In ninth grade religious school, I attended a weekly class in ethics, a class oriented toward discussing, wrestling with and debating contemporary ethical issues. That experience had a lasting impact upon me, leading me to begin a lifelong process of defining and redefining my values, and attempting (too often unsuccessfully) to live in accordance with them. Inevitably then, I was drawn to read BEYOND RELIGION: ETHICS FOR A WHOLE WORLD.
BEYOND RELIGION by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, addresses the need for us today to commit "to developing and applying inner values in our daily lives." Due to the waning influence of religion in the western world, to a loosening of ethical standards in the media, and the lack of responsible values-oriented parenting in millions of families, many of us lack a moral center of gravity, and are easily swayed by external influences.
Even those who are religious may not have internalized their values. Such internalization is not gained through commandments directed at the superego and beginning "thou shalt" or "thou shalt not." Rather, it involves the embracing of one's values at a cellular level, so that they penetrate into our very core and become an inner foundation directing every action.
Ethics may be one facet of religion but we do not have to subscribe to a particular religion in order to cultivate a personal and social ethical orientation. The Dalai Lama - although he does present Buddhist precepts in regard to ethical action, levels of understanding and kinds of generosity - takes a nonsecular approach. Clearly, and with a rare blend of simplicity and profundity, he delineates attitudes and practices that can enable us to live more consciously, compassionately and ethically.
I, for one, never experienced firsthand his substantial wisdom before reading this book. What impresses me most, along with the importance of his message, is the clarity and precision with which he elucidates the inner process of becoming a more self-aware, contented, responsible, self-directed, loving and generous human being.
The cornerstone of his philosophy of ethical living is based upon "actively promoting the positive inner qualities of the human heart that arise from our core disposition toward compassion, and learning to combat our more destructive propensities." He also tells us, "Disarmament is compassion in practice. What is required, therefore, is both inner disarmament, at the level of our individual hatred, prejudice and intolerance, and outer disarmament, at the level of nations and states."
The English language and most other Western languages as well lack an adequate vocabulary for delineating internal states. Without being encouraged to attune to our inner process, without being able to find the words to articulate what is happening within - and as a result, without being able to transcend conflicts in feelings and thoughts - we may easily remain adrift, without a center of gravity or reliable source of inner guidance. For those of us seeking the right words to anchor us and insights substantial enough to propel us beyond confusion, the Dalai Lama's lucid language and subtlety of thought provide an oasis amidst the shifting sands of empty verbiage.
He distinguishes between wise selfishness and foolish selfishness, as well as between biological compassion and cultivated extended compassion. He defines the context in which even benign emotions can become destructive and in which purportedly negative emotions can serve us. He speaks of both education of the mind and education of the heart, of the relationships between compassion and discernment, between self-respect and consideration for others.
He introduces Tibetan words and concepts such as soepa (the willingness and ability to endure suffering), and drenpa (remembering our true selves and bringing presence of mind into every moment). Such concepts help us to expand our awareness as we navigate our inner realms.
For me, the most meaningful chapter of BEYOND RELIGION is "Dealing with Destructive Emotions," because of the enlightening guidance the Dalai Lama presents in regard to the process of taming our inner dragons. Almost as instructive are his chapters on mindfulness and meditation, in which he introduces practices to help us further self-awareness and self-mastery.
I hesitate to raise criticism of so rewarding and well-crafted a book - and indeed what follows is less criticism than it is an acknowledgement of dark and foreboding facets of our psyches that I wish the Dalai Lama would explore in more depth. He was raised to be a spiritual leader, to repeatedly cultivate his intention and capacity to live an ethical life and master the regressive and destructive facets of himself - in the face of unimaginable atrocities perpetrated upon his people and homeland. But for many of us who lacked such an upbringing, the energy of old and often unconscious habits and complexes may too frequently overpower our fragile intentions. The process of developing even the most rudimentary degree of mindfulness and self-mastery is painstakingly slow.
But we cannot expect him to map out every step of the way. What Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, does present in BEYOND RELIGION is rich in value and capable of catalyzing our own motivation to take the next step. He encourages us to develop patience, a long-term perspective, and the willingness to endure suffering. Along the way, he introduces us to the Tibetan concept of chogshe - "knowing what is enough... knowing when to be contented, being able to find satisfaction without looking for more." That may well be my next lesson. Read BEYOND RELIGION if you wish to clarify yours.
Read BEYOND RELIGION if you wish to more fully define your own values, to commit more fervently to live by them, and to help develop and promote a universal ethics that humanity needs to embrace if we are to survive.