Character (sabhāva) is the mental qualities and traits that make a person different from others. The English word is derived from the Greek for an etched or stamped mark. When we say that someone is a nice or an unpleasant person we mean that they have a predominance of positive or negative traits that are more easily noticed or more often manifest. When we are reborn we bring with us traits formed in the previous life (perhaps several lives) as well as innate underlying tendencies (anusaya). Within a few months these traits start becoming apparent and may be reinforced or wane according to circumstances.
Our early childhood experiences may also form new traits. Likewise, circumstances may arouse the underlying tendencies. By the time we are in our early teens our character is fully formed although still malleable. Some traits will be strengthened and perhaps develop into biases (nata) according to the mental habits we form. The Buddha said, ‘Whatever a person thinks about and ponders on often, their mind gets a leaning in that way’ (M.I,115). Using an image similar to the Greek one, he also commented that some traits are like an engraving on a rock, others are like a scratching on the ground and yet others are like writing on water (A.I,283), meaning that some traits are difficult to change and others less so. If they are not changed either through deliberate conscious effort or by a particularly dramatic experience we might have, our character will remain relatively fixed, becoming more rigid and deep-rooted as time goes by.
Character is very important because it is a major factor in the course of our life. It influences how we see ourselves, how we relate to others and therefore how they relate to us, the way we deal with the vicissitudes of life and how we see the world. An important part of being a Buddhist is character building or developing what the Buddha called ‘a beautiful nature’ (kalyāṇa dhamma, A.I,248; II,109). Broadly speaking, there are three steps in this process; (1) seeing the desirability of character transformation, (2) having a model or ideal character to work towards, (3) having and applying the means to modify the character.
Some people, due to fortuitous circumstances in former lives as well as in the present one, already have a beautiful character. Most do not. Most people have never seen the desirability or even the advantages of changing themselves. Some of the things that can create the desire for character transformation include a personal crisis that they themselves have been responsible for, a close brush with death or being inspired by a particularly admirable person. Having seen the possibility and the need for change, one must then have an ideal to work towards. The Buddha of course is the perfect ideal; infinitely patient, unfailingly kind, utterly honest and profoundly wise. To 'take Refuge' in the Buddha is to accept him as one's guiding ideal. Having decided how one would like to be, one then needs a practical program of transformation. The Noble Eightfold Path is such a program, offering as it does guidance on every aspect of life; the intellectual, the ethical and the psychological.
- Buddhism A to Z. Ven. Dhammika, 2007.