Walking the Way

81 Zen Encounters with the Tao Te Ching

Verse 38
High virtue isn’t virtuous,
thus it truly has virtue.
Low virtue never frees itself from virtuousness,
therefore it has no true virtue.
A person of highest virtue takes no action,
has no private ends to serve.
A person of lower virtue puts forth effort,
having many causes to act.
A highly humane person acts
without any particular end in mind.
A highly righteous person acts
for many justifiably good reasons.
A person of high propriety acts
and when no one responds
rolls up his sleeves and forces people to comply with the rituals.
So when the Way is lost,
that’s when we resort to virtue.
When virtue is lost,
that’s when we resort to humaneness.
When humaneness is lost,
that’s when we resort to morality and righteous justice.
And when righteous justice is lost,
that’s when we resort to ceremonies of propriety.
Ritual ceremonies? Mere husks of sincere faith,
marking the beginning of confusion and disorder.
Foreknowledge is a blossomy ornament of the Way,
the beginning of delusion.
The true person
relies on the heart not the husk,
the fruit not the flower,
leaves that for
just this.

There is no virtue in being yourself, only vivacity.
     If you are attached to thinking of yourself as a virtuous person you can easily feel threatened when other people question your motives, criticize or disagree, or thwart your good intentions. If you aspire to be a good person, you risk the pitfall of thinking you are not good enough—in which case you may turn your anger and despair inward or project it out onto others.
     Just being human is enough; it connects you to everyone else in your shared flawed humanity. Living is not a quest for brownie points or gold stars. You don’t need a reason to exist, any more than you need a reason to defend your liking for ice cream that is chocolate rather than vanilla. As soon as you feel a need to justify yourself you become trapped in right and wrong. If you convince yourself your beliefs are righteous you may be inclined to proselytization, and from there it’s a short step to inquisition, earthquakes, and executions.
     Instead of striving to conform to some moralistic ideal, you can just be your ordinary self and accord with whatever the circumstances demand of you. If you try to make circumstances fit your ideology rather than the other way around you may become frustrated; you may use excess force to try to make things go the way you think they “should” be and exhaust yourself.
     There is no need to prop yourself up by being proper. In popular parlance: be real. The gateway to compassion doesn’t hold people to some ideological standard but recognizes all being has its function and
place. Prescriptive moral codes and restrictive laws are usually prejudices clothed in moral majorities: they provide justifications but not justice.
     The truth of your being is not a matter of being correct in ceremonies of yourself. Your true person is not somewhere far away but always present: it is the gift of your presence fully bestowed right here, right now.
When I first began Buddhist practice, I thought I would be more virtuous and a better parent, husband, and psychotherapist if I didn’t let my feelings get the better of me. When provoked I would take several deep breaths, put irritation aside, smile gently, and calm down. I was fairly successful in this, at least on the surface, but I suspect I came across to others as artificial and perhaps more than a bit sanctimonious.
     At that time my daughters were five and nine years old. As any parent knows, children often push their parents to the edge of their tolerance to test their boundaries. Perhaps because I grew up in an environment where my parents fought a great deal and were sometimes out of control in their anger, I made a special effort to remain even-tempered with my children.
One day my nine-year-old daughter was particularly provocative. I teetered on the edge of “losing it” and yelling but managed to catch myself. I took a deep breath and in a level voice tried to respond with measured if somewhat artificial “active listening.” My daughter looked me in the eye, stamped her foot, and cried:
     “Dad! A kid has to be able to make her father mad!”
     She was right. I had been offering her only the husk of parenting. Not getting angry was not being real.
     If there are no mad fights, there are no opportunities for reconciliation. Making up is one of the delights of love.

© 2013 Robert Rosenbaum Contact Me