By Transforming You, Virtue Transforms Society

by | Feb 25, 2024 | Buddhism for All

(Context: The Awesome Power of Virtue)

In earlier posts (for example, this one), I mentioned that the reason we practice virtue in Buddhism is that virtue is highly conducive to our own happiness.  It gets even better.  In addition to increasing your own happiness, your practice of virtue also creates ripple effects that benefit the entire society.

First, of course, there is right livelihood.  Remember that right livelihood is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path and, therefore, a non-optional part of a sincere Buddhist’s practice.  Which means, for example, that no sincerely practicing Buddhist may engage in fraud or corruption, or poison the land or water.  Obviously, people practicing right livelihood benefit society.

And then, there is generosity, a virtue the Buddha repeatedly emphasizes.  When the Buddha talks about virtue, he very often singles out generosity for extra mention.  For example, in one discourse, the Buddha talks about five kinds of wealth: faith, virtue, learning, generosity and wisdom.[1]  Note that generosity is not subsumed under virtue, but is instead listed as a separate item of equal importance.[2]  Also note that, fascinatingly, generosity is considered a kind of wealth, not a reduction in wealth.

There is so much emphasis on generosity because it is closely related to right intention.  Remember from an earlier post that right intention refers to the intentions of renunciation, non-ill will, and harmlessness?  When one properly practices generosity, one practices all three parts of right intention all at once: one delights in relinquishment, thereby practicing renunciation, and one devotes to being charitable out of kindness to others, thereby practicing non-ill will and harmlessness[3].  Therefore, in a practical sense, generosity is the virtue that can lead to all other virtues.  That is why it is so important.  Separately but relatedly, there is a popular teaching in Buddhism known as the ten perfections[4], which are ten qualities every sincere Buddhist practitioner tries to perfect: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness and equanimity.  Unsurprisingly, generosity is the first perfection.[5]

Given the outsized importance of generosity, it is a key virtue that every sincere Buddhist aspires to.  Obviously, the more generous people are, the more the society itself benefits.  Just this one thing alone can have a transformative effect on society.

There is more.  Buddhism may appear to be very solitary; most people’s idea of a practicing Buddhist is somebody sitting alone under a tree.  While that image is not incorrect, it is also true that Buddhism has a very heavy communal emphasis.  You can tell simply by textual volume: the Buddha devoted a significant percentage of the monastic code to maintaining communal harmony, and he gave numerous discourses on the topics of friendship, good relationships, duty to each other, and creating and maintaining communities where monastics “dwell in concord, harmoniously, without disputes, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with eyes of affection.”[6] 

(Artwork by Colin Goh.)

Many of those discourses are applicable to us lay people living in modern societies.  For example, the Buddha taught four ways of sustaining favorable relationships[7]: giving, endearing speech, beneficent conduct, and impartiality[8].  In other words:

  1. When somebody needs a gift, I give them a gift.
  2. When somebody needs kind words, I give them kind words.
  3. When somebody needs concern or assistance, I give it to them.
  4. When somebody needs to be treated fairly, or as an equal, I do it for them.

In later Buddhism, these four ways gained even more prominence.  In Mahayana Buddhism[9], for example, they became a core part of the training of a bodhisattva, the model of an ideal practitioner.

Imagine having a large number of people practice these four ways.  What a huge effect it would have on society.

But wait, there is even more.  The most important thing about the Buddha’s teachings on relating to others is that they are a vital part of the core spiritual training.  If you buy into the impression that Buddhism is exclusively solitary, you might think that “real Buddhism” is sitting alone under a tree, while relating to others is what you do in your free time.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  The Buddha’s attendant Ānanda once told the Buddha that he realized “half of the holy life is good friendship.”  He was in for a surprise.  The Buddha said to him, “No, Ānanda, the whole of the holy life is good friendship.”[10]

Why is good friendship so important?  The reason is good friendship is what helps to get you on the path, and to stay on the path.  The Buddha says, “Just as dawn is the precursor of the rising of the sun, good friendship is the precursor for the arising of the Noble Eightfold Path.  When a monk has a good friend, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate this Noble Eightfold Path.”[11]  In one discourse, he even names good friendship as “the first vital condition for the development of the factors of enlightenment.”[12]

How is good friendship able to do all that?  First, a good friend is a good person who is virtuous, learned, energetic, mindful and wise.[13]  In addition, a good friend is pleasing, respected, esteemed, patient with you, supports and helps you, does not forsake you[14], gives “deep talks”, and does not enjoin anyone to do what is wrong.[15]  When you have friends like that, you can be expected to (1) become virtuous yourself, (2) receive the good teachings, (3) arouse energy for abandoning the unwholesome and cultivating the wholesome, and (4) gain wisdom.[16]  Yes, Soryu can testify to the importance of good friendship with his own experience, both as a trainee and as a teacher.

And that, my friends, is how good friends get you on the path, and to stay on the path.  That is why good friends are the whole of the holy life.  Of course, part of the practice is to be that good friend for others.  Happily, good friendship is something you can receive and give at the same time.

Yes, of course, there is more (how did you guess?).  The communal teachings of the Buddha are not just about supporting each other’s practice, they are more broadly about benefiting all sentient beings.  The Buddha instructs all to practice both for their own welfare and also the welfare of others.[17]  So, in a sense, a practicing Buddhist strives not just to be mindful, but also to be heartful.

At the heart of heartfulness are the four qualities commonly referred to as the four immeasurables[18] or as the “brahmaviharas” (supreme abodes).  They are:

  1. Loving-kindness: the wish for all to be happy.
  2. Compassion: the wish for all to be free from suffering.
  3. Altruistic joy: selfless joy at the happiness of others.
  4. Equanimity: being unperturbed by the ups and downs of life.[19]

These heartfulness qualities are not just really nice to have, they are liberating too.  In meditation, the immeasurables can deliver you straight into jhāna.  If, while your mind is deeply imbued with any of the immeasurables, you also gain deep insight into impermanence, it can deliver you all the way to final enlightenment.[20]  That is how powerful the immeasurables are.

The main point is that Buddhist practice must involve deep concern for others.  As usual, the Buddha has a very nice way of putting it, he says practice can be seen as “protecting others by protecting yourself”, and “protecting yourself by protecting others.”[21]  The way you “protect others by protecting yourself” is to practice the four establishments of mindfulness.  The way you “protect yourself by protecting others” is to practice the heart qualities, such as the four immeasurables.  A good practitioner must do both.

Therefore, a sincere Buddhist practitioner benefits society, because part of his or her training necessarily includes highly pro-social things like generosity, promoting communal harmony, giving, speaking kindly, cultivating heartful qualities, having deep concern for others, and being a virtuous person in general.  And therefore, merely by practicing what the Buddha taught, you will create a ripple effect that can transform society.  That is why Soryu and I are eager to make Buddhism understandable and accessible to all.  The more people who choose to practice, and the deeper their practice is, the more goodness there will be to ripple all over the world.


  • Reflect on this post with Angela: Virtue is what all wise ones have taught — to be a good person, to do good unto others, to benefit others and at minimum, to not harm others. Virtue is a basis for harmony in the family and at the workplace. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “peace in oneself, peace in the world”. 
    • In what ways do you already practice virtue? 
    • How has your own practice of virtue benefitted yourself and the people around you?


[1] Aṅguttara Nikāya 5.47.

[2] A few other examples are Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.55, 5.40, 5.63, 5.64, and 8.25.

[3] In Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.61, the Buddha lists “delighting in relinquishment” and “devotion to charity” as two of the features of “accomplishment in generosity.”

[4] In Pali and Sanskrit: paramita.

[5] The teaching on the perfections arose after the Buddha.  The Theravadin version contains these ten perfections, while the main Mahayana version contains six: generosity, virtue, patience, energy, dhyāna, and wisdom.  In all versions, generosity is the first perfection.

[6] Aṅguttara Nikāya 3.95, 3.124, and other places.

[7] In Pali: saṅgahavatthu, sometimes beautifully translated as “four ways of embracing others.”

[8] Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.32.  Also see Aṅguttara Nikāya 8.24.

[9] Later in this series, there will be a discussion on the different schools of Buddhism.

[10] Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2.

[11] Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.49 and 45.56.

[12] Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.1.

[13] Majjhima Nikāya 110.  I summarized “has faith, shame, and fear of wrongdoing” into “virtuous”.

[14] Of course, a good friend is never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna turn around and desert you.

[15] Aṅguttara Nikāya 7.36 and 7.37.  The Buddha lists 14 qualities of a good friend in these two discourses, I curated them here for brevity.

[16] Aṅguttara Nikāya 9.3.

[17] Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.95.

[18] In Pali: appamaññā.  One place this reference was made was in Dīgha Nikāya 33.

[19] In Pali, the four are: mettā, karuṇā, muditā and upekkhā, respectively.

[20] Majjhima Nikāya 52.

[21] Saṃyutta Nikāya 47.19.

Chade-Meng Tan

Meng is an award-winning engineer, international bestselling author, movie producer and philanthropist. His work has been nominated eight times for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Read Meng's story)

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