The scent of flowers
— sandalwood, jasmine, and rosebay —
Doesn’t go against the wind.
But the scent of a virtuous person
Does travel against the wind:
It spreads in all directions.
The scent of virtue
Even by sandalwood, rosebay,
Water lily, and jasmine. (translated by Gil Frondsal)
In some ancient cultures, flowers, spices, and plant barks with pleasant fragrances were used by the wealthy to cover the more unsavory odors that exist in all human communities. I have also seen cut watermelons positioned outside port-a-potties, and to my surprise, they were effective in counteracting the smell.
Our olfactory sense is often seen as minor in comparison with sight and hearing, but it can be a powerful aid to our sense of well-being. We are instinctively repelled by unpleasant odors, and comforted by sweet ones (unless they are overpowering). Our sense of smell is also a reliable aid to memory, for good or ill.
In these verses, virtuous behavior is compared to sweet smells and found to be superior, since virtue has a radiant power and is appreciated in all directions. As a force in the world, our virtuous words and actions are stronger and more far-reaching than any scent can be.
Virtue can be thought of as the sila portion of the Eight-fold Path: Wise Speech, Action, and Livelihood. All three of these refer to our social relationships — how we interact with others at work and play, in business, travel, and romance, in short everywhere we speak or act. So virtue is a full-time aspiration, regardless of whether we are with intimates, colleagues, or strangers, or alone with our computers. When we slip up and behave in a way that’s unkind or cruel, we notice the feeling of regret or remorse and can resolve to apologize if appropriate and to avoid any similar action again.
Admitting our mistakes and committing ourselves to act differently in the future is right at the center of the path of virtue. No one is perfect, but some of us are persistent in trying not to cause harm or pain. When we speak and act skillfully, we can move through the world with confidence, compassion, and even joy.