The Dalai Lama On Secular Ethics – Part 1

His Holiness The XIV Dalai Lama spoke on May 3rd to an audience of some 5,000 people at USC’s Galen Center and, as one might expect, had plenty of thoughtful and insightful words for attendees. Whenever in the presence of a spiritual leader, it is useful to remember that they are just humans, not gods. Indeed, His Holiness donned a USC Trojans baseball cap at the beginning of his presentation that. The incongruent image of the Dalai Lama in his robe with a cap on top not only provided laughs, but a potent reminder that he is, indeed, just a man.

After hearing his speech, I discussed some of His Holiness’ teachings with a few Buddhists, in an attempt to apply them to public policy. What lessons might be gleaned from “The Middle Way“?

I’ve paraphrased some of the more intriguing portions of his speech in today’s article, as well as the public policy implications.

(Apologies to Buddhist readers if I misinterpret anything that was said. His Holiness has a rather thick accent and, coupled with a crying baby sitting a few rows behind me, it made listening a challenge)

His Holiness greeted us with, “Brothers and Sisters…”, and reminded us that, right down to the subatomic level, we are all the same. We all have the same potential. We all have the desire for happiness. It is in this commonality that we should thus find compassion for each other, for we can and should identify with each other’s hope, dreams, and potential. Of course, we are also a diverse species and, as such, there are many religious traditions. At the core of these traditions, however, values and ethics are the same. Our cultural diversity is what has obviously given rise to these different traditions.

His Holiness also spent some time discussing the meaning and import of secularism — referring to a lack of religious superstructure that is not required in order to have values or ethics. It is not religion that establishes values and ethics. There are fundamental truths — internal, spiritual truths — that are with us from the beginning. He therefore cautioned that the secularist and the religious often make the mistake of looking down at the other.

Personal responsibility and self-reliance are the basic essentials towards living not just a happy life, but an ethical one. You are in control of your life, your destiny, and most importantly, your mind. It is your mind that is the key to everything, a central tenet to those familiar with the New Thought Movement. Only by having the calm mind can you find and identify truth, and truth is what will guide you towards ethical behavior.

One must be ever-vigilant, however, because the truth can be hard to find. The biggest danger is to latch onto something we believe is true and form an attachment to it. This leads to ideological rigidity. This is why you can never change the mind of someone who differs politically. They have formed attachments. Only be detachment can one recognize truth.

So how to achieve the calm mind? The answer lies in the two types of intelligence we all have. On one side is the intellect. It is where rational thought, logic, and analysis reside. On the other side is what we might call emotional intelligence. It is how we perceive, use, understand, and manage our emotions. This is where compassion comes from. So, in any given circumstance, by utilizing both kinds of intelligence, we can find “the middle way” the Buddhists speak of. We can find a way to act that is both rational and compassionate.

His Holiness taught that before we can bring happiness to the world, we must first bring happiness to our community and before that, to our family, and before that, to ourselves. That’s right — you must find your own bliss, your own center, before setting out to fix everything else. To accomplish this, he says, you must approach life with self-confidence, with the inner strength and potential you know yourself to have, and with the calm mind. For those who are religious, commit to the religion’s tenets. Meditate and pray daily. For those who are not, one may still meditate and pray. For those who think that secularism is at odds with faith, His Holiness reminds us that faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, as the Scholastics taught, they are inextricably linked, and provide us with a pathway to the Divine.

Questions, Questions

Two provocative questions were posed during the Q&A session. The first was how compassion and justice can be applied in the case of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. His Holiness said, and I paraphrase, that in the case of destructive action, there is appropriate action to take in response, in the interest of justice. Various pundits have criticized his response, and that’s because they didn’t take into account the context of these words. He said that bin Laden is deserving of compassion and forgiveness, but, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forget what happened. … If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures.” As one Buddhist remarked to me afterwards, “One can have compassion for him because his mind was diseased. It formed attachments to a false truth. Killing him is an appropriate action, so long as it is done to prevent the suffering of others, and does not come from a place of retribution”.

The next question came from an individual working at a corporation where he witnessed continuing corruption and behavior that severely harmed others. Should he blow the whistle, therefore risking his job and means for providing for his family? His Holiness said it was incumbent upon this person to take action. Implicit in the reply was that, while this person’s living would be at risk, he should have faith that things would work out. The specifics as to what that person’s scenario might look like cannot be known, but that, in essence, ethical behavior will be rewarded in this life and the next.

Next time, I’ll examine how His Holiness’ teaching might apply to public policy.

About Lawrence Meyers

I've written many words. Some of them have even made sense. Some of them have been spoken by actors in TV shows. Others have just been viewed and, likely, scoffed at. All the better. New Yorker at heart. Devotee of Jung. Skeptic. Lover of cinema. Authority defier.

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