What does it mean to be admirable?

At Active Dharma, we strive to be admirable, noble, and heroic. We do this because we aim to improve our condition, become permanently harmless and become a portal for others to also become admirable, noble, and heroic.

In the next weeks, I will publish a series of posts that explore each concept. This first installment is about what it means to be admirable.

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In brief, for us, being admirable entails mastering virtue, endurance, purity, and understanding. Our base for this definition comes from the Ṭhāna Sutta, which you can read here.

Although there are many more traits that the Buddha uses to describe what being admirable is, for simplicity, we choose to stick to this brief guide.

What is admirable virtue

To have admirable virtue is to be impeccable. It is to excel through pristine conduct not for one or two days, but every day. People can rely on you because they trust your actions. They trust what you say you will do. They trust your discipline. If people can predict your behavior in a favorable way, then you are admirable.

They can do so because you’re always on time, you always deliver, you always do what you say you’ll do, you never forget your commitments. Your wholesome behavior is as reliable as the hardness of a rock, as the heat of the sun, as the impermanence of time.

Of course, many times due to external causes and conditions, we are unable to be on time, always deliver or always do what we say we’ll do.

This doesn’t mean our virtue isn’t impeccable. If we stick to our principles, even if bad weather interferes with our actions, our virtue remains impeccable because we never deviate from our precepts or intentions, and as soon as we’re able to, we act again.

The Buddha said this about admirable virtue:

“There is the case where one individual, through living with another, knows this: ‘For a long time this person has been untorn, unbroken, unspotted, unsplattered in his actions. He has been consistent in his actions. He has practiced consistently with regard to the precepts. He is a virtuous, principled person, not an unprincipled one.”

Ṭhāna Sutta  (AN 4:192)

Having pure intentions

You are also admirable when you don’t take advantage of others at every opportunity. This applies to dealings of any type, not just money-related. If you agree to do something with your partner, only to change plans at the slightest unfair pressure from other family members or friends, or when something better for you comes along, you cannot call yourself admirable.

Your word must be pure, the commitments or agreements you make with others must be unbreakable and selfless.

Speaking of self, self-seekers are never admirable.

“There is the case where one individual, through dealing with another, knows this: ‘This person deals one way when one-on-one, another way when with two, another way when with three, another way when with many. His earlier dealings do not jibe with his later dealings. He is impure in his dealings, not pure.”

Ṭhāna Sutta  (AN 4:192)

From the same section:

“There is the case where one individual, through dealing with another, knows this: ‘The way this person deals when one-on-one, is the same way he deals when with two, when with three, when with many. His earlier dealings jibe with his later dealings. He is pure in his dealings, not impure.”

Most of us don’t see ourselves as opportunists of this sort. But we are like this sometimes, especially if we’re still unawakened, untrained in the Dharma. Just revise how you unconsciously try to take advantage of loved ones when arguing with them. We lie, we deny facts, we distract, we raise our voice or even coerce, just to win and establish we are not wrong.

For all of us who accept this, our goal is to attain admirable purity. That is, abandon the practice of taking advantage of others.

Facing adversity

To endure the harshness of the world is admirable. It is an inexorable fact that living in this world implies good times and bad times. Fairness or unfairness has nothing to do with how the world operates.

We lose loved ones and they lose us. If we are born, we will surely die.

On the other hand, when we cling to an identity, we are bound to always yearn for gain, status, praise, and pleasure, and always fear loss, disgrace, censure, and pain.

It is admirable to accept that this is how the world operates, for this acceptance is the condition for endurance.

The Buddha says:

“And then there is the case where a person, suffering loss of relatives, loss of wealth, or loss through disease, reflects: ‘That’s how it is when living together in the world. That’s how it is when gaining a personal identity. When there is living in the world, when there is the gaining of a personal identity, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions: gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain.’ Suffering loss of relatives, loss of wealth, or loss through disease, he doesn’t sorrow, grieve, or lament, doesn’t beat his breast or become distraught.”

Ṭhāna Sutta  (AN 4:192)

It is absurd to think admirable endurance has something to do with mundane courage. It is not just manning up and taking it as it is. Admirable endurance comes from a thorough understanding of how conditioned existence is. 

  • Clinging conditions pain.
  • Being born, conditions death.

When you know how things are, sorrow, grieve and lament begin to cease because we realize we have no power over how things are. Our impermanence is inevitable and that is simply ok.

Admirable understanding.

To have discernment, clarity, deep understanding and sublime wisdom is admirable. It is to know how suffering arises, why it rises, how it ceases and why it ceases. It means to understand what is delusion and what is reality, what is false and what is not false, and to be able to explain that with patience, providing space for others to reflect, to err, to ask, and to learn from their mistakes. Admirable understanding is to respect other people’s learning process and to elucidate difficult concepts with simple and complex examples.

The Buddha calls it having discernment:

“And then there is the case where one individual, through discussion with another, knows this: ‘From the way this person rises to an issue, from the way he applies (his reasoning), from the way he addresses a question, he is discerning, not dull. Why is that? He makes statements that are deep, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. He can declare the meaning, teach it, describe it, set it forth, reveal it, explain it, & make it plain. He is discerning, not dull.’

Ṭhāna Sutta  (AN 4:192)

Lacking admirable understanding makes us err in our perception, it makes us lose it and be controlled by our emotions. Such lack of understanding forces us to communicate and interact in ignorant ways: desperate, impatient, angry, pedantic.

It has nothing to do with how much knowledge you possess, how many years you have studied or how many books you have read. This understanding has to do with directly knowing how things really are.

To know how things really are, one trains in discernment.

Putting it all together

To recap, being admirable means mastering virtue, endurance, purity, and understanding. It is very hard to achieve that sort of mastery, for we all tend to be undisciplined, to avoid accepting how things are, to be sneaky, and to reject understanding how reality works out of laziness, fear, or just mere ignorance.

However, each aspect of being admirable complements each other. If you have understanding, your actions tend to become virtuous. By the same token, endurance appears because the right understanding helps you bear unpleasant sensations when striving to be disciplined.

May we all change are ways and strive to become admirable.