Expanding Horizons — James A. Long

The Six Glorious Virtues of Buddhism — I

Question — You have often said that the most profound truths are the simplest, and that they form the backbone of all the great religions. I have given a lot of thought to that. Recently I found a little book, The Voice of the Silence, which listed "six glorious virtues." The ideas appeal to me, and I'd like to know more about them.

Comment — I take it you are referring to the Paramitas of Buddhist literature. They are commonly given as six, though sometimes as seven or even ten, but the number is not so important. I feel it would take us too far afield to go at length into them, but we can certainly discuss them.

Every great religion contains precepts or exhortations toward a better life. In Buddhism the Paramitas are a set of "Virtues" describing qualities of thought and action which, if made a part of one's life, will reveal the mysteries of the universe and of man. It has also been said that their practice by the sincere aspirant will lead ultimately to complete enlightenment. In other words, the Paramitas, truly lived, point the way to direct perception of truth. The same could be said of any group of qualities or virtues. If we lived the one commandment of Jesus we would get the same result — for perfect love brings perfect understanding.

Question — This is all new to me as I am not familiar with the Buddhist religion. I wonder if you could explain what each of these Virtues means.

Comment — Yes, but let's omit the use of the Sanskrit words, unless in the discussion it seems advisable to analyze a particular term. Translated into English the Paramitas are as follows:

  1. Charity — the key of charity and love immortal;
  2. Uprightness — the key of harmony in word and act;
  3. Forbearance — patience sweet, that nought can ruffle;
  4. Dispassion — indifference to pleasure and to pain;
  5. Dauntlessness — the dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal truth;
  6. Contemplation — the open doorway to truth.

I might mention that service to mankind is held of first importance: "To live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second."

Question — Personally, I don't see any special value in these things. Can we say that the Buddhist has found truth any more successfully than the Christian or the Hebrew? What I mean is: these Virtues sound fine, but I confess they leave me almost as cold as the Ten Commandments; perhaps because I don't see that they get you any closer to living than anything else.

Comment — You're right in that as long as any set of rules or code of conduct remains a formula, it is dead — whether it be the Ten Commandments, the six or ten Paramitas, or the one sublime injunction of the Christ. It is only when a system or code helps us to channel our aspirations that it becomes a bridge to a fuller comprehension of existence.

One of the most difficult things that any of us has to learn is the direct and practical relationship between these ethical precepts and the intellectual understanding of the laws that govern man's inner and outer life and the inner and outer life of the universe. If the history of the soul could be written, perhaps the greatest struggle through unnumbered ages would be seen as that between the desire for knowledge on the one hand, and the yearning of the soul for wisdom on the other. The intellect is essential, but it is not the prime factor in man's development. The experience of every aspirant shows that as soon as he acquires a fair degree of intellectual capacity, the temptation is to become so fascinated with the intricacies of the universe — more exquisite in form than the finest precision instrument — that he loses sight of the soul's true goal: the conscious working with the inner divinity in order to serve the world of man.

In other words, the practice of the Virtues necessary for the attainment of truth too often takes second place to the intellectual acquisition of facts, and more and more facts — an avenue that leads to spiritual sterility.

Question — I can appreciate this, as I've always been skeptical of anything approaching special training. Have these Virtues anything to do with psychism?

Comment — Not at all. Any system or method of "training" that even remotely fringes on the psychic tends to lead the soul away from truth. There is too much running after this sort of thing nowadays. People think they are becoming spiritual by dabbling in these so-called "occult arts," but all they are doing is actually hindering their own development. True occultism is altruism per se, and has nothing to do with psychism. The Paramitas stress the development of the spiritual qualities of our nature as contrasted with the psychical and purely mental, and thus are linked directly to, because an integral part of, that urge in every human being who has his eyes looking to the divinity within.

Spiritual understanding and wisdom come only as the natural result of the day-to-day living of the spirit behind these "virtues" or "commandments" or "codes of ethics," whether they arc Hindu, Christian or Buddhist, and whether they are enumerated as one, three, four, seven or ten. For it is the essence of these formulas or guides that is the enduring force, not their outer vehicle; and it is the qualities behind them that we want to discuss, not their particular form.

Question — That's a pretty big order. I myself couldn't begin to live one of them, much less all six. How do you start? Should we try to master each one, and then go on to the next? I'm afraid I'd get stuck on the first and never get to the others.

Comment — You cannot isolate any one of these Virtues and practice it fully without bringing into play, at least in degree, all of the other qualities. Nature doesn't work that way — everything contributes to everything else, and everything contributes to the whole. Again, let us not pin our attention too closely on their form, because they will then become for us a dead thing so far as any spiritual values are concerned.

You will remember that the first requirement was "to live to benefit mankind." That was called the "first step," not the second, fourth, or fifth, but the first step; while the practice of the Virtues was called "the second step." That is a most significant distinction. As we think about it, we shall realize that the very aspiration to live so that the entire current of one's life is truly a service will automatically prepare oneself to begin the practice of at least some of the Virtues, if not all of them. And as we orient our thinking and our lives we shall see that these Virtues can represent a natural opportunity to transmute the base metal of our natures.

Let us take the first one: Charity and love immortal. This word charity has been grossly misapplied, for in its original sense it did not mean pity in the negative, limiting, and even unkind manner we too often employ it. Rather it denoted a spontaneous welling up of understanding and regard for the need of a brother. It comes close to us in every relationship of life, from the simplest to the most complex, because contact with others forces us to choose: either to take a step toward the selfish path, or toward the selfless, compassionate path. True charity does not make known its intent — when you do alms, do them "in secret." The practice of Charity is true consideration and thought for others; it pulls us away from an overconcern with ourselves, and thus sets a keynote for all the other virtues.

Question — Isn't it simply the Golden Rule in action? And wasn't it Paul who said something to the effect that even if we speak with the tongue of angels but have not charity, then we are as "sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal"?

Comment — Exactly so; and every world scripture, if we know how to read it, stresses this same altruistic approach.

So much for the first Virtue or Paramita. The second one, Uprightness or "harmony in word and act," follows along naturally, and tells us in what manner we must conduct ourselves while putting into practice our ethics.

Question — That one bothers me more than the first one. "Harmony in word and act" — does that mean you have always to give in to others, in discussion or argument, just because you want peace? Peace at any price has become quite a talking point these days.

Comment — That is not the view I take. "Peace at any price" to my mind is one of the most ineffectual if not disastrous means of gaining true and lasting peace. But let us not get into social or political questions here, not because we are afraid of them, but because it is so easy to get into intellectual arguments without resolving a thing.

To get back to this second Paramita: Uprightness implies harmony, but not necessarily agreement. There is quite a difference when we think about it. You cannot produce harmony if everyone plays the same note. The composer uses several tones, dissonances, and even discords, and then resolves them into a harmonious arrangement. That is what symphony means, the bringing together of sounds, the harmonizing of several different tones. So Uprightness implies the living in accord with our higher resolves, and hence reflecting in our daily activities a harmony in word and act. In simple words, living in such a way that we do not offend the balance and arrangement of natural law.

The only reason we suffer, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally, is that somewhere along the line we have disturbed the cosmic equilibrium, and caused inharmony in one or more of its many forms — and too often discord in our relations with others. Nature then reacts, automatically and impersonally, and attempts to readjust the equilibrium we had disturbed. Therefore we suffer. But as we become more able to work in sympathetic relationship with her laws, we find that we do not constantly stir up whirlpools of strife and disorder, but actually are able quietly to reestablish harmony.

Now let us go to the third Virtue: Forbearance. It doesn't take much to realize that a little more patience in the world would help things along. As said, we cannot look at these Paramitas as a progressive series of steps, like the rungs of a ladder. In a way, they do follow each other naturally, but you couldn't possibly practice one to any degree without practicing in some measure the others.

As for needing patience: again, that is double-edged in its application. We have to learn discrimination here as well as in all other lines of endeavor. "Patience is a virtue" has been drummed into our ears since childhood. It is most assuredly a virtue, and a necessary one; but we all know there are times when it is the part of wisdom as well as strength to stop allowing others to impose upon us.

It looks as though we're not going to be able to finish the Paramitas, so let me run quickly through the others to give us a picture as to how they all fit together:

  1. Dispassion — indifference to pleasure and pain;
  2. Dauntlessness — that dauntless energy to fight for truth;
  3. Contemplation — becoming thoroughly absorbed in the atmosphere of our effort;

all of which lead to Direct Perception or Self Knowledge.

That in brief sums up the Paramitas. I must repeat that all of this means absolutely nothing if we don't apply the essential quality of these Virtues. Unless the vital spiritual force flows into and through every thought and action and feeling of our lives, they are indeed as tinkling cymbals and as sounding brass.

We can know all the Sanskrit terms, be able to define the root-meanings, understand intellectually the modus operandi of spiritual enlightenment, or think we do, but when Life suddenly takes us at our word and says "prove the worth of these Virtues in your daily experiences" — we shall fail utterly if we have not made their inner quality a part of our very soul.

Question — It seems easy to resolve all of this nicely on a conversational level, but really to live and act without looking for results, without trying to see the fruits of our acts, is something else entirely. By indefatigably following this course, we would find ourselves on a hairline of action and motive. In short, to live it on the plane of day-to-day experiences is a horse of another color — at least to me it is.

Comment — That is where the great beauty of it all is. It is not easy, and yet it is beautifully simple too. That is where the paradox lies. It is pretty rugged when you stop to think that the truths we are all seeking will not become ours until we start actually putting some of these basic virtues into practice, not only on Sundays or on Wednesdays, but every hour of every day. We all have wondered about this, just why it was so; but the more we make them a part of our brooding consciousness, the more assured do we become that it couldn't work any other way. For the secrets of nature are not given at random, but only after the necessary preparation and training. As one great teacher put it: "It is he alone who has the love of humanity at heart, who is capable of grasping thoroughly the idea of a regenerating practical Brotherhood who is entitled to the possession of [nature's] secrets. He alone, such a man — will never misuse his powers, as there will be no fear that he should turn them to selfish ends."

The secrets of nature are not secret as such, but a way of life that will not be revealed until we fulfill the true mission of the soul — that of service here in the world.

Theosophical University Press Online Edition