The Dharma of Western Literature

In this series on The Dharma of Western Literature, we’re considering six classic works through the lens of the six paramitas, or sublime virtues: generosity, ethical conduct, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. Next up is ethical conduct, or shila


It’s a simple concept. Do the right thing; don’t do the wrong thing. 

All religions agree on the basics: don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t schtup your neighbor’s husband or wife. But then it gets complicated. Is it OK to eat meat, to have an abortion, to read on the day of rest, to drive a planet-warming car to work so you can feed your family? The commandment against making images of the divine is still on the books, but most Christians seem quite comfortable with their nativity scenes and the Sistine Chapel. And many Jews have happily conceded—as Philip Roth puts it in Portnoy’s Complaint—that in Chinese restaurants “the Lord has lifted the ban on pork dishes for the obedient children of Israel.”

If we approach these matters as abstract ethical puzzles or edicts from a Boss God, the debate is endless. But we can cut through the haggling with a kind of spiritual pragmatism: what behavior helps lift me and others out of suffering and confusion and into the light? That (as I understand it) is the essence of shila paramita, sublime morality, the second of Buddhism’s six sublime virtues. It’s an approach that requires us to be awake to the actual needs of each fresh moment; we can’t outsource our rendezvous with right and wrong to some higher authority or abstract it into a one-size-fits-all checklist.

Western literature celebrates plenty of heroes who dramatically choose to do right, even when it’s hard: Huck helps Jim escape slavery, Sydney Carton takes Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine. In real life, the choices are usually subtler, the process murkier. Our outward acts are an end product, a surface froth thrown up by a deep internal churning. It is to this process, with its ceaseless exchange between inner and outer, past and present, self and other, that Virginia Woolf is exquisitely attuned.

Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway follows a middle-aged, upper-class Englishwoman through one hot June day in London. On the surface, not much happens. She walks through town to fetch flowers for a party she’ll host that night, she has an awkward visit from an old flame, and she frets about an overly fervent Christian tutor’s influence on her teenage daughter, Elizabeth. In the end, her party, after threatening to fall flat, is a success—the banter is lively and the prime minister attends. All is well. 

But beneath that simple surface, the churn of perceptions, memories, and ruminations is extraordinarily rich. It’s set in motion by the book’s first sentence: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” She could send one of the servants, but, as she thinks a few moments later, “What a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge!” As she runs her errand, she does indeed plunge eagerly into the experience of the city, all the while somehow perceiving the way her own consciousness participates in creating it: “For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.” It’s all a sort of wandering luminosity, or, in Woolf’s wonderful phrase, a “vagulous phosphorescence.”

In this wandering and plunging she is us at our most happily lucid, going forth in the adventure of life. Her enthusiastic embrace of it all, her love of it all, is the root of her goodness. Her first name, Clarissa, is a diminutive of clair, light, or claire, clear. While lovingly observing the kaleidoscopic colors of manifold creation, she remains a little beam of the one clear light. (This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.) At the same time, she’s Dalloway, dallying away her time on Earth in the frivolous social pursuits of a wealthy, not-very-consequential politician’s wife: attending luncheons, maintaining her wardrobe, throwing parties, repeating gossip. Having, in her youth, seen her own sister killed by a falling tree, “she thought there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”

She has laid aside the roller-coaster romances and utopian dreams of youth, when she and a friend would sit “hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world,” even drafting a manifesto for the abolition of private property. Now she harbors occasional doubts about the worthiness of the pampered routine that has replaced her old ideals. But again and again she returns to the intuition that, in her own way, she’s making a difference. While her husband is at the House of Commons addressing the plight of the Albanians—“or was it the Armenians?”—Clarissa contemplates the roses she has brought home. “She loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?).” 

In spirit, this is not far off from some forms of Buddhist practice, chanting mantras or doing prostrations by the thousand for the ostensible benefit of all sentient beings. Does this really benefit anyone, or is it finally just a spiritualized form of bougie complacency, giving us a sense of virtue without the inconvenience of dirtying our hands digging latrines or helping out in the soup kitchen? To this question I have no definitive answer; investigation continues.

Woolf occasionally dives into the consciousness of other characters as their paths crisscross, their diverse strands of experience braided together by the steady passage of time, marked by the striking of Big Ben, within earshot of them all—“first the warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.” These characters illuminate other aspects of shila. 

Miss Kilman, Elizabeth’s pious tutor, shows by negative example the importance of the order of the paramitas. Shila comes second in the classical sequence, after dana, generosity (which we’ve previously discussed in the light of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). Miss Kilman’s extravagant Christian morality, not being rooted in generosity—specifically generosity of spirit—is self-righteous, dogmatic, and mean-spirited. She spends her life resenting people for having nicer clothes and lives and looks than she does, at the same time despising all those nice things as unspiritual. Such world-hating zeal for the divine is the opposite of Clarissa Dalloway’s joyful embrace of the divine as it shines through—shines as—the world.

Clarissa’s husband, Richard, is a stolid, dull, eminently respectable civil servant, “without a touch of imagination, without a spark of brilliancy, but with the inexplicable niceness of his type. He ought to have been a country gentleman—he was wasted on politics.” He lacks the fire-in-the-belly to rise to the level of cabinet minister, and he lacks the romance and adventure (but also the flakey impracticality) of Clarissa’s old suitor, Peter Walsh. Peter, who shows up freshly returned from India with news of an impending divorce and remarriage, has never recovered from Clarissa’s long-ago rejection. Suddenly bursting into tears, he cuts their meeting short and flees from her house. Meanwhile, Richard, at a luncheon across town, hears of this meeting and, his feelings for his wife aroused, buys flowers for her. He walks back to the house with them, resolving to tell her he loves her—right out loud. 

When he arrives, though, he can’t get the words out. In the Dalloways’ time and social class, it’s not “the done thing.” And this is a grand theme for the keen-eyed Virginia Woolf: the extent to which our “right” and “wrong” choices are circumscribed by the more or less arbitrary social conventions we’ve internalized. In some parts of the world, eating with your hands is the norm; in others, it’s barbaric. Richard—the name means “hardy leader”—marches off to Parliament, his love still undeclared, to advocate for the Armenians (not the Albanians). Is he doing right? 

Like most of us, yes and no. There’s something about our limitations of class, education, and inherited prejudices that’s tragic in its squelching of love and joy; and something about it that’s ridiculous; and, in the big picture, something about it that’s fine just the way it is. With a certain amount of clarity—enhanced by our encounters with samadhi—we can consciously enjoy that just-fine aspect. 

Because Woolf’s writing portrays so many people, most of them women, flirting with samadhi, we can feel confident that she had considerable such experience of her own. As she wrote in The Waves, “Alone, I often fall down into nothingness. I must push my foot stealthily lest I should fall off the edge of the world into nothingness. I have to bang my head against some hard door to call myself back to the body.” What a shame that she lacked the guidance that could have helped her let go, stop banging her head, and discover the luminous, sorrow-dissolving nature of that nothingness. She does have at least one character, Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse—modeled posthumously after her own mother—who has recurring, clear samadhis in the course of her ordinary wife-ing and mothering. Here she’s serving dinner to her family and guests:

“Everything seemed right. Just now … she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness … seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. … It partook, she felt, … of eternity.”

And samadhi, besides being good in itself, is also essential to the development of shila. Most people who’ve done serious meditative practice for some time notice that as our perception grows clearer, we see more clearly what’s right or wrong to do in each moment without having to think much about it. Doing right gets easier, and, perhaps more profoundly, doing wrong gets harder. It just feels icky. In much the same way, all the paramitas grow symbiotically along with samadhi, supporting it and supported by it. 

Yes, there’ve been a discouraging number of roshis and lamas behaving badly. But I can’t dismiss my own direct experience or my observation of hundreds of friends and students over the last fifty-some years. One of the best things anyone has ever said to me came from an inmate at a maximum-security prison where, for several years, I volunteered as the dharma chaplain: “You made killers peaceful.”

It’s a simple concept. Do the right thing; don’t do the wrong thing; keep practicing. And know that uncounted anonymous Clarissa Dalloways, who will never read a dharma text or sit on a meditation cushion, help fill the world with light just by being happy and good. 

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