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Monday, November 10, 2008

Honesty, Veracity, Equanimity: Part I

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

All my life I have been fascinated by what I call "Virtue Lists."

These are lists that transcend the "dos and don'ts" of things like the Ten Commandments, or Buddhism's Five Precepts; instead of talking about what we should do, a Virtue List outlines what we should be.

So Christianity has The (Eight) Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-12, where we are encouraged to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure of heart, to be peacemakers, and to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness.

Buddhism has a much shorter list: To be compassionate and wise. (There are longer lists too, of course, which we may visit later.)

Anyway, when I was on a 10-week pilgrimage back in the autumn of 2001, I developed a list that was, at least at that time, extremely important to me. It has three aspects, which will constitute this week's three posts. Within each statement, I'll also tell you why that virtue was important to me at the time.

First up: Honesty.

As the sage Billy Joel said, it's hardly ever heard, but mostly what I need from you.

Jesus said it's not what goes into a man that makes him dirty, it's what comes out of him. What we do and say tells a lot about what we are.

Although honesty is incredibly important, I think it often needs to be tempered by other virtues--kindness, for example--but in the final analysis it can't be sacrificed to anything.

While on my pilgrimage, I took 10 traditional Buddhist pilgrim's vows, a list of "dos and don'ts" for the pilgrim. They were:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not engage in inappropriate sex.
  4. Do not tell lies.
  5. Do not flatter others untruthfully.
  6. Do not speak badly of others.
  7. Do not be deceitful.
  8. Do not be greedy.
  9. Do not get angry.
  10. Do not cause wrongful thinking by others.

It's interesting to note that three of these (numbers 4, 5, and 7) are directly about honest speech; number 2 is about honest action; and number 3 is about honest dealings with the opposite sex. Number 10 is also about encouraging honesty in others.

So six of the ten vows that I was under at the time were centered on honesty.

This is interesting, because in many ways Japan is a big country for--how can I say it?--un-honesty. I don't mean it's a nation of liars. I mean that wa (harmony) is often more important than directness.

It's an often-told story: The American insists on a two-week delivery date. The Japanese side knows that this is impossible. But instead of a direct "No way, Jose," the Japanese say something like, "Delivery on time is very important" meaning "We can't do it, so we aren't going to promise." The American hears this as "Can do." Later, then, he says he's been lied to. But all the Japanese did is avoid confrontation and maintain wa.

Another important idea is the difference between tatemae and honne. The first is the "public face"; the second is the true idea or feeling. Wearing your tatemae in public promotes wa; going around telling your true feelings would destroy it. So group unity is more important than telling your true opinion.

We do this, too. If you ask a near-stranger, "How are you?" and he begins reciting a list of troubles, you'll be horror-stricken. You usually want to hear, "Fine, thanks" and move on.

But the kind of honesty I'm talking about goes beyond such ideas of social custom. I'm talking about authenticity, about finding the life you want to lead, and then living it. As Polonius says, if we are true to ourselves, we can't be false to others. I hope that when I die people will say, "He was true to himself. He followed his bliss." For better or for worse.

Next time, Veracity; and finally, Equanimity.

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