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

  • mufi

    Justin: 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.

    A pox on the house of anyone who’d argue with that! :-)

    But, seriously, you don’t need an ignorant lay person like me to point out how uncomfortable many religious folks probably are with the idea of secular ethics. I suppose that Buddhism is more compatible with it than, say, the Abrahamic faiths – or at least those branches that still cling to some version of the Divine command theory. But then even in Buddhism we have the early/canonical view – which is presumably still taught in orthodox Theravadin circles – that committing the karmic thought-crime of rejecting the rebirth doctrine (e.g. “there is no next world”) winds one up in hell, and that voicing it aloud is an “evil” act (e.g. see here).

    Good on HH for transcending this divisive (and mythological) message, but I imagine some of his more traditionalist critics thinking something along the lines of: “WTF! Is he trying to put us out of business!”

    • justinwhitaker

      hehe… I think the DL is pretty shrewd actually; so to ‘us’ he talks about secular ethics and being just a simple monk, but when he’s talking to traditionalists, a more orthodox message comes out. Upaya :)

      So I could add that much of our discussions about what we believe and practice should be kept in an often narrow context of speaking with particular people at particular times – much as the Buddha did in the Kalama Sutta vs others. As such, I don’t think rejecting karma is altogether horrible, and a healthy agnosticism is probably pretty good for those coming to Buddhism from a non-Vedic-religion background. And more and more, I’m finding that I prefer the company of non-karma believers who have a healthy appreciation of fellow human beings over and above people who ‘believe in karma’ but are generally deficient in ‘fellow feeling’.

      • mufi

        when he’s talking to traditionalists, a more orthodox message comes out. Upaya :)

        I suspect that you’re right about that.

        But there’s a problem with explanations like these, which is that they beg the question: What does he truly believe?

        Or, in this case, does the DL truly believe that a skeptical view of literal karma/rebirth is “evil” (as per the sutta) or not (as per secular ethics)?

        Even if he’s truly agnostic on the matter (which, in a technical sense, I believe that we all are), the idea that he would suggest otherwise to traditionalists is (IMO) not a flattering image of HH.

        • justinwhitaker

          “What does he truly believe?” – well, for the Buddha you just have to read Prof Gombrich’s excellent 2009 book to discern much of that :) I think Gombrich does an excellent job in giving us much of the ‘framework’ for the Buddha’s teachings.

          I’m not sure about the DL – isn’t he, in the end, a Madhyamika-prasangika follower, and hence free of all views? Perhaps we can think of views/beliefs as the floors that we walk on: in the kitchen they *really* do need to be mopped, in the den they *really* need a vacuum, and in the front yard a rake is best. And sometimes the best way to get someone to learn is to not say exactly which, but let the person try each out for themselves. Of course, if you have someone who has been taught how to mop the kitchen but who still insists on using a rake on the linoleum, a sharp rebuke for his evil (?) idiocy might be most apt.

          • mufi

            well, for the Buddha you just have to read Prof Gombrich’s excellent 2009 book to discern much of that

            I’ve not read a lot of Buddhist scholarship, but I made sure to read that. Thanks for affirming the choice!

            isn’t he, in the end, a Madhyamika-prasangika follower, and hence free of all views?

            I guess, although this brings to mind Owen Flanagan’s critique of certain English-language statements by the DL (which he quotes at length in The Bodhisattva’s Brain & elsewhere) in which some rather strong assertions appear (e.g. regarding the metaphysical status of consciousness in Buddhist tradition and how the sciences are limited in their ability to raise doubts about that traditional view).

            Flanagan summarizes these statements as representative of what he calls “mysterianism”, which has an agnostic ring to it, but is actually somewhat “gnostic” if you think about it. In any case, it’s what many of us would likely consider a “view.”

            • Justin Whitaker

              I haven’t read much of Flanagan’s work, but I appreciate the angle he is bringing to Buddhist thought. As a philosopher he is great at parsing statements made by the DL and others, but -recalling objections made by John Searle- I think we have to place this ‘mysterianism’ in the context of who the DL is talking to – what is the purpose? Is it an ultimate view? Etc…

  • Y. A. Warren

    What I believe is that religion has so sanitized motherhood that it is not recognizable. Even if impregnation happened without those “filthy” men, childbirth is a bloody and dangerous endeavor. Men are encouraged to turn their heads away from the suffering of their woman and children rather than to enter into the suffering and take some of the pain away, simply with their presence.

    Men have been taught to be shamed by, and fearful of, their softer sides that are strengthened by their bonds to their FIERCELY protective women. They turn this shame into anger and aggression. Until a man holds a woman while she gives birth to his baby and holds her and the baby while the baby cries inconsolably for seven nights in a row, they have nothing but empty words to add to the subject of responsible compassion that leads to peace.

    • justinwhitaker

      Seven nights is a long time. Can we make it three?

      • Y. A. Warren

        Hilarious! I challenge most to survive only one night with a screaming baby and an anxious spouse locked away from all others, so as not to “disturb” their peace.

        • justinwhitaker

          A very good friend of mine had a baby about 2 years ago. He was a zombie for about 6 months; a frightening prospect indeed. I’ve been through some tough times, but I suspect having a child will be the the hardest – and I did see a special where they hooked up electrodes to two men to ‘simulate’ childbirth – I’m under no illusion that it’s a blissful or magical experience for the woman…

          • Y. A. Warren

            Done correctly, it is not blissful for any of the adults, no matter how women attempt to deny their own reality and sell it to each other and their men. We are programmed, over many generations to mindlessly breed, but we do, in most cases of humanity, have free will to make informed choices.

            Deprived of our most basic needs, we regress to animal instincts for self-preservation. We have all sorts of euphemisms for this regression, but many families suffer from sleep-deprivation psychosis after the birth of a baby. In our “too-busy to bother with babies” society, and our insistence on living in isolated units, the results are frightening.

            Babies and children are not to be produced to “love” their parents or to “take care” of their parents in the parents’ old age, but this is a common reason for procreation. in this thinking, we’re more backward than other animals inhabiting our earth. If we don’t have enough resources (physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, communal) to take adequate care of ourselves, we certainly don’t have enough to share with a helpless infant.

            • justinwhitaker

              “If we don’t have enough resources (physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, communal) to take adequate care of ourselves, we certainly don’t have enough to share with a helpless infant.” – agreed, wholeheartedly. It is in part this realization (and the ‘too-busy-ness’ of contemporary life) that I think is lowering birth-rates in 1st-world countries. That’s the optimist in me at least – seeing many friends, male and female, make conscious decisions to not procreate, many of whom are devoting themselves to service of humankind in various ways instead.

  • 969 Movement

    this might make “warm fuzzies” but it is not Buddhism


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