“Virtues”

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Right now in the United States we are watching an endless demonstration of all kinds of vice: lechery, greed, selfishness, and intolerance to name a few. Many casual conversations are of the “ain’t it awful” variety where people bemoan the state of things, outdoing each other with tale of the latest outrage. Not only is it exhausting, it is indirectly morally corrosive. Even though we seem to be attacking another’s vice, we often get caught up in the same behavior.

In my faith, today is All Saints Day, and I share a quote from St. Paul:”whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” So for a while I will be reflecting on that old fashioned subject “virtue.” It turns out there are many lists of virtues, but I will try to reflect on those that challenge me now or did in the past.

Today’s photo is of my beloved grandfather Niles Carpenter on the day he received his PhD from Harvard. He studied both at the Episcopal Seminary and at Harvard, never wanting to plant his foot firmly in either camp. He became an ordained Episcopal priest but spent the majority of his life as a professor of sociology. For me he embodied many of the virtues, and I remember him, a secular saint, today.

7 thoughts on ““Virtues”

  1. It’s so nice to have someone in your family whom you respect/ed and who served as a good example.

    I really appreciate the six perfections/virtues in Buddhism: this article is a little lengthy and scholarly but gives a good idea of them and may be of interest.

    The Six Perfections in Practice

    Each of the Six Perfections supports the other five, but the order of the perfections is significant also. For example, the first three perfections–generosity, morality, and patience–are virtuous practices for anyone. The remaining three–energy or zeal, meditation, and wisdom–are more specifically about spiritual practice.
    1. Dana Paramita: Perfection of Generosity

    In many commentaries on the Six Perfections, generosity is said to be an entry way to the dharma. Generosity is the beginning of bodhicitta, the aspiration to realize enlightenment for all beings, which is critically important in Mahayana.

    Dana paramita is a true generosity of spirit. It is giving from sincere desire to benefit others, without expectation of reward or recognition. There must be no selfishness attached. Charity work done to “feel good about myself” is not true dana paramita.
    2. Sila Paramita: Perfection of Morality

    Buddhist morality is not about unquestioning obedience to a list of rules. Yes, there are precepts, but the precepts are something like training wheels. They guide us until we find our own balance. An enlightened being is said to respond correctly to all situations without having to consult a list of rules.

    In the practice of sila paramita, we develop selfless compassion. Along the way, we practice renunciation and gain an appreciation for karma.
    3. Ksanti Paramita: Perfection of Patience

    Ksanti is patience, tolerance, forbearance, endurance, or composure. It literally means “able to withstand.” It is said there are three dimensions to ksanti: the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and acceptance of truth.

    The perfection of ksanti begins with acceptance of the Four Noble Truths, including the truth of suffering (dukkha). Through practice, our attention turns away from our own suffering and toward the suffering of others.

    Accepting truth refers to accepting difficult truths about ourselves–that we are greedy, that we are mortal–and also accepting the truth of the illusory nature of our existence.
    4. Virya Paramita: Perfection of Energy

    Virya is energy or zeal. It comes from an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means “hero,” and it is also the root of the English word “virile.” So virya paramita is about making a courageous, heroic effort to realize enlightenment.

    To practice virya paramita, we first develop our own character and courage. We engage in spiritual training, and then we dedicate our fearless efforts to the benefit of others.
    5. Dhyana Paramita: Perfection of Meditation

    Dhyana, Buddhist meditation is a discipline intended to cultivate the mind. Dhyana also means “concentration,” and in this case, great concentration is applied to achieve clarity and insight.

    A word closely related to dhyana is samadhi, which also means “concentration.” Samadhi refers to a single-pointed concentration in which all sense of self falls away. Dhyana and samadhi are said to be the foundations of wisdom, which is the next perfection.
    6. Prajna Paramta: Perfection of Wisdom

    In Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom is the direct and intimate realization of sunyata, or emptiness. Very simply, this is the teaching that all phenomena are without self-essence or independent existence.

    Prajna is the ultimate perfection that includes all other perfections. The late Robert Aitken Roshi wrote:

    “The Sixth Paramita is Prajna, the raison d’être of the Buddha Way. If Dana is the entry to the Dharma, then Prajna is its realization and the other Paramitas are Prajna in alternate form.” (The Practice of Perfection, p. 107)

    That all phenomena are without self-essence may not strike you as especially wise, but as you work with prajna teachings the significance of sunyata becomes more and more evident, and the importance of sunyata to Mahayana Buddhism cannot be overstated. The sixth paramata represents transcendent knowledge, in which there is no subject-object, self-other dualism at all.

    However, this wisdom cannot be understood by intellect alone. So how do we understand it? Through the practice of the other perfections–generosity, morality, patience, energy. and meditation.

    1. I have printed this out for myself to use as another resource. Thank you so much for it. I appreciate various cultural expressions of virtue. Also good to hear from you again.

  2. Oh this is wonderful, Elizabeth! I started out in the Episcopal church, before going “non-denom”. I remember the comfort of the liturgy in the small stone church–which interestingly enough closed last year…nearly a century old. I’ll post a picture I found when I can string a few lines of poetry to go with it 🙂 I used to struggle over the scripture verse you shared–depression made it hard to find anything “pure, lovely” or “of good report”. But thankfully, the Holy Spirit has improved my perspective, and healing progresses. God bless you abundantly today ❤

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