Ethics for the New Millennium, by the Dalai Lama

I reviewed the Dalai Lama’s book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (). I enjoyed that book and found it very thought-provoking.

I admit I was a little surprised — I think I had associated the Dalai Lama with some of his more foggy-headed, romantic, guru-seeking fans here in California and so I approached his book with preconceptions of it being likely to be a bunch of gauzy platitudes dressed up with Buddhist nomenclature and foisted off as profundity. Instead, the book was largely methodical and precise, and also refreshingly practical in a way that many modern books on ethics are not.

I recently read his earlier book, Ethics for the New Millennium (), and, alas, it was more along the lines of what I had been afraid Beyond Religion was going to be. Still, there was some meat on the bone worth chewing on.

The key to Ethics for the New Millennium is the Dalai Lama’s assertion that the way to be happy and content is to develop and expand one’s own compassion. The purest and most universally-directed altruism is simultaneously the most enlightened self-interest. Similarly, the key to solving the variety of the world’s problems is for the people directly involved in the problems and their solutions to develop and nurture compassion in themselves — if they do this, the solutions will come of themselves; if they fail to attend to this, then no programs they come up with, however clever, will do the trick.

Because, according to the Dalai Lama, the happiness/suffering continuum is the primary (or even only) human motivator — as people come to understand that their happiness depends on compassion and on the happiness of others, a sort of virtuous cycle will lift all of us up into more rewarding lives.

To me, all of this is suspiciously nice-sounding, as in “wouldn’t it be nice if that were true.” But do we have any reason to believe that it is true, or are we just inclined to believe it because it sounds comforting?

For example, is it really accurate to say that people are motivated by a one-dimensional happiness/suffering continuum? Might it not really be the case that human motivations are multi-dimensional, and that these motivations might be pulling us in different directions at once — some towards less suffering and more happiness, and some just the opposite? People are driven by status and shame, eroticism and disgust, fear and pride, and so many other things besides, and at least some of these seem to map only awkwardly to the happiness/suffering continuum.

And is it really true that by cultivating compassion and empathy and exhibiting altruistic behavior that we inevitably become happier and more content? This may sound cynical, but I think there may be a confusion of cause and effect here. I know that when I am being compassionate, empathetic, and altruistic I am also usually happy and content — but might it be that when my own needs are met, when my life overflows with abundance, when I have few worries and cares, then I am most able to concentrate on other people’s needs and take the time to attend to them? It may be that my happiness and contentment and my compassion and altruism stem from a common precondition of being carefree and satisfied.

(When I put on my amateur sociobiologist’s pith helmet, I get even more cynical about this: conspicuously altruistic acts are a great way of demonstrating fitness to potential mates. They’re kind of like feathers in a peacock’s tail: “Look at how much surplus I have in my life, that I can spend so much time, energy, and/or money on the lives of other people! I must be a mighty successful fellow!”)

One thing I thought was interesting was the Dalai Lama’s suggestion that people use something akin to creative visualization to develop compassion. In a similar way to the way athletes will imagine themselves succeeding in particular athletic feats, and this act of vivid imagination will help to train their minds and bodies to cooperate in actually accomplishing these feats, the Dalai Lama suggests that we can improve our compassion by “sustained reflection on, and familiaration with compassion, through rehearsal and practice”.

Whereas Hannah Arendt centered ethics in thinking, and critics of Arendt like Arne Johan Vetlesen suggested that the emotion of empathy is the key, the Dalai Lama tries to find a middle ground with nying je, which grows out of empathy but also has an intellectual component:

Now while generally translated simply as “compassion,” the term nying je has a wealth of meaning that is difficult to convey succinctly… It connotes love, affection, kindness, gentleness, generosity of spirit, and warm-heartedness… [I]t does not imply “pity” as the word compassion may. There is no sense of condescension. On the contrary, nying je denotes a feeling of connection with others, reflecting its origins in empathy.…

…[It] is understood as an emotion, [but] it belongs to that category of emotions which have a more developed cognitive component. Some emotions, such as the revulsion we tend to feel at the sight of blood, are basically instinctual. Others, such as fear of poverty, have this more developed cognitive component. We can thus understand nying je in terms of a combination of empathy and reason. We can think of empathy as the characteristic of a very honest person; reason as that of someone who is very practical. When the two are put together, the combination is highly effective.

The process of developing nying je and of disciplining those emotions and tendencies that interfere with it, is a life-long one:

This is no easy task, and those who are religiously minded must understand that there is no blessing or initiation — which, if only we could receive it — or any mysterious or magical formula or mantra or ritual — if only we could discover it — that can enable us to achieve transformation instantly. It comes little by little, just as a building is constructed brick by brick or, as the Tibetan expression has it, an ocean is formed drop by drop. Also, because, unlike our bodies which soon get sick, old, and worn out, the afflictive [harm-provoking] emotions never age, it is important to realize that dealing with them is a lifelong struggle. Nor should the reader suppose that what we are talking about here is the mere acquisition of knowledge. It is not even a question of developing the conviction that may come from such knowledge. What we are talking about is gaining an experience of virtue through constant practice and familiarization so that it becomes spontaneous. What we find is that the more we develop concern for others’ well-being, the easier it becomes to act in others’ interests. As we become habituated to the effort required, so the struggle to sustain it lessens. Eventually, it will become second nature. But there are no shortcuts.

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