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Ethics for the New Millennium
As someone nearing seventy years of age at the time of writing, I have accumulated enough experience to be completely confident that the teachings of the Buddha are both relevant and useful to humanity. If a person puts them into practice, it is certain that not only they but others, too, will benefit. My meetings with many different sorts of people the world over have, however, 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 a good human being.
I say this in acknowledgment of the fact that though a majority of the earth’s nearly six billion human beings may claim allegiance to one faith tradition or another, the influence of religion on people’s lives is generally marginal, especially in the developed world. It is doubtful whether globally even a billion are what I would call dedicated religious practitioners, that is to say, people who try, on a daily basis, faithfully to follow the principles and precepts of their faith. The rest remain, in this sense, non-practicing. Those who are dedicated practitioners meanwhile follow a multiplicity of religious paths. From this, it becomes clear that given our diversity, no single religion satisfies all humanity. We may also conclude that we humans can live quite well without recourse to religious faith.
These may seem unusual statements, coming as they do from a religious figure. I am, however, Tibetan before I am Dalai Lama, and I am human before I am Tibetan. So while as Dalai Lama I have a special responsibility to Tibetans, and as a monk I have a special responsibility toward furthering interreligious harmony, as a human being I have a much larger responsibility toward the whole human family-which indeed we all have. And since the majority does not practice religion, I am concerned to try to find a way to serve all humanity without appealing to religious faith.
Actually, I believe that if we consider the world’s major religions from the widest perspective, we find that they are all-Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the others-directed toward helping human beings achieve lasting happiness. And each of them is, in my opinion, capable of facilitating this. Under such circumstances, a variety of religions (each of which promotes the same basic values after all) is both desirable and useful.
Of course, both as a Tibetan and as a monk, I have been brought up according to, and educated in, the principles, the precepts, and the practice of Buddhism. I cannot, therefore, deny that my whole thinking is shaped by my understanding of what it means to be a follower of the Buddha. However, my concern in this book is to try to reach beyond the formal boundaries of my faith. I want to show that there are indeed some universal ethical principles which could help everyone to achieve the happiness we all aspire to. Some people may feel that in this I am attempting to propagate Buddhism by stealth. But while it is difficult for me conclusively to refute the claim, this is not the case.
Actually, I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition 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, prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take 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 connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. 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 these basic spiritual qualities.
Those who practice religion would, of course, be right to say that such qualities, or virtues, are fruits of genuine religious endeavor and that religion therefore has everything to do with developing them and with what may be called spiritual practice. But let us be clear on this point. Religious faith demands spiritual practice. Yet it seems there is much confusion, as often among religious believers or among non-believers, concerning what this actually consists in. The unifying characteristic of the qualities I have described as “spiritual” may be said to be some level of concern for others’ well-being. In Tibetan, we speak of shen pen kyi sem meaning “the thought to be of help to others.” And when we think about them, we see that each of the qualities noted is defined by an implicit concern for others’ well-being. Moreover, the one who is compassionate, loving, patient, tolerant, forgiving, and so on to some extent recognizes the potential impact of their actions on others and orders their conduct accordingly. Thus spiritual practice according to this description involves, on the one hand, acting out of concern for others’ well-being. On the other, it entails transforming ourselves so that we become more readily disposed to do so. To speak of spiritual practice in any terms other than these is meaningless.
Here the reader may object that while the transformation of character that such a reorientation implies is certainly desirable, and while it is good that people develop compassion and love, a revolution of spirit is hardly adequate to solve the variety and magnitude of problems we face in the modern world. Furthermore, it could be argued that problems arising from, for example, violence in the home, addiction to drugs and alcohol, family breakup, and so on are better understood and tackled on their own terms. Nevertheless, given that they could each certainly be solved through people being more loving and compassionate toward one another-however improbable this may be-they can also be characterized as spiritual problems susceptible to a spiritual solution. This is not to say that all we need do is cultivate spiritual values and these problems will automatically disappear. On the contrary, each of them needs a specific solution. But we find that when this spiritual dimension is neglected, we have no hope of achieving a lasting solution.
Why is this? Bad news is a fact of life. Each time we pick up a newspaper, or turn on the television or radio, we are confronted with sad tidings. Not a day goes by but, somewhere in the world, something happens that everyone agrees is unfortunate. No matter where we are from or what our philosophy of life, to a greater or lesser extent, we are all sorry to hear of others’ suffering.
These events can be divided into two broad categories: those which have principally natural causes-earthquakes, drought, floods, and the like-and those which are of human origin. Wars, crime, violence of every sort, corruption, poverty, deception, fraud, and social, political, and economic injustice are each the consequence of negative human behavior. And who is responsible for such behavior? We are. From royalty, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians through administrators, scientists, doctors, lawyers, academics, students, priests, nuns and monks, such as myself, to industrialists, artists, shopkeepers, technicians, pieceworkers, manual laborers, and those without work, there is not a single class or sector of society which does not contribute to our daily diet of unhappy news.
Fortunately, unlike natural disasters, which we can do little or nothing about, these human problems, because they are all essentially ethical problems, can be overcome. The fact that there are so many people, again from every sector and level of society, working to do so is a reflection of this intuition: There are those who join political parties to fight for a fairer constitution; those who become lawyers to fight for justice; those who join aid organizations to fight poverty; those who care, both on a professional and on a voluntary basis, for the victims of harm. Indeed, we are all, according to our own understanding and in our own way, trying to make the world-or at least our bit of it-a better place for us to live in.
Unfortunately, we find that no matter how sophisticated and well administered our legal systems, and no matter how advanced our methods of external control, by themselves these cannot eradicate wrongdoing. Observe that nowadays our police forces have at their disposal technology that could barely have been imagined fifty years ago. They have methods of surveillance which enable them to see what formerly was hidden; they have DNA matching, forensic laboratories, sniffer dogs, and, of course, highly trained personnel. Yet criminal methods are correspondingly advanced so that really we are no better off. Where ethical restraint is lacking, there can be no hope of overcoming problems like those of rising crime. In fact, without such inner discipline, we find that the very means we use to solve them becomes a source of difficulty itself. The increasing sophistication of criminal and police methods is a vicious and mutually reinforcing cycle.
What, then, is the relationship between spirituality and ethical practice? Since love and compassion and similar qualities all, by definition, presume some level of concern for others’ well-being, they presume ethical restraint. We cannot be loving and compassionate unless at the same time we curb our own harmful impulses and desires.
As to the foundations of ethical practice itself, it might be supposed that here at least I advocate a religious approach. 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 most 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. We cannot suppose that such people are without a sense of right and wrong or of what is morally appropriate just because some who are anti-religion are immoral. Besides, religious belief is no guarantee of moral integrity. Looking at the history of our species, we see that among the major troublemakers-those who visited violence, brutality, and destruction on their fellow human beings-there have been many who professed religious faith, often loudly. Religion can help us establish basic ethical principles. Yet we can still talk about ethics and morality without having recourse to religion.
Again, it could be objected that if we do not accept religion as the source of ethics, we must allow that people’s understanding of what is good and right, of what is wrong and bad, of what is morally appropriate and what is not, of what constitutes a positive act and what a negative act must vary according to circumstances and even from person to person. But here let me say that no one should suppose it could ever be possible to devise a set of rules or laws to provide us with the answer to every ethical dilemma, even if we were to accept religion as the basis of morality. Such a formulaic approach could never hope to capture the richness and diversity of human experience. It would also give grounds for arguing that we are responsible only to the letter of those laws, rather than for our actions.
This is not to say that it is useless to attempt to construe principles which can be understood as morally binding. On the contrary, if we are to have any hope of solving our problems, it is essential that we find a way to do so. We must have some means of adjudicating between, for example, terrorism as a means to political reform and Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of peaceful resistance. We must be able to show that violence toward others is wrong. And yet we must find some way of doing so which avoids the extremes of crude absolutism on the one hand, and of trivial relativism on the other.
My own view, which does not rely solely on religious faith or 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 wish to avoid suffering. We have no means of discriminating between right and wrong if we do not take into account others’ feelings, others’ suffering. For this reason, and also because-as we shall see-the notion of absolute truth is difficult to sustain outside the context of religion, ethical conduct is not something we engage in because it is somehow right in itself. Moreover, if it is correct that the desire to be happy and avoid suffering is a natural disposition, shared by all, it follows that each individual has a right to pursue this goal.
ON A RECENT TRIP TO EUROPE, I HAD THE opportunity to visit the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Even though I had heard and read a great deal about this place, I found myself completely unprepared for the experience. My initial reaction to the sight of the ovens in which hundreds of thousands of human beings were burned was one of total revulsion. I was dumbfounded at the sheer calculation and detachment from feeling to which they bore horrifying testimony. Then, in the museum which forms part of the visitor center, I saw a collection of shoes. A lot of them were patched or small, having obviously belonged to children and poor people. This saddened me particularly. What wrong could they possibly have done, what harm? I stopped and prayed-moved profoundly both for the victims and for the perpetrators of this iniquity-that such a thing would never happen again. And, in the knowledge that just as we all have the capacity to act selflessly out of concern for others’ well-being, so do we all have the potential to be murderers and torturers, I vowed never in any way to contribute to such a calamity.
Events such as those which occurred at Auschwitz are violent reminders of what can happen when individuals-and by extension, whole societies-lose touch with basic human feeling. But although it is necessary to have legislation and international conventions in place as safeguards against future disasters of this kind, we have all seen that atrocities continue in spite of them. Much more effective and important than such legislation is our regard for one another’s feelings at a simple human level.
When I speak of basic human feeling, I am not only thinking of something fleeting and vague, however. I refer to the capacity we all have to empathize with one another, which, in Tibetan we call shen dug ngal wa la mi sö pa. Translated literally, this means “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering.” Given that this is what enables us to enter into, and to some extent participate, in others’ pain, it is one of our most significant characteristics. It is what causes us to start at the sound of a cry for help, to recoil at the sight of harm done to another, to suffer when confronted with others’ suffering. And it is what compels us to shut our eyes even when we want to ignore others’ distress.
Here, imagine walking along a road, deserted save for an elderly person just ahead of you. Suddenly, that person trips and falls. What do you do? I have no doubt that the majority of readers would go over to see whether they might help. Not all, perhaps. But in admitting that not everyone would go to the assistance of another in distress, I do not mean to suggest that in those few exceptions this capacity for empathy, which I have suggested to be universal, is entirely absent. Even in the case of those who did not, surely there will at least be the same feeling, however faint, of concern, which would motivate the majority to offer their assistance? It is certainly possible to imagine people who, after enduring years of warfare, are no longer moved at the sight of others’ suffering. The same could be true of those who live in places where there is an atmosphere of violence and indifference to others. It is even possible to imagine a few who would exult at the sight of another’s suffering. This does not prove that the capacity for empathy is not present in such people. That we all, excepting perhaps only the most disturbed, appreciate being shown kindness, suggests that however hardened we may become, the capacity for empathy remains.
This characteristic of appreciating others’ concern is, I believe, a reflection of our “inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering.” I say this because alongside our natural ability to empathize with others, we also have a need for others’ kindness, which runs like a thread throughout our whole life. It is most apparent when we are young and when we are old. But we have only to fall ill to be reminded of how important it is to be loved and cared about even during our prime years. Though it may seem a virtue to be able to do without affection, in reality a life lacking this precious ingredient must be a miserable one. It is surely not a coincidence that the lives of most criminals turn out to have been lonely and lacking in love.
We see this appreciation of kindness reflected in our response to the human smile. For me, human beings’ ability to smile is one of our most beautiful characteristics. It is something no animal can do. Not dogs, or even whales or dolphins, each of them very intelligent beings with a clear affinity for humans, can smile as we do. Personally, I always feel a bit curious when I smile at someone and they remain serious and unresponding. On the other hand, my heart is gladdened when they reciprocate. Even in the case of someone I have nothing to do with, when that person smiles at me, I am touched. But why? The answer surely is that a genuine smile touches something fundamental in us: our natural appreciation of kindness.
Despite the body of opinion suggesting that human nature is basically aggressive and competitive, my own view is that our appreciation for affection and love is so profound that it begins even before our birth. Indeed, according to some scientist friends of mine, there is strong evidence to suggest that a mother’s mental and emotional state greatly affects the well-being of her unborn child, that it benefits her baby if she maintains a warm and gentle state of mind. A happy mother bears a happy child. On the other hand, frustration and anger are harmful to the healthy development of the baby. Similarly, during the first weeks after birth, warmth and affection continue to play a supreme role in the infant’s physical development. At this stage, the brain is growing very rapidly, a function which doctors believe is somehow assisted by the constant touch of the mother or surrogate. This shows that though the baby may not know or care who is who, it has a clear physical need of affection. Perhaps, too, it explains why even the most fractious, agitated, and paranoid individuals respond positively to the affection and care of others. As infants they must have been nurtured by someone. Should a baby be neglected during this critical period, clearly it could not survive.
Fortunately, this is very rarely the case. Almost without exception, the mother’s first act is to offer her baby her nourishing milk-an act which to me symbolizes unconditional love. Her affection here is totally genuine and uncalculating: she expects nothing in return. As for the baby, it is drawn naturally to its mother’s breast. Why? Of course we can speak of the survival instinct. But in addition I think it reasonable to conjecture a degree of affection on the part of the infant toward its mother. If it felt aversion, surely it would not suckle? And if the mother felt aversion, it is doubtful her milk would flow freely. What we see instead is a relationship based on love and mutual tenderness, which is totally spontaneous. It is not learned from others, no religion requires it, no laws impose it, no schools have taught it. It arises quite naturally.
This instinctual care of mother for child-shared it seems with many animals-is crucial because it suggests that alongside the baby’s fundamental need of love in order to survive, there exists an innate capacity on the part of the mother to give love. So powerful is it that we might almost suppose a biological component is at work. Of course it could be argued that this reciprocal love is nothing more than a survival mechanism. That could well be so. But that is not to deny its existence. Nor indeed does it undermine my conviction that this need and capacity for love suggest that we are, in fact, loving by nature.
If this seems improbable, consider our differing response to kindness and to violence. Most of us find violence intimidating. Conversely, when we are shown kindness, we respond with greater trust. Similarly, consider the relationship between peace-which as we have seen is the fruit of love-and good health. According to my understanding, our constitution is more suited to peace and tranquility than to violence and aggression. We all know that stress and anxiety can lead to high blood pressure and other negative symptoms. In the Tibetan medical system, mental and emotional disturbances are considered to be a cause of many constitutional diseases, including cancer. Moreover, peace, tranquility, and others’ care are essential to recovery from illness. We can also identify a basic longing for peace. Why? Because peace suggests life and growth whereas violence suggests only misery and death. This is why the idea of a Pure Land, or of Heaven, attracts us. If such a place were described in terms of unending warfare and strife, we would much rather remain in this world.
Notice, too, how we respond to the phenomenon of life itself. When spring follows winter, the days become longer, there is more sunshine, the grass grows afresh: automatically our spirits lift. On the other hand, at the approach of winter, the leaves begin to fall one by one, and much of the vegetation around us becomes as though dead. Small wonder if we tend to feel a bit downcast at that time of year. The indication here is surely that our nature prefers life over death, growth over decay, construction over destruction.
Consider also the behavior of children. In them we see what is natural to the human character before it has been overlaid with learned ideas. We find that very young babies do not really differentiate between one person and another. They attach much more importance to the smile of the people in front of them than to anything else. Even when they start to grow up, they are not very interested in differences of race, nationality, religion, or family background. When they meet with other children, they do not stop to discuss these things. They immediately begin the much more important business of play. Nor is this just sentimentalism. I see the reality whenever I visit one of the children’s villages in Europe, where numbers of Tibetan refugee children have been educated since the early 1960s. These villages were founded to care for orphaned children from countries at war with one another. To no one’s great surprise, it was found that despite their different backgrounds, when these children are put together, they live in complete harmony with one another.
Now it could be objected that while we may all share a capacity for loving-kindness, human nature is such that inevitably we tend to reserve it for those closest to us. We are biased toward our families and friends. Our feelings of concern for those outside the circle will depend very much on individual circumstances: those who feel threatened are not likely to have very much goodwill for those who threaten them. All this is true enough. Nor do I deny that whatever our capacity to feel concern for our fellow human beings, when our very survival is threatened, it may but rarely prevail over the instinct for self-preservation. Still, this does not mean that the capacity is no longer there, that the potential does not remain. Even soldiers after a battle will often help their enemies retrieve their dead and wounded.
In all of what I have said about our basic nature, I do not mean to suggest that I believe it has no negative aspects. Where there is consciousness, hatred, ignorance, and violence do indeed arise naturally. This is why, although our nature is basically disposed toward kindness and compassion, we are all capable of cruelty and hatred. It is why we have to struggle to better our conduct. It also explains how individuals raised in a strictly non-violent environment have turned into the most horrible butchers. In connection with this, I recall my visit some years ago to the Washington Memorial, which pays tribute to the martyrs and heroes of the Jewish Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis. What struck me most forcefully about the monument was its simultaneous cataloging of different forms of human behavior. On one side it lists the victims of acts of unspeakable atrocity. On the other, it remembers the heroic acts of kindness on the part of Christian families and others who willingly took terrible risks in order to harbor their Jewish brothers and sisters. I felt that this was entirely appropriate, and very necessary: to show the two sides of human potential.
But the existence of this negative potential does not give us grounds to suppose that human nature is inherently violent, or even necessarily disposed toward violence. Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of the belief that human nature is aggressive lies in our continual exposure to bad news through the media. Yet the very cause of this is surely that good news is not news.
To say that basic human nature is not only non-violent but actually disposed toward love and compassion, kindness, gentleness, affection, creation, and so on does, of course, imply a general principle which must, by definition, be applicable to each individual human being. What, then, are we to say about those individuals whose lives seem to be given over wholly to violence and aggression? During the past century alone there are several obvious examples to consider. What of Hitler and his plan to exterminate the entire Jewish race? What of Stalin and his pogroms? What of Chairman Mao, the man I once knew and admired, and the barbarous insanity of the Cultural Revolution? What of Pol Pot, architect of the Killing Fields? And what about those who torture and kill for pleasure?
Here I must admit that I can think of no single explanation to account for the monstrous acts of these people. However, we must recognize two things. Firstly, such people do not come from nowhere but from within a particular society at a particular time and in a particular place. Their actions need to be considered in relation to these circumstances. Secondly, we need to recognize the role of the imaginative faculty in their actions. Their schemes were and are carried out in accordance with a vision, albeit a perverted one. Notwithstanding the fact that nothing could justify the suffering they instigated, whatever their explanation might be and whatever positive intentions they could point to, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot each had goals toward which they were working. If we examine those actions which are uniquely human, which animals cannot perform, we find that this imaginative faculty plays a vital role. The faculty itself is a unique asset. But the use to which it is put determines whether the actions it conceives are positive or negative, ethical or unethical. The individual’s motivation (kun long) is thus the governing factor. And whereas a vision properly motivated-which recognizes others’ desire for and equal right to happiness and to be free of suffering-can lead to wonders, when divorced from basic human feeling the potential for destruction cannot be overestimated.
As for those who kill for pleasure or, worse, for no reason at all, we can only conjecture a deep submergence of the basic impulse toward care and affection for others. Still this need not mean that it is entirely extinguished. As I pointed out earlier, except perhaps in the most extreme cases, it is possible to imagine even these people appreciating being shown affection. The disposition remains.
Actually, the reader does not need to accept my proposition that human nature is basically disposed toward love and compassion to see that the capacity for empathy which underlies it is of crucial importance when it comes to ethics. We saw earlier how an ethical act is a non-harming act. But how are we to determine whether an act is genuinely non-harming? We find that in practice, if we are not able to connect with others to some extent, if we cannot at least imagine the potential impact of our actions on others, then we have no means to discriminate between right and wrong, between what is appropriate and what is not, between harming and non-harming. It follows, therefore, that if we could enhance the capacity-that is to say, our sensitivity toward others’ suffering-the more we did so, the less we could tolerate seeing others’ pain and the more we would be concerned to ensure that no action of ours caused harm to others.
The fact that we can indeed enhance our capacity for empathy becomes obvious when we consider its nature. We experience it mainly as a feeling. And, as we all know, to a greater or lesser extent we can not only restrain our feelings through reasoning, but we can enhance them in the same way. Our desire for objects-perhaps a new car-is enhanced by our turning it over and over in our imagination. Similarly, when, as it were, we direct our mental faculties onto our feelings of empathy, we find that not only can we enhance them, but we can transform them into love and compassion itself.
As such, our innate capacity for empathy is the source of that most precious of all human qualities, which in Tibetan we call nying je. Now while generally translated simply as “compassion,” the term nying je has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly, though the ideas it contains are universally understood. It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness. It is also used as a term of both sympathy and of endearment. On the other hand, it does not imply “pity” as the word compassion may. There is no sense of condescension. On the contrary, nying je denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy. Thus while we might say, “I love my house” or “I have strong feelings of affection for this place,” we cannot say, “I have compassion” for these things. Having no feelings themselves, we cannot empathize with objects. We cannot, therefore, speak of having compassion for them.
Although it is clear from this description that nying je, or love and compassion, is understood as an emotion, it belongs to that category of emotions which have a more developed cognitive component. Some emotions, such as the revulsion we tend to feel at the sight of blood, are basically instinctual. Others, such as fear of poverty, have this more developed cognitive component. We can thus understand nying je in terms of a combination of empathy and reason. We can think of empathy as the characteristic of a very honest person; reason as that of someone who is very practical. When the two are put together, the combination is highly effective. As such, nying je is quite different from those random feelings, like anger and lust, which, far from bringing us happiness, only trouble us and destroy our peace of mind.
To me, this suggests that by means of sustained reflection on, and familiarization with, compassion, through rehearsal and practice we can develop our innate ability to connect with others, a fact which is of supreme importance given the approach to ethics I have described. The more we develop compassion, the more genuinely ethical our conduct will be.
As we have seen, when we act out of concern for others, our behavior toward them is automatically positive. This is because we have no room for suspicion when our hearts are filled with love. It is as if an inner door is opened, allowing us to reach out. Having concern for others breaks down the very barrier which inhibits healthy interaction with others. And not only that. When our intentions toward others are good, we find that any feelings of shyness or insecurity we may have are greatly reduced. To the extent that we are able to open this inner door, we experience a sense of liberation from our habitual preoccupation with self. Paradoxically, we find this gives rise to strong feelings of confidence. Thus, if I may give an example from my own experience, I find that whenever I meet new people and have this positive disposition, there is no barrier between us. No matter who or what they are, whether they have blond hair or black hair, or hair dyed green, I feel that I am simply encountering a fellow human being with the same desire to be happy and to avoid suffering as myself. And I find I can speak to them as if they were old friends, even at our first meeting. By keeping in mind that ultimately we are all brothers and sisters, that there is no substantial difference between us, that just as I do, all others share my desire to be happy and to avoid suffering, I can express my feelings as readily as to someone I have known intimately for years. And not just with a few nice words or gestures but really heart to heart, no matter what the language barrier.
We also find that when we act out of concern for others, the peace this creates in our own hearts brings peace to everyone we associate with. We bring peace to the family, peace to our friends, to the workplace, to the community, and so to the world. Why, then, would anyone not wish to develop this quality? Could anything be more sublime than that which brings peace and happiness to all? For my own part, the mere ability we human beings have to sing the praises of love and compassion is a most precious gift.
Conversely, not even the most skeptical reader could suppose that peace ever comes about as the result of aggressive and inconsiderate, that is to say, unethical behavior. Of course it cannot. I well remember how I learned this particular lesson when I was a small boy in Tibet. One of my attendants, Kenrab Tenzin, had made a pet of a small parrot, which he used to feed with nuts. Although he was a rather stern man with bulging eyes and a somewhat forbidding aspect, merely at the sound of his footsteps, or of his coughing, this parrot would show signs of excitement. As the bird nibbled from his fingers, Kenrab Tenzin would stroke its head, which appeared to put it into a state of ecstasy. I was very envious of this relationship and desired the bird to show me the same friendliness. But when I tried on a few occasions to feed it myself, I failed to get a good response. So I tried poking at it with a stick in the hope of provoking a better reaction. Needless to say, the result was totally negative. Far from forcing it to behave better toward me, the bird took fright. What little prospect of establishing friendly relations there may have been was totally destroyed. I learned thereby that friendships come about not as the result of bullying but as a result of compassion.
The world’s major religious traditions each give the development of 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 ethical conduct consists in not harming others, 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 capacity into love and compassion, through 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.
This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need. So long as we practice these in our daily lives, then no matter if we are learned or unlearned, whether we believe in Buddha or God, or follow some other religion or none at all, as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy.
Why, then, if it is so simple to be happy, do we find it so hard? Unfortunately, though most of us think of ourselves as compassionate, we tend to ignore these commonsense truths. We neglect to confront our negative thoughts and emotions. Unlike the farmer who follows the seasons and does not hesitate to cultivate the land when the moment comes, we waste so much of our time in meaningless activity. We feel deep regret over trivial matters like losing money while keeping from doing what is genuinely important without the slightest feeling of remorse. Instead of rejoicing in the opportunity we have to contribute to others’ well-being, we merely take our pleasures where we can. We shrink from considering others on the grounds that we are too busy. We run right and left, making calculations and telephone calls and thinking that this would be better than that. We do one thing but worry that if something else comes along we had better do another. But in this we engage only in the coarsest and most elementary levels of the human spirit. Moreover, by being inattentive to the needs of others, inevitably we end up harming them. We think ourselves very clever, but how do we use our abilities? All too often we use them to deceive our neighbors, to take advantage of them and better ourselves at their expense. And when things do not work out, full of self-righteousness, we blame them for our difficulties.
Yet lasting satisfaction cannot be derived from the acquisition of objects. No matter how many friends we acquire, they cannot make us happy. And indulgence in sensual pleasure is nothing but a gateway to suffering. It is like honey smeared along the cutting edge of a sword. Of course, that is not to say that we should despise our bodies. On the contrary, we cannot be of help to others without a body. But we need to avoid the extremes which can lead to harm.
In focusing on the mundane, what is essential remains hidden from us. Of course, if we could be truly happy doing so, then it would be entirely reasonable to live like this. Yet we cannot. At best, we get through life without too much trouble. But then when problems assail us, as they must, we are unprepared. We find that we cannot cope. We are left despairing and unhappy.
Therefore, with my two hands joined, I appeal to you the reader to ensure that you make the rest of your life as meaningful as possible. Do this by engaging in spiritual practice if you can. As I hope I have made clear, there is nothing mysterious about this. It consists in nothing more than acting out of concern for others. And provided you undertake this practice sincerely and with persistence, little by little, step by step you will gradually be able to reorder your habits and attitudes so that you think less about your own narrow concerns and more of others’. In doing so, you will find that you enjoy peace and happiness yourself.
Relinquish your envy, let go your desire to triumph over others. Instead, try to benefit them. With kindness, with courage, and confident that in doing so you are sure to meet with success, welcome others with a smile. Be straightforward. And try to be impartial. Treat everyone as if they were a close friend. I say this neither as Dalai Lama nor as someone who has special powers or ability. Of these I have none. I speak as a human being: one who, like yourself, wishes to be happy and not to suffer.
If you cannot, for whatever reason, be of help to others, at least don’t harm them. Consider yourself a tourist. Think of the world as it is seen from space, so small and insignificant yet so beautiful. Could there really be anything to be gained from harming others during our stay here? Is it not preferable, and more reasonable, to relax and enjoy ourselves quietly, just as if we were visiting a different neighborhood? Therefore, if in the midst of your enjoyment of the world you have a moment, try to help in however small a way those who are downtrodden and those who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not help themselves. Try not to turn away from those whose appearance is disturbing, from the ragged and unwell. Try never to think of them as inferior to yourself. If you can, try not even to think of yourself as better than the humblest beggar. You will look the same in your grave.
To close with, I would like to share a short prayer which gives me great inspiration in my quest to benefit others:
May I become at all times, both now and forever
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need. –From “Ethics for the New Millennium” by His Holiness The Dalai Lama, with Alexander Norman. (c) August, 1999 , used by permission.