Finishing up the Dhammapada in class this week, I started thinking an bit about the Buddhist “virtues.” Often times in the literature, the point is advanced that the early Buddhist tradition (Theravada) stresses the importance of cultivating right states of character, particularly states such as compassion, love, impartiality, and joy. In such accounts it is often assumed that there is a connection between doing and practicing the Buddhist precepts (or right actions) as a way of acquiring those virtues. As a result, you wind up with a kind of ‘cultivationist’ language of virtue – the job of the person is to do what is required to develop and grow the virtues themselves.
I’m not entirely sure that I buy into this reading of the Dhammapada, though that’s not exactly my purpose in this post. Essentially, I’m not sure that the early Buddhist texts are cultivationist at all. Instead, I think a reading can be advanced that sees the job of the person as one of cleansing the mind of what is hateful or grasping. The result of such self-purification of what is negative just is that the mind then reaches out to what is outside of it in terms that can be expressed as compassion, joy and love. So it’s not that virtue is developed by practicing what is right, it’s that virtues are revealed by ceasing to do (or think in terms of) what is bad. Which brings me to the question I’ve been wondering: if this reading were right (which is a secondary concern of mine), would these states be virtues at all? Can you have a virtue that you don’t directly cultivate and grow?