The Joy of Wisdom and Virtue

“Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” – Gautama Buddha

We live in a society which looks to the concepts of morality and ethics as moderating forces on self-interest.  This is to foster the social contract, the recognition of the need for people to treat each other honestly and kindly if we are to promote safety and well-being among the citizenry.  These represent “shoulds,” essentially coercive commands, and one seldom finds any joy in obeying a moralizing command. Yet, there seems to be the perhaps unexpected benefit that when a person embodies moral and ethical behavior, not as a coercive “should,” but as one who can relax into the social contract instruction of such teachings as The Ten Commandments as the “right” way to live without a compulsion to impose their judgments on others, there comes a natural ease and joy in life.  There is joy in living in a manner which values honesty and kindness and is free of the weight of dishonesty and personal animosity.

While the first five of the Ten Commandments – no other gods, no idols, not taking the Lord’s name in vain, observing the Sabbath, and honoring one’s parents – are focused upon supporting the practice and culture of Judeo/Christian/Islamic religion – the next five have to do with ethical conduct – to not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet.  These instructions are voiced in the negative “Thou shalt not…,” commanded by a vengeful god.

There is, however, a human resistance to negative moralizing and so, it can be seen that after several thousand years of Western society living with these commandments, they have done little to truly bring peace, joy, kindness, and honesty into the world.  We live in a materialistic society, strong on moralizing religion, yet clueless to real spirituality, which tends to look to such moralizing as justification for harsh punishment of blatant violations of social and economic order while ignoring the nuanced and subtler implications of what they mean, too many seemingly living by the code of “what can I get away with?”  Yet, for those who have taken such instructions to heart, there does seem to be the effect of bringing peace and joy as they build their lives around what the commandments are pointing to – recognition and faith in some guiding higher power and a life of honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, and kindness.

While it is true that Eastern cultures do no better than Western societies at applying a code of conduct for honest, kind, and compassionate social contract among people or toward the natural world, what also seems to be true is that for those who sincerely practice the teachings of the Eastern religion of Buddhism, there seems to be some very positive effect on well-being.  There may also be less passive-aggressive circumnavigating these teachings because Buddhism does not teach morality and ethics in the manner of Western religions.  The Buddha seemed to intuit that coercive commands about how to or not to behave triggers the very human response of opposition to such coercion.  So instead of morality, Buddha emphasized the development of wisdom and virtue, which is more an instruction in how to live happy and peaceful lives, lives free of unnecessary suffering. No one wants to live a life of suffering, so Buddhism begins, not with commandments, but with an insight – that humans experience and perpetrate a great deal of unnecessary suffering, followed by the observation that there is a way to be free of this suffering. This gets a person’s attention far more effectively than commands of “Thou shalt not….”

Buddha’s first instruction, known as The Four Noble Truths, acknowledges that humans suffer unnecessarily in ways which no other creature experiences.  He then notes that this suffering is caused by ignorance (lacking wisdom into the true nature of existence) and through craving for and attachment to all sorts of experiences we hope will bring us happiness but eventually fail to do so in a complete manner.  He then offers us hope by saying there is a way to overcome this problem and finally offers his prescription for curing this malady.  For this the Buddha is sometimes called “The Great Physician,” though he might be better described as “The Great Psychologist,” for his prescription is very much pointing to how one can live increasingly free of neurosis and character flaw – which I believe is the “suffering” he is pointing towards.  His prescription is called “The Eightfold Path,” presented as a series of “right” ways to approach Life, the actualization of which will open us to increasing peace and well-being.  They are:

(1) Right view – This teaches understanding into the true nature of the unfolding of Life and our place within it.  It identifies the core problem as investment of identity in ego and advises us to “empty” ourselves of the false notion of our separateness and to recognize that all things are “empty” of an absolute separate self, that impermanence is an irrefutable aspect of manifested forms, both physical and mental.  Right View addresses the challenge of breaking free of our sense of separateness from life, others, and even ourselves, while emphasizing an ever-deepening appreciation for the miracle of Life in its underlying genius and seamless vast interconnectedness.  Right View fosters wonder, gratitude, and compassion, and a dedication to inquiry into and honoring the mystery that is Life, recognizing that Life happens always as this moment, requiring calm yet alert presence, while past and future are distorted shadows of the mind. 

(2) Right intention – This recognizes that we cannot achieve Right View without diligent and dedicated self-examination and inquiry into all aspects of Life. It calls us to bring the power of positive and unshakable intention into all that we do while recognizing that thoughts of desire, fear, attachment, judgment, hatred, and harmful intent act as obstacles to a life of peace and well-being.  The brilliance of intention is that it is a guide which having strayed from we can always return to, keeping us on course.  It is humble self-compassionate honesty and dedication to truth.

(3) Right speech – Teaches us to bring awareness to our speech patterns to communicate effectively to the best of our ability only what is true, what is necessary, and what is kind. It advises against harsh, insinuating, or manipulative speech, against lying, gossip and slander, types of speech that not only harm others, but will likely come back to burden us.

(4) Right action – is to refrain from physical misdeeds such as killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct, while acting to develop what is best in being human in skill, helpfulness, reliability, and courage not only with others, but with ourselves and with all the natural world.

5) Right livelihood – choosing as our occupation what is constructive and helpful rather than exploitive, freeing us from the weight of a bothered conscience or the need to harden ourselves against our conscience.  These restrictions against doing harm foster positive feelings and relationship in the material world while supporting our exploration of the spiritual dimension of consciousness energy which exists beneath and interpenetrates the material, connecting all of Life.

(6) Right effort – is to develop skillfulness, determination, and perseverance in our effort to achieving an awake, compassionate life, along with vigilance in discerning what is helpful from harmful, unwanted, or unwarranted effort.

 (7) Right mindfulness – is tuning into Life with practiced relaxed, inquiring, non-judgmental, compassionate presence, developing awareness of awareness as our essence, our true Self.  This keeps us grounded in the present moment discerningly, aware of our body, thoughts, emotions, and the nature of the world and people around us with clarity and compassion.  This is also an instruction into meditation, which is mindfulness of our own consciousness and mind, practicing “peaceful abiding,” “insight,” and “Vastness,” or oneness with all things and ultimately the Universe. This training of the mind into subtle and deep observation is what gives confirmation to the truth of this teaching.

(8) Right concentration – developing skill at holding mental focus so we can effectively explore Reality with ever-deepening discernment, supporting clear composure and open, compassionate curiosity in all situations.

These paths represent the way of wisdom and virtue, leading to a virtuous life, and rather than commandments of what to and not to do, these teachings are offered as recommendations to those who are ready to take on the challenge of liberating themselves from the ways humans cause themselves and others to suffer.  The result, rather than being a constricted life of moral observance built around not trusting oneself, others, or life, is a joyous faith that develops as we learn increasingly how to handle ourselves in any situation to the best possible result both for ourselves and for others.

Morality tends to be “preached” while Buddhist wisdom and virtue are encouraged as how a person can improve themselves and the world.  When we say someone is moral, is there not some sense of a restricted person, perhaps even pinched in their character and expression, of being judgmental and meddlesome?  On the other hand, to say a person is virtuous and wise, does this not conjure a description of a dynamic person who is solid and friendly, kind, discerning, and dedicated to doing good?  Within Buddhism, there is the sense that this is a person of courage and conviction, of strong will and character, yet not “pinched” in any way.  Such a person is rather expansive with a strong sense of connection with the world and the people around them.  Often, a great sense of humor and spontaneity is associated with such a person, for they see the connections between things which can often be ironic and humorous. Such a person is attuned to the rhythms and energy of Life and so, is effective, subtle, and graceful in their actions.

Buddha is most often represented in carved images as a calm, beneficent presence radiating peace, clarity, and wisdom, but there is also the corpulent laughing Buddha, arms thrown joyously in the air, and sometimes Buddha is represented as curled over, weeping.  This is a total and realized human being expressing the full spectrum of positive human experience, a guide that can be far more inspirational than being told, “Thou shalt not….”  It represents a path that leads to peace and joy, even in the midst of all the pain and suffering in the world inflicted by human ego and punishing morality.

“Full of love for all things in the world, practicing virtue, in order to benefit others, this person alone is happy.” – Buddha

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at

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