Skilled in Beauty

Skilled in Beauty

by Gil Fronsdal

Buddhist meditation is not usually associated with beauty. More commonly, people associate it with clarity, calmness, or concentration. And yet, the Buddha described a person proficient in samadhi—a word that can mean both meditation and concentration—as someone skilled in the beauty of samadhi. Attuning oneself to this beauty is one of the wonderful discoveries of meditation. It is a “spiritual beauty“, that can be a companion, foundation, and guide that teaches us freedom from maliciousness, possessiveness, and conceit, qualities that are not beautiful and do not lift the heart. To live with beauty delights the heart.

That beauty has a central place in Buddhism is illustrated by the Buddha’s much-repeated statement that the Dhamma is “beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, and beautiful in the end.” While the Dhamma can refer to the Buddha’s teachings, which certainly have an exquisite profundity, the Dhamma is also the personal experience of truth, goodness, natural order, and freedom revealed through Buddhist practice. Associating these qualities with beauty associates them with states of mind that we don’t create, and which are hard to appropriate as “mine” or as “me.” These are states we learn to recognize, value, and nurture.

Spiritual beauty is an experience that does not lend itself to attachments because when we experience our inner life as beautiful, it becomes clear that this beauty dims when we cling to anything, including beauty itself. When we know the Dhamma is beautiful in the beginning, middle, and end, we become increasingly disinclined to grasp, diminish or overlook this beauty. To live a Dhamma life is to live in beauty.

The Pali word translated here as beautiful is kalyana. The first definition of kalyana given in the Pali Text Society Pali-English Dictionary is “beautiful.” In this and other Pali-English dictionaries, additional meanings are ‘good and goodness,’ ‘virtue and virtuous,’ and ‘excellent and excellence.’ Of these words, ‘beautiful’ is perhaps the richest in emotional and aesthetic resonance. ‘Beautiful’ doesn’t require the evaluations, explanations, justifications, and discussions which might be needed when using such words as ‘good’, ‘virtuous’, or ‘excellent.’

Beauty is an experience of perception, emotion, and feeling, not intellect only. Because kalyana is closely associated, almost as a synonym, with virtue and goodness, it is not physical beauty but a quality of the inner life, mind, or heart. A beautiful heart is a virtuous heart; inner goodness is inner beauty.

Some people are described as “beautiful friends, beautiful companions, beautiful acquaintances.” Traditionally, these are people of “virtuous conduct and of beautiful action” who exemplify maturity in the Dhamma and encourage others to live a Dhamma life. The Buddha said that for people with such friends, “it is to be expected that they will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.” “Beautiful friend” is one translation of kalyana-mitta, a Pali word often translated into English as “good spiritual friend.” When used as a Buddhist term, “spiritual” refers both to the deepest and fullest aspect of the human heart where ethics, the deepest dimensions of emotions, and freedom from suffering come together in the same experience. The two translation choices for kalyana-mitta—i.e., “good spiritual friend” and “beautiful friend”—suggest this friendship has a beautiful spiritual dimension.

The Buddha also used the word kalyana when speaking about what in English is often called “good karma.” For the Buddha, good karma is ‘beautiful karma,” and beautiful karma leads to beautiful results. He stated this in the following verse where the Pali word papa is translated as “ill” rather than “bad” or “evil”, as commonly done:

Whatever kind of seed is sown,
That is the kind of fruit one reaps.
The doer of beauty reaps beauty;
The doer of ill reaps ill.
—SN 11.10

Continuing the ideas of this poem we could add, “Beautiful actions inspire more beauty; Ill actions are demoralizing and self-defeating.”

The teachings that our actions have karmic consequences include the idea that these consequences follow us closely, perhaps as habit formations, conditioning, dispositions, or memories. The lingering effect of beautiful and ill behavior is sometimes revealed when we sit quietly enough that our surface preoccupations quiet down, for example, during meditation. The Buddha illustrated this enduring effect of our beautiful actions with the following evocative simile:

Just as the shadow of a great mountain peak in the evening covers, overspreads, and envelops the earth, so too, when wise people sit on their chairs or beds or rest on the ground, the beautiful actions they did in the past—beautiful bodily, verbal, and mental conduct—cover them, overspread them, and envelop them. … This is a kind of pleasure and joy that a wise person feels in this life.
—MN 129.30

In this way, the beauty of beautiful actions can accompany us through life, at least as valuable memories insubstantial as shadows. The Buddha uses the same metaphor of a shadow enveloping a mountain to describe how a person who has done ill, sitting quietly, is covered with the legacy of these ill actions. In this case, a person feels sorrow, suffering, and grief as a result.

The Buddha also teaches that the legacy of our actions will accompany us after death if we are reborn. He says that,

when we die, we don’t take with us possessions, wealth, or relatives; we take with what we do by body and speech. Therefore, do what is beautiful.
—SN 3.20

One of the primary purposes of the teachings on karma is to encourage greater spiritual beauty and to live with beautiful ethics and mental dispositions. For the Buddha, there is always time to do this.

Meditation is one means by which a person becomes “established in the beauty of the Dhamma” or “established in the goodness of the Dhamma,” depending on how kalyana is translated. Perhaps the phrase can be rendered to capture a fuller meaning of the Pali word, “established in the beautiful goodness of the Dhamma.” Regardless of how it is translated, it is essential to remember that the Dhamma is not realized apart from oneself; it is a beautiful goodness to be experienced for oneself and in which one can live. To do this, one must practice the entire Eightfold Path, which the Buddha said is the “beautiful practice” that leads “to peace, direct knowledge, awakening, and Nibbana.” When we become skilled enough in the beauty of samadhi, the final step of the Eightfold Path, the beauty of all-encompassing peace can envelop us.