MIT’s Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values

In Cambridge, MIT opened the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values this past spring. It’s a bit of an old story, but I’m just coming across it now.

The Dalai Lama had some interesting soundbytes in the piece:

“The majority of the 6 billion people on earth, I think, we can categorize as non-believers,” he said. “So we must find a way to promote ethics and values with these nonbelievers … We need promotion of secular ethics through education.”

I don’t think he means it this way, but it’s like he’s saying we’re not capable of having ethics and morals on our own.

It’s not like religion does a good job of instilling those values. (Do I need to make a list to prove that? Mark Sanford. There’s your list.)

The exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet described “secular” not as an absence of belief, but as a mode of treating belief and non-belief with equal respect

Again, I think he means well. When it comes ethics and morals, certain ideas (be kind, don’t kill, Golden Rule, etc.) transcend religious beliefs.

But belief and non-belief do not deserve equal respect. People do. Ideas don’t. Bad ideas certainly don’t. If you want to promote “secular ethics,” it’ll be in spite of religious belief, not because of it. No doubt religious believers will say such goodness could not happen unless you worship their version of god.

The bigger story here, anyway, is that a university with the highest reputation of scientific integrity is joining together with a spiritual leader.

What does that mean?

“Buddhism has no history of conflict with science,” says B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. “In that regard, it may seem non-threatening to certain scientists who’ve grown very wary of Christians, who they think always have an agenda to try to plug intelligent design or their own particular theological creed.”

The center also reflects a growing movement in higher education to explore how science and religion might be complementary, rather than perennial foes.

Buddhism has no conflict with science?

That’s bullshit…

Buddhists may not believe in a creator God, but they do believe in Rebirth, in the sense that when you die, your consciousness lives on in another form. That directly contradicts scientific evidence. There’s also the belief in Karma, a “magical” energy that says what you think matters just as much as (if not more than) what you do, which has no evidence to support it.

Again, I understand the good intent… but I’m puzzled why there’s so much deference given here to a man whose beliefs may contradict what the students and faculty already know is true.

(Thanks to Rob for the link!)

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Hemant: I don’t think he means it this way, but it’s like he’s saying we’re not capable of having ethics and morals on our own.

    I’m not sure how you get that from the soundbite that you quoted. He’s recognizing that nonbelievers (whatever that means) can have ethical values, and says that those secular ethics should be promoted through education. I’m not sure what’s disturbing or religious about that. Saying that promoting secular ethics requires education doesn’t strike me as a terribly religious idea. Telling Bobby that it’s wrong to hit Timmy doesn’t somehow imply that Bobby needs to be religious, or needs a religious teacher.

    Dalai Lama:. . . but as a mode of treating belief and non-belief with equal respect.

    Hemant: Again, I think he means well.

    When you say “he means well,” you seem to imply that he’s saying something objectionable. But your only objection is that you don’t think belief and non-belief should be treated with equal respect. That’s fine, that’s your choice, but it doesn’t make much sense to treat it as objectionable or troublesome when a religiious person says that they want belief and nonbelief treated with equal respect. By the standards you’re setting here, the only thing a religious person can possibly say that you won’t object to is “My religious beliefs are a bunch of ridiculous hooey, which any right-thinking person would make fun of.” That statement may or may not be true, but it’s not reasonable to expect that every time a religious person speaks, they should sound like an atheist.

    Hemant: Buddhism has no conflict with science?

    And now you’re misquoting him, and then criticizing your misquote. His actual quote: “Buddhism has no history of conflict with science.” I believe his quote is essentially accurate. Buddhism contains many unscientific beliefs, but it doesn’t have the history of conflict with science that Christianity has. (Of course, he might agree with your misquote too, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    Can you explain what you think would be appropriate and unobjectionable for the Dalai Lama to say about his beliefs, short of becoming an atheist? Because it looks to me like you’ve taken some of the most innocuous and atheist-friendly statements I could imagine from a religious leader, and tried to interpret them to be as troubling as possible.

  • http://the-secular-thinker.blogspot.com/ The Secular Thinker

    By saying this:

    “So we must find a way to promote ethics and values with these nonbelievers”

    there is a definite implication that there is a need to promote ethics and values, implying that they are not already there. If he believed that nob-believers could be ethical and moral without belief, he wouldn’t be announcing his quest to “find a way to promote” those things.

  • http://miketheinfidel.blogspot.com/ MikeTheInfidel

    I don’t have much respect for the Dalai Lama.

    The Lamas were a ruling class in Tibetan society before the Chinese revolution, with the Dalai Lama as their figurehead. The mostly serf population was treated like slaves. The reason the Lamas opposed Chinese control wasn’t a matter of maintaining independence; rather, the Chinese were promoting a system of equality that would’ve knocked the Lamas and the aristocracy out of its special place.

    The Dalai Lama doesn’t even call for a free Tibet, as so many are wont to believe. Rather, he promotes the idea of accommodation by the Chinese government – that is, allowing the Lamas to regain some of their original privilege and influence in Tibet. In return, he would offer the Chinese government the advantage of his nonviolent philosophy, which would make it easy for them to come in and quell any unrest in Tibet.

    So much of the fervor drummed about about the Dalai Lama is the West’s obsession with the idea of a simple, peaceful religious leader being suppressed by a Communist government. If you need any evidence that we’re being presented an entirely wrong picture of what’s going on, take a look at the 13-story, 1,000-room palace he lived in before the exile (the Potala Palace). This is not a ‘simple monk’; this is the latest in a line of leaders who lived a life of opulence and privilege. And he wants it back.

  • http://duoquartuncia.blogspot.com Duae Quartunciae

    I haven’t looked at context, but the soundbite quoted is something I support enthusiastically and without reservation.

    It’s a good thing to promote ethics and values without bringing in religion. It’s a good thing for public education to remain secular, and to promote ethics and values without trying to dray in religion or assume that ethics is only done by bringing in religion.

    Look at it. The words actually promote the idea of “secular ethics”. And for me, that means ethics that don’t depend on either religon or unbelief; ethics that all students and children can share without even caring about whether they are religious or not.

    As given, this is a very positive statement indeed.

  • Aj

    He seems to be implying that religions teach ethics, and the absence of religion means the absence of ethics and values. I don’t agree, religion rarely teaches ethics and the values that it teaches are often undesirable. Secular people have ethics and values, I don’t think this Buddhist is basing his opinions on any evidence, he wants to indoctrinate people with his prefered ethics and values.

    It’s inevitable that religions are going to try to increase their market share through fallaciously equating morality and ethics with religion. This is just a think tank promoting religion, involving people that were already promoting religion at MIT. I wouldn’t be too worried as it’s more like a marketing relaunch of the faithheads at MIT. It’s quite worrying that the religious are increasingly allying to attack secularism, but perhaps this is a sign we’re winning.

  • Erp

    The web site for the institute has a FAQ which states:

    Why does the Center bear the Dalai Lama’s Name?

    The Center is founded to honor the work and vision of the Nobel Peace Laureate, His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama. It bears his name in the hope of promoting the idea of secular ethics and values which would facilitate the development of a sustainable and peaceful society independent of religious orientations.

    I would say they are trying to promote ethics and values that are shared no matter what religion (or lack thereof) people have.

  • Demetrius Of Pharos

    I don’t mean to act as an apologist, and if I come across that way I apologize (see what I did there?) but this quote:

    Buddhism has no history of conflict with science…

    … is essentially correct from my understanding the concepts of “Buddhism”, “conflict” and “science”. I may be putting words in B. Alan Wallace’s mouth, but what he seems to be implying here is not that Buddhism contains no unscientific beliefs (such as rebirth, karma, what have you) but that the beliefs themselves do not interfere with science the way we see (mostly) Christian beliefs impeding scientific progress.

    An example would be that a Buddhist’s personal belief in Karma would not interfere with their research into Stem Cells whereas the main barriers to the research (at least in America) are coming from the Christian lobby.

    To put it another way, how I understood Wallace’s statement is that Buddhism is understood to be a personal belief and there are no recorded cases of Buddhists protesting the latest scientific breakthroughs. For example, I haven’t heard of any Buddhist-Creationists.

    Or perhaps I am just splitting hairs.

  • Novice

    Not all Buddhists believe in rebirth. And your understanding of karma is incorrect (and has been in previous posts). Karma simply states that actions have consequences. There is no magic to it, nor supernatural belief. It is only another way of stating that causes have effects.

    Otherwise, love the blog.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    i don’t think he means well at all.

  • Tom

    Can you explain what you think would be appropriate and unobjectionable for the Dalai Lama to say about his beliefs, short of becoming an atheist? Because it looks to me like you’ve taken some of the most innocuous and atheist-friendly statements I could imagine from a religious leader, and tried to interpret them to be as troubling as possible.

    Very well said. I completely agree. I think the Dalai Lama is not fit to be “the” teacher of secular ethics, but I think he knows some measure of truth about the subject.

    I view this center as a very positive thing, though not entirely

  • Miko

    Buddhists may not believe in a creator God, but they do believe in Rebirth, in the sense that when you die, your consciousness lives on in another form. That directly contradicts scientific evidence.

    That would be evidence provided by the soul-ometer, right? Now, there’s no solid evidence supporting any form of reincarnation and I seriously doubt such a thing exists. That said, claiming that there is scientific evidence that this does not exist is every bit as pseudoscientific as claiming that there’s evidence that they do exist.

  • Ron in Houston

    Buddhism has no conflict with science?

    That’s bullshit…

    Buddhists may not believe in a creator God, but they do believe in Rebirth, in the sense that when you die, your consciousness lives on in another form. That directly contradicts scientific evidence. There’s also the belief in Karma, a “magical” energy that says what you think matters just as much as (if not more than) what you do, which has no evidence to support it.

    These statements while true on one level are also horribly wrong.

    Certainly some Buddhists believe in things like rebirth and karma; however, the teaching of the Buddha don’t necessarily support those views.

    The Buddha was the ultimate skeptic. His teachings were: “Be a lamp unto yourself. Work out your liberation with diligence.”

    Buddhism rejects anything that relies on “faith.” The ultimate idea of Buddhism is to test things for yourself. There is no conflict between being a Buddhist and being an Atheist.

  • Aj

    Miko,

    That said, claiming that there is scientific evidence that this does not exist is every bit as pseudoscientific as claiming that there’s evidence that they do exist.

    There can be evidence against a hypothesis and in this case it’s the reliance on dualism and the arguments from brain damage that are probably what Hemant is refering to. Therefore “Rebirth” has scientific evidence contradicting it.

  • ChameleonDave

    ‘There’s also the belief in Karma, a “magical” energy that says what you think matters just as much as (if not more than) what you do.’

    Well, it’s the first time I’ve heard that. Karma is Sanskrit for ‘action’.

  • http://cannonballjones.wordpress.com Cannonball Jones

    RE the whole karma/rebirth issue my understanding of these concepts has always been that they involve no magical forces or anything like that. Karma simply means that your actions affect your life and that if you constantly act in an immoral way this will have a negative effect on your character and may lead to other negative consequences. The reverse holds for good actions. Rebirth refers to psychological rebirth in this life, the act of constantly improving our character and actions to be ‘reborn’ as a new person, aiming to get better and better all the time.

    Both admirable concepts and not in any way in conflict with science, although I accept that many Buddhists (and just about all non-Buddhists) attach supernatural aspects to them.

  • trixr4kids

    There are many forms of Buddhism; Wikipedia calls it “a family of beliefs and practices considered by most to be a religion.” They don’t all believe the same things.

    I despise the doctrine of karma; but I respect the Dalai Lama.

    The Dalai Lama has said:

    “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.”

    As for Karma–again, different traditions hold different beliefs about it. It is often tied up with magical beliefs–in particular, reincarnation. My understanding is that the notion of karma has helped to keep alive the odious caste system in India–you were born into extreme poverty? You must have done something in a past life to deserve it.

  • Prowler67

    I agree with a lot of peole here. This is a good story. I think its sad to see you write about it the way you have.

    Isn’t this what your blog is promoting? Working with all types of people to make a better world?

  • ash

    I have to agree with trixr4kids here; what is it with the rise of the ‘true scotsman’ fallacy being applied to Buddhism + Buddhist ideas?

    Karma and rebirth are understood to have magical elements by some Buddhists; some kids in Tibet are vilified and abandoned for having physical abnormalities that they themselves obviously karmically caused from a previous life; and taking care of them is a pragmatic approach to increase the karma of the carer, not for the benefit of the afflicted.*

    The promotion of ethics and values for non-believers does suggest that by lacking in religion, non-believers need help with their morality. Whilst I agree that better morals are a good thing to promote, I do not care for the underlying implications, which cannot be avoided by having a religious figurehead (with a dubious track record himself apparently – see MikeTheInfidel) attached to a secular endeavour.

    Like Hemant, I’m also concerned at the equation of beliefs and non- with their holders, leading to the dangers of respect for all ideas, regardless of content.

    The biggest problem of all though, is that as we have seen in the past, working with people of any faith or no can only work for all parties equally when there is no endorsement of one particular view. One wouldn’t expect anything particually secular from ‘The Pope Ratzi Center for Ethics and Transformative Values’, (or even ‘The Atheist Centre…) and just because there are fairly fluffy interpretations of Buddhism available doesn’t mean that The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values’ is an appropiate label either.

    (* Source)

  • Gary

    I find it interesting that atheist/rationalists who will go into excruciating exegesis of Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures and history to show the irrationality of those religions will, when it comes to Buddhism, will make comments based upon a superficial and inaccurate understanding of the doctrines and history of that religion. The Buddhism of the Dalai Lama is based on the teachings of the Madhyamika school founded in the 2nd century CE by Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s writings are the most rigorously rational of any religious philosophy. Nagarguna disproved the concept of a creator god using arguments that would be familiar to modern day atheists. The Dalai Lama has a new book titled “The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason” which discusses Nagarjuna’s teachings which I am looking forward to reading, as I have been interested in Nagarjuna’s work for a long time.

  • http://duoquartuncia.blogspot.com Duae Quartunciae

    I don’t really know anything much about Buddhism or conflicts with science. It seems to be completely irrelevant to the quoted comment on ethics and education.

    The comment does not seek to give religious instruction for ethics, or to raise up religious standards. It seems to recognize that lots of people are not believers, and that ethics and values don’t have to be tied up with religion, but can be part of a secular education.

    Buddhism, and the Dalai Lama, might be as irrational and unscientific as all get out… but there’s nothing of that in the comment on education and values. The quote proposes precisely what I want: a recognition that lots of us are not believers, and that ethics and values don’t have to be tied up with religion; they can be part of a normal secular education.

  • Aj

    A bunch of religious people, who were already promoting religion at MIT and other places of education, want to teach secular ethics and values that amazingly *wink* are close to their religiously held values and doctrinal ethics. This isn’t even a thinly veiled attempt to combine religion and morality, this is a very transparent one. Any secularist who thinks that secular ethics can be really independent from religion should find this dressing up of religion in faux secularism dishonest and insulting to their intelligence.

    Clearly, “faith grounded in reason” is a contradictory statement as would be “superstition grounded in reason” or “wishthinking grounded in reason”. Tenzin Gyatso apparantly goes around calling people who donate to his causes as reincarnations of religious leaders. Which legitimizes Hemant’s criticism. Apparantly Tenzin Gyatso is against oral and anal sex. Do we really want him anywhere near the education of values or ethics on this basis alone?

  • gribblethemunchkin

    Let us not forget, especially those of us saying that Buddhism isn’t anti-science, that the Dalai Lama is not elected to his post, instead he is chosen my monks who believe that he is the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama. Thats not very scientific.

    Also as Miketheinfidel notes the Dalai Lama isn’t working towards a laudable goal. He merely wants back the authority and life that the Lamas used to have as the ruling priest aristocracy of a theocracy. That is not something atheists should really be backing.

  • Mike

    I have to agree with Gary.

    Hemant, you are confusing Tibetan Buddhism, which has a lot of supersition attached, to more common forms such as Theravadan Buddhism which doesn’t hold any superstitious belief as far as I know.

    As I understand it, Tibetan and Indonesian Buddhism both tacked on a lot of superstitions to the original teachings of Buddha, who was apparently quite skeptical. From my readings, Theravadan Buddhism does not rely on rebirth or karma and the concept of the soul is explicitly rejected. But for some reason in the US, Tibetan Buddhism, although a small minority of Buddhists worldwide, is considered the standard of Buddhism, along with all its amendments, superstitions, and BS tacked on unnecessarily during its evolution.

    That being said, the Dalai Lama is the one with his name on institution, and he is definitely a supporter of these strange, demonstrably false ideas, not to mention homophobic.

  • DHL

    hmmmmmmm…. I think the issue here is whether or not science will reverse the taboo on subjective realities and find a way to include them so that we can begin to utilize our intelligence. Your criticisms of buddhism and science are not accurate. How do you think the Tibetans knew about much of physics without our scientific tools? From the powers of observation with the mind, what western science would dismiss as subjective realities bc of the method used to view reality sans instruments using one’s mind. Identifying and codifying a method to subjectively/mentally assess reality that is consistent with the findings of science then is the issue here, so that it is reliable.

  • sociablerecluse

    I recommend you all read “Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor. It’s really insightful and will clarify many of the misunderstandings posted in this forum. There is a great section on agnosticism in there.


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