The tripod of human virtues is Courage, Benevolence, Wisdom

Three Jewels

The Sufi teacher Ansari has the following verse ” One man spends seventy years in learning, but fails to kindle the light. Another, all his life learns nothing, but hears one word and is consumed by that word.” Many mystical schools choose a few words in which to sum up their teachings and practice. The Buddhist “three jewels” are the Buddha, the Law, and the religious Community. The great Vyasa, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, mentions austerity, devotion to the Lord, and study. St. Paul gives faith, hope and love, and a famous Chinese phrase gives faith, love, and profundity.

The Sufi Jullabi has a list of eleven, beginning with knowledge, while Lao Tzu sums up his Way as gentleness, economy, and not taking precedence. The last three are curious – not perhaps what might be expected from this great mystic. Confucius himself, with death staring him in the face, speaks in the same voice : “When the superior man puts into practice his principles, this is what we call his success; when he does not, this is what we call his failure. Now embracing the principles of benevolence and righteousness, with them I meet the evils of a disordered age; where is distress in this? It is when winter’s cold is come, and the snow falling, that we know that the pine and cypress are green always.”

According to Confucius, the tripod of human virtues is Courage, Benevolence, Wisdom. Lacking one of these three, the others cannot stand. Wisdom without benevolence becomes sly, and without courage it becomes licentious. Courage by itself produces a mere brigand; benevolence alone without wisdom becomes sentimental and will be deceived.        At the same time, lacking courage, we cannot accomplish Justice, which is our duty.

Courage is the first virtue in the triad of this great ethical teacher ; in many schools the word faith is used. Faith does not mean blindly accepting a dogma. It means to accept a conclusion justified by reason and then to be able to hold to that conclusion in the face of anything that may happen. No irrational considerations such as fear, or passion are to be allowed to disturb it. The Upanishad says :-

“Not to fulfil a desire
Not from fear or ambition
Not even to preserve his life
May a man abandon his vision of the truth.”

Socrates told the court which had condemned him “The difficulty my friends, is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me; my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, unrighteousness, has overtaken them. I must abide by my reward; let them abide by theirs. I suppose these things may be regarded as fated and I think that they are well.”

The second member of the Confucian triad is Benevolence. It is important to know that the word did not mean only right outer conduct. Mencius says ” Righteousness is never understood by those who make it something external,” and his dialogue with Kao Tzu, the utilitarian, makes this important point clear.

Kao Tzu said : “Man’s nature is like the willow, righteousness is like a cup or bowl. Fashioning benevolence and righteousness out of man’s nature is like making cups and bowls from the willow.”

Mencius replied: “Can you, leaving untouched the nature of the willow, make of it cups and bowls? You must do violence and injury to the willow before you can make cups and bowls of it. If you must do violence and injury to the willow to make cups and bowls of it, then on your principle you must, in the same way, do violence and injury to humanity in order to fashion from it benevolence and righteousness. Your words, alas, would certainly lead all men to reckon benevolence and righteousness to be calamities.”

Kao Tzu replied: “Man’s nature is like water swirling round an enclosed space. Open the passage for it to the east, and it will flow to the east; open a passage for it to the west, and it will flow to the west. Man’s nature is indifferent to good and evil, just as the water is indifferent to the east and west.”

Mencius replied : “Water indeed will flow indifferently to the east or west, but will it flow indifferently up or down? The tendency of man’s nature to good, is like the tendency of water to flow downwards. There are none but have this tendency to good, just as all water flows downwards. Now by striking the water and causing it to leap up, you make make it go over your forehead, and by forcing it you make make it go uphill – but are such movements according to the nature of water? It is the force applied which causes them. When men are made to do what is not good, their nature is dealt with in this way.”

These words of Mencius explain why many schools speak of ” Purity of the Heart ” instead of ” Benevolence.” Benevolence is already in the heart ; what is required is to remove the passions and pride which obscure the inner light.       

The Gita says : ” The Lord is in the heart of all living beings.” Jesus told His disciples likewise : “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” So many of the mystic schools teach that benevolence is to be practised externally to help purify the heart, and that when complete purity of heart is attained, then benevolence will be something natural.

Wisdom is the third of the Confucian triad of human virtues: courage, benevolence, wisdom. The Chinese Buddhist phrase makes it : courage, benevolence or love and profundity. This wisdom or profundity is something mystical, rooted in the meditation practices.

The three jewels or “Precious Things” of Lao Tzu all relate to the inner state of wisdom. They are: gentleness, economy, and not taking precedence. The thought is difficult and subtle, and these words are really texts for meditation rather than for intellectual analysis.

It is proposed here to consider only a few of the terms listed by the different schools. To understand even a single word, it must be considered against the background of the whole system; again, each such word has a deep inner meaning. Worth mentioning is the way in which Muslims are told to read the Koran, which is a daily duty enjoined on them. The text is to be read through in the original Arabic. Sentence follows sentence and the sequence of thought is unbroken, but now and then the reader is said to be pulled up short by a word or phrase, whose relation to its context is in some way obscure or strange. The reader passes on, but comes across it again as he reads and re-reads the whole Koran. In this way certain words and phrases begin to stand out, as it were, from the body of the text. The man meditates on them, and it is said that after prolonged meditations he finds that they form a sequence which yields him a new meaning, an inner meaning of the Koran.

Gentleness is not an easy concept. It does not mean the inertia of a dead thing, nor can it mean forceful action.            It lies in neither of these.     In order to be clear of the charge of mere word-spinning, it is good to take an example from the physical plane. Suppose you stand on the edge of a cliff, and a strong man rushes at you to thrust you over the edge.   If you do not resist, you will be thrown over. Even if you do resist with all your force, if he is stronger than you, he will inevitably dash you to your death by the impetus of his rush. What third alternative is there ?

The followers of an art called the Way (Tao) of Gentleness, in China and especially in Japan, have one.            Just as he reaches you, cast yourself on the ground at his feet. He trips over you, and his rush meeting no resistance, carries him over, while you remain safe at the top. It cannot be said that you have used force, for you did not oppose his charge; nor can it be said that you used no force at all, for if you had not moved you would yourself have been thrown over. The secret of this third way is action in another plane. If you remain in the same plane as your antagonist, then whether you oppose him by force or you do not oppose him by force, the result is likely to be equally fatal. The action must be taken in another plane, and such action is the action technically called ` gentle.’          To undertake it successfully you must be able to move altogether out of the plane of the opposing force; if even a hand or foot remains behind, it can be seized, and the result is destruction for the whole body.

The example given is one entirely on the physical plane, and such are good examples because they can be instantly convincing. But the aim of the spiritual man is to solve the whole problem of the universe, not merely the problem of self-defence. The exponents of the Gentle Way, or judo, themselves have no answer to the attacks of old age, disease and suffering, unless (as many of them do) they study philosophy and practise deep meditation with a view to finding truth.        

The principle of leaving nothing behind in the plane of the opponent’s force appears as a spiritual injunction in the Maxims of Saigo: “The man who cares nothing for money, fame, passion, rank, or even life itself, cannot be controlled by another.” He is safe from the attacks of the world, because he has left nothing in the world which can be seized to drag him to destruction.

The great Japanese priest Nichiren was living in exile in a hut on a mountain, and an assassin carne to that place to murder him. This man crept up to the hut, and heard the priest reading the scripture called ” The Lotus of the Wonderful Law.” He thought he would wait till the recitation finished and the priest slept, and then make an end of him. But the recitation went on. Almost in ecstasy Priest Nichiren chanted the words of the scripture which he made the foundation of his teaching, when suddenly the door was flung open, and an unknown samurai burst in and flung himself at his feet. “I came here to kill you,” cried the assassin, “but the sincerity of your reading struck at my my heart. I beg you to accept me as your disciple.”

The character for “self ” which means the empirical self, the ego, was originally a picture of a cocoon, the silk cocoon which the silkworm spins. In the same way we spin cocoons of thoughts, prejudices, passions and so on, which enclose a space, band give an impression of solidarity, of an empirical self. This cocoon of selfhood according to KaoTzu, is to be put last of all the things in the Universe. All the thoughts and feelings which compose it are to be given up. So Dionysius says :

“The soul in the state of contemplation, leaving visible and intellectual things, having done with all the helps of science and knowledge, is absorbed entirely in Him who utterly eludes all touch and sight, and transcends all things.”        

It could be said that probably no conscious action, neither prayers for mercy, nor defiance, nor dignified resignation, would have protected Nichiren from death; but the total sincerity of his devotion, his complete withdrawal from the sense-world, not merely protected him but turned the murderer into a protector.

Economy comes after gentleness in the three “Precious Things.” It means using just so much as is necessary, no more and no less.   In thinking, applying the mind just so much as is necessary; in living, taking just so much interest as is necessary. Economy is one of the most important elements in aesthetics, even in wit, but above all in action. The desire to succeed, to add to reputation, the fear of failure – all these things are unnecessary applications of the mind. The Gita says:

“The action which is done by one longing for pleasure, and with egoism, with tiring endeavour, that is passionate action.   

The action which is done simply because it ought to be done, free from attachment, done without love or hatred, by one not desirous of the result that is the action of the wise.”         

This applies to all action, to virtuous action also. Jullabi relates how a spiritual teacher needing some money for the spiritual cause, went to the house of a disciple, took his effects and sold them. The disciple coming back, saw what had happened and acquiesced in it. The wife however tore off her jewels and flung them down saying :

“These too belong to the effects of the house.”
The husband exclaimed : “You are doing more than is necessary and showing self-will.”
She said : “Our teacher wished us to show liberality; we too must exert ourselves to display liberality.”
“Yes,” replied the husband, “but if we allow the teacher to be liberal, that is real liberality in us, whereas if we begin to think of liberality as a human quality in us, it becomes something forced and unreal.” In other words, it would be displaying egoism.     

The books of Chuang Tzu are full of illustrations of Gentleness and Economy. Many of them show people in a humble station in life, but perfect in the Way.

The third Precious Thing of Kao Tzu is Not Taking Precedence. The title of the chapter is in fact written with two Chinese characters which mean “self” “after.”

The character for “self” which means the empirical self, the ego, was originally a picture of a cocoon, the silk cocoon which the silkworm spins. In the same way we spin cocoons of thoughts, prejudices, passions and so on, which enclose a space, and give an impression of solidarity, of an empirical self. This cocoon of selfhood according to Kao Tzu, is to be put last of all the things in the Universe. All the thoughts and feelings which compose it are to be given up.     So Dionysius says:

 “The soul in the state of contemplation, leaving visible and intellectual things, having done with all the helps of science and knowledge, is absorbed entirely in Him who utterly eludes all touch and sight, and transcends all things.”        

These concepts are not subject to full analysis by the intellect, but are directions for meditation and for yogic practice.

In this sense is to be understood the story of Chuang Tzu which tells how Starlight asked Non-Entity, saying “Master, do you exist? Or do you not exist?” He got no answer to his question, and looked steadfastly at the appearance of the other, which was that of Infinity. All day long he looked at it, but could see nothing; he listened for it, but could hear nothing; he clutched at it, but got hold of nothing.    He continued looking, and then said “Perfect! Who can attain to this?”.

The following is a quotation from the great teacher Confucius. The Master said :

“The words of the great maxims cannot fail to stir us; but what matters is that they should change our ways. The words of the great sayings cannot fail to commend themselves to us, but what matters is that we should carry them out. For those who approve but do not carry out, who are stirred but do not change, nothing can be done at all.”


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