The Buddha once said:

‘It is necessary to live the life to understand the doctrine’.

This points to an eternal truth in all cultures that we expect people to ‘practice what they preach’ and provide an example of their moral beliefs that the rest of us can respect and follow.

This is especially the case in egalitarian and anti-authoritarian Australia where we have little time for empty platitudes from priests or politicians who don’t live up to their high and mighty pronouncements in the privacy of their homes.

Examples: Very Necessary for Teaching

In short, if we are really committed to a moral path, we expect that we should put theory into practice towards others and within ourselves to ‘measure up’ to our professed beliefs.

If someone is sincerely doing this you can’t beat – the Power of Example – for impressing and teaching others in every field of endeavour. First-hand experience is of far more value than any amount of illustration from the pages of history, however well authenticated.

Every teacher knows about the importance of providing examples so that students can understand the principals involved in any lesson – be it maths and physics right through to history and languages. This is part of preparing students to receive and accept further information by providing examples of what they know and then moving on to new information.

Moral Exemplars

It is the same on the spiritual path, if we are sincere moral exemplars in our personal behaviour, this speaks volumes to people who would normally have no time for esoteric philosophy. If we go from what they know, and perhaps cite examples from our own personal experience, this means a lot more to people than launching immediately into complex philosophical discussions.

The power of example and the need for heroes that we can follow is universal.  The likes of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jnr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are not merely admired but they are taken as people worthy to be copied.

Let’s take a look at the power of moral example in different traditions the world over.

China: The Junzi

In China, the moral exemplar is captured in the ideal of what they call the, JUNZI, meaning an ‘exemplary person’, ‘superior person’ or ‘person of excellence’.

Confucius (Kongzi), the Chinese sage (551BC – 479BC) explained that such a person displays the highest virtue, Jen, translated variously as ‘righteousness’, ‘benevolence’, and ‘perfect virtue.’ It is related to, Yi,meaning, justice.

Modern Confucian scholar, Professor Yao Xinzhong, explains: “Yiis how you treat other people appropriately. When you treat people well and in a proper way you also demonstrate virtue. Jen can be understood as a moral force which keeps us in balance such as we might say of someone who has good character.’

The Junzi, or exemplary person, is a beacon for others to follow, or as is commonly understood in China, ‘Sageliness within, and Kingliness without’.

This same idea has recurred all over the world throughout history. Let’s look at a few more examples:

India: The Righteous King

In Hindu India, the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita says:

‘Whatsoever a great man does, the same is done by others as well. Whatever standard he sets, the world follows.’

The  great Indian epic, The Mahabharata, says:

‘If the king regards it, righteousness becomes regarded everywhere.’

The Buddha is not so much seen by Buddhists as a saviour, as you would find in Christianity, but rather as an example to be followed.

As the Buddhists say: ‘The flowers come into bloom when the sage walks through the garden’, or: ‘The bees come of their own accord in search of honey when the flower is in full bloom.’

The author of India’s independence, Mahatma Gandhi wrote:

‘When one choses for oneself, one sets an example for everyone.’

China: Taoism: The Sage

In China, Taoism says that when virtue traditions are strong, people, and the example that they set to others, become even more important than principles as sources of moral guidance.

In the Tao Te Ching (meaning: ‘The Book of the Way and its Virtues’) by Taoist Master, Lao Tzu:

‘Sages embrace the One and serve as models for the whole world’ but they do not parade themselves as models, as that would be self-defeating. ‘They do not make a display of themselves and so are illustrious.’

“The sage does not hoard. The more he helps others, the more he benefits himself, the more he gives to others, the more he gets himself. The Way of Heaven does one good but never does one harm. The Way of the Sage is to act but not to compete.”

China: Confucianism: The Scholar in Public Life

Confucius advised good people to enter into public life and so elevate the people by the power of their example:

‘Go before the people with your example and be laborious in their affairs’.

In China through long ages the scholar is expected to be active in public life to serve as an example and anyone in public life should be a scholar to demonstrate their worthiness to be an exemplar. Such a good ruler has no need to be coercive, since their virtuous rule will naturally lead to content subjects willing to obey them. Confucius said:

‘The flowing progress of virtue is more rapid than the transmission of royal orders by stages and couriers.’

Confucius said that such a Junzi (a good person) in government is like the wind and the people are like grass.

‘When the wind blows over the grass, the grass will bend’.

Confucius further expressed this idea:

‘One who rules through the power of virtue is like the Pole Star: it simply remains in place and receives the homage of the myriad lesser stars.

India: Taste the Soup!

Mahatma Gandhi took a similar view: ‘If we do our duty, others will do theirs someday. We have a saying to the effect: If we ourselves are good, the whole world will be good.’

Buddhism takes the view that there is a need for an inner self-transformation – even before we can become receptive to good examples – much less ourselves provide a worthy example to follow.

The Dhammapada puts it beautifully:

‘If a fool is associated with a wise man even for all his life, he will not perceive the truth even as the spoon does not perceive the taste of the most delicious soup. But if a thoughtful man is associated with a wise man, even for a minute, he will soon perceive the truth even as the tongue perceives the taste of soup’.

Choose Your Friends Carefully!

Like Confucius in China, ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, pointed to the need for well-educated and morally upright leaders as the best form of government and his Academy was established, in part at least, to encourage the development of such people.

Another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, emphasized the need for good people to choose their friends very carefully. He said:

 â€˜The friendship of the good is good, and increases in goodness because of their association. They seem even to become better men by exercising their friendship and improving each other; the traits that they admire in each other get transferred to themselves.’ ‘Perfect friendship is the friendship of men/women who are good, and alike in virtue.’

What Makes a Great Soul?

Aristotle describes the crown of virtues as: ‘greatness of soul’, or, Megalopsuchia, saying of such a rare person:

 â€˜There are few things he values highly’ and ‘nothing is great in his eyes’. He does not care for personal conversation nor to be complimented for himself or to compliment others. He is the last to complain about unavoidable or minor troubles ‘because such an attitude would imply that he took them seriously’.

He said such a person should focus on what is rightly honoured rather than pursue honour for its own sake. Honour can be a sign that you are doing the right thing but it is not the purpose of right action.

Simple and balanced living is certainly a feature of a moral exemplar. Even in the materialist modern world, moral exemplars favour simple living from Mandela to Modi, Gandhi to Mother Teresa.

Whilst advocating simple living, Aristotle also said that virtue did not mean you live an ascetic life. Aristotle believed that: ‘it is difficult if not impossible to do fine deeds without any resources.’

Simplicity, Patience and Compassion

Taoist philosopher, Lao Tze in China, said it is in the simple things that we can find spiritual principles worth following. In his ‘Tao Te Ching’ (The Book of the Way: Book 67) he says that he came to teach only three simple truths:

Some say that my teaching is nonsense.
Others call it lofty but impractical.
But to those who have looked inside themselves,
this nonsense makes perfect sense.
And to those who put it into practice,
this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:
Simplicity, Patience, Compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Simplicity, Patience, and Compassion – three qualitieswhich everyone can follow no matter what your situation.

The Middle East and Russia

In the Middle East: The Prophet Muhammad is identified as the epitome of human behaviour in the Quran to be emulated by all Muslims.

In Iran: the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian/Mazdian religion similarly described the duties of its followers to become the best they can be. The duties of the Mazdian believer were threefold:

Think good thoughts, speak good words, and perform good deeds.

It will be noted that this formulation takes into account three fundamental planes:

  • Thought: which belongs to the domain of the mind,
  • Word: which belongs to the domain of the soul, 
  • Action: which belongs to the domain of matter and the body.

In Russia: there is similarly an emphasis on following the example of good people, for example, the great writer Dostoyevsky wrote:

“Advice to all: Be master of yourselves; know how to conquer yourselves before you take the first step along the new path; set an example before you would convert others.  Then only will you be able to go forward. “

Traditional Societies: Africa

Some examples from African traditional societies:

  • Ancient Egypt: the concept, and the Goddess, Maat, representing truth, balance, law, and morality as standards to live by. That we should try and develop and attain a purity within ourselves emulating the law of balance in the greater Universe.
  • Nigeria: amongst the Yoruba people the concept of Iwa-pale, meaning a balance of good character in alignment with one’s own, Ori, or Divine Self. Be a better person and consider the best interests of others.
  • Ghana: the Akan people speak of Obra Pa, meaning, living a life of beneficence and developing a good character.
  • South Africa: the concept of Ubuntu, or ‘I am because we are’, that we are all part of humanity and we have a universal bond of sharing because of our shared consciousness. An authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world. This puts the burden of responsibility on us to live up to the best of ourselves and to overlook differences between people to achieve common goals of peaceful co-existence. This concept is found in most African societies called by different names.

Traditional Societies: Polynesia

Ancient Hawaii: In the traditional societies of our Polynesian neighbours, chiefs were trained from childhood to an ideal of the perfect chief as one who led and inspired his people by wise and courageous example. Chiefs in ancient Hawaii were expected to lead their commoners in heavy labour, planting, building fish-ponds, constructing rock platforms for temples, as well as in battle. The paramount chiefs of Hawaii served as the interface between men and the high God, Ku, from whom flowed ‘Mana’ (life force) for governance, diplomacy fishing, agriculture and all the crafts that guaranteed the survival of traditional societies. This is all very similar to the European ideal of Christian Knighthood and their obligation of protecting and setting a courageous example to the common people.

Modern Science: Epigenetics

Traditional beliefs in the importance of ancestors and how our behaviour affects future generations are borne out by the latest science of Epigenetics which indicates that the experiences and traumas suffered by ancestors seem to be built into our DNA and may be directly handed down to future generations.  Advances in modern science now confirm that various genetic markers in our chromosomes transmit traits, phobias and behavioural patterns between family members over generations. Ancestral communication thus reflects the attempt to activate their essence within us to draw and learn from the experience and wisdom garnered over their lifetimes by tapping into the ‘chromosome memory’.

Modern Science: Psychology: The Bystander Effect

Contemporary social psychology supports these ancient ideas about the way our behaviour is influenced by those around us setting a good example. This is called, the Bystander Effect, that even a single person can have a dramatic effect on group behaviour especially in crisis situations.

If someone appears to be in need of help, and there is only one person close by, that person is most likely to render assistance. But if there are several people, often none will. No one makes the first move being unsure of whether this is appropriate, which in turn indicates to others that helping out is not socially mandated. But, if just one person breaks ranks and goes out to help – sets the example – others will most often join them.

So, you can see that the call to be a better person, to set an example, is pretty much universal throughout history.

OK, but how can we possibly do this? How can we take ‘the first step along this ‘new path’?

‘To Live to Benefit Mankind Is the First Step’

Theosophist HP Blavatsky said that:

‘To live to benefit Mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second’. – The Voice of the Silence. Page 33.

We can expect that life will always have its ups and downs and that we cannot be ‘happy’ all the time. Indeed, people who strive for ‘happiness’ in the common definition of material well-being, often have trouble empathizing with the majority of humanity where suffering is frequently the norm.

So, having common sense about what we expect from life and helping out where we can and when appropriate is the first step, but what about those ‘Perfections’ or ‘Paramitas’?

Practical Ways to A Better World: The Buddhist Paramitas (Perfections)

Spiritual growth is essentially converting our life experience into opportunities for letting the Inner God at the core of us shine in this world. All systems of spiritual initiation to attain this goal are basically putting what the Buddhist’s call ‘The Paramitas’ or ‘Perfections’ into action in the reality of daily life.

These spiritual qualities are enumerated and called by different names in the world’s mystery traditions but they can be boiled down to six qualities:

Generosity; Ethical Discipline; Patience; Joyous Perseverance; Meditative Stabilization; Wisdom. 

What are these Paramitas? Of the seven listed in the Voice of the Silence:

1/ Dana, “giving,” concern for others, being altruistic in thought, speech, and act.

2/ Sila, “ethics,” the high morality expected of the earnest disciple;

3/ Kshanti, “patience,” forbearance, endurance, is the kindly perception that others’ failings are no worse and perhaps less severe than one’s own.

4/ Viraga, “dispassion,” non-attachment to the effects upon us of the ups and downs of life: how difficult we find this and yet, if in our deepest self we cherish the bodhisattva ideal, the cultivation of Viraga by no means condones indifference to the plight of others. Rather, it demands a wise exercise of compassion. It is interesting that to our knowledge this paramita is not given in the usual Sanskrit or Pali lists. That the Voice includes Viraga has significance in that the fourth position is pivotal, midway in the series of seven. We are reminded here, of the seven stages of the initiatory cycle, of which the first three are preparatory, consisting chiefly of instruction and interior discipline. (Cf. The Mystery Schools, pp. 41-58) In the fourth initiation the neophyte must become that which he has learned about, that is, he must identify with the inner realms of himself and of nature. If successful, he may attempt the three higher degrees, leading to suffering the god within to take possession of his humanity.

5/ Virya: “vigor,” courage, resolution; the will and energy to stand staunch for what is true, and as strenuously oppose what is false. One proficient in Virya is indefatigable in thought and deed.

6/ Dhyana: “meditation,” profound contemplation, emptying oneself of all that is less than the highest, comes a natural awakening of latent powers, to culminate eventually in oneness with the essence of Being.

7/ Prajna: “enlightenment, wisdom” — “the key to which makes of man a god, creating him a bodhisattva, son of the Dhyanis.” We will have become “god from mortal,” as the Orphic candidate describes this sacred moment of the seventh initiation when transcendence and immanence become one. – From Grace Knoche: To Light a Thousand Lamps.

Why should we develop these particular qualities along the Path of spiritual learning?

“To achieve the aims of others for spiritual understanding you must first help them with material goods as they won’t appreciate spirituality if they have an empty stomach! Since no benefit will come from Generosity accompanied by harmfulness towards living beings, you need Ethical Discipline, which has great purpose for others; this is the state of desisting from harm to others and the causes of harm. To bring this to its full development, you need Patience that disregards the harm done to you. You need to develop the ability to fix your mind on your ideals so you need to develop Meditative Stabilization. Calmness and single-mindedness in the service of others lead to Wisdom. None of this is attainable by laziness, so you need Joyous Perseverance in pursuit of wisdom through service to others and so this quality is the basis of the other Perfections.”

[These comments are based on Tibetan spiritual teacher Tsong-Kha-Pa, from his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment]

Common Sense

In these days of the Covid pandemic, a lot of people are suffering and are consequently depressed and not inclined to listen to high and mighty philosophy when confronting their problems!

Again, to quote HP Blavatsky when she was asked what are the three most important things we should remember when studying and applying esoteric philosophy she said:

 â€˜Common Sense, a Sense of Humour, and more Common Sense’. 

Common sense tells us that when trying to help someone, place yourself in their situation, provide advice, or set an example to them of what to do to improve that situation, or accept the situation if it cannot be changed. 

It is no use talking high-brow philosophy about karma and reincarnation when someone is suffering loss or pain when a gentle, kindly word when appropriate, or even just a smile can change their day for the better.

As with the classroom situation we gave earlier, start with the example of what people know and are familiar with and work towards a better practical solution from there. 

It is possible always to use our background of philosophical study but put it into terms that are meaningful to people in their current situation.

For example, for someone has lost their home or job because of Covid, it is no use talking about karma and that we must set the balance right again due to past sins, rather that we could say, ‘Stuff happens’ in life and let’s get on to see what opportunities are available in different industries, government assistance etc…

Bravely Facing the ‘Wintry Blasts’

As theosophical writer G de Purucker puts it:

“…The force of example is more powerful and more telling than a hundred thousand words.

 When we see a man or woman bearing a misfortune with manly/womanly fortitude, standing with unflinching face to the wintry blasts that beat upon him/her, and yet advancing to it, it stirs every spark of heroism n those who watch, and we say, ‘Ah! A Man/Woman!’ It is thus we give courage, we stimulate courage in others.

We are like the Manasaputras (ie: ‘Sons of Mind’, the exalted Beings who brought the quality of mind to humanity). We bring the flame of something holy and beautiful into others lives. Just the same when others are in pain , or sorrow, are suffering: set them an example of all that we know would help us if we were like them…”

The Voiceless Example

It is important not to preach or moralize to people in such situations but to provide simple clear information that makes sense.

Again from G de Purucker: “…Often without words I think is the best. I think it is fatal to preach at a person. It makes people so tired when you preach at them!

Sometimes the voiceless example is a thousand times more powerful; than anything else. 

Occasionally a gentle word, a kindly expression, will work wonders. Sometimes human hearts in pain are just longing for a kindly touch, a friendly word – just that, no more than that; then set the example of cheerfulness; but not overdone.

Do anything that occurs to you, according to the person who needs help, setting the example, showing what your feeling is. I think that is the best way. The circumstances are practically infinite… it is so simple: set the example of what you would do if you were in the person’s place, what you would do to go away from the condition”- G de Purucker: Studies in Occult Philosophy. Page 511.

The Power of Example

So let’s not ignore a most powerful weapon in our armoury of resources to build a better world – the Power of Example.

Let’s  not get overwhelmed by the negatives of this Covid world, let’s strengthen the spiritual will through the practice of overcoming the demands of the ‘Small Self’ within us.

As  spiritual students we have the opportunity, and indeed the obligation, to help check the negative forces in the world:

“……Check them with your own example; check them with your forgiveness; check them with your love; check them by refusing to be a participant.

Set an example!”

– G de Purucker:  from Questions We All Ask no.36, June 3rd, 1930.

Further Reading

Julian Baggini: How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy. 2018. Chapter: ‘Moral Exemplars’ – pages: 268-280.

G de Purucker: Studies in Occult Philosophy. 1973. Page 511:  ‘How to Meet Despair and Depression’.

G de Purucker: Esoteric Teachings Vol.1: The Esoteric Path: Its Nature and Its Tests.1987.

G de Purucker: Questions We All Ask. No.36. 1930.

Bas Rijken van Olst: ‘Thoughts on Religion in the Future’ [Lecture given at the National Meeting of the British Section of The Theosophical Society, Manchester, June 11, 2005.] Sunrise Magazine, August/September 2005.

Vaclav Havel: ‘The World in Our Hands’ Sunrise Magazine, November/December 1995.

Grace F. Knoche: To Light a Thousand Lamps. 2001.