Four more virtues

We hover at the primitive evolutionary level of controlled drives, on the brink of social and moral vice: violence in our drive for survival, hatred in our instinct for security, pride in our triumphant optimism to force change on the world and others. Society functions at a level of deliberate ignorance, and expects the individual to similarly ignore the tenuousness of the enterprise we call culture and morals.

Virtues can only be exercised by turning back the instincts, by renouncing, suppressing, or ignoring our desires, refusing our propensity for vices, which is to say our propensity to revert to where evolution left us not so many thousand years ago.

This minimal control is not a learning of moral lessons from a punishing and unforgiving social world. Rather it is an exhausting of the will, of the instinct to fight, to get ahead, to succeed. The social motives are the dregs of the drive to preserve and extend our haunted bodies, their fragile cells and what underlies our mind and identity. Not much evolution of the human brain seems to have transpired after human beings became what Aristotle calls “social animals” — though he meant political and communitarian.

The practice of virtue is so difficult because society teaches us to sublimate and suppress rather than to renounce. We are then haunted by sin and guilt and desire, regardless of our experience and practice. We have not yet given up desire, for evolution wants us to believe that to give up desire is to give up altogether the instinct to live. We want to control desire, transform it, refine it into socially acceptable pleasures.

But we are at that tipping point where our will is poised to be transformed into more than instinct, more than a drive, more than a sophistication of baser instincts. We must reach a point where we can exercise virtue (vir>, the Latin for strength) because of our awareness of reality. We cannot exercise virtue because we are driven to it by biology on the one hand or human authority on the other.

Japanese Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) builds the eight awarenesses without the burden of moralizing — that is, of invoking authority. This method anticipates the best of psychology but, further, improves the possibility of success by couching virtues as phenomena to be conscious of, phenomena to monitor. Vice is the product of inattention and lack of awareness. Vice should not be empowered epistemologically, giving it undue corrupting and debilitating strengths.

The previous entry (“Four Virtues”) covered Dogen’s first four awarenesses. Here are the other four.

The fifth awareness is unfailing recollection, by which Dogen means right mindfulness. To focus the mind entirely on what is good and right does not entail an interrelation with the world or with any given thought but rather an emptiness that is filled only with the glow of equanimity and silence. A part of Buddhist psychology is to identify with no particular object, and so doing, to automatically relieve the mind of accretions. The process is like a stream of water gently but effectively washing soil from a rock — a complement to Dogen’s fourth awareness: diligence. During the “cleansing” process, the mind learns what to do and how to respond to noise, thoughts, and distractions.

Unfailing recollection is both a process and an inaction. The process involves strengthening the mind. The inaction involves no intervention in the process — a getting-rid-of that knows its own requirements and needs no help or intentionality from us. It is the discovery of that part of the self that can wriggle out of evolutionary patterns of instinct and desire. A practical analogy is fasting. Fasting is both a process and an inaction. It involves a volitional part and a part that the body understands at a cellular level that we cannot comprehend nor be aware of. Dogen provides us with his own apt image: desires are thieves who would steal our strength and virtue, and exploit the inaction that we would suffer in the role of helpless victims. But by coupling inaction to a process, we make progress.

The sixth awareness is to cultivate meditation-concentration. This virtue represents maturing of the fifth one, the secure exercise of right mindfulness. Here one arrives at a “state of stability,” says Dogen, “and you will be able to know the characteristics of the phenomena arising and persisting in the world.”

Perhaps this awareness suggests an unattainable mastery. It is for each individual, especially the solitary, to begin at the beginning and allow the process to unfold, without intervention. Hard work this non-action! But it grants the mind permission to concentrate, meditate, and persist. It signals the drives to halt from their need to fill our minds with “data” — data for monitoring our environment, watching for enemies, awareness for survival — all the dross of instincts not appropriate to the higher level of the mind.

The enormous reserves of energy in these instincts and drives can be harnessed, but counter-intuitively. Our desires are strong and compelling, like a runaway fire, and can be inverted and put to fuel a quiet and indefinite flame in the hearth of a winter’s hut, a marvelous transformation.

Dogen’s phrase in describing the sixth awareness, already quoted above, is a felicitous one: “You will be able to know the characteristics of the phenomena arising and perishing in the world.” This insight applies not only to the ebb and flow of our mind’s thoughts and emotions. It applies to the whole social and natural world, the inevitable environments of our daily lives. Our insight becomes virtue. Virtue ought to teach us about the world: about power, ambition, desire, justice, sufficiency, sustainability. Our daily habits take on a larger context for perspective, but also take on a smaller context for understanding and evaluating the priority and efficacy of our drives. We get a feedback from our practice, not from the world. We identify our minds and hearts with equanimity and contentment (Dogen’s second virtue). Our introspection does not mean ignorance of the world around us, indifference, or apathy.

This virtue must be nurtured, like the hearth that must be attended. This attentiveness is Dogen’s seventh virtue: cultivate wisdom. Dogen uses several analogies. Wisdom is a

secure ship to cross the sea of aging, sickness, and death. It is also a bright lamp in the darkness of ignorance, good medicine for all the ailing, a sharp ax to fell the trees of afflictions.

All of these images strike at the notion of security, strength, and illumination. They dissipate ignorance of self and stop deliverance over to instincts. How many people do not know themselves and live as a series of drives? What do they do to themselves psychologically or in terms of health and how do they treat other people? The dominance of drives is the engine of society, like a fatal lure to tease the social self out of the inner self and assure that it cannot return to its abode. But those who cultivate wisdom are now longer lured because their guide is not external anymore. They affirm a fearlessness while remaining open-handed, a menace to no one, a personality without enemies. The wise person is simply another person, not special but one “with clear eyes,” says Dogen, “even though it be the mortal eye.”

Can there by an eighth awareness? What can further safeguard this wisdom but silence. Not engaging in vain talk is Dogen’s eighth awareness. This is not presented earlier in his list because it requires an endpoint of commitment. One cannot refuse to talk as long as one must be in the world. We offend (unwittingly or otherwise) by silence those to whom we are bound in any way. Speech is a courtesy if not a necessity, when we are in society. Speech is charity and hypocrisy all at once, inaccurate as an indicator of the best or vilest intentions. All wisdoms recognize that less the better.

But we can gradually and deftly remove vain talk from our lives by becoming conscious or its content, motive, and object. If measured, then prioritizing would come naturally and fills the content of talk with self-control and accuracy. Talk would serve not only to inform but to edify, cutting out desire as wishfulness or vicarious gratification.

Vain talk is the product of vain thoughts. Vain talk is the mind pursuing phenomena, what Dogen earlier considered a monitoring of “characteristics of the phenomena arising and perishing in the world.” With right mindfulness, the lessons and patterns are learned as wisdom, and the phenomena themselves need no longer be monitored in the same way. What started out as mountains and rivers, says the famous Buddhist saying, become meaningful exemplars of enlightenment and wisdom, after which they become again just mountains and rivers, such that it is ourselves that have changed, not them. Similarly our talk will go from mere talk to an exemplar of virtue, and then back to mere talk, but thereafter always enlightened, illuminated by wisdom. Thus we “extinguish the affliction of vain talk,” as Dogen calls it, and return — if we must — to just talk.

Each virtue or awareness is intricately related to the other. “These are the eight awareness of great people,” concludes Dogen.

Each one contains the eight, so there are sixty-four. If you expand them, they must be infinite; if you summarize them, there are sixty-four.