A Ku Indeed!

Buddhist Virtues

Posted in Buddhism, China, Chinese Philosophy, Life by Chris on November 3, 2008

We’re starting the Dhammapada this week in my Asian Ethics course (we’re done now with the Analects and the Tao Te Ching). As I was reading through the book and prepping some notes, I started thinking about the “four virtues” of Buddhism, namely joy, compassion, impartiality and lovingness. We’re called to cultivate all four, and I found myself thinking: which is hardest to do? Which easiest?

In a “rough” sense, the Buddhist virtues look a bit like this:

1. Compassion. A compassionate person can sympathize with a person who is suffering, and want to help that person to no longer feel pain.

2. Lovingness. A loving person doesn’t just want the other person to no longer feel pain, they also have a positive agenda — they want the other person to be happy (in a way that implies not simply the absence of pain).

3. Joy. A joyful person finds happiness in the successes of others.

4. Impartiality. An impartial person can extend him/herself (particularly in the above three ways) to all persons, regardless of who they are. So you can extend yourself to mother and child and friend, and stranger, all equally. Moreover, you can extend these attitudes equally to those who have done you good and those who have done you harm.

Which of these, do you think, is the easiest to do (whether for you personally, or in terms of human beings generally)? Which is the hardest?

Extra note: I’m assuming that most people will say (4) is the hardest. If so, the more interesting follow up question is — with respect to which, between (1) and (3)?


4 Responses

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  1. Jonah said, on November 3, 2008 at 11:56 am

    I would indeed have picked four as the hardest; good call.

    So, for the bonus question, I’ll vote for lovingness. Here’s why:

    I think most people have a misunderstanding of what happiness means. I was always taught that happiness, as it is generally understood, is itself a form of suffering. In fact it is a more pernicious form of suffering because it doesn’t seem like suffering.

    Buddhassa Bhikku, a Thai monk, distinguishes between the happiness of hunger satisfied and the happiness of no hunger. There’s a huge difference and we rarely find the second sort.

    For example, I once asked a monk how to be a good Buddhist while still being a good husband and father.

    His response was that I prepare myself for the fact that they would die someday.

    How’s that for loving kindness?

  2. Chris said, on November 3, 2008 at 9:29 pm


    A powerful, but very understandable response from the Buddhist monk, one that makes a whole lot of sense to me (as a reader of Buddhism and of other traditions that might sympathize). Seems so morbid, but at the same time — if you could truly detach from your own family in the way that the monk envisions, wouldn’t it entail a more passionate connection to them, paradoxically speaking? Lovingness indeed! I’m not sure if I’m capable of such detachment, and as a result, of such love.

    Why do you think happiness is a pernicious form of suffering? Is it because we invariably become attached to desires for its persistence?

  3. Jonah said, on November 3, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    yes, because of its impermanence.

  4. Chris said, on November 4, 2008 at 6:22 am

    For me, (4) is clearly the hardest. I have no doubt that the Buddhist would say that (4) is likely hardest for everyone, since a deficit in (4) is tied most directly to the failure to “extinguish the self”. I suppose that one can participate in (1) to (3) to limited degrees without having to do this.

    With (4) to the side, (3) is the hardest for me, but not for Jonah’s reasons. Compassion comes easy for me. I often find myself shaken by the pains of others, even people I really don’t like. Similarly, but to a lesser degree, comes Joy. Even for people I don’t know or don’t like, I can appreciate another person’s happiness and success in a genuine way.

    But Lovingness is hard. And I’m not just talking about action — even the disposition is hard. I often find myself “feeling” compassionate, but not doing anything to help the other person alleviate their pains. And I often find myself “feeling” joyful about another person’s successes but not doing anything that corresponds to the feeling. To a much lesser degree do I find myself feeling lovingness, much less acting on it.

    I wonder why that is.

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