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Ethics beyond Religion

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Fribourg, Switzerland, April 2013
Slightly edited by Alexander Berzin

Drawbacks of Placing Emphasis on Secondary Level Differences

Dear brothers and sisters, I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to talk with you. Firstly, I always like to make clear when I give talks to people, please think of yourself as a human being. That is to say for example, don’t think “I am Swiss”, “I am Italian”, or “I am French.” My translator should not think that he is French! I also should not think that I am Tibetan. Furthermore, I should not think of myself as a Buddhist, because usually in my talks, the way to live a happy, less disturbed life is on the basis of being a human being.

Every single one of the seven billion human beings wants a happy life, and every single one has every right to achieve that goal. If we emphasize secondary level differences like “I am Tibetan”, then it makes me seem more concerned with Tibet. Also, “I am Buddhist” gives some kind of close feeling with other Buddhists, but automatically creates some sort of small distance from other faiths.

This kind of view is actually a source of problems, including the many problems and immense violence human beings have faced in the past and continue to face in the twenty-first century. Violence never happens if you consider other people to be human beings, just like yourself. There is no reason to kill each other; but when we forget the oneness of humanity and instead concentrate on secondary level differences like “my nation” and “their nation”, “my religion” and “their religion”, we create distinctions and have more concern for our own people and followers of our religion. Then, we disregard the rights of others and even have no respect for the lives of others. Many of the problems we face even today arise from this basis, of placing too much emphasis and importance upon secondary level differences.

Now, the only remedy for this is to think logically of ourselves at the level of being human beings, without demarcation or barriers. When I give talks for instance, if I consider myself a Tibetan Buddhist and perhaps even more so if I think of myself as “His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, this creates some kind of distance between the audience and myself, which is foolish. If I am sincerely concerned about your wellbeing, I have to talk to you on the level of being human brothers and sisters, the same human beings as myself. In actual fact we are the same: mentally, emotionally and physically. More importantly, everyone wants a happy life without any suffering, and I am the same, so we will talk on this level.

Secular Ethics

Secular ethics are very much related to biological factors, but religious faith is something only human beings have. Among humanity, faith developed, but it is certainly not a biological factor. Secular ethics cover the entire population of seven billion human beings. As I mentioned yesterday, out of seven billion people, one billion have formally stated that they are non-believers, and then if we think of the six billion supposed believers, there are so many corrupt people. There are scandals, exploitation, corruption, cheating, lying and bullying. This, I believe, is due to a lack of genuine conviction in moral principles. So even religion is used for wrong purposes. Whether I mentioned it yesterday or not, sometimes I really feel that religion teaches us how to act hypocritically. We say nice things like “love” and “compassion”, but in reality we don’t act like that, and there is lots of injustice.

Religion talks about these nice things in a sort of traditional way, but not in a way that actually connects with your heart. This is due to people’s lack of moral principles, or a lack of conviction about the value of moral principles. Regardless of whether one is a believer or non-believer, we need to think more seriously as to how to educate people about these moral principles. Then on top of this, you can add religion, and it becomes a truly genuine religion. All religions, as I mentioned yesterday, talk about these values.

Developing Non-Attachment to One’s Own Field

In the previous century, while people were killing each other, both sides were praying to God. Difficult! Even today sometimes you see conflicts in the name of religion, and I think both sides pray to God. I sometimes joke, saying that it seems that God is confused! How could He decide, with both sides praying to Him, seeking some sort of blessing? It’s difficult. One time in Argentina during a discussion with scientists and some religious leaders, although it wasn’t an interfaith meeting, I met one physicist by the name of Maturana. He was the teacher of the late Varela and I’d met him before in Switzerland, and then in Argentina, but not since then. During his talk he mentioned that as a physicist, he should not develop attachment toward his own scientific field. So this was a marvelous and wise assertion that I learned.

I am a Buddhist, but I should not develop attachment toward Buddhism because attachment is a negative emotion. When you develop attachment, your view becomes biased. Once your mind becomes biased, you cannot see things objectively.

That is why for those involved in conflicts in the name of religion, in most cases I think the real reason is not religious faith, but rather economic or political interests.

But for some cases, such as fundamentalists, they become too attached toward their own religion and then because of that, cannot see the value of other traditions.

Maturana’s assertion was for me a great piece of advice. As a result of meeting with many people, I admire many other traditions and of course I hope I am not a fundamentalist or a fanatic. Sometimes I mention that one time I’ve been to Lourdes in the south of France. I went as a pilgrim and, in front of a statue of Jesus Christ, I had some water. I stood in front of the statue and reflected in my mind, the millions of people through the centuries who’d visited this place, seeking comfort, with some sick people, through their faith and some sort of blessing being cured, I heard. So I reflected on these things and got some kind of deep sense of appreciation for Christianity, and nearly, tears came. And then another time, a strange thing happened in Fatima, Portugal. Surrounded by Catholics and Christians, we had a short period of silent meditation in front of a small statue of Mary. When I and everybody else were about to leave, I turned back and the Mary statue was actually smiling toward me. I looked again and again, and yes, she was smiling. I felt that Mary seemed to have some kind of recognition of my nonsectarian way! If I spent more time with Mary to discuss philosophy however, maybe something more complicated may come up!

In any way, attachment even to your own faith is not good. Sometimes religion causes conflict and divisions and this is quite a serious matter. Religion is supposed to be a method to increase compassion and forgiveness, which are the remedies for anger and hatred. So if religion itself creates more hatred toward other religious faiths, this is like a medicine that is supposed to cure illness, but instead causes more illness. What to do? All these sad things are essentially due to a lack of conviction in moral principles, so I believe that we need various practices and factors to make a genuine effort to promote secular ethics.

Secularism and Respect for Others

Now on secular ethics. I knew the former Indian Deputy Prime Minister, Advani, very well. On one occasion he mentioned that a Canadian television team interviewed him and asked what the basis for successful democratic practice in India is. He answered that for thousands of years in India, the tradition has been to always respect others, despite arguments or differing views. He told me that around three thousand years ago, the Charvaka, or “nihilist” philosophical view developed in India. Holders of other Indian philosophical views criticized them and condemned their views, but the holders of Charvaka views were still referred to as “rishi”, which means sage. This is an indication that in spite of disagreements or heated discussions, there was still respect. It means we must also respect non-believers too.

Yesterday I said that some of my friends, some Christian and some Muslim, have a little bit of reservation with the very word “secularism.” I think it’s because during the French revolution or Bolshevik revolution, there has been a tendency to be against religion. But I want to make a clear distinction between religion and religious institutions, which are two different things. How can any sensible person be against religion? Religion means love and compassion, and nobody can criticize these things. Religious institutions are however something different. During the French and Bolshevik revolutions, in both cases the ruling classes really abused the masses. Furthermore, the ruling class also received full support from religious institutions and so logically in order to develop a determination against that ruling class, it included being against the religious institutions as well. Therefore, there was some kind of tendency to be against religion or God.

Even today, if there is some sort of exploitation occurring within religious institutions including the Tibetan Buddhist community, we have to be against this. My own practice is that two years ago I ended the four-century-old tradition of the Dalai Lama automatically becoming both the temporal and spiritual leader of the Tibetans. I ended it, voluntarily, happily and proudly. Such things actually damage the real value of religion, or Dharma. So, we must make a distinction between religious institutions, and real religious practices and messages.

According to the Indian understanding of secularism, there is never a sense of negativity toward religion, but rather respect for all religions, and also respect for all non-believers. I think this is very wise. How can we promote this? Through preaching? No. Then certainly through prayer? No. But through education, yes. We receive education about physical hygiene, so why not education about emotional or mental hygiene, simple knowledge on how to take care of a healthy mind? No need to talk about God or the next life, or Buddha or nirvana, but simply about how to develop into a happy person with a mind. A happy person makes a happy family, which makes a happy community. Therefore, I think we need some lessons on emotional hygiene.

Emotional Hygiene

What is emotional hygiene? It means taking care of factors that destroy our calm mind, or our peace of mind. These factors are like a mental illness, because not only do these negative emotions destroy your peaceful, healthy mind, they also destroy your mental ability to judge reality. This causes so much damage because when you are full of anger, you cannot see reality and your mind becomes biased. Also with attachment, you also can’t see reality correctly. This is a disease of the mind. The very nature of our mind is awareness and so any sort of mental factor that reduces this capacity for awareness is a negative thing.

Emotional hygiene is therefore the lessening of these kinds of emotions and the maintenance of one’s mental ability for clarity and calm, which is a healthy mind. In order to do this, we must first cultivate and develop an interest in doing so. Without an interest, you can’t force people to do it. No law or constitution can make people do it. It has to come about through individual enthusiasm, which only comes about when you see the value in doing it. And it is these values that we can teach about.

Scientific Findings on the Mind and Emotions

Now we can look at science. Previously, modern science focused upon matter, where you can take measurements. I think in the later part of the twentieth century and now, the beginning of the twenty-first century, more and more scientists are really showing an interest in the mind and its emotions, because there is a very close connection between the mind and emotions when it comes to health. Some scientists are saying “healthy mind, healthy body.” Medical scientists also say that constant fear, anger and hatred actually eat away at our immune system, while a more compassionate mind basically sustains and can even increase a healthy body. Obviously we know that for those people who are mentally happy, the positive effects for their body are immense.

Recognizing the Positive in Negative Situations

In my own life, at the age of sixteen I took on a lot of responsibility, and the situation became very difficult. Then at the age of twenty-four, I lost my own country and have now lived most of my life as a refugee. In the meantime, there have been a lot of suffering and problems inside Tibet, and people put a lot of hope and trust in me. But I am helpless. However, my peace of mind has allowed me to see all of this more realistically. As Shantideva said, if difficulties can be overcome, then there is no need to worry. And if there is a difficult situation with no possibility of overcoming it, then there is no use in worrying too much. This is very realistic, so I practice these things.

It is important to look at things in a more realistic way and also to see that all things are relative. Whatever happens, there can be some positive effect. In my own case I became a refugee, but because of this I have had the opportunity to meet with many people and learn many different views. I’ve met beggars, leaders, scholars from different fields, and anti-religious people. This is very helpful, because if I had remained inside Tibet, I think my knowledge would be half what it is now. So in a way, it is sort of a great tragedy, but in another way it has brought a lot of good opportunities. If we look from various angles, then we’ll feel okay. Bad things might happen, but there might also be some good things in there.

Tibetan people in the past have been a little bit isolated, but now their thinking is much broader. Through the centuries, Tibetans were living in a sleep-like state, but now they’ve woken up. That’s good! So you see, if you look from different angles, you can find some positive things. This is an immense help in maintaining peace of mind. These days, many of my old friends tell me how young my face still looks when I meet them, and so some of these people have asked for my secret. I usually tell them that eight or nine hours of sleep helps peace of mind. Actually this is definitely one factor, but what is of real benefit is if our mind and mental states are comparatively quiet and calm.

A calm mind even helps you to recover from things like medical surgery. When I had surgery on my gall bladder, it was actually quite serious. The surgeon later told me that usually the operation takes fifteen to twenty minutes, but my case was so serious that I needed almost three hours, because my gall bladder was enlarged to almost two times its size, with lots of pus. But then I recovered within five days, just like that. So a calm mind and an optimistic attitude really help in maintaining a healthy body, and then even if something does go wrong, you’ll recover more rapidly. Peace of mind really is a very important factor in good health.

Inner Beauty versus External Beauty

I’ll also mention here, half joking and half teasing, that some young ladies like to spend quite a lot of money on cosmetics. Some ladies use different colors on their faces – blue, green and others. It doesn’t look very nice, but they think it’s very beautiful! People seem to pay more attention to external beauty. In one public talk the other day, one lady had blue hair, it was very unusual. So of course I teased her and told her that blue hair is not necessarily beautiful! Of course external beauty is important, but the most important thing is inner beauty. Those ladies who spend a lot of money on external beauty, please pay some attention to your inner beauty, which is much better!

The Mind and Emotions as an Academic Subject

We are talking about scientific findings. Real mental peace of mind is crucial. The basis for peace of mind is self-confidence and inner strength, which come from the practice of love and compassion, with a sense of respect for others and concern for their well-being. This is secular ethics.

From kindergarten through to university, we can educate about the mind and about how to take care of our emotions. The subject is a vast one, and there are lots of explanations about our mind and emotions and the connection between them. We can see a kind of cause and effect, where if something happens in one part of the mind, something else happens somewhere else. So to deal with this, we need to seriously consider the way in which the mind and the whole brain are interconnected.

This vast subject is really worthwhile academically. Over the last few years in America, scientists have been carrying out experiments on the basis of this information, and some quite concrete results have arisen. As a result, there are now educational programs teaching about secular ethics. Now we are also committed to creating a draft curriculum concerning moral ethics based on secularism, which can fit into the field of secular education.

The audience, and particularly any educators and thinkers here, should think more about this and if an opportunity arises, should hold some discussions on the subject. Currently, the educational system seems to lack lessons on moral ethics, so most people rely on religious teachings for this. Of course this is good, but there are also those, who have no interest in religion and find it difficult to accept religious concepts. This makes it difficult. Therefore we need to find a secular way, which is then universally acceptable.

Finished. Now some questions.


Question: Your Holiness, in your last comment you touched upon the question I was going to ask, but in order to get a full answer, I’ll ask you again if you don’t mind. With regard to the teaching of secular ethics in schools and universities, are you working to develop a suitable teaching program with anyone? If so, do you have any educational or financial institutions to back you up?

His Holiness: In India, with the help of some universities in Delhi, we’ve already started working to create a draft curriculum, like I mentioned earlier. Then also we have the Mind and Life Institute. And in America, individual members in their own fields at places such as Wisconsin University, Emory University, Stanford University and so on are already carrying out education with secular ethics. And this institution we’ve already expanded in Europe. Soon we want to set up an institution in or near Delhi. So far we have simply been working on this. Once the curriculum is ready, then perhaps we can train some teachers, and something will happen. Maybe it will be worthwhile, we will see.

Question: Your Holiness, I love the planet and everything that composes it, the earth and plants and animals, and us fascinating humans. But these humans are always destroying the planet, with maybe very small and simple things like just buying plastic bottles, and then bigger more important things like deforestation. I know I must be patient but when I see this, when I see that life is dying and suffering, there is a lot of anger coming from my stomach and I want to fight. So my question is, is there healthy anger? Can I fight with love?

His Holiness: Anger as I mentioned earlier, is related with the motivation. So anger out of concern for something or other people is one thing, and anger motivated with hatred is something very different.

Question: Your Holiness, thank you for being here. It is wonderful to see you and hear you. I had a very simple question. If you had free time tomorrow to do anything, what would you like to do? Thank you.

His Holiness: Usually whenever I have time I read Buddhist scriptures, mainly in Tibetan. In Tibetan Buddhism, we have about 300 volumes. 100 volumes are the Buddha’s own words, almost like a Bible. Then we have another 200 volumes of commentary. So I’m always telling Tibetans that these are not just objects for worship, but are texts to be studied. While I tell other people this, I myself also try to read these books. I think out of 300 volumes, perhaps so far I’ve read maybe 30-40 volumes. So lots of books yet to study. And perhaps if I have two days of leisure time, then I would like to go to an area with snow mountains. I would like to see more snow!

Question: Your Holiness, you have been speaking about the six billion faithful and maybe one billion atheists on the planet. I have the impression that there is a third group of people who no longer feel really at home within traditional institutional religion but are not atheists either, and are looking for spirituality beyond institutional religion. What is your advice to them?

His Holiness: Many years ago in Stockholm I met a small group of people. They didn’t favor existing traditions or religions but were still seeking some kind of spirituality. Yes, there are such people. I have found however, that what you call “new age”, or taking bits from here and there and creating a big mixture, is not very useful!

I think it is good not just to satisfy one’s material needs, but to try and find deeper values is very good. It is worthwhile to analyze our lives, and to see that our happiness doesn’t come about from some sort of sensorial satisfaction. As in, when music is playing, you are satisfied, but if the music stops there is no more satisfaction. On the mental level, to have a tremendous feeling of faith or compassion – the satisfaction that comes from this is much longer lasting.

Question: What, for you, is the most important thing in the life of a human being?

His Holiness: I’m always telling people that the very purpose of our life is to have a happy life. Now in order to achieve happiness or joyfulness, it shouldn’t depend upon sensorial faculties and experiences, but should rather depend on our mental state. So as I’m usually saying, we need to pay more attention to our inner values. Thank you very much.