ETHICS OF THE NEW MILLENIUM
* by the Dalai Lama
I am convinced that human nature is basically gentle, not aggressive. And every one of us has the responsibility to act as if all our thoughts, words and deeds matter. For, really, they do.
THERE IS AN ABUNDANCE of severely negative trends within modern society. The escalation in crime rates, with murder, violence, and rape cases is multiplying year by year. We hear constantly of abusive and exploitative relationships both in the home and within the wider community, of growing numbers of young people addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Yet unlike the sufferings of sickness, old age and death, none of these problems are by nature inevitable. Nor are they due to any lack of knowledge. They are all ethical problems. They each reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong, of what is positive and what is negative, of what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. But beyond this, we can point to something more fundamental: a neglect of what I call our inner dimension.
WEALTH AND HAPPINESS
I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be good human beings.
Although I never imagined that material wealth alone could ever overcome suffering, still, looking towards the developed world from Tibet — a country then as now very poor in this respect — I must admit that I thought it would go further towards doing so than is the case. I expected that, with physical suffering much reduced, as it is for the majority living in the industrially developed countries, happiness would be much easier to achieve than for those living under more severe conditions.
Instead, the extraordinary advancements in science and technology seem to have achieved little more than linear, numerical improvement. In many cases, progress has meant hardly anything more than greater numbers of opulent houses in more cities, with more cars driving between them. Certainly there has been a reduction in some types of suffering, including certain illnesses. But there has been no overall reduction.
A SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION
In calling for a spiritual revolution, am I advocating a religious solution to our problems after all? No. As someone nearing seventy years of age, I have accumulated enough experience to be completely confident that the teachings of Buddha are both relevant and useful to humanity. If a person put them into practice, it is certain that they and others will benefit. My meetings with many different sorts of people the world over have helped me realize that there are other faiths, and other cultures, no less capable than mine of enabling individuals to lead constructive and satisfying lives. What is more, I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be good human beings.
RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
Religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are the basic spiritual qualities. I take religion to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one religion or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including, perhaps, an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, and prayer. I take spirituality to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit — such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony — which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation are directly concerned with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are the basic spiritual qualities. My call for a spiritual revolution is thus not a call for a religious revolution. Nor is it a reference to a way of life that is somehow other-wordly, still less to something magical or mysterious. Rather, it is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn towards concern for the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.
Observe that since love and compassion and similar qualities all, by definition, presume some level of concern for others’ well-being, they must also presume ethical restraint. We cannot be loving and compassionate unless at the same time we curb our own harmful impulses and desires. Certainly, each of the major religious traditions has a well-developed ethical system. However, the difficulty with tying our understanding of right and wrong to religion is that we must then ask “which religion?” Which articulates the most complete, the accessible, the most acceptable system? The arguments would never stop. Moreover, to do so would be to ignore the fact that many who reject religion do so out of convictions sincerely held, not merely because they are unconcerned with the deeper questions of human existence. Religion can help us establish basic ethical principles. Yet we can still talk about ethics and morality without having recourse to religion.
BINDING ETHICAL PRINCIPLES
It is time to move away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is time to turn our concern for the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own. My own view — which does not rely solely on religious faith, nor even on an original idea, but rather on ordinary common sense — is that establishing binding ethical principles is possible when we take as our starting point the observation that we all desire happiness and not to suffer. We have no means of discriminating between right and wrong if we do not take into account others’ feelings, others’ suffering. And if it is correct that this aspiration is a settled disposition, shared by all, it follows that each individual has a right to pursue happiness and avoid suffering. From this we can infer that one of the things which determines whether an act is ethical or not is its effect on another’s experience or expectation of happiness. An act that harms or does violence is potentially an unethical act.
ETHICAL NATURE OF AN ACT
The factor which is perhaps most important of all in determining the ethical nature of an act is neither its content, nor its consequence… [It is] that which, in a sense, drives our actions — both those we intend directly and those which are in a sense involuntary. When the individual’s overall state of heart and mind is wholesome, it follows that our actions will be (ethically) wholesome. That this is so, that the individual’s overall state of heart and mind, or motivation in the moment of action is of supreme importance in determining its ethical content, is easily understood when we consider how our actions are affected when we are gripped with powerful negative thoughts and emotions such as hatred or anger. In that moment, our mind is in turmoil. Not only does this cause us to lose our sense of proportion and perspective, but also we lose sight of the likely impact of our actions on others. Indeed, we can become so distracted that we ignore the question of others, and of their right to happiness altogether. As a result, our actions — that is to say our deeds, words, thoughts, omissions and desires — will inevitably be harmful.
THE SUPREME EMOTIONS
The world’s major religious traditions each give the development of love and compassion a key role. Because it is both the source and the result of patience, tolerance, forgiveness and all good qualities, its importance is considered to extend from the beginning to the end of spiritual practice. But even without a religious perspective, love and compassion are clearly of fundamental importance to us all. Given our basic premise that an ethical act is one which does not harm another’s experience or expectation of happiness, it follows that we need to take others’ feelings into consideration, the basis for which is our innate capacity for empathy. And as we transform this into love and compassion, through the two-pronged approach of guarding against those factors which obstruct compassion and cultivating those conducive to it, so our practice of ethics improves. This, we find, leads to happiness both for ourselves and others.
ETHICAL ACTS/ SPIRITUAL ACTS
An ethical act is one where we do refrain from causing harm to others experience or expectation of happiness. Spiritual acts we can describe in terms of those (spiritual) qualities mentioned earlier of love compassion, patience, forgiveness, humility, tolerance and so on which presume some level of concern for others’ well-being. We find that those actions we undertake which are motivated not by narrow self-interest but out of our concern for others actually benefit ourselves. At least, this is my experience. Looking back over my life, I can say with full confidence that such things as the office of Dalai Lama, the political power it confers, even the comparative wealth it puts at my disposal, contribute not even a fraction to my feelings of happiness compared with the happiness I have felt at the times when I have been able to benefit others, little though this may be.
When we worry less about ourselves, an experience of our own suffering is less intense. Consider the following: We humans are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others. Nor is it so remarkable that our greatest joy should come when we are motivated by concern for others. But that is not all. We find that not only do altruistic actions bring about happiness, but they also lessen our experience of suffering. I am not suggesting that the individual whose actions are motivated by the wish to bring others’ happiness necessarily meets with less misfortune than the one who does not. Sickness, old age, mishaps of one sort or another are the same for us all. But the sufferings which undermine our internal peace — anxiety, doubt, disappointment — these things are definitely less. In our concern for others, we worry less about ourselves. When we worry less about ourselves, an experience of our own suffering is less intense.
The most dangerous and negative [fear] is that type of fear which is completely unreasonable and which can totally overwhelm and paralyze us. In Tibetan we call such negative and emotional events nyong mong: literally, “that which afflicts from within” or, as the term is usually translated, “afflictive emotion.” Any thought or mental event which undermines our peace of mind from within — all negative thoughts and emotions such as anger, pride, lust, greed, envy and so on - are considered to be afflictions in this sense. These afflictive emotions are so strong that, if we do nothing to counter them, though there is no one who does not value their life, they can lead us to the point of madness and even suicide itself. But because such extremes are unusual, we tend to see negative emotions as an integral part of our mind about which we can do very little. Our passive stance toward this part of ourselves not only doesn’t inhibit negative impulses, it actually provides the ground for them to grow. They are the basis of worry, depression, confusion and stress which are such a feature of modern society. Their nature is wholly destructive, and they are the very source of unethical conduct.
We cannot be loving and compassionate unless at the same time we curb our own harmful impulses and desires. Genuine happiness is characterized by inner peace. This arises in the context of our relationships with others. It therefore depends on ethical conduct which in its turn consists in acts which take others’ well-being into account. What obstructs us from engaging in such compassionate conduct is afflictive emotion. If we wish to be happy, we need therefore to curb our response to negative thoughts and emotions. This is what I mean when I saw that we must tame the wild elephant that is the undisciplined mind. When I fail to restrain my response to afflictive emotion, my actions become unethical and obstruct the causes of my happiness. We are not talking about attaining Buddhahood here, we are not talking about achieving a union with God. We are merely cultivating the recognition that my interests and future happiness are closely connected to others’ and learning to act accordingly.
AN ETHIC OF COMPASSION
Compassion and love are not mere luxuries. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species. On the one hand, they constitute non-violence in action. On the other, they are the source of all spiritual qualities: of forgiveness, tolerance and all the virtues. They are the very thing that gives meaning to our activities and makes them constructive. There is nothing amazing about being highly educated; there is nothing amazing about being rich. Only where the individual has a warm heart do these attributes become worthwhile. So to those who say that the Dalai Lama is being unrealistic in advocating this ideal of unconditional love, I urge them to experiment with it nonetheless. They will discover that when we reach beyond the confines of narrow self interest, our hearts become filled with strength. Peace and joy become our constant companion. It breaks down barriers of every kind and in the end destroys the notion of my interest as independent from others’ interest. But most important, so far as ethics is concerned, where love of one’s neighbor, affection, kindness and compassion live, we find that ethical conduct arises more readily. Ethically wholesome actions come naturally in the context of compassion.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. He is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his 40-year search for a peaceful resolution of Tibet’s occupation by China. He is the author of many books, including, “Ethics for the New Millennium,” published by Riverhead Books, on which this essay is based.
Reprinted with permission.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama