Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Virtue, says Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, is like the legendary jewel that fulfills all our wishes. By meditating on and practicing the virtues of wisdom and compassion, we make our lives meaningful, happy, and successful.
The Buddha said, “Within your own mind, you already have what you need to succeed—the ability to put others ahead of yourself. This is called virtue, the wish-fulfilling jewel.”
Whatever our situation, we can use virtue to make our life meaningful, strong, and happy. In the Tibetan tradition, “virtue” doesn’t have a heavily moralistic or religious overtone. Rather, it comes from our determination to develop the wisdom to clearly see how the world works, and the compassion to always hold the welfare of others in mind.
Virtue is a reflection of buddhanature, basic goodness, our own enlightenment, which is revealed through the process of meditation. When we meditate, we are becoming familiar with our nature. That is what meditation practice is. And as we become familiar with that view, we need orientation, so we contemplate a topic that will help spark virtuous activity in our day. This is how we bring our practice into experience.
Our life is a constant mixture of view, meditation, and action. Even though we may think that we don’t meditate, we are always meditating on something, developing a view or attitude that helps build the foundation for our actions. In this dark age, our everyday meditation seems to have convinced us that we are going to have a good time in samsara. We’ve built up a logic that aggression and desire will get us what we want. We’re so certain in this view that when we find suffering instead, we are irritated, shocked, and angry. We’re sure that something we desire will alleviate this pain, so we struggle harder to find happiness. But desire for the self is itself a nonvirtuous action. It’s as if we’re trying to cure poison ivy with poison oak.
If you look at samsara closely, at a certain point you see the futility. That is what we are doing when we are meditating. The Buddha taught the view of karma: virtue begets happiness and nonvirtue begets suffering. Ultimately, karma and virtue are illusory, but so are stubbing our toe, winning the lottery, ending a marriage, eating ice cream, being born, and dying. According to the basic laws of cause and effect, we must engage in virtuous activity to bring about true success—spiritual and worldly. If we help others—even think of helping others—we will quickly and effortlessly become successful. Virtue creates stability in our life—happiness we can depend on.
Inside, I think we understand this principle of virtue and nonvirtue. Instinctively, we know what feels good. There’s a natural wish to help others. However, we are fickle in our belief about virtue. Sometimes we are inspired to do something good, and at other times we are not. Then we seek the comfort of our habitual tendencies, forgetting about virtue.
Within our discursiveness, we are perpetually looking for something that will make us happy. This is a sign that our intelligence, wisdom, and enlightenment are always present. Instinctively we know that there is satisfaction to be found; we just don’t know where to look for it. We may use the word “irritating” to describe our day, because we are not finding the level of satisfaction that we want. We don’t understand that the very nature of samsara is dissatisfaction. As soon as we fixate on the self, we have attachment; we need to protect it. That leads to aggression or desire, which leads to acting out of ignorance that we can make “me” happy. This is like living in a house with no foundation: we’re mistaking confused emotions as the basis of our being. Yet, like fools, we keep building and building on the unsteady ground of the belief that trying to satisfy our attachment will bring happiness. As long as we are seeking satisfaction where there is none, we will always be irritated.
According to the meditation tradition, this pattern darkens our consciousness. Our windhorse—the ability to bring about long life, good health, and success—diminishes. Happiness becomes scarce, because self-absorption depletes our life force. When we get angry, not only do we make bad karma—from the Buddhist point of view, being reborn in the lower realms, and so forth—we have also now reduced the life-force energy of another person. Where is the good in that? If we say something negative, it doesn’t just disappear into nothingness. It hangs around. Eventually it settles into our mind and body.
The most effective way to increase windhorse is to infuse our mind with virtuous thoughts, and our life with virtuous activity. This approach takes practice and determination. It means setting our intention daily. Focusing our minds on the breath for a short time helps us gather a relative amount of peace. Then we can immediately take advantage of that peace, using it to contemplate a thought—love, compassion, generosity—in order to bring about wisdom.
The point of contemplation is to get to the point. So if your contemplation is “Look at the faults of samsara. It has no heart, no essence,” then as soon as possible you should get to the feeling that it is true: samsara has no heart. Sit with that for two or three minutes. When that truth begins to seep in, take it into your day with the intention to stay with it, to listen to the Buddha, to become familiar with a thought that leads somewhere. You want to reach the point where you see that samsara is not going to pan out. Certainty in the virtue of seeking deeper satisfaction is a sign that the contemplation has penetrated.
Virtuous activity doesn’t have to be a heroic task. It can be as simple as letting go of our agenda for a moment and appreciating where we are. Then we can open the door for somebody, say good morning with a smile, inquire about another’s family, or take time off from a project to celebrate progress or a birthday. Instead of secretly wishing for our co-workers’ demise, we can look at them and know that just like us, they want happiness.
Becoming familiar with the source of true happiness, we are cultivating the sanity of a sakyong, “earth-protector.” Because we are protecting the ground of our own sanity, the capacity to increase our noble qualities has no boundaries. The irony is that as we put others first, our own wishes and desires come to fruition simultaneously.
Virtue is a sustaining path on which we move in only one direction—forward. As the basic guideline for how we conduct our life, this approach is pragmatic. It is said that when you experience heart, the sense of loving-kindness and caring for others, simultaneously there is wisdom. Being patient, generous, disciplined, and exerting ourselves in basic decency—when we act like this, our mind feels better. Saying something positive feels better than saying something negative. Loving generates energy; anger uses it up. Greed and self-absorption manifest in our life as hassles that remind us that, without virtue, we are either standing still or moving backwards. The mind that has the genuine intention of helping others manifests in many ways, but in the end it always brings happiness, because it is rooted in compassion.