By Dharmavidya and originally published as a part of the book 'Not Everything is Impermanent'
So the question that then comes up is, what do we mean by a noble or honourable life? Here the conclusions that I have arrived at suggest that a number of qualities are crucially important. I would like to highlight honesty, selflessness, humility and gratitude. I would like to say a little about each of these.
First, however, I would like to say that the Buddha also has a list. Actually, he has many lists, but the best known one is love, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. Now in this I do not disagree with him at all. I think these two lists are simply two different ways of saying the same thing. At the core of all is love. Nobility is to have the courage of love. Love and compassion naturally go together, one being to wish others good things and the other being to wish them relief from bad things. These together constitute sympathy, but sympathy needs to be stabilised by equanimity which is the resilience to take the rough with the smooth. Although a noble person always strives for the best, he or she has to cope with the fact that the best cannot always be attained. Bad things still happen.
Here in this world we all try to love, but love always runs into difficulties and sometimes we are defeated by them. It takes courage to love again and to go on loving in the face of defeat, rejection or betrayal. Nonetheless, that is what nobility requires.
So this takes me back to my own list of key qualities. Firstly honesty. It seems to me that it is exceedingly difficult for us to be deeply honest. We have such depths of complicated motivations that we do not know ourselves very well. When we look closely we find all kinds of contradictions in our make-up. Also, we feel under a continual social pressure. Nobody really wants us to be totally honest. They actually want us to be supportive, sensitive, and conformist, but not honest. So in order to live in society we do well to dissemble about all manner of things. While we become very skilled at playing the social game, our spiritual life asks us to nonetheless preserve some space where we can be as completely honest as we are capable of being. This is an area where we can help one another. We all need a confidante or confessor who will listen and not judge us. Such wise counsellors are few and far between, even among those who have been trained in counselling or psychotherapy or pastoral care. Creating safe spaces where deeper honesty is possible is one of the things that a spiritual community should always work on.
Secondly, selflessness. To be truly selfless is even more difficult than to be truly honest. Of course, there are innumerable social situations where we do put others before ourselves in practical ways and this is good. This is part of the development of civilisation. True selflessness, however, goes much deeper than good manners. The noble person does the right thing whether it serves their own personal interests or not. For the truly honourable person it does not really matter whether they are in heaven or in hell, they still act in the same spirit. In an important sense, we are always in heaven and always also in hell. There is, however, also a deeper understanding. The truly noble person actually never acts against his own interests because he sees deeply enough to know that "the right thing" is never at odd with his ultimate spiritual well-being. This is what living a spiritual life implies.
Then thirdly, humility. This is the saving grace of all graces. Humility begins, perhaps, with the realisation that we are not always completely honest and certainly not always selfless. We are human and humans are rather cunning, destructive animals. We can also be timid, ashamed, anxious, and querulous, not to mention our propensities toward greed, slander, envy and jealousy. One could go on and make a long list. Of course, the noble person does overcome some of these foibles, but desire does not lie down and die until we do and there is no likelihood that we shall eliminate all sin this side of the grave.
So if perfection is not attainable, what is the noble life that Buddha is talking about? I do not think that we should imagine that there is a state or status that we can reach in which greed, hate and delusion will never arise. Rather, I think the Buddha is talking about how to handle the situation when they do. When things go wrong, that is the time when enlightenment is possible. It is exactly when primitive feelings bubble up that we have at hand the energy to take a further step toward spiritual liberation. Each time we do so we over-turn a thousand years of bad karma at least.
How can we do so? Paradoxically, not really by our own power. What lifts us at such times is whatever inspires us. It comes like a voice out of the future. We shall only change our ways in order to create a better future for those or that which we love. We shall not do it for ourselves. Self-help books can reiterate that “You are worth it”, “Take care of yourself”, “Do it for yourself” and so on endlessly, but people do not generally make supreme efforts on their own behalf. They do it for others, or for something other, and they do it for the future. Ensuring the better future of others is what we mean by love.
Noble ones are those who live their love and, in the process, learn what they need to learn and overcome whatever it is in themselves that they have to overcome. In this they are certainly helped. When one looks at a noble person, one might think of them as self-reliant, but they themselves do not feel like that. They themselves are likely to be much more conscious of all the help they have received. Some of this help seems to be the work of providence, the experiences they have confronted in life, and some of it has come through encounters with, or the examples provided by, other people. Nobility starts with gratitude for all this. That is what supports a humble attitude which then erodes self-centredness. So the honourable life is one that is constantly evolving between the poles of gratitude and honesty.
Some things to ponder about by Satya - do please share your thoughts on these questions or anything else that strikes you:
- how do you do when it comes to honesty, selflessness, humility and gratitude? Which comes most naturally? Which is most difficult?
- What lifts and inspires you?
- When have you had an experience of making supreme effort on someone else's behalf?
- How are you left feeling after reading this piece?
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