His Holiness The Dalai Lama 

Ethics in a Modern World 


   Ethics in a Modern World, an Interview   



The Washington Post
September 12, 1999

By the Dalai Lama

Riverhead. 320 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Jack Shoemaker

For many of us raised in America, religious and ethical instruction began with the Ten Commandments, summarized, perhaps, in the catchy and unforgettable slogan, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Even the language is old-fashioned, that archaic "unto" reminding one of summer camps, long rides in the backseats of roomy automobiles with our fathers at the wheel refusing to stop at yet another billboarded attraction featuring grotesque lizards and ice cold drinks, those days when presidential campaigns carried on only from late summer through the first months of one school year or another.

Now we've arrived at the end of the century, where crime, moral chaos, and politics driven by the often hollow sophistications of sociology and psychology all alert us to the breakdown of too many previous assumptions, particularly the coming apart of what might be called our ethical agreements with one another. Late capitalism, in apparent triumph, seems to encourage self-interest over any lingering sense of a commonwealth.

Separation of church and state -- a necessary act of democratic restraint -- has had the effect of removing religious vocabulary and structure from the idea of ethical understanding and behavior. Modern secular society seems to have wantonly declared that without a religious imperative there can be no honestly defensible "reason" behind moral and ethical strictures, as if our commonwealth is an idea as retrograde as monarchy.

Onto this stage of confusion, despair, cynicism and occasionally unfettered -- some might suggest unreasoned -- optimism comes the Dalai Lama, this exiled monk.

The Dalai Lama has reached a public stance rare for an Eastern teacher, becoming a revered religious figure, beloved even by those who understand little of his tradition. Part of this is America's fascination with the exotic, of course, for we have always loved costume. And some of this high regard is due to his being a visible reminder of the ongoing tragedy of Tibet.

In Ethics for the New Millennium he declares, "This is not a religious book." In shying away from religious terminology, he is clearly looking for a more ecumenical stance. He simply and forcefully argues that a combination of our instinct for survival and our common sense, if properly attended and refined by human reason, will lead us to an increased capacity for compassion, and compassion will buttress an ethical understanding and moral practice.

Now this may beg the question of whether common sense is, any longer, common or even sensible. But this simple monk would insist that it is and that it is an instinct no amount of chaos or complexity can kill. Like any good teacher, he understands that ethical matters are individual matters, that an ethical society is only the sum of its ethical citizens. We must repair our own hearts and actions, then work with our family, our neighborhood, our city, our state and nation, and on to the interrelated world. In this he sounds Confucian. He also sounds like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Billy Graham.

There is nothing difficult or esoteric about this book. The problems of the world are addressed from a religiously neutral stance, and his hope and wisdom are offered to everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. He understands that ethical matters are individual matters, that an ethical society is only the sum of its ethical citizens. In fact some readers may believe he misses an opportunity to frame his arguments to prove the moral superiority of Buddhism, but this is exactly what he wishes not to do. He argues for a spiritual awakening, one that practicing atheists, agnostics or humanists can abide, and an ethical awakening that can vitalize every common and uncommon occasion of being alive in the world today.

While not interested in proselytizing, he is much concerned with the internationalism, these days called globalism, that affects every corner of the world. These days globalism more often refers to business opportunity than to responsibility. But he insists that this interrelatedness of all life -- Buddhists call this "dependent origination" -- offers us the path to peace and happiness. This is the idea, obvious once stated, that everything relates to everything else, that no act or object or being or thing exists except in relationship. We can no longer act as if we are independent agents, neither as individuals or as nations. We are all intertwined, whether we like it or not, whether in fact we acknowledge it or not. This becomes the author's most direct argument for empathy and compassion as the groundwork for our lives.

Even though the Dalai Lama operates, as always, from genuine humility -- he neither knows everything nor pretends to -- his language reflects the authority of someone who honestly wishes to react and to help. The pace of this book is stately. He frames the problems in the first part, "The Foundation of Ethics," with an interesting historical perspective and a directly personal survey. In "Ethics and the Individual," he asks hard questions and explores difficult concepts: restraint, virtue, compassion, suffering, discernment. By the time he arrives at "Ethics and Society," he is ready for the largest questions: What might be the role of religion in modern society? Can a society be ethical? What would that mean and look like? One is reminded in this last section and in the book's closing appeal of why, in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Let me be as direct as he: These are grave and important questions. We all need to look directly at them and at ourselves. We will not escape this burden without peril to ourselves and to humanity. This book offers help, instruction and inspiration along the way. Its lessons can, just maybe, change your life.

Jack Shoemaker is the publisher of Counterpoint Press and the co-editor of "The Roaring Stream," a new Zen reader.

The Dalai Lama on Warfare

The unfortunate truth is that we are conditioned to regard warfare as something exciting and even glamorous: the soldiers in smart uniforms (so attractive to children) with their military bands playing alongside them. We see murder as dreadful, but there is no association of war with criminality. On the contrary, it is seen as an opportunity for people to prove their competence and courage. We speak of the heroes it produces, almost as if the greater the number killed, the more heroic the individual. And we talk about this or that weapon as a marvelous piece of technology, forgetting that when it is used it will actually maim and murder living people. Your friend, my friend, our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and brothers, you and me.

What is even worse is the fact that in modern warfare the role of those who instigate it [is] often far removed from the conflict on the ground. At the same time, its impact on non-combatants grows even greater. Those who suffer most in today's armed conflicts are the innocent -- not only the families of those fighting but, in far greater numbers, civilians who often do not even play a direct role. Even after the war is over, there continues to be enormous suffering due to land mines and poisoning from the use of chemical weapons -- not to mention the economic hardship it brings. This means that, more and more, women, children, and the elderly are among its prime victims.

The reality of modern warfare is that the whole enterprise has become almost like a computer game. The ever-increasing sophistication of weaponry has outrun the imaginative capacity of the average layperson. Their destructive capacity is so astonishing that whatever arguments there may be in favor of war, they must be vastly inferior to those against. We could almost be forgiven for feeling nostalgia for the way in which battles were fought in ancient times. At least then people fought one another face-to-face. There was no denying the suffering involved. And in those days, it was usual for rulers to lead their troops in battle. If the ruler was killed, that was generally the end of the matter. But as technology improved, the generals began to stay farther behind. Today they can be thousand of miles away in their bunkers underground. In view of this, I could almost see developing a "smart" bullet that could seek out those who decide on wars in the first place. That would seem to me more fair, and on these grounds I could see welcoming a weapon that eliminated the decision-makers while leaving the innocent unharmed.

From Ethics for the New Millennium By the Dalai Lama


Ethics in a Modern World, an Interview

Ethics in a Modern World

Published in Amazon.com September, 99

Coming on the heels of his surprise bestseller, The Art of Happiness, the 14th Dalai Lama has struck another chord in Western readers with Ethics for the New Millennium. Tibet's exiled leader, whose nation has suffered four decades of systematic oppression and spiritual deprivation, believes that feeling good requires being good--not exactly a common sentiment in a time of bull markets and fad diets. He pulls it off by employing the same soft-spoken, disarming wisdom that is so appreciated in his public speaking engagements. In an interview via e-mail with Amazon.com's Eastern Religion editor, Brian Bruya, His Holiness imparts more wisdom for the benefit of Amazon.com readers, explaining how the basic concerns of all people--happiness based in contentment, appeasement of suffering, and the forging of meaningful relationships--can act as a foundation for universal ethics.

Amazon.com: What is there in your thoughts on ethics that is absent from current notions of ethics in the West?

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama: Not having detailed knowledge of Western theories of ethics, it is hard to answer this question directly. But I believe that any approach to ethics that does not take into account others' feelings and others' equal right to happiness is bound to prove inadequate.

Amazon.com: In offering your notions of ethics to the West, you are doing so as a monk steeped in the belief system of Tibetan Buddhism. To be a good person, do we need to subscribe to Tibetan Buddhism?

Dalai Lama: According to my own experience, there is no doubt that Buddhist practice is an effective means of achieving the happiness that is characterized by inner peace. Here, though, the emphasis must be on the word "practice." It is not enough merely to revere deities and read sutras. Likewise, there is no doubting that each of the world's major religious traditions provides an effective means of achieving happiness through helping individuals to restrain their narrow selfish impulses on the one hand and to develop love and compassion on the other. But here too, the emphasis must again be on the practice of compassion in the context of inner discipline rather than on the externalities of religious practice.

At the same time, it is also true that these ethics--of restraint and of virtue, which are the source of inner peace, of happiness, and of a meaningful life--can be developed without the individual having recourse to religious faith. What I call genuine spiritual practice, which entails disciplining our negative thoughts and emotions and developing a good heart, is, I believe, possible irrespective of a person's belief or lack of belief.

Amazon.com: You say that disciplining the mind and developing inner strength are essential. Are these things that everyone can do? Is a society of saints really possible, or do we need a set of rules and punishments to maintain order in society?

Dalai Lama: We all have the same potential to develop love and compassion. But this does not mean that everyone progresses at the same speed. And clearly we do need laws and regulations to facilitate good order in society. Ethical discipline is not just about rule-following, however. The best, indeed the ultimate, way to guarantee a civilized society is through inner discipline rather than merely relying on external means to achieve law and order. The key is thus to perfect our inner motivation, or inspiration: that which in a sense drives our actions.

Amazon.com: You talk about the inner life, about positive and negative thoughts. Why are these important when we consider a person's morals based on that person's actions rather than on his or her thoughts?

Dalai Lama: Negative actions invariably arise in the context of negative thoughts and emotions. Conversely, positive actions arise in the context of positive, or wholesome, thoughts and emotions. If a seemingly positive act is in fact motivated by the desire to harm others, it remains a harmful act. Similarly, if, for example, we give with the intention of inflating the image others have of us, we are not really being generous at all.

I have tried to emphasize the importance of developing our compassionate nature, which is the basis both of ethical behavior and of human happiness.

Amazon.com: You say that genuine happiness for a person depends on ethical conduct. Can't happiness be found simply in the pleasures of life? Are ethical considerations ever at odds with certain pleasures, and would that make them a hindrance to happiness?

Dalai Lama: The problem with such an approach to happiness is that those things, such as sensual pleasure, which we suppose to be a source of happiness, are found in the end to be further sources of suffering. Of course, temporary happiness, or temporary satisfaction, can be found in this way. But if we aspire to peace of mind, to that inner sense of tranquility that is unaffected by adverse circumstances, we find that often we need to sacrifice immediate pleasure for the joy of lasting happiness.

Amazon.com: In thinking about ethics in the West, we often bring up dilemmas to test our ethical systems; for instance, the problem of NATO's bombing Yugoslavia, or of whether to tell a lie to prevent a greater evil. How is your ethical system equipped to address such dilemmas?

Dalai Lama: The ethical system that I argue for should not be understood as "the Dalai Lama's ethics." What I have sought to describe is an approach to ethics based on the observation that just as I do myself, so do all others aspire to happiness and to avoid suffering.

With regard to NATO's bombing of Serbia, I fully appreciate the alliance's great humanitarian concerns over the terrible acts of atrocity committed in Kosovo. However, because of my absolute belief in nonviolence, I have strong reservations about the military option chosen by NATO. Apart from any other considerations, violence once committed tends to have unpredictable side affects with harmful consequences. All too often, it serves merely to deepen the wounds and cause more hurt, which in turn inspires acts of vengeance and further atrocities.

So far as dealing with ethical dilemmas is concerned, it is very difficult to imagine a set of rules that could be applied in all circumstances. Therefore, we have to have some general principles that we try to apply on a case by case basis. We have to try to discern what is truly the most compassionate course of action. It is hard to imagine a situation where violence would be appropriate. But this does not mean that we can never take firm counter measures.

Amazon.com: While you are speculating about ethics, the Chinese are turning your country upside down. If your notion of ethics is not yet widely adopted, does it put the practitioner at risk?

Dalai Lama: There may of course be instances where the practice of compassion puts the individual at risk. But the basis of compassion is discipline out of a sense of responsibility for all others. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices, albeit that in doing so ultimately we benefit ourselves.

WTN-L World Tibet Network News 

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