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.