Buddhism’s Dalai Lama nods to Secular Ethics

While murder, bullying, exploitation and scandal regularly make news, when thousands of children receive their mother’s care and affection every day it isn’t reported because we take it for granted. We may be subject to negative emotions, but it’s possible to keep them under control, to cultivate a sense of emotional hygiene, on the basis of human values that are rooted in that affection – what I call secular ethics. – H.H. the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama - meditating before Jesus

H.H. the Dalai Lama Visiting St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Pentecost Sunday, 2012. Photo: Tibetzentrum / Tenzin Choejor

Patheos is currently inviting writers to submit “What Do I Really Believe?” posts this month (see several here) and while I have been pondering the idea of writing one, this quote (as well as the photo) from the Dalai Lama seems to have encompassed much, if not all of what I might say.

While murder, bullying, exploitation and scandal regularly make news Yes, bad news will always be in the news. According to a recent guardian article, news is bad for us. The reasons are mostly straightforward: the quick-shot, sound-byte, constant flow prevents engagement, discourages thoughtful commentary, and simply stimulates and re-stimulates the pleasure centers in our brain that react to novel information. If you’re going to watch the news (reading news is somewhat better), you’re better off watching Fox News. They’ve best mastered the “content doesn’t matter – stimulate! stimulate! stimulate!” paradigm. So Fox News watchers are the least informed, but they, by-and-large conservatives, are also the happiest.* The extreme, quick, and easy answers (as discussed in my last post) offered up on this and certain other ‘news’ organizations are corrosive to the values of a well-informed populous needed in this ever-more globalized age.

….thousands of children receive their mother’s care and affection every day… These may be ‘little things’ to us – to children, they are everything. This is one of the many things I love about my friend Danny Fisher’s blog. Just read it for a while and you’ll notice something coming up again and again: a phrase from the Karaniya Metta Sutta: “just as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so too should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings.” And this is why, for years now, the metta-bhavana (cultivation of loving-kindness) meditation has been at the core of my own practice.

…it isn’t reported because we take it for granted… These acts are abundant and yet so worthy of our attention and praise. And with attention and praise should follow emulation. Attending to the best qualities in others, we naturally seek out those qualities in ourselves. 

We may be subject to negative emotions, but it’s possible to keep them under control… Realizing that our emotions are not ‘us’ and they are not even ‘ours’ is a practice that takes time. So much of what we think and our reactions to it are simply put upon us by society, our upbringing, our ideologies. Detaching from these, we gain perspective and often see that the negative emotion serves no purpose. Often enough, just that realization causes the emotion to evaporate like mist on a mountain.

…to cultivate a sense of emotional hygiene, on the basis of human values that are rooted in that affection…  Affection, ‘fellow feeling‘, respect, agape, ren (仁)and similar positive emotions or qualities are found throughout religions and philosophies, East and West.

…what I call secular ethics. Secular, we should note, comes from the Latin word saecularis, meaning ‘worldly’ (as opposed to relating to the church). Insofar as we see that these values are taught within every religion, we can have fruitful communication between faiths. Of course, asking how ren is different from karuṇā and how these both differ from agape is just as important, as different traditions will emphasize different aspects of secular ethics based on the needs of the people and the time, and this ongoing questioning is part of the necessary process of making these values our own, which for people like me means translating them into English and specifically the English of the 21st century, shaped as it has been by the many great thinkers of Western philosophical traditions.

What I believe is that what really matters in our world today can be found in these secular ethics; and insofar as our religions, our churches and temples, pastors and priests teach these, they will and should be attended, praised, and emulated. 

* to be fair, the data discussed in that NYTimes story doesn’t suggest -directly at least- that being less informed is a cause of happiness, but then there is this and this

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