Category Archives: Virtue


In the line at the grocery store yesterday, It was impossible to avoid the bold headlines of one of America’s more popular rags.  It trumpeted that after four months of marriage George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin are headed for a 200 million dollar divorce after countless screaming fights.  Seeing this “news” placed so unavoidably in the checkout line made me sick to my stomach.

First, it could well be sensationalistic speculation, a distorted spin that feeds people’s schadenfreude: the joy and pleasure felt at other people’s misfortunes.  But even if it is true, it means that two human beings are in a world of pain right now, and to exploit that pain to sell papers and to titillate ungenerous hearts seems unkind to the point of viciousness.

Schadenfreude is countered by the Buddhist virtue of joy, or “mudita” in Sanskrit.  This is not a Snoopy-at-supper-time giddy dance, but simply rejoicing in the happiness of other beings.  It seems obvious that a loving heart embodies compassion and empathy for the fact that we are all fighting a very hard battle, as the popular quote has it.  A great example of schadenfreude is the Grinch, whose “heart was two sizes too small.”  He was ticked off at the joy of Christmas, and did all he could to ruin it.  In the case of Clooney/Alamuddin, the vicarious hit of a glamorous marriage quickly gave way to envy in hearts too small.

I realize that tiny hearts are in pain themselves, and perhaps rejoicing in other’s misfortunes eases that pain a bit.  I know from experience that when I have acted with negativity or judgment or anger, it has always been from a place of pain in myself, and not from a place of open, confident love.  It simply strikes me as terribly sad that millions of people have Grinch-like hearts, at least enough of the time that papers can make so much money pandering to the need to feed on another’s pain.

I also find comfort in the knowledge that millions of people long to be kind, as George Saunders said at Syracuse University:  “So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it: What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”   Saunders is encouraging, however, in his reassurance that kindness, while difficult, is a deeply natural part of human growth:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

The saddest part of Schadenfreude, therefore, is that it hides the marvelous potential for love and true joy at the center of every human being.  Again, Saunders put this powerfully:

“That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”


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:

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Shoddy Virtues



In his Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck writes these iconoclastic lines:
“Perhaps the most overrated virtue in our list of shoddy virtues is that of giving. Giving builds up the ego of the giver, makes him superior and higher and larger than the receiver. Nearly always, giving is a selfish pleasure, and in many cases it is a downright destructive and evil thing…It is so easy to give, so exquisitely rewarding.  Receiving, on the other hand, if it be well done, requires a fine balance of self-knowledge and kindness. It requires humility and tact and great understanding of relationships. In receiving you cannot appear, even to yourself, better or stronger or wiser than the giver, although you must be wiser to do it well.”

The notion of “shoddy virtues” is at once unsettling and resonant. Steinbeck clearly has a point. Jesus taught that it is better to give than to receive, but Steinbeck is adding that giving is also easier. We have all experienced how difficult it is to allow someone else to pay the check at a restaurant, or even to open the presents given to us at Christmas. It does take great humility to receive with grace.

In modern times, the notion of virtue has become restrictive and dull. Virtuous people are kept from doing things they would like to do, mostly sexual. It has sometimes been used as a subtle denigration of women. Have you ever heard of a man of easy virtue, or of a man losing his virtue? For all the lip service we give to virtue, the truth is that many think of it as bland, boring, and unprofitable. Joseph Campbell once said that “we live in one world, and babble about another.”

For the record, this recognition of virtue’s dual nature has a long pedigree. In the Republic, Plato says “The most surprising fact of all is that each of the gifts of nature which we praise tends to corrupt the soul of its possessor and divert it from the love of wisdom. I am speaking of courage, sobriety, and the entire list [of virtues]” (Rep., Bk. VI, 491). Plato thought that materialistic cultures are incubators of a perverse caricature of true virtue. Professions that offer money, prestige, or power have the ability to seduce the truly talented away from careers that serve the spiritual growth of oneself and others. He is especially decrying the profession of Philosophy, or University Professors in general, who are often fifth-rate poseurs who have little true Love of Wisdom. Cleverness poses as Wisdom, authoritarianism poses as courage, and self-righteousness poses as integrity. If ego drives our natural and acquired gifts, they do indeed become shoddy.

In the East, Lao Tzu makes the same point with his characteristic simplicity as he distinguishes between higher and lower (shoddy) virtue in verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching: “1. Superior virtue is unvirtue. Therefore it has virtue. Inferior virtue never loses sight of virtue. Therefore it has no virtue. 2. Superior virtue is non-assertion and without pretension. Inferior virtue asserts and makes pretensions.” I read this as saying that virtue, aware of itself, is self-inflating and therefore ultimately self-defeating. Jesus talked about the person who gives money at the temple only when he is sure of an audience. “Look at me. Aren’t I good?” Inferior virtue, to be sure.

It seems to me that Steinbeck, Plato, and Lao Tsu are all saying that our most beautiful gifts of mind and heart can be diverted to the service of the ego and thus become powerful tools of self-centered, self-congratulatory selfishness. It is quite easy to see how such attitudes as Giving, Forgiveness, Temperance, and even Sexual Restraint can feed a rigid superiority, full of pretension and assertiveness, if not aggression. The self-righteous often speak warm words that ride on cold breath.

William James noted that the human being is “a bundle of habits.” These habits are channels worn into our minds and hearts and bodies by our quotidian choices and actions. Habits of thinking, feeling, and moving become ingrained, and either imprison us in fear and ignorance, or open us to autonomy and growth. Sadly, the habits that most of us carry into adulthood are narrow and distorting, and inhibit the flow of life. Like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, they make the mind and heart two sizes too small. The ancient Greeks called these crippling habits “vices.” Because of them our minds and hearts are literally caught in a vise, and the smallness of our resulting worldview produces suffering for ourselves and others. The mark of the fool, Socrates taught, is that he is ignorant of his own ignorance. He is a “know-it-all” who stagnates in the backwater of his cognitive illusions. In perhaps his most powerful image, Plato depicts humankind as chained by fear inside the cave of its own disordered (or overly-ordered) and rigid mind.

For Plato, the purpose of human life is to undertake the dramatic journey out of the dark cave of the closed mind. It is a journey toward a mind open to wonder, aware of the provisional nature of what it thinks it knows; and it is a journey toward a courageously vulnerable heart. On this journey, new patterns of thinking and feeling are assimilated into our nature (Aristotle calls this ‘second nature’) by repeated choices and their attendant actions. These new channels that enable us to be the people we long to be–wise and brave, kind and compassionate–are what Plato calls the “Virtues” (arete in Greek). The English word comes from the same Latin root as the word ‘virile.” It means to be strong, powerful, independent. In sum, the virtues are qualities of mind and heart that empower us to live life with vigor and joy. The virtues, the qualities that allow us to function at our best, are in fact prisms through which one’s love flows into the world. Shoddy, ego-serving virtues go by the same names, but they dam the flow of love.

I want to take care, therefore, that the soaring ideals of religion and philosophy do not themselves become self-serving. The virtues of wisdom, compassion, courage, and equanimity are truly real only if they are conduits of love in the ordinary, daily unfolding of life. If I can be kind to my children, supportive of my friends, and truthful with my wife; if I can honor the Divine light in everyone I meet; if I can cherish the inexpressible beauty of the natural world, then perhaps I might be approaching true virtue. I aspire to live the Taoist ideal of gracious action without any sense of being “virtuous.” In the realm of higher virtue, as Hayden Carruth observed, “Now I am almost entirely love.”


In a recent post, I offered this quote from Pierre Hadot: ““the figure of the sage thus plays a decisive role in the philosophical choice of life, yet it is offered to the philosopher as an ideal described by philosophical discourse more than as a model incarnate in a living human being.” Religions, on the other hand, do tend to incarnate the lofty model of human perfection in the figure of the Saint. Throughout history, men and women from Paul of Tarsus to Mother Teresa, have been revered as exemplars of extraordinary moral and spiritual accomplishment.

It is the word “extraordinary” that I found problematic in my younger days. I saw myself as far too ordinary, as too much of a sinner, to even dream of being a saint. If being a saint meant giving up my sincere enjoyment of good food and drink, the intimate company of intelligent and beautiful women, and the vibrant energy of the nightclubs in which I played piano several nights a week, then the austere life of the saint was distinctly unattractive.
Moreover, while saints appeared admirable, they also seemed to give up an essential part of the joyful vitality of being human. They were martyrs, celibates, and people so unusual that they sometimes bordered on the weird. One afternoon, my wife and I were visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and we wandered into a room whose walls were covered with portraits of saints. Both of us were quickly overwhelmed by the ponderous, joyless energy flowing from those pictures, and we immediately left the room. We felt that the Saints were looking down on us with a dour righteousness tinged with a profound sadness. Saints, in their high achievement, seemed suspended in a lonely realm. Even saintly couples like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or Francis and Claire, seemed to love in the rarified atmosphere of a Platonic heaven.
Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most beloved saint of all time and all cultures. His peace prayer is an exquisite expression of love. Most scholars agree, however, that this famous prayer was written by an anonymous author in the early 20th century, and widely attributed to St Francis during the second world war. This is an important fact, I think, because the magnificent sentiments of that prayer give color and depth to the modern image of St. Francis. But consider: if some strange man should knock on your door this afternoon, clad in shabby and dirty garments, full of holy zeal, and begging for money, what would be your reaction? It might be tempting, at least, to turn away in fear and dismay. In fact, his own followers, while continuing to revere him on the one hand, managed with the help of Rome to eviscerate his original vision. Francis was a living conundrum: a stern taskmaster, an extreme ascetic who ruined the body he called Brother Ass, sometimes intolerant toward backsliding followers, and unbending in his devotion to absolute poverty. Yet he was also absolutely devoted to the poor and ill people of his day, a magnificently tolerant emissary to the leaders of Islam during the fifth crusade, humble to point of refusing to be ordained a priest, and an unabashed lover of nature who preached to birds and tamed a savage wolf. It is said that he had attracted 5000 followers in the first two years of his ministry.

The book that tempered my idea of the saint as extraordinary was The Power and the Glory, written by Graham Greene in 1940. The story takes places in the Mexican state of Tabasco during the time of a vicious purging of the Catholic Church. Every priest has been driven out, killed, or forced to renounce his vows. Every priest except one: a drunkard who had an affair and sired an illegitimate daughter. The only name he is given is the “whisky priest.” Yet this broken human being is driven by compassion for suffering campesinos. At great peril, he hears confessions and says Mass with the army two steps behind. After reaching a safe haven, he returns to Tabasco to tend a dying man, knowing it is a trap and that he will be executed. In the end that is exactly what happens, but as he grew into integrity, love, and self-abandon, the whisky priest “acquires a real holiness.”

I find “holiness” a beautiful word. It is, of course, the literal meaning of the Latin “sanctus,” or saint. We might say that it refers to the divine quality in a place, or a human encounter, or a human being like the whisky priest, who manages ultimately to stop worshiping his own egoistic self, and to revere and celebrate that which he sees as holy in others.

I would like to draw two corollaries from the above reflections. First, holiness does not entail a hyper-ascetic rejection of the delicious flavors of this world. The Buddha was a forest ascetic for 6 years, and he finally realized it was leading him nowhere. He adopted the Middle Way of moderation. In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes a lovely essay entitled Everything That Is, Is Holy. He says, in part, “A saint is capable of loving created things and enjoying the use of them and dealing with them in a perfectly simple, natural manner, making no formal references to God, drawing no attention to his own piety, and acting without any artificial rigidity at all. His gentleness and his sweetness are not pressed through his pores by the crushing restraint of a spiritual strait-jacket. “

St. Francis seems to be have followed the path of harsh asceticism regarding his body, but he was madly in love with creation. We might even see his asceticism as an expression of ego that simply served as a counterpoint to the brilliance of his magnificent soul. This leads me to my second corollary: I would like to suggest that holiness is not at all “extraordinary.” To use the Buddhist analogy, we are all lotus flowers growing in the mud. I find the teaching of the Chandogya Upanishad, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That; You and Divinity are one), to be a belief that brightens the world and each day I spend in it. Within the framework of that belief, we can see holiness shining all around us. Clearly, the light within is dimmed by fear and egocentricity, but each of us, I think, is longing to shine that light.

I am working with an image created by Zora Neale Hurston. She tells us that Janie “had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. … When God made the [human being], he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

Teachers of all ages and all cultures have urged us to make the journey from the darkness of a mind trapped within the prison of its own ego to the emancipation of the light always shining in our heart’s center. It is the holy light of kindness and love. In a recent graduation speech, George Saunders put this point persuasively:

“Your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving. … There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. … Do all the other things, the ambitious things, … but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality–your soul, if you will–is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

Finally, I think there are many more people who are well along the road to holiness, to saintliness, than is commonly believed. Once you start looking, you can see acts of grace and kindness in the most ordinary places performed by the most ordinary people. Perhaps the Starbuck’s down road or the grocery store at the corner are full of saints-in-the-making who will never make the evening news. The cacophony of heart-rending violence assaults us every day, but I just can’t shake the belief in a human family that has come into this world to flower into the most ordinary and the most exquisite saintliness.