Honor and virtue. The words sound, sadly, rather quaint, faintly Victorian--if not medieval!-- in the querulous cacophony of self-interested debate in our world today. They came up in our sangha yesterday afternoon...
It was a huge pleasure and, as always, hugely instructive to sit with Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) again, after many missed opportunities. His schedule and mine have been out of sync for several months, and I have been away from Laguna for a number of his recent monthly visits to our sitting group here. I find in his presence--and in his voice--a source of calm conviction that I find nowhere else.
We sat with his guidance for the first half-hour, then for a further half hour in silence. As usual, yesterday, he led us first through metta--the practice of goodwill and compassion--and then through a scan of the body that involves bringing the attention to a particular location, identifying any stress or tension the body might be harboring there, and using the breath to find release. Than Geoff starts us out at the area around the navel, moves us down to the lower abdomen, and then up to the solar plexus, the center of the chest; from the shoulders to the base of the throat and, very gently, into the center of the head; back down along the spine and the back, through the lower back and the hips to the legs and down to the tips of the toes; and finally from the back of the neck through the shoulders and down the arms to the hands and the tips of the fingers, By the time we're done, the whole body is in a state of fully attentive relaxation, breathing comfortably through every pore.
Then comes the question and answer session. Than Geoff draws quite a crowd for these sessions--some thirty people, at a guess, in a relatively small sitting room--and fields questions on any number of topics. Some have to do with technical issues that arise in meditation practice--problems with focus and concentration or the distractions of the mind. Others have broader implications about faith, belief, and the way we live our lives. It was in this context yesterday that the words honor and virtue came up. In response to a question about the fear of death, Than Geoff said quietly that some things were more important than the physical body. Which prompted me to ask, what things? And Than Geoff to respond: "Things like honor and virtue..."
I'm not sure how to make a distinction between these two, though "honor" is perhaps more a state of being, and "virtue" the practice that leads to it. Both, for me, are implicit in the word "integrity", which I understand to mean, at its most basic level, that my words and my actions are congruent. I say what I mean and I mean what I say. I lead my life in accordance with my beliefs about fairness, honesty, compassion, justice, service. To be in integrity with myself and others, I need to have those qualities in balance, and to practice them consistently.
Are they more important than life itself? I asked Than Geoff if they had any meaning without the prior assumption of being alive in the world. As I understood his answer, it was, yes, because we have not only this present life to consider, but also past and future lives, the persistence of consciousness. This, of course, as readers of The Buddha Diaries will know, has been my sticking point for years. I find the afterlife a hard enough concept to embrace, let alone that of lives I may have led before my current incarnation. Than Geoff had a quiet chuckle at my skepticism, and invited me to consider than I might be in for shock a little further down the road.
In any event, is it not enough to realize that the practice of integrity is important to my happiness in this present life, and to my relationship with those around me? I regret to have to admit that I have many negative judgments about the way we live our lives today, and the way we treat our fellow beings--human and non-human--on this planet. I fear that we have sacrificed our sense of honor and virtue to contingency; and that we pay lip service to them in creating the image we wish to present to others, then twist them around to accommodate our desires and needs. I know that each one of us likes to think of him or herself as an honorable person, but we very easily impute dishonorable intentions to those with whom we disagree.
I do struggle with these things. Integrity, as I see it, is a work in progress, in constant tension between the selfish impulse and the altruism I would wish to practice.
My college in Cambridge was famous for its three "gates"--actually, passageways between courtyards. The first was the Gate of Humility, the front entrance. which you passed through as you entered the college as a new student; the second, the Gate of Virtue, in the center of college, was a frequent passage as you worked your way through your studies; and finally, the Gate of Honor, used only as a passage to the neighboring university Senate, where you received your degree. (There was a fourth gate which led down to the loos. This was irreverently dubbed the Gate of Necessity.)
Humility, Virtue, Honor. Quaint notions, it may seem, these days. It's hard to even mention them without the appearance of sanctimony, but they are still useful codes for those in search of the true happiness offered by the teachings of the Buddha. And, if this life should happen to lead on to the next, they will assure the good karma needed to ensure a propitious transition. No harm in that.