Four virtues

Western tradition tends to emphasize vice, wrongs, and “capital sins,” reserving the counsel of virtue to professed religious. In part this is because the life of the layperson, caught up in the world and among people, invariably finds little time or space for reflection or contemplation, little time for fostering the positive inner life necessary for refinement of virtues, let alone skills.

But this separation from knowledge is also a social and cultural contrivance. The lot of the householder tradition in Hindu caste, for example, assigned the ksatriyas, vaisyas, and sudras castes — the bulwark of military, mercantile, and laboring classes — very specific religious boundaries, with the unbridgeable gap of necessity and birth to confirm its social structure. Virtue was neither expected nor efficacious. But to break away from this system was to leap across the gap of virtue to true spirituality. That breakthrough in the East was always the work of solitaries: sadhus and hermits, whether Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist.

Modern psychology has not improved insight into the practice of virtue except to ally itself to social forces that seek to uphold order and decorum. Like the castes of old, the powerful classes not only reserve the higher spiritual practices to themselves (while those among them who practice them are only a few professed) but they uphold social and economic systems that make the householder’s lot difficult to mend spiritually, even using the most common virtues. Modern psychology aims at restoring the wayward personality to an acceptance of and conformity with worldly values. The self must be reconciled to its lot in mass society, must remain “functional.”

Thus a reflection on the eight vices described by John Cassian is not without importance, but the solitary has made rejection of the values of the world and skepticism of societal ways a cornerstone of daily life. It remains for the solitary to dispose time and space for virtue, at all points viewing vice as a product of interrelations between self and world, or bad interrelations of self and nature. Or, as William James described the “divine” as that which the individual considers absolutely essential to an understanding of the universe, one may add that the solitary is working the path toward incorporating the “divine” into his or her life. The solitary is ready to discover the true self versus the social self or the contrived self in the world. At such a point does the path of virtue open before us.

This “opening-before-us” is what Eastern tradition calls awareness. The Japanese Zen philosopher Dogen offers a counterpart or compliment to John Cassian’s list of eight vices in the little essay titled “The Eight Awareness of Great People.” We may call them eight virtues.

The first awareness is to have few desires. There are two aspects to this practice, not only desire or craving but also not seeking out new objects. Usually the lack of desire means no seeking, but in the world a constant barrage of new objects flatters the self and argues their necessity to enhance and pleasure one’s daily life. We cannot do with them — whether objects or the plaudits of people seeking to arouse us through flattery or threat — nor, of course, can we live with them, like the gnawing thirst that is the regular metaphor of desire in Eastern imagery. “Those who act with few desires are calm, without worry or fear. Whatever the situation, there is more than enough,” says Dogen. Desire is not merely for material objects but for situations, security, resolution of human need.

The second awareness is to be content. Contentment is the state of accepting what is within one’s bounds, quite distinct from what the world seeks in pleasure or happiness or gratification, even when linked to our modest accomplishments and skills.

We must know when we must act and when we must lay back and observe and reflect more. The criteria of contentment is awareness — whether a cycle of desires is being set off that will have us enlarge the bounds of our craving. Thus every act must be scrutinized because once we act there is not an interval for “pre-thought” or reflection. Contentment means constantly checking the status of our minds. Only the boundaries of awareness should be enlarged. Dogen says: “Those who are content may sleep on the ground and still consider it comfortable; those who are not content would be dissatisfied even in heaven.”

The third awareness or virtue is to enjoy quietude, what we would call a mature solitude. “Leaving the clamor and staying alone in deserted places is called enjoying quietude,” writes Dogen. This advice may seem redundant to the solitary, but the clamor of the crowd is often carried with us like a sticky weight into the mind and heart, there to fester and grow into restlessness or worse. The ties to the world must be loosened, but naturally. One cannot flee the clamor unless one has disengaged from it, so that what goes into the deserted place is only the self, not the baggage, too.

“Worldly ties and clinging sink you into a multitude of pains.” Perhaps the first step to the virtue of enjoying quietude is eliminating what will dog the self and follow the self into its attempted quietude. This virtue need not, should not, be embraced prematurely.

The fourth virtue is diligence. The image of idleness projected by Taoist wu-wei or Hindu-Buddhist non-desiring is occasionally portrayed as indifference and lassitude. The forgotten premise of such criticism is that a great deal of spiritual or psychological work precedes an authentic awareness or monitoring of self and environs. It is far easier to accept the world and not appear indifferent or idle.

Put in terms of Western virtues, diligence is forbearance, patience, and fortitude. But more importantly, it is virtue without social engagement. Diligence is not worldly attentiveness in the sense of an idler on a park bench watching the world pass by. Rather, diligence is an awareness of the mind and its requirements, already prepared for by disengaging from desires and fostering contentment.

Diligence can be thought of as maintaining and moving the mind and heart towards the goal of equanimity. Diligence “is like the small stream being able to pierce rock if it continually flows,” to quote Dogen. Of course, we are not literally piercing rock. The world is not of the quality of rock. Moreover, we are not reforming others. In the end, the world is impenetrable, its reluctance to change is absolute, and with it the people and activities that swirl around them.

The rock is ultimately penetrable because it is the penetrable accumulation on the mind. Exercising diligence we can break through what is deposited like a layer on the mind. Finally, diligence is mental work, more delicate than piercing rock, but not any less delicate than the work of water on a rock. The favorite Taoist and Zen images suggest a process (physical but by analogy mental) most delicate over time and space: the image of the stream or trickle of water. To change the metaphor: “If the practitioner’s mind flags and gives up time and again,” says Dogen, “that is like drilling for fire but stopping before heat is produced; though you want to get fire, fire can hardly be gotten this way.”

Perhaps we will never “get fire” or even much heat. Perhaps we will never reach a point of diligent awareness wherein we are enjoying quietude or being perfectly content. But what matters is to recognize that these virtues are states of mind and body regardless of what we think we can manage in the world, regardless of our “caste,” for the world will always defeat half-measures. Virtues are as much products as practices, and the alchemy of practice works slowly, especially when our impatience undermines the effort.

Nor should the solitary fall to the temptation that somewhere a collective solution has been found and packaged, awaiting our discovery. This attitude borders on desire or craving in shirking our own necessary path of discovery and wanting to find — and pay for, if need be — someone else’s. Virtues and awarenesses can only be our own. Retreats are attractive packages, and we cannot judge them harshly because they are made for those who want and need help, anymore than we can criticize the sinners in the temple and wonder where the saints are. Well, the saints have long left the room. Try the retreat or the group or the guru — but the solitary may come back relaxed but disillusioned, with no more than a mental massage for comfort and an earful of someone else’s vision. “You should leave your own group as well as other groups, stay alone in a deserted place, and think about extirpating the root of suffering,” advises Dogen.

Four more vices

The previous post mentioned the first four of eight vices described by John Cassian, as summarized in the Philokalia: gluttony, lust, avarice, and anger. Here are the other four.

Because John addresses monks, he warns against solitude as a retreat from others, justified by the vices of others, especially when the product of anger. John prefers the monk to be in salutary company than alone and made hard-hearted by resentment and false motives. This is wise advice for the monk but leaves others seeking John’s counsel a lack of clear resolution on how to invoke solitude and when.

The focus on the vices of dejection and listlessness have a similar focus between self and others. Dejection has no regularized counterpart today. Dejection is half of the classic acedia. The symptoms are more psychological than malicious, less self-conscious than moral or ethical. Acedia is described today as depression, and a century or two ago as melancholia. John can only call it a demon, characteristically leaving the self “senseless and paralyzed, tied and bound by … despairing thoughts.”

Perhaps the solitary, by disposition and personality, is less a prey to acedia than the gregarious or extrovert who is attempting solitude as alien and unnatural. For John, acedia is a coenobitic bane that seems to engender a solitary but hostile attitude.

Just as moth devours clothing and a worm devours wood, so dejection devours a man’s soul. It persuades him to shun every helpful encounter and stops him accepting advice from his true friends or giving them a courteous and peaceful reply. Seizing the entire soul, dejection fills the soul with bitterness and listlessness. Then it suggests to the soul that we should go away from other people, since they are the cause of its agitation.

Here again John distinguishes acedia as cause of solitude rather than result. He addresses monks living in a community wherein advice from superiors is expected, where friendship is based on mutual goals and values, and externals are not the cause of acedia as much as is a faulty mind.

But who — even the monk, for that matter — enjoys such companionship and fellow-feeling? Who can depend on the wisdom or advice from elders or friends? Who can find soul-mates who understand the nuances of self and solitude?

Courtesy and cooperation are overt and social necessities in a community, workplace, neighborhood, or family. But the solitary is not hostile simply because he or she cannot accommodate to a setting where more than minimal external etiquette is expected. The solitary becomes dejected by pressures on the inner self, invasions and assaults to the inner vision, to the subjective identity. The delicate task of the solitary is to gracefully negotiate being in the world but avoiding its compromises and the “authority” and “advice” of the groups mentioned. To accomplish this, the solitary must thoroughly understand the self and carefully position it in a discrete and well-guarded place while donning a mask of sociability.

Our whole fight is against the passions within. Once these have been extirpated from our heart … we will readily be able to live not simply with others but even with wild beasts.

On dejection, John concludes that while some aspects come from outside the self (he ascribes them to demons, not to society and culture), others are our own responsibility. Besides spiritual practices, he counsels “living with godly people,” but, again, there is not much chance of pursuing the latter except vicariously.

Listlessness is called sloth in most translations, but is here the result of dejection or acedia, and is properly an extension of it. Again, John treats of it in a coenobitic setting we will have to interpret for the solitary.

Listlessness is a “harsh, terrible demon … who works hand in hand with the demon of dejection.” Listlessness encourages a monk to despair of his fellow monks and community, to wish to be elsewhere, to visit when he should be solitary, to be alone when he should be with others, to oversleep, to crave food and drink, to be unable to concentrate, focus, meditate, to waver between lethargy and nervous energy. All of this is symptomatic of acedia, not the cultivated vice of sloth.

From a contemporary perspective, one may wonder if acedia is largely physiology at work: a pollution or toxicity of the body that inevitably affects nerves and mind. The most compelling solution to acedia is full engagement of the body and disengagement of the mind. Evey tradition understands this. If not in a formal way — pursuing yoga or qigong or the outdoors, etc., some exercise is necessary, as well as a rigorously clean diet of living foods — then certainly the way of the ancients is to be prescribed: work, physical or manual labor. “Someone who works is attacked or affected by but a single demon, while someone who does not work is taken prisoner by a thousand evil spirits,” notes John.

Self-esteem is the paradox of self. Enough is essential to establish the continuity of identity with our values and goals, but too much is a vice that undermines the most virtuous activity. John gives the example of a monk who imagines himself a priest and so John ascribes a touch of madness to excessive self-esteem. When we celebrate ourselves for something well done, there is always an overestimation. When we imagine ourselves other than what we are, there is a clear danger. But knowing who we are — that is the challenge. John would have us regard ourselves as “nothing before God,” and that is a prerogative to be taken as needed, though it should not confuse our simple pleasure in a task well done or the silent appreciation of nature and its beauty.

How does self-esteem differ from pride? John sees pride as overwhelming the more targeted vices aforementioned. Pride is like a “harsh tyrant who has gained control of a great city and destroys it completely, razing it to its foundation.” To John, pride is simply equating the self with God or perfection.

But pride, unlike self-esteem, has a social dimension bound up with power, whether over others in one’s immediate sphere or over an empire that sways the world. In this context, self-esteem is a personal flaw but pride is an aggrandizement, an active and pernicious engagement with the world. Although John does not follow up the concept of pride as will to power over others, he intuits that pride is indeed the master vice that enables, fosters, extends, and justifies the others. The exercise of power is always the opposite of disengagement, humility, renunciation, and solitude.

Four vices

The whole treatment of the “eight vices” in John Cassian’s Institutes, is efficiently reduced to a short summary by the compilers of the Philokalia. The first four are: gluttony, lust, avarice, and anger. The rest will be reflected upon in another post.

Though John Cassian is writing for monks, there is no reason to not reflect on the significance of his thoughts for a lay person, for after all, a monk or nun is a matter of degrees and circumstances. We must consider how these observations and their counterpart “anti-vices” benefit our solitude. Are not virtues (employing the old Roman sense of “strength” or vir) best cultivated with solitude? This is the import of classic texts like John Cassian, even when his particular theology seems so rooted in a distant time, vocabulary, and mindset.

John Cassian argues that control of gluttony or the appetite for food is as much a necessary spiritual practice as control of emotions and passions. Perhaps it is a prerequisite, in that spiritual practice cannot evolve if obstructed by desires rooted in physical mechanisms.

But with lust one encounters a passion so strong, says, John, that one despairs of resolving it by avoidance or distraction and must rely on the grace of God. This is in part because John places the origins of this vice in the work of the devil, which removes it from the sphere of human resistance. It is not a failure of his psychology of human nature, for no one has gotten round the advice of restraint and vigilance straight through to Freud and beyond. Though we can at least acknowledge the power of primitive drives, there is no antidote better than John’s advice of spiritual practice — and avoidance. Perhaps age and the displacement of the libido and hormones (slower in men), coupled with the physiological changes brought about by work, diet, and meditation, will encircle this vice.

Avarice or greed ought not to disturb the monk because poverty is built into the material circumstances of his life. But in fact it does. Avarice does not arise from bodily desires and stirrings but from a perversion of intellect and will. Unlike the poor who are driven to want to acquire what they do not have (whether out of justice, envy, or foolishness), the monk is struck by a more basic distrust of poverty and lack of confidence in God’s providence.

John Cassian notices that clergy and monks argue that they must retain and gather up wealth in order to better serve the poor through distribution. He refutes this argument with biblical passages and moral exhortations, at most recommending life in the monastery as a way of averting temptation.

These arguments do not extend to the heart of the issue of ecclesiastical property in late medieval debate extending into the Reform and beyond. So for John Cassian avarice remains a temptation, not a dramatic issue with a social or political context.

For the solitary, however, the larger context of institutional affiliation and material support may well rest on the larger social context. Our avoidance of avarice must today directly engage with the world of consumerism and desire. This is a third dimension — between socio-economic poverty and evangelical poverty on the one hand and enormous ecclesiastical and private wealth on the other — that John Cassian could not foresee but which we in the modern world must take into account. Because avarice is a matter of intellect, it becomes a matter of social and cultural debate and not just abstract ethics.

Anger is a blinding passion obliterating any other comportment or vice. But anger is usually ascribed to the provocations of others, to their morally outrageous actions or attitudes, thus justifying anger as righteous or excusable. This view of anger only sinks the angry person into a trough of resentment. Solitude becomes an escape from those who provoke our patience. Says John:

When we try to escape the struggle for long-suffering by retreating into solitude, those unhealed passions we take there with us are merely hidden, not erased; for unless our passions are first purged, solitude and withdrawal from the world not only foster them but also keep them concealed, no longer allowing us to perceive what passion it is that enslaves us.

This motive for solitude is what John Cassian calls “an illusion of virtue” that assumes the mantle of long-suffering and humility. If this is our case, solitude only festers this illusion. “Our passions grow fiercer when left idle through lack of contact with other people,” he notes. This clearly cannot to be the solitary’s motive. Ironically, such a motive provides a criteria for distinguishing genuine solitude from mere aloneness and misanthropy.

John Cassian puts the issue of anger into perspective with a candid anecdote about himself:

I can remember how, when I lived in the desert, I became angry with the rushes because they were either too thick or too thin; or with a piece of wood, when I wished to cut it quickly and could not; or with a flint, when I was in a hurry to light a fire and the spark would not come. So all-embracing was my anger that it was aroused even against inanimate objects.

There is no cure for anger except to eliminate all rationale for it. To stoke ourselves into righteousness invites anger at those who are evil as much as creating a vice in ourselves. Engaging evil passionately we are ensnared by it. We cannot respond to anything with anger. “The final cure for this sickness,” John says, “is to realize that we must not become angry for any reason whatsoever, whether just or unjust.” We must disengage from the inevitable flux around us so that our passions will be controllable.

Groening and Burger

Not analysis or criticism, nor have I (deliberately) read any reviews: here are a few impressions about two popular films concerning hermits and eremitism: Into Great Silence and Amongst White Clouds. I don’t know if the prepositional phrasing of the titles is a coincidence or natural to the openness that both films project.

Although both documentaries seem to center around the quest of the producer, Philip Groening of Into Great Silence spent 16 years waiting for the opportunity to film, and when he does so he reveals a studied patience, an attention to detail that is observant but reflective. Time expands with this film, and the use of the seasons turning over their entire course, with the monastery in different natural light, is subtle yet compellingly beautiful. Groening also makes us last through the silence even when a viewer may grow impatient or wonder when it will break. The silence does break occasionally: the sound of a shovel or of chanting or the faraway animated conversations of the monks on their weekly walk. The poignant words of the simple blind monk are also a foray from silence into articulation. The presence of the old is in both films to great effect.

Lasting through the silence viewers of Groening’s film eventually find themselves within the monastery in a way that is more than a spectator’s. Once past the reality of silence the viewer can fall into the rhythm of the routines and within the spirituality that animates the setting. Thus the human routines from eating to working to studying to chanting, etc., are caught up in the cycle of nature and the entire film moves with deliberate but patient progress.

Technically, the monks are not hermits insofar as they live and work within regular proximity, a proximity that must grow psychologically in their lives, especially when one realizes the solemnity of their vows. Tradition and convention are so strong that no one breaks the silence to utter a word and violate the silence. The silence comes to represent more than the absence of sound or the desire to maintain decorum and atmosphere. The silence is the context, the tissue of existence, the true meaning of things. Silence absorbs and nurtures their commitment, shows them that each place on this earth is the same, but that this place, this sacred place where each hermit is consciously aware of his goal, is special. Silence gives support by reminding the monk of the infinite, while being flexible enough to allow sounds like those mentioned above to gently renew the texture of ongoing mundane reality.

One note of interest is the presence of a black man, and in the additional feature on the DVD, the recording of his daily routines on a spring morning. Who could not think of Abba Moses in the desert? It was a pleasing touch that gently forces the sense of universality in these eremitical values.

Edward Burger’s quest in Amongst White Clouds is not so self-effacing, as he has structured the entire film around it, from some initial autobiographical notes to his physical presence among the hermits of the Zhongnan Mountains, the fabled Chung-nan Mountains medieval Chinese lore. Although inspired by Bill Porter’s book Road to Heaven, Burger’s film is confessionally Buddhist (no Taoists, as in Porter’s book). The viewer is placed chiefly within a Pure Land context with its temple and ceremonies. Burger owns that he is a disciple of one of the monks.

The silence of the mountains would be broken only by the bell and chant of the monks, much as it would have centuries ago, much as at the Grande Chartreuse near the Alps filmed by Groening. Burger wants to show how an individual quest by the hermits is valid and fruitful, for his audience does not have the weight of tradition and the familiarity of the cenobitic setting that Groening’s would have. So Burger asks questions in order to elicit responses, sometimes with amusing results, as when one monk asked about methods and systems simply replies, “There is nothing to say.” Or another monk says that “the texts” are all one needs. The hermits understand the ineffability of their quest, the futility of summing up in a few sentences. Unlike Into Great Silence, the producer’s unenviable task in Amongst White Clouds is to elicit from the great silence.

But there are no set rules to the quest of the Chinese hermits, so Burger’s questioning and impromptu filming is within the style of the effort — and the genre. The introductory audience for whom Burger targets the film will find the entire adventure a piquant effort, inspiring them, hopefully, to “read the texts,” especially the texts of the hermits-poets.

The counterpart of the black man in Into Great Silence, is the woman in Amongst White Clouds. Porter had encountered women hermits, too. Her reflections on having to prove herself capable among the men hermits is well placed in the film. She demonstrates the hazardous trek to a mountainside spring to fetch water. Add to these the sequences of an old hermit planting seeds or another chopping or hoeing and we have a microcosm of material life on the mountainside.

One wonders at the winters here. The hermit-poets of the past have described them, and again Han-shan (whose name means “Cold Mountain”) has described it. A hermit in the film explains that meditation keeps the body warm enough in winter. Thus Burger compensates fairly for the full seasonal cycle presented by Groening (we can imagine the restrictions on Burger’s time).

The two films are pleasant counterparts. Groening’s scale is grander to accommodate the grandeur of an established history and tradition. His methodology reflects his mature resolution. Burger’s ambitions are more limited in the role of student or disciple, and his film techniques are simpler. Too, the eremitic tradition in China’s mountains was deliberately never institutionalized or circumscribed by place, while the Grande Chartreuse, like a medieval cathedral, is a significant institution.

Together these films are complementary and enduring testaments.