Ethics For the New Millennium Part 1



RIVERHEAD BOOKS                    1999



Preface February 1999

Having lost my country at the age of 16 and become a refugee at 24, I have faced a great many difficulties during the course of my life. When I consider these, I see that a lot of them were insurmountable. Not only were they unavoidable, they were incapable of resolution. Nonetheless, in terms of my own peace of mind and physical health, I can claim to have coped reasonably well. As a result I have been able to meet adversity with all my resources – mental, physical, and spiritual. I could not have done so otherwise. Had I been overwhelmed by anxiety and despaired, my health would have been harmed. I would also have been constrained in my actions.

  • It is not only we Tibetan refugees, and members of other displaced communities, who face difficulties. Everywhere and in every society, people endure suffering and adversity – even those who enjoy freedom and material prosperity.
  • Much of the unhappiness we humans endure is of our own making and is avoidable. In general, those individuals whose conduct is ethically positive are happier and more satisfied than those who neglect ethics.
  • If we reorientate our thoughts and emotions, and reorder our behaviour, not only can we learn to cope with suffering more easily, but we can prevent a great deal of it from arising in the first place.

I shall try to show in this book what I mean by the term ‘positive ethical conduct.’ In doing so, I acknowledge that it is very difficult either to generalize successfully or to be absolutely precise about ethics and morality. Rarely, if ever, is any situation totally black and white. The same act will have different shades and degrees of moral value under different circumstances. At the same time, it is essential that we reach a consensus in respect to what constitutes positive conduct and what constitutes negative conduct, of what is right and what is wrong, of what is appropriate and and what is inappropriate. In the past, the respect people had for religion meant that ethical practice was maintained through a majority following one religion or another. But this is no longer the case. We must therefore find some other way of establishing basic ethical principles.

  • There is nothing in these pages that has not been said before. In offering this book to the public, I hope to give voice to the silent majority who have not had the opportunity to articulate their views in public.
  • My formal learning has been of an entirely religious and spiritual nature, with comparatively little exposure to modern, secular thought. Yet this is not a religious book. Still less is it a book about Buddhism. My aim is to appeal for an approach to ethics based on universal rather than religious principles.


Chapter 1: Modern Society and the Quest for Human Happiness

I am a comparative newcomer to the modern world. Although I fled my homeland as long ago as 1959, and although my life since then as a refugee in India has brought me into much closer contact with contemporary society, my formative years were largely cut off from the realities of the 20th century. This was partly due to my appointment as Dalai Lama: I became a monk at a very early age. It also reflects the fact that we Tibetans had chosen – mistakenly, in my view – to remain isolated behind the high mountain ranges which separate our country from the rest of the world.

Today, however, I travel a great deal, and it is my good fortune continuously to be meeting new people. Moreover, individuals from all walks of life come to see me. Quite a lot – especially those who make the effort to travel to the Indian hill-station at Dharamsala where I live in exile – arrive seeking something. Among these are people who have suffered greatly: some have lost parents and children; some have friends or family who committed suicide; are sick with cancer and with AIDS-related illnesses. Then, of course, there are fellow Tibetans with their own tales of hardship and suffering. Unfortunately, many have unrealistic expectations, supposing that I have healing powers or that I can give some sort of blessing. But I am only an ordinary human being. The best I can do is try to help them by sharing in their suffering.

  • Whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion or another, we all desire to be happy and avoid suffering. Our every intended action, in a sense our whole life, can be seen as an answer to the great question that confronts us all: “How am I to be happy?”
  • My impression is that those living in the materially developed countries, for all their industry, are in some ways less satisfied, are less happy, and to some extent suffer more than those living in the least developed countries.
  • The rich are so caught up with the idea of acquiring still more that they make no room for anything else in their lives. In their absorption, they actually lose the dream of happiness, which riches were to have provided.
  • As a result they are constantly tormented, torn between doubt about what might happen and the hope of gaining more, and plagued with mental and emotional suffering – even though outwardly they may appear to be leading entirely successful and comfortable lives. The result is the troubled atmosphere which is such a feature of the developed world.
  • Although I never imagined that material wealth alone would overcome suffering, I must admit that I thought that wealth would have gone further toward reducing suffering than is actually the case.
  • I expected that with physical hardship much reduced, happiness would be much easier to achieve for those living under more severe conditions. Instead, the extraordinary advancements of science and technology seem to have achieved little more than numerical improvement.
  • In many cases, progress has meant hardly anything more than greater numbers of opulent houses in more cities, with more cars driving between them. Inner suffering – we could say psychological and emotional suffering – is so often found amid material wealth.
  • We find modern living organized so that it demands the least possible direct dependence on others. The more or less universal ambition seems to be for everyone to own their own house, their own car, their own computer, and so on in order to be as independent as possible.
  • But with all these developments, there has arisen a sense that my future is not dependent on my neighbor but rather on my job or employer. This in turn encourages us to suppose that because others are not important for my happiness, their happiness is not important to me.
  • We have created a society in which people find it hard to show one another affection. In place of the sense of community and belonging, which we find a reassuring feature of less wealthy (and generally rural) societies, we find a high degree of loneliness and alienation.
  • Despite the fact that millions live in close proximity to one another, it seems that many people, especially among the old, have no one to talk to but their pets. Modern society is like a self-propelled machine. Instead of human beings in charge, each individual is a tiny insignificant component with no choice but to move when the machine moves.
  • All this is compounded by the contemporary rhetoric of growth and economic development which greatly reinforces people’s tendency toward competitiveness and envy. And with this comes the perceived need to keep up appearances – itself a major source of problems, tension and unhappiness.
  • All this implies a link between our disproportionate emphasis on external progress and the unhappiness, the anxiety, and the lack of contentment of modern society.
  • A major reason for modern society’s devotion to material progress is the very success of science and technology. This devotion encourages us to suppose that the keys to happiness are material well-being and the power conferred by knowledge.
  • As the influence of religion declines, there is mounting confusion with respect to the problem of how best we are to conduct ourselves in life. In the past, religion and ethics were closely intertwined. Now many people believing that science has ‘disproved’ religion, make the further assumption that because there appears to be no final evidence for any spiritual authority, morality itself must be a matter of individual preference.
  • And whereas in the past, scientists and philosophers felt a pressing need to find solid foundations on which to establish immutable laws and absolute truths, nowadays this kind of research is held to be futile, leading to chaos.
  • My concern is that we are apt to overlook the limitations of science. In replacing religion as the final source of knowledge in popular estimation, science begins to look a bit like another religion itself. But science cannot tell us how to act in a moral sense, nor what the cause of consciousness is, nor what its effects are. This does not mean that such things do not exist, merely that science cannot find them.
  • Should we, therefore, abandon scientific enquiry on the grounds that it has failed us? Certainly not. Nor do I mean to suggest that the goal of prosperity for all is invalid. Because of our nature, bodily and physical experience play a dominant role in our lives. The achievements of science and technology clearly reflect our desire to attain a better, more comfortable existence. This is very good.
  • At the same time, it is true that members of certain traditional, rural communities do enjoy greater harmony and tranquillity than those settled in our modern cities.
  • We must be careful not to idealize old ways of life. The high level of cooperation we find in undeveloped rural communities may be based more on necessity than on good will. And contentment may have more to do with ignorance.
  • The challenge we face is to find some means of enjoying the same degree of harmony and tranquillity as those more traditional communities while benefiting fully from the material developments of the world as we find it at the dawn of a new millennium.
  • We can point to an abundance of severely negative trends within modern society – escalation in murder, violence, rape, abusive and exploitative relationships, addiction to drugs and alcohol, the high proportion of marriages ending in divorce. Yet unlike the sufferings of sickness, old age and death, none of these problems is by nature inevitable.
  • Nor are they due to any lack of knowledge; they are ethical problems. They each reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong, of what is positive and negative and what is appropriate and inappropriate. But beyond this we can point to something more fundamental – a neglect of what I call our inner dimension.
  • Our over emphasis on material gain reflects an underlying assumption that what it can buy, by itself alone, provides us with all the satisfaction we require. But the satisfaction material gain can provide will be limited to the level of the senses. Given the complexity of our species – having thoughts and emotions as well as imaginative and critical faculties – it is obvious that our needs transcend the merely sensual.
  • Our problems – wars, crime and violence and our emotional and psychological sufferings – cannot be solved until we address this underlying neglect. That is why the great movements of the last 100 years – democracy, liberalism, socialism – have failed to deliver the universal benefits they were supposed to provide.
  • A revolution is called for, certainly. But not a political, an economic, or even a technical revolution. We have had enough experience of these during the past century to know that a purely external approach will not suffice. What I propose is a spiritual revolution.


Chapter 2: No Magic, No Mystery

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