Question — Could we start with the fourth Paramita which you called "Indifference to pleasure and pain"? I have been thinking about it, but I can't see the logic in becoming indifferent. Of course, if we all want to be hermits, that's one thing; but I've always felt we should be pretty well aware of everything if we want to understand the other fellow's problems. Why should we try to escape from either pleasure or pain?
Comment — Certainly we do not want to escape from our responsibilities by becoming hermits and trying to find quick salvation for ourselves. That is far from the true aspirant's goal. In fact, we shouldn't try to run away from anything, much less from the problems that pleasure and pain bring. That would be escapism pure and simple — and of a most selfish kind. However, even if for a time we succeeded, we couldn't run away for very long, for the "pairs of opposites," heat and cold, night and day, pleasure and pain, or north and south, are intrinsic in nature.
Let me read the full definition of this fourth Virtue: Dispassion — "indifference to pleasure and pain, illusion conquered, truth alone perceived." When we see things as they really are, not as they appear to be, then the truth of a situation will be perceived.
Question — Would you define the word dispassion It seems important to get down to basic meanings.
Comment — Let us see what the dictionary says: "dispassion — freedom from passion; dispassionate: free from passion; not carried away; calm, impartial; synonyms: cool, collected, serene, unruffled." An excellent definition to my mind. We can say then that dispassion is the quality of viewing any situation or condition of life with an impartial eye, hence with clarity of vision, because the clouds of passion or illusion, whether of over-elation or depression, have been dispersed.
Thus, this fourth Virtue does not advocate escape from the pairs of opposites; but rather the practice of calm indifference to the effects on ourselves of either pleasure or pain so that we can meet with equanimity whatever extremities life has in store.
Question — Wouldn't it be rather a dull existence if we never experienced the extremes? What about the highly sensitive person? One day he is way up in the clouds of rapture, and the next sunk in despair. Still he is living, not just having a nondescript life, without either joy or sorrow.
Comment — I can assure you there's nothing nondescript about trying to put this particular Virtue into practice. As one wit expressed it: it may be a child's school, but it takes a man to go through it. Try for one week to meet every event, from morning to night, with equanimity, and see if it doesn't take a lot of moral strength to sustain the effort. To be sure, there are people in every walk of life who are so insensitive they don't feel anything, and what is more, don't give a hoot about the suffering of others. Fortunately they are in the minority. Of course it is not for us to judge the inner sensitivity of another, however crude or apparently insensitive his personality may be.
There are, on the other hand, those individuals, and geniuses too, who feel everything with intense keenness. While I am not holding a brief for the irregular life of many a genius, still the world would be the loser if a few had not had those moments of pure vision, and attempted in their way to bring back a memory of "truth alone perceived." But the genius is in a category all his own, and it is highly questionable whether that is the right and natural pathway for the majority of mankind. Most of us are just ordinary folk — neither reprobate nor genius — who in our better moments try to find that "golden mean" or, as the Buddha phrased it, that "middle" course where spiritual growth can go hand-in-hand with, if not lead, our material development. To be dispassionate then is to be free from the dominance of any particular desire. Obviously, such indifference or dispassion must apply first and foremost to ourselves, for it would be contrary to the compassionate law of Being if we felt a callous indifference to the pain of others.
Question — I find this particular Virtue gives me the most trouble, because I think I would be dead if I didn't have any dominating desires.
Comment — But to strive after "indifference to pleasure and pain" does not mean you shouldn't have desire! It simply means that we have to try to live in the center of every experience, rather than swinging so far on the pendulum of life that we hit our head (and heart too) first at one end and then rebound violently toward the other. We are enjoined here to try to live and work without succumbing to the effects of either pleasure or pain, beauty or ugliness, or any of the pairs of opposites. There is the whole key, as I see it. Certainly we must have desire — it is the powerhouse of evolution. There is an ancient saying from the Vedas: "Desire first arose in IT" — and the world came into being, the divine seed of a world-to-be had first to feel the pulsing flame of desire to manifest before it could assume material form. So with every last one of us: we have to experience the desire to grow, to evolve, otherwise we are supine. The gods know only too well that supine individuals will never make their mark in spiritual (or even in material) things.
Question — Doesn't the Bible say something about the Lord spewing the lukewarm out of his mouth?
Comment — In Revelation, I think. No, there's nothing flabby or lukewarm about trying to practice this Paramita!
Question — I recently received a letter from a friend who does private-duty nursing. She wrote how "sad life was" — she had given her very best, and yet her patient, whom she had come dearly to love, had died. And so it goes on, she wrote: "patient after patient: some get well; others drag through life in misery; and still others don't 'make the grade,' but die." It seems easy to grasp the principles when we discuss them here, but when you have to make them work day in and day out under rather trying circumstances a different set of values comes into play.
Comment — This points up the fine distinction between mere theory and practice. It would be the height of hypocrisy if we didn't feel the sorrow of others as well as their happiness. We must become ever more sensitive to their joy and pain in direct proportion as we become insensitive to our own. That is the first requirement.
But let's go back to the nurse, or better still, the physician or surgeon. He treats patient after patient: through self-discipline and impersonal dedication to his profession he actually lives this fourth Virtue, to a greater or less degree: if he did not have a measure of indifference, of "divine carelessness," and trust that if he does his level best he can do no more — he would crack up. He couldn't stand the terrific strain. With all due respect to his talents, his knowledge, and his skill, there is "the hand of God" or karma if you like — and the patient either makes it or not.
Every physician takes the oath, pledges himself to preserve life and to bring health where ill-health is, so far as his ability and knowledge permit. There is small doubt in my mind that the surgeon who operates must suffer greatly when some unforeseen element steps in — and instead of a successful outcome the patient dies. What does he do? He may be painfully hurt — but walk on he must. There are other lives to save; other men and women whose happiness and future depend upon his skill, his dedication, his impersonal service. So, with a divine "indifference" to the effects of either joy or sorrow, he gives of himself fully to the next patient — without too great an attachment to the success or failure of his efforts.
Question — You are speaking of the ideal physician, because all are not as impersonal, or as dedicated as the one you describe.
Comment — Obviously, every profession, every religious organization, every line of human endeavor will have grand exponents, as well as its selfish, callous, and even cruel representatives. But that doesn't undercut the principle. We can act positively, impersonally, with sensitivity to the inner values, as far as we may feel them, in whatever field of action we find ourselves. Doing this, we discover the benefits of putting these Paramitas into practice.
Question — It all seems very wonderful, but to be able to meet the complex problems of everyday existence with equanimity, isn't that an almost impossible task?
Comment — It isn't easy, by any means. But it is not intended that we shall overnight become "equal-minded as the sage." The Paramitas are given as an ideal, something to hold within the heart toward which to aspire. I might add that there are certain basic keys which, if understood, do give one not only perspective but a larger self-confidence.
We have talked here again and again about the divinity that resides in the heart of every creature on earth. We tend to forget that that means man too. Once we start to work with that idea, we very soon realize there must be an endless horizon of experience ahead of us, just as there is an endless background of experience behind us. The ancient belief that man is a pilgrim of eternity, with the opportunity to grow and to learn during a series of lifetimes, opens wide the frontier before our consciousness. And the realization comes that the best preparation in the world is given us every hour of the day, for nothing comes to us but that which we ourselves have earned. When we learn to read the daily lesson that life brings us, we shall find opportunities placed before us to appreciate all of the Virtues — not alone the fourth one.
Now the fifth Paramita is called Dauntlessness — that "dauntless energy that fights its way to the supernal truth, out of the mire of lies terrestrial." This points up the eternal struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood. Truth is, but to find it the soul needs all the fortitude it can muster to disentangle itself from the jungle of false concepts it has built through the ages. If it can withstand the subtle disguise of deception and the corroding influence of doubt on every plane of experience, then it will know truth — not in fullness but in ever greater clarity.
The sixth Virtue is called Contemplation — the gateway to truth — the becoming absorbed in its atmosphere, with one's consciousness pondering the eternal values rather than trivial details. There is a world of difference between genuine contemplation and the so-called "practices of meditation," many of which are an actual danger to the soul. In fact, when I am asked "how shall I meditate?" my invariable reply is: "If I were you, I would stop all set practices of meditation." Anything unnaturally forced is a deterrent, rather than an aid, to spiritual growth. I like to think of contemplation as an inward, almost unconscious brooding with the soul-part of us reaching toward the Father within, so that our consciousness will be guided by true values rather than by false.
There in brief are the "six glorious virtues" or "Paramitas of perfection" — not that their practice leads to perfection, for there is no such thing. But they can, if the spirit of them becomes a part of our lives, help us to a broader and more universal understanding.
Question — You said sometimes they are given as ten. I can't see the need for so many or why any further breakdown is necessary. I suppose anyone could draw up a list of six, ten or even thirty virtues. But if the basic idea is absorbed, haven't we enough to work on? Doesn't the desire for information have a habit of breeding desire for more and more facts, so that it piles up on itself? You sometimes wonder if you're ever going to be satisfied until you meet the ultimate answer face to face. It's a kind of selfishness in its own way, isn't it?
Comment — The desire for more and more information unrelated to ethics does indeed breed a sort of selfishness. Yet it is a natural stage of growth, once we have acquired a degree of intellectual capacity, to want more and more facts laid before us in a precise and orderly manner. As we have said, those facts won't do us a bit of good unless we grasp their underlying spiritual values and allow them to keep a close check on our craving for intellectual power.
Let me close with the following, taken from a Buddhist scripture, in answer to the question as to how true charity should be practiced:
When they [students or disciples] are doing acts of charity they should not cherish any desire for recompense or gratitude or merit or advantage, nor any worldly reward. They should seek to concentrate the mind on universal benefits and blessings that are for all alike, and by so doing will realize within themselves the highest perfect wisdom.
In those few words, we have the answer, I do believe, to the real value of whatever code of ethics we might choose to follow.