Recently I made a decision to tithe my income. I’d known about the concept of tithing for a long time, which is a well-known spiritual practice in Christian circles and one of the five pillars of Islam. Tithing involves giving away a percentage of everything we earn (before tax!) to charity – traditionally to your spiritual community. I did my sums, decided that 10% should be possible in theory, and made a commitment to try it.

I am very interested in how we become more ethical in practice. You could say that giving a proportion of my income away is an ethical thing to do. Do we become more ethical people because we learn what good behaviour is, and then try really hard to be good? I don’t think that’s the whole picture… I’ve known for a long time that the Buddha encouraged us to live with less, and to give what we have to those who need it. Why, if I became a Buddhist many years ago, has it taken me so long? Why now?

In my case, I didn’t start tithing because I decided to try and be more generous with my money. I started tithing because I am ready to be more generous with what I have, and I’m ready because the Buddha’s love has been working away on me in the background all this time. My experience of refuge has been gradually wearing away my fear around scarcity and my compulsions around spending. My ethical behaviour is a natural consequence of my taking refuge and growing in faith, rather than a conscious decision ‘to be good’.

This way of looking at my decision chimes with my teacher Dharmavidya David Brazier’s interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, which he outlines in his book ‘The Feeling Buddha’. In it he summarises the usual interpretation of these truths as (to paraphrase) the problem of dukkha (1) can be solved by the extinction of desire, nirodha (3), which is achieved through following marga, the ethical action of the Eightfold Path (4). This is unlike the way the Buddha usually sets out his teachings, which are “…in the form of logical propositions [that] almost invariably have the linear form A leads to B which leads to C which leads to D and so on.”

Dharmavidya suggests instead that the fourth truth, marga, ethical action, is a natural consequence of the third truth, nirodha. Nirodha is a choice we can make when samudaya appears – we can build an earth bank around the fire that arises, and harness it to do good. We don’t extinguish our passion, but instead use it as our fuel. We can do this by deeply understanding the first truth, which says that we can’t avoid dukkha, and by realising that our attempts to avoid it in the short term won’t ultimately help us. Instead, we make the choice of the noble ones. To summarise, after inevitable dukkha (1), samudaya happens (2), then we have a choice to choose nirodha (3) which leads us towards the Eightfold Path, marga (4). This process, supported by our deep refuge in the three jewels, naturally results in us becoming more ethical as time goes on.

Dharmavidya says, “The Middle Path, the Eightfold Way, is not the means to eliminate suffering. It is the noble outcome of facing the reality of affliction and working through what then comes up for us in a courageous and authentic way. When we do so, the eight elements of the path described by the Buddha are not means to an end. They are simply a description of our authentic life. The Eightfold Path emerges from the spiritual work described in the first three truths.”

If looked at through this lens, we can see that I haven’t been a completely passive partner in the process of change. In my experience, I am more able to courageously face my dukkha when I am resourced and connected to a spiritual source. There are things I can do to affect these factors. I live in a Buddhist community and I spend time in practice, study and devotion. I make sure I receive the support I need from friends, sangha, 12 step groups, therapy and courses. I look after myself as best I can, including getting enough sleep, food, rest and fun. I seek out inspiration through my teachers and through books. I write articles on the Dharma.

All of these activities put me in good conditions and intensify the influence of the Buddha on me, or at least help get some of my ego out of the way! Despite this, it’s not helpful for me to fall into the trap of thinking that I am in control of my process of growth. This would be like a flower feeling they could move from their undernourished soil to the other side of the garden, if only they pulled at their roots hard enough. I can turn my face to the sun, and the rest of it is not up to me.

I made the decision to tithe my income because the time was ripe for me to try it. It’s just outside my comfort zone. I have felt some panic about giving the money away, and also some rebellion at saying goodbye to money I could have bought chocolate or books with. I have worried about whether I will be able to pay my bills, or afford to go away on a writing retreat next year. This is dukkha arising, and I try to face it when it arrives with gentleness and patience.

If someone had asked me to tithe my income last year or even last month, I would only have managed to do so with a great deal of resentment. It might have been helpful for those who received my money, but at a cost – my resentment may have infected the transaction, or led me to be less generous in other parts of my life. I believe that when we push ourselves too hard to be ethical when we don’t want to be, there is a consequence, and at these times it might be more sensible to accept our current limitations and keep turning our faces to the sun. We can’t help plants grow by tugging at them.

I have watched several people become vegan over the past four years in the temple, and they have all done so at their own pace. They have started to experiment with swapping in plant milk or trying vegan cake recipes when their time is ripe. I still occasionally succumb to prodding them to ‘hurry them up’, and it always backfires. If someone asks you for information or advice, then give it – but otherwise, get on with looking at how ethically you are living your own life – there will be plenty there to occupy you!

So, should we try to be good? Of course, yes. Sometimes it is helpful to ‘fake it to make it’, doing what is ethical even though our hearts aren’t in it. Sometimes we learn about ourselves by giving a little more than feels comfortable, or holding our tongue when we really want to gossip. And – there are limits to the choices we make. We all carry heavy karma, going back many generations. If it was easier to become perfectly ethical, we’d all be Buddhas by now! I might be tithing at the moment, but I’m still using too much plastic, speaking unskilfully, feeling jealous, using various compulsions etc. etc. etc.

I think it is helpful to be realistic about what is possible, and realistic about how much control we have over ourselves. We are all bombu – foolish beings of wayward passions. We can keep turning our faces towards the light, by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha whenever we can. We can do our best. We can forgive ourselves for not living up to our expectations, and try to forgive others for disappointing us. We can also trust that the Buddha is working on us all the time and that, deep inside, our potential to be more ethical is slowly ripening… Wait for the blossom, any day now!

References: 1 – p47 of The Feeling Buddha, 2 – p125 of The Feeling Buddha