, this attitude can also be problematic. Attitudes, habits, and actions which have been traditionally considered “vicious” (vices), or as immoral/unethical are considered so for good reasons.

As Francis Lucille, a contemporary teacher of the “direct path” underlines, the whole purpose of the path of Advaita (nonduality) is happiness. As it happens, those behaviors traditionally seen as vices make us miserable. Are they then out of harmony with the nondual life?

The Buddha’s approach might shed some light. He taught his students to cultivate restraint not for the grandiose purpose of saving the world, and not in service to the endless struggle of at last becoming a good person, but for the purpose of “freedom from remorse.” Freedom from remorse leads to joy, and from there to the ability to meditate and contemplate reality free from obstruction (Anguttara Nikaya 10.1).

The actions the Buddha advised his students to refrain from include killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated from alcohol or drugs. These actions are ill-advised because they lead to the “long term harm and suffering of both oneself and others” and therefore to remorse, sadness, and darkening of the mind (Anguttara Nikaya 4.99). The Buddha also classed certain internal states as harmful: greed, anger, and confused thinking.

The point I am getting at is that failing to care for the mind and body, and/or failing to care for the ethical quality of mental states and actions will lead, as a natural law (dharma) to complications, remorse, and suffering in a way which will obstruct any spiritual path.

The qualities advocated as prerequisites for awakening by the great Advaitin Shankara, which boil down to moral self-restraint, mindfulness, discernment, and dispassion are all impossible to attain without ethical behavior. Although some will balk at the idea that practices should be undertaken to make it easier to awaken out of fear that a gradualist deferral is being advocated, that does not need to be so. There is a difference between a precondition and a favorable condition.

Jean Klein frequently affirmed that physical yoga practices (done in the right way) prepared the body in a way which makes awakening easier and also advocated for eating in a mindful, sattvic way for the same reason (sattva = fresh, healthy, vegetarian and non-stimulating). It seems obvious to me that cultivating virtues is useful for similar reasons, and that this can and should be done without them being fetishized.

To my way of thinking there are two possible reasons to pursue ethical behavior on the nondual way. These are:

What Does a Nondual Ethic Look Like?: Francis Lucille

Recently I came across a wonderful discussion of ethical decision-making from Francis Lucille. In a satsang from April 2015, Francis was asked how to make decisions about whether and in what way to help other people.

Francis’ answer, although it addresses that question, seems to me to offer a broader approach to ethical decision making which is both very useful and is uniquely grounded in the internal logic and goal of nondual practice.

Francis: “I think the decision we make in any situation cannot be predefined. It always has to be made in context, and the context is never twice the same. In any given context the first question we have to ask ourselves is, ‘Do I really have to make a decision?’ Then, if the answer to this question is ‘yes’, then ‘what is the appropriate decision?’, meaning, ‘what is the impersonal decision in this context?’”

“The impersonal decision is one in which I am not identifying with any party in the situation, in which my endeavor is to make the decision which is in line with truth, love, and beauty. So that’s how we can come to the good within these situations.”

“The first thing is to ask oneself, ‘do I really have to get involved?’ My teacher (Jean Klein) told a story that once he was traveling in Italy and there was this man and woman vehemently arguing, screaming at each other, and then starting to hit each other. He went there and tried to separate them and then they both started to hit him! He said, ‘I took my lesson’. I don’t have to get involved in situations!”

“It is your ego that you feel so important that you have to be there and to play God. So the first question is: does the situation really require my intervention? My teacher used to say also we shouldn’t completely deprive people of their suffering because the suffering is somehow the ‘homing device’, that which puts us on the path to truth. We should rather give them the means, the knowledge, to save themselves, rather than to save them. Of course, if someone is drowning it is very clear if there is an accident on the freeway it is very clear, you call emergency services.”

“There are all kinds of situations where what to do is extremely clear. But there are other situations where it is difficult and we have to remember that sometimes we are not going to be certain that we have made the right decision. All we can do is to try to do our best given our knowledge of the situation and our impression that some action is required, and in innocence, we try to do our best.”

“Two different human beings in the same circumstance may have chosen two opposite decisions coming from the same place of innocence and truth because they have different means to look at the situation and therefore two different decisions in a given situation can be equally impersonal, and the converse is also true.”

“In a given situation with a similar decision from two different persons, one may be impersonal and the other comes from ignorance: the magic is that the consequences of the impersonal decision will be harmonious and the consequences of the ignorant decision will be disharmonious because the universe in its wisdom knows and will reshape itself accordingly.”

“That is the beauty, and it is very important to understand that. For instance, since it was mentioned with regards to politics, you can have two different attitudes in a given situation that are taken by two different human beings but each of them coming from a pure heart but with different experience and different knowledge of the world, of the events, etc. They may take two different, even opposed decisions with good heart and good intelligence but they will both be impersonal, and conversely the same is true.”

“The universe will respond to intent. It corresponds to the Christian saying, ‘It is the intention that makes the actions holy, that sanctifies the action.’ So the intention of a pure heart, in fact, makes the action holy. In other words, an action cannot be judged by itself but rather by the intention it comes from.”

This answer contains quite a lot. Francis first of all cautions against dogmatism and “precepts”, or predefined ethical rules. He then warns against being quick to intervene in other people’s problems or attempting to play God. This could be called humility, but it also resonates with the Advaitin teachings on de-emphasizing doer-ship and decreasing attempts at control and self-assertion. He then says that when a moral decision is needed, one should attempt to take as impersonal a perspective as possible and choose the action that reflects the values of truth, love and beauty. Elsewhere he calls this “the just position”.

Lucille proposes a thought exercise where one tries to view the situation from a broad, non-egoic perspective and make the justest, most true, most loving, most beautiful resolution for everyone involved. The intention, here, simply put, is to benefit everyone involved, not merely oneself. So here we have, in effect, an impersonal ethic to meet an impersonal spirituality.

Lucille warns that certainty cannot here be attained and we must make our best decision “in innocence”. He also warns against judging other people’s decisions and emphasizes that what matters in making moral decisions is not technical perfection but intention.

We should note the affinity between what Lucille says here and the teachings of the Buddha, who said that “cetana” (intention) is the definition of karma, i.e. good or bad results follow on the quality of one’s intentions. This may sound “new age-y,” but the assertion is actually fairly empirical. One can observe for oneself what types of effects tend to follow actions that we take in different mental states- love or hate, greed or generosity, clarity or confusion, and verify that some intentions are better generally better than others.

It seems that the ethics Lucille elucidates here attempt to approximate enlightened action or the way a liberated person would act. The liberated person does not act out of self-interest or attempt to control external situations or play God and also is wise enough to be nondogmatic about right action and hesitant to judge the decisions of others from the outside.

Instead, the focus is on intention and holistic awareness. We should also note here the apparent difference between the Buddha’s argument for ethics and Lucille’s: the Buddha advocated for ethics for the purpose of making the mind happy and joyful and thereby facilitating meditation. meditation, in turn, leads to insight and nirvanic release. Lucille advocates for an ethics which itself brings one into greater harmony with the non-egoic Self (atman).It is, characteristically, more direct than the Buddha’s explicitly gradual path.

Francis’ ethic seems designed to bring us closer to the position of the awakened mind while navigating the circumstances of the world. This position is both modeling of the Self in the world and an approach to action which will bring us “closer” to the Self in terms of resonance with it.

1] This was not always the case. In Indian Advaita certain ethical commitments and qualities of character (such as dispassion and longing for truth) were most often seen as prerequisites for realization. Some traditions which held Advaitic realization as the goal advocated Hathayoga practices or the trans-lineal lifestyle and ethics of a Yogi. As far as I know it was only Tantric and radical nondual traditions associated with Sahaja (natural) Yoga and “The Way of Will” which advocated freedom from all ethical codes, lifestyle requirements, or prerequisites. Some modern Advaita teachers (such as Papaji), global neo-Advaita, and Direct Path teachings (such as those of Jean Klein and Francis Lucille) refuse to depict particular practices, ethical commitments, or qualities of character as needed for realization. That said, in practice some teachers (like Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira) do teach Yogic and contemplative practices and give advice about the transformation of mind and character within the Advaita path and goal.

This essay was originally published on my blog “seeking her voice” in 2015. The version here is revised.

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