Japanese Images of the Virtues

Tenryuji pondThis is the temple pond of Tenru-ji, Arashiyama, Kyoto.  The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character “Kokoro,” which means heart, mind, or spirit.

The images below are in no way “official.”  They are simply paintings or statues that I came to love during the years I spent in Japan.  For me, they embody the Buddhist ideals called the four Bramaviharas.  This word refers to the “sublime attitudes”–loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity– that open the door to the “dwelling (vihara)” of the “Divine (Brama).”  They are sometimes referred to as “the four immeasurables ” since their attainment is without end.

These four are also called the “Buddhist virtues.”  As I have suggested in other posts, the idea of “virtue” has become etiolated in the modern world, perhaps as a result of a Puritanical focus on sexual propriety.  The notion of virtue, however, has a rich heritage that carries across many cultures:  Toku in Japanese (as In the great Shogun Tokugawa: the River of Virtue); Te in Chinese (this is the Te of the Tao Te Ching);  Arete in Greek, referring to the excellence of things from crafts to character; and Virtus in Latin, deriving from the word Vir (man, or more generally human).  In all of these traditions, I believe, Virtue points to a maturely developed human character–or more simply, a grownup.

The cardinal Western virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice are all complimentary facets of the jewel of character.  They exist together or not at all.  For example, one cannot be courageous, temperate, and just unless she does so wisely.  Thus all the virtues infuse and empower each other. They include perspective and focus of mind, a generous and open heart, integrity or centered and present wholeness, and a sense of fairness to all.  Aristotle said that Happiness (eudaimonia, or human flouishing) consists in activity in accord with virtue.  I believe this is a philosophical way of saying that a flourishing life is one lived from the very best in ourselves.  That, to me, is a noble aspiration.

The Eastern Virtues are likewise complementary.  It seems to me, however, that there is a shift of emphasis from the Western tradition of Wisdom as the lynchpin of the Virtues, to Loving Kindness as the leaven of the virtues.  Thus, the Western list of Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice, becomes Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy, and Equanimity in the Buddhist tradition.  Here are some of my favorite images:

Loving-kindness (Pāli: mettā, Sanskrit: maitrī)


This is Maitreya (Sanskrit), Metteyya (Pāli), or Miroku Bosatsu (Japanese).  His name is derived from the Sanskrit word maitrī (Pāli: mettā) meaning “loving-kindness”, which is in turn derived from the noun mitra (Pāli: mitta) meaning “friend”.   I think this lovely face speaks love more than a thousand words.

Miroku  is technically a Bodhisattva , that is, a person who compassionately postpones attaining final Buddhahood in order to return to earth to aid struggling humanity.  He is, however, often referred to as “The Buddha of the Future.”  This image can be seen at the Kyoto temple of Koryu-ji.  The temple itself was established in the Seventh Century by the great leader Shotoku (Bright Shining Virtue) Taishi. The image above  is considered a National Treasure.

The next image is “the Buddha of the Future,” sitting in his usual relaxed and waiting posture, saying in effect “Come on, you people. Love is waiting for you–longing for you– to wake up.”  Notice, however, that Maitreya is not pushy.  Love doesn’t force.  He waits patiently for us with an open heart, trusting us to follow our own labyrinthian ways to his warm embrace.  Just beautiful.

miroku 2


Compassion (Pāli and Sanskrit: karuṇā):


This is one of most famous images of Eastern Religion to have come to the Western World.  She is best known in her Chinese identity as Kwan Yin, but she is equally revered in Japan as Kannon, or Kanzeon.  She sits on my fireplace mantel here in Indiana, warming the house more than any fire.  She, too, is a Bodhisattva.  Her Name, Kannon 観音,  literally means watchful listening, and is often translated as “one who sees / hears all.” In India, this divinity is masculine.  His name is Avalokitêśvara in Sanskrit, which means the Lord Who Regards All (avalokita = observe, iśvara = unimpeded).  I find it inspiring and instructive to think that the bodhisattva of compassion is the One Who Listens.  Perhaps this is the greatest gift we can give each other: to listen without judgment, to receive another person with open-hearted loving-kindness.

There is another lesson hiding in this image of the 11 headed  Kannon:

11 heads

Each of those heads shows a different emotion, suggesting that compassion can take many forms: sadness, anger, sternness, gentleness, joy, grace–but always love.  Finally, here is Compassion in radiant profusion in the famous temple of Sanjusangendo in Kyoto: a thousand Kannon:

1000 Kannon


Empathetic joy (Pāli and Sanskrit: muditā):


These little guys are peeking out of the moss garden at the marvelous temple of Sanzenin in the hamlet of Ohara.  This is about a 45 minute bus ride north of Kyoto, and is well worth the trip, with its ancient houses and fields of rice and shiso.  How wonderful that Joy is a mark of human maturity in the Buddhist tradition–but there is an important distinction to be made.  Mudita is not a self-centered joy, or simply being happy.  I tell my students that this is not a “Snoopy at suppertime” feeling, when we are elated that good things come our way. Rather, mudita is empathetic joy, when we are elated that good things come to other people.  It is said that we can tell our true friends because they stick with us when we are down and out, but even more, I think, our truest friends stick with us when we are blessed, and rejoice at our good fortune. This latter is more rare than we might think, and is the opposite of Schadenfreude, the rejoicing at the misfortunes of others.

So I see these lovely faces as expressing their joy that I have come to their temple.  They are delighted that I have come to revel in its beauty and peace.  It is as though they see the spirit of Sanzenin refreshing my soul, and they increase that refreshment with their joyful loving-kindness.  Regarding their faces from that perspective brings tears to my eyes.

Equanimity (Pāli: upekkhā, Sanskrit: upekṣā):

Fusuma II

Equanimity, evenness of soul, is described in one text as “not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind—not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.”

This is a fusuma (sliding door) painting, again at Sanzenin.  It is relatively modern, painted  by Takeuchi Seiho (1864-1942).  Notice the human rider, almost lost in the magnificence of Nature.  There is a strong Taoist influence here, showing that the human is not the Lord of Nature, but is an equal part of creation (although it must be said that modern Japan often honors this value in the breach).   Still, the peace and tranquility of this painting are palpable.  The horse, the man, the trees, even the air form a graceful and balanced unity.  To blend into the natural world as a nexus in a marvelous web of being, cherished no more and no less than any other, is indeed to dwell with the gods.


9 thoughts on “Japanese Images of the Virtues

  1. John Dougill

    Hi John… Isn’t the large image of Miroku you posted from the Kyoto temple of Koryu-ji? Also linked with Prince Shotoku and similar to one in Korea. I made a special visit out to Uzumasa just to see it, and it was indeed well worth it. Slender and sublime.

    I love your last sentence, incidentally…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Right you are, John. I didn’t mean to imply that the large image was at Chugu-ji, but that it was perhaps the most famous image. I have clarified the text to make this clear, and I thank you for your help. It is a joy to be working/playing with you again.


  2. miriam louisa

    Such a delight to see these old and treasured friends again, thank you… especially the wee fellows and the fusama at Sanzenin… I love that oasis of beauty, and remember copying sutras there as though it was just yesterday.
    Also in Ohara – the little hermitage Jakoin. I’m sure you will have been there… A favourite of mine. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Yes, Miriam, isn’t it a delight to revisit beloved places in Japan–and throughout the world? Jakko-in is also a special place–and very important in japanese history. As I am sure you know, it was the hermitage used by Kenreimon-in, the most important survivor of the Heike clan after their defeat by Minamoto Yoshitsune, thus ending the Heian period. I mention this, because one of my favorite places in Ohara is the little clear spring at which she stopped to refresh herself on the way to her seclusion at Jakko-in. Ohara is a treasure.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. miriam louisa

        John – Ohara wrapped itself around me from the first visit; I agree, it’s a treasure.

        The first time I went to Jakko-in it was November – imagine! Unforgettable.

        I remember being deeply touched by the story of Kenreimon-in. But I don’t remember “the little clear spring”. Perhaps I’ve simply forgotten – it’s so long ago that I was there…

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hariod Brawn

    Thank you for this most excellent article John. I find a pleasing sense of comfort in knowing that the four Buddhist virtues may either be developed or manifested so as to comprise what you call the ‘maturely developed human character.’ I had to work hard in formal practices over many years to develop these as traits within me, to the limited extent that they do, and happily confess that some I found access to more readily than others.

    What a marvellous boon they are to the practice of insight meditation too. The Bramaviharas may, as you will know, be developed as powerful concentration practices in their own right. And so along with assisting in one’s psychological maturation – developing as a ‘grownup’ to borrow your expression – Right Concentration is accessed altogether more readily. Some meditators eschew their development in favour of developing dry insight alone, which I think is a mistake.

    Along with Miriam, I was particularly drawn to the two heads amongst the moss at Sanzenin. I don’t know if you would agree John, though I wonder whether Muditā is not perhaps the most difficult of the Bramaviharas for the modern Western mind to develop? From my experiences with others amongst the Sangha, this would appear to be the case; and perhaps any focus on individuality and personal aspiration tends to make the quality of sympathetic joy something of a mystery to us?

    Thank you so much for these marvellous images and, as ever, your wonderful erudition John.



  4. Michael

    Hi John,

    I much enjoyed this post and the discussion of Western and Eastern virtues. One item that jumped right out at me was this line from your initial paragraph: “The pond is in the shape of the Chinese Character ‘Kokoro,’ which means heart, mind, or spirit.” I was intrigued by the thought that one character might represent all three of these English words. Is that because the character is broad enough to cover many meanings? Or because there are not such distinctions in the Eastern culture, as in the West? Is there a fluidity or interchangeability in these meanings in Eastern thinking?

    Thank you-

    Liked by 2 people

    1. jhanagan2014 Post author

      Thank you for putting your finger on a key idea, Michael. Kokoro is an important part of Japanese culture. One of the most influential novels of the early 20th century was “Kokoro” by Soseki Natsume. The kanji, or Chinese character for Kokoro resembles the human heart surrounded by three drops of blood. The word itself, however, refers more to the heart as a center of feeling, or conscious awareness. As you point out, I think that there is a fluidity to this word that takes into account all the aspects of the deepest, most precious part of the inner life, akin to the Spanish “fuero interno.” I included “spirit” in this sense. I once read an article entitled “Nihon no kokoro” which I took to mean “The Spirit of Japan.”
      There is an interesting and complementary similarity in Greek: the English “Love” translates four different words and shades of meaning in classical Greek. C.S. Lewis wrote a book entitled “The Four Loves” which explains this. I mention this since you seem interested in the intercultural play of words, as am I.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sarrah J. Woods

    This is REALLY interesting! I’m going to print this out and study it. I’ve lately beomce very interested in virtue ethics and the dying concepts of virtue and character in the secular Western world. I appreciate your post as a stepping stone into thinking about these things from an Eastern perspective.



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