The Six Glorious Virtues of Buddhism

Roundtable Discussions with James A. Long

Part 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 re-establish 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:

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. If it were easy, we wouldn't bother. But 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.

Part II

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 overelation 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.

  • (From Expanding Horizons by James A. Long. Copyright © 1965 by Theosophical University Press)

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