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Section II - Guiding Principles
Chapter 5 - Organic Principles


There is a real difference between a commandment and a vow, especially as Buddhists understand the latter term. A commandment is an order levied upon one by a superior. A vow is a personal statement of intent. The former implies an enforceable hierarchy of power; the latter relies solely on your own integrity.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity, p.45


How might we modify our most basic principles so their essence remains intact while guiding us to be in greater harmony with life?

Several years ago I attended a lunchtime, brown bag conversation group at Portland State University; it was about the importance of a principled, ethical approach to sustainability. One of the professors commented that, since the group members had a deeply ingrained desire to be ethical, the task would be relatively easy. I voiced my agreement, but with two major concerns: First, since most of our Western religious ethic is based on the Ten Commandments, and those commandments say nothing about who we are for the Earth, an ethic of utmost significance to sustainability in Western culture is missing. The Ten Commandments ethic permeates our culture - perhaps more for those who profess a religious tradition - but no one within our culture operates distinctly outside of it. And second, the theologies built on the Ten Commandments are based on a duality between humans and the ‘source of life.' This duality has given rise to divinely appointed property rights, as well as deeply rooted beliefs and behaviors grounded in a sense of dominion.


Recognizing that the ethics of our religions were put in place to positively influence the unethical behavior of their time, it is in the most appreciative sense that I express profound gratitude to each of the world's religions for the improvements they introduced, and the positive impact they have made over the centuries. Despite the rhetoric of the last several years, I've experienced the most ethical behavior in terms of joy, purpose, community, civility, and safety in every country with a predominantly religious culture I've visited.

We can assume that when ethics are established, they represent all we know about what is good and right. Over long periods of time - eras and eons - we gain new knowledge, like quantum physics; uncover old knowledge that has been obscured, like naturopathic healing; and have to deal with new situations like global warming and overpopulation. These changes remind us that principles and ethics have an organic quality, in that they need to change over time. Thus, in addition to our most sacred documents bringing life to those who are guided by them, these documents are themselves alive, and part of a system that requires them to change if the system is to remain healthy.

In the early 1990's, when I first became interested in mysticism and Kabalistic Judaism, my daughter gave me a copy of Rabbi Rami Shapiro's Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity. The book struck a deep chord within me as Rabbi Shapiro looked at each of the Ten Commandments and articulated what he'd internalized as their principles. For instance, he knows that it is wrong to kill in the sense of slaying another human being, and it is also wrong to kill a person's sense of dignity or creativity or anything else that is deeply valued by that person. As principles and personal statements of intent, the Ten Commandments promote engaging in the infinite game.

On several occasions when I facilitated sessions using the ‘Archetypes of Religions' chart, the conversation would focus on the shift made from the mystical principle - 'discerning an essence in all living systems' - to the fundamentalist principle - ‘God is on my side.' Three characterizations of the shift that come to mind are: the shift from abundance to scarcity; from spirituality to religion; and from our relationship with the ‘source of life' being a non-duality to a duality ('non-duality' meaning that there is a oneness to everything and a spark of divinity in all of life, ‘duality' meaning there is a separation between the ‘source' and all living systems).

In my interfaith work, it's become clear that there's a mystical component in every religion. And as I studied Jewish mysticism further, it became clear to me that the roots of Judaism are mystical - that its founders and prophets were probably all mystics. When the opportunity arose to read about and observe mystics of different faiths together, I saw that the mystics connect at a very visceral level that has little to do with the dogmas of their particular faiths, but everything to do with discerning the divinity in each other and all of life.

Some of our ethical awakening will come from religious transformation, but many people, particularly in the Western world, don't have a religious affiliation. Fortunately, the wisdom and understanding we are looking for is readily available if we just hold as a key principle that our Earth (and our Universe) is a living system. The theory that underlies sustainability is articulated in the chapter,  ‘Living Systems Theory,' and when it is understood, the ethics for being sustainable emerge. The organic nature of our principles now becomes even more apparent as we have religions influencing ethics and ethics influencing religions.


Think about a time when you held what seemed at the time a very deeply held belief that didn't serve you well.

How did you alter your belief?
What were the consequences - benefits and difficulties?
What are the important considerations to reflect deeply on before embarking on a change in a deep belief?


Rev. 2009-02-09 MOM


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Prev: Section II : Chapter 4 - A Principle Based Conversation
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