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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Buddhism in the World Today > Achieving a Happy Mind through Secular Ethics

Achieving a Happy Mind through Secular Ethics

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Klagenfurt, Austria, 20 May 2012
Transcribed and slightly edited by Alexander Berzin

I shall be speaking today about how to achieve a happy mind in the context of doing that using secular methods. I am happy to have this opportunity to talk to a large number of people here. One of my great friends, an American scientist, David Livingstone, who now is no longer with us, said that when a warm-hearted person meets others, then his or her eyes open wider and his or her pupils dilate. He said that when he met me, his eyes opened wide and his pupils dilated like that as well and this had only happened with two people, when he’s met me and when he sees his wife. But now, every place that I go, the local people are the same, they show a genuine warm feeling towards me and I appreciate that very much, so thank you.

What does “secularism” mean? I use it according to its usage in the Indian tradition. Some of my Muslim and Christian friends, however, feel that the word “secularism” implies a little bit being against religion, so they don’t like me to use this term. And also some people think that “ethics” need to be based on religion, but the Indian Constitution is based on secularism; it isn’t anti-religion. In India, people are very respectful of religion. Gandhi and the drafters of the Indian Constitution were very religious people. “Secular” in this context means having respect for all religions with no idea of any one religion being considered better than any others; and for thousands of years this secularism has respected the rights of nonbelievers too in India. So I use the term “secularism” to mean this.

As a human being, and even animals and insects, all of us have the desire for more peace and calm. Nobody wants any disturbance; and everybody has the right to achieve happiness and to overcome any disturbances, problems and suffering. There’s no need to prove that logically or by experimentation. This is that way simply by nature; and all sentient beings, birds, animals, humans, all of us try to achieve that goal. What’s important is the method to achieve that goal. It must be realistic, and using unrealistic ways just causes us to fail to meet that goal. For instance, sometimes we find that animals are so frightened that they run in the wrong direction; they run in the direction of harm rather than away from it. But we are human beings and we have marvellous intelligence and therefore we have more ability to follow a realistic approach through reason and intelligence, so we are more successful. We have long-term awareness and so sometimes we willingly sacrifice immediate benefit for long-term success. This is an indication of our intelligence above that of animals. And so because of this intelligence, we humans try to achieve long-term benefit.

The question, then, is what level of experience is going to bring us the most benefit? The sensorial level of experience is mainly temporary. For example you see some picture or a sporting event, or a tourist going to see different places and scenery, costumes, people; well, from this you get some sense of pleasure, for instance through your eyes. My driver in Delhi for example, an Indian, loves cricket. When I asked him how many hours of sleep he got last night when there was a cricket game, he said four hours. Then I criticize him, I say it’s better to get sound sleep rather than watching sport. It’s better for the mind. Then also there’s music and beautiful fragrances and food and pleasurable physical sensations. These pleasures on the sensorial level are only temporary. When they are finished, the only thing that is left is our memory of them.

On the other hand, some experiences are on the mental level and they are not dependent on sensory experience; and the pleasure that comes from them lasts much longer. So it’s important to realize there are two levels of experiencing happiness and unhappiness. One, the sensorial level, is temporary and the other, the mental level, is much deeper.

In our modern times people are involved too much with the sensorial level as what they consider to be the most important, so they are always looking to external material sources for happiness and they neglect the inner, deeper level. One time, many years ago, I was in Berlin, Germany and the hotel where I stayed was just opposite a night club. About 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night I go to sleep and I could see outside different colored lights, red, blue, flashing and a big thudding sound. I went to sleep and I woke up at midnight and it was still going on and when I got up around four it was even then still going on. All the energy of the people there was absorbed on that sensorial level. I think next day, everybody was completely exhausted.

Recently I met one Indian family who had some children, the parents were there as well, and we just had some casual talk. I mentioned that in the last two or three years I no longer look at television; I just listen to the news on BBC radio. The young members of that Indian family said to me, “You must get bored without watching television!” That implies that they watch it a lot. Especially in America and in Europe, children watch too much TV. This is not very helpful because it changes their minds’ ability to analyze with sharp intelligence. So it makes more sense to work on the mental level, not just the sensorial level as a way to find happiness.

Another point is that real disturbance of emotions comes mainly from the mental level; so, for a happy life we need a calm mind. Since the source of disturbances comes from the mental level, we need to deal with the mental level to achieve that. So, firstly, we need to pay more attention to our inner world, to inner values. In the small space of the brain we can explore the vast internal space of the mind, but we actually know far less about this inner space. So, we need to examine emotions. When strong emotions arise, then with part of the mind we need to examine that emotion, then gradually we find that it will subside. We have the ability to watch the mind dominated by anger; as soon as we examine it, the intensity diminishes. It’s quite interesting to look deeper at the mind.

We are now in the twenty-first century. The twentieth century seems like it was the most important century in human history. It’s because there were so many developments in the scientific and technical fields. So our knowledge increased, living standards increased. But, at the same time, it was a century of bloodshed. Your parents and grandparents experienced great disturbances and suffering. Over two hundred million people were killed, including some by nuclear weapons. If that immense violence produced some new order, maybe we could justify it, but that was not the case. Even now at the beginning of the twenty-first century there are so many problems in Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, so much terrorism; this is a symptom of past mistakes and negligence. There was too much emphasis just on external things. Now, we must think more about inner values, not just external circumstances.

Also the gap between the rich and poor is a great problem, though material progress in general is OK. Here in Austria, the level of equality is quite good, but last year I visited Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, and I asked about the gap between the rich and the poor, is it big or small, and they said it’s very big. Here in Austria perhaps it’s small.

Also I asked, “Is the level of corruption is big or small?” In democratic countries where there’s free speech and free press, still there can be a lot of corruption. This is due to a lack of self-discipline, a lack of moral principles. India, for example, is a very religious-minded nation, and yet there is a lot of corruption there as well. In their homes, many Indians have statues of gods and goddesses, they offer incense and flowers and their prayers, but sometimes I joke that their prayer is “May my corruption succeed.” So, this is very sad. They are religious minded and yet so many are corrupt. They are supposedly believers, but not believers to the extent where they actually carry out the principles of their religion and become God-fearing.

Some years ago, I had a discussion with a scholar about multi-national companies and about how their profit was not transparent. We discussed these things and I said “these people who run these companies are supposedly God-fearing, so they should have some discipline” and he said “that’s eighteenth century thought.” So, although these people might pray to God, they’re not very serious. If they were serious, they should follow God’s advice to be honest, caring and ethical. So we must be caring about others and be caring about the environment. Therefore we need more emphasis on moral ethics, and that means more emphasis on self-discipline, not from a sense of duty or fear, but voluntarily, based on knowing that “if I engage in this act it’s against moral principles”.

We need more effort to further moral ethics, otherwise with so much increase in the population and decrease in the resources, there will just be more and more problems. So we need to make this twenty-first century a century in which we put effort into making it a compassionate century. That’s the basic principle of moral ethics, secular ethics.

Moral ethics are very much related to warm-heartedness. This means having more and more concern for other human beings. They also want to be happy; they don’t want to have unhappiness and we are all interrelated. Their happiness is the source for our own happiness. When we understand this and respect them, then there’s no room for lying, cheating, bullying or exploiting. It’s in this sense that warm-heartedness is the source of happiness; and it comes from a biological factor from the time of our mothers: we survived through our mothers’ affection, through her milk. This experience has been absorbed into our genes and our blood. The question is: children are more concerned about affection from others than about money and cultural things from others, but when they grow up, unless they become wiser, their values go down. Why, because they become more self-centered. If they help others at all it’s out of interest in “what will I get in return?” So self-centeredness supports a sense of a big “me” that’s a source of big problems. We need to consider the whole community of humanity as “we” by considering ourselves part of the European Union, or part of the whole world. We need to think in terms of all the seven billion people in this world as “we” and that we are part of “we”; not just think in terms of this little “me.” So, we need to respect everybody, both the rich and the poor. Everybody should have equal rights, both economically and in all fields. That respect will come about if we develop concern for others’ well-being.

This is not necessarily part of religion; religion is a private affair; these are concerns of all of humanity. If we respect all others, there’ll be no exploitation. Also, warm-heartedness is a great help for physical health. Some scientists say that constant danger and fear weaken our immune system, so when we are self-centered we experience a lot of fear on our own side and concerning others we have a great deal of distrust. This leads to a sense of loneliness and fear, which lead to frustration and eventually to anger. But once we open our hearts and we have a sense of caring for others, then we develop self-confidence. Through that we can act openly and transparently. No matter whom we meet, whom we see, all around us we will regard everybody as our brothers and our sisters; and if we are warm-hearted and have a sense of concern for others, most people will respond positively. But that’s not always the case. Whenever I am driven around in a car I always look at the people along the way and smile at them. One time in Germany when I smiled at one lady on the sidewalk she became very suspicious, so instead of my smile causing her to feel happiness it caused her to be frightened so I turned my head. But that’s usually not the case.

Warm-heartedness is something we learn from our mothers, so this is something we need to carry with us all our life. At a science meeting we have a slogan: “a healthy mind, a healthy body.” For this we need to know reality, we need to have a calm mind; if we are disturbed we become biased and we can’t see reality and this brings about a lot of problems. So warm-heartedness helps for developing a calm mind.

If we don’t have calm minds then this produces problems in our education. If the mind isn’t calm and happy, it’s very hard to learn; so a calm mind helps for carrying out all work and all professions, including politics. In short, calmness of mind leads to self-confidence and with self-confidence we are able to see reality more clearly and based on that we develop more and more warm-heartedness.

These are the basic principles of secular ethics and the key to the art of happiness. For myself, I found this quite useful. If you feel it makes some sense, then try to practice it. If it makes no sense to you, then forget about it. Thank you.