Dalai Lama’s Ethics Go “Beyond Religion”

Aristotle noted that ethics differs from other branches of philosophy, “in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good people, for this alone gives the study its practical value.” This did not turn out to be a good prediction of how this branch of philosophy would develop in the philosophical tradition that followed Aristotle in the West.

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World

Another philosophical tradition was nurtured in India several hundred years after Aristotle’s time, at Nālandā university, and was very influential to the philosophy associated with Mahayana Buddhism, for instance the Gelug-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism of which Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is a world-renowned spiritual leader. In his new book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, he sketches an ethical philosophy worthy of Aristotle’s description. I’ll try to summarize it today.

The Dalai Lama is not skilled in English, but this book has been very lucidly and precisely translated by Thupten Jinpa, and so although it deals with some subtle and difficult psychological and philosophical concepts, the language barrier does not present difficulties.

Secular Ethics

In the first half of the book, the Dalai Lama outlines his understanding of ethics and why he thinks that secular ethics in particular is a thing worth pursuing.

Ethics, in his view, does not need to be grounded in religious practice or in a religious belief system, though he finds religion valuable and thinks that it can add to our understanding of ethics. By secular ethics he doesn’t mean ethics that is anti-religious, but merely not religious — potentially parallel to but not based on religion. Such an ethics is potentially more powerful than religious ethics because it can make universal claims that might appeal to people across cultures regardless of their religious affiliations, and it can also appeal to people who are nonreligious.

The Dalai Lama believes that a secular ethics can be built on two fundamental principles:

  1. all people share a common human experience
  2. we are all linked in a dense web of interdependence

The general conclusion to draw from this is that one cannot be aloof from one’s fellows, and that the natural and proper outlook towards them ought to be one of empathy (since they are like us) from which follows compassion.

The Pursuit of Happiness

One part of human experience that we all share is that we are largely motivated by the avoidance of suffering and the pursuit of happiness. In this, we’re all in the same boat. This common ground is such an important part of our natures, and so universal, that it is potentially a stronger and fundamental bond than the various things that divide us, like nationality, race, language, class, ideology and so forth.

Given that avoidance of suffering and pursuit of happiness are so fundamental, the Dalai Lama (like Aristotle before him), delves into what happiness consists of. Some components of happiness are wealth, health, and friendship. But it seems to be more complex than that, since it is easy to find examples of people who have an excess of any or all of these things and are still unhappy, or where people have a lack of any or all of these things and are still content. There seems to be something deeper involved, a sort of internal attitude towards what fortune brings us, that is the real key to happiness. In various parts of this discussion, this is translated as “peace of mind,” “inner peace,” “inner resilience,” “inner strength,” and “mental composure.”

The more you have this, the happier you will be, and though the more transient things like wealth, health, and friendship are also helpful — in moderation — they can actually be harmful to the happiness of people without this variety of inner peace, since — especially in excess — such things can provoke a kind of craving or anticipatory insecurity that induces suffering.

Two other things that are important to genuine happiness are

  1. a sense of purpose
  2. a feeling of connectedness


Empathy is natural to people. We seek out situations in which we can observe others or hear about their lives in such a way that we can empathetically feel some degree of their sorrows and triumphs. Much of our social life concerns this, and also much of literature, drama, film, television, and the like.

We are hard-wired to feel empathy, and also compassion. The Dalai Lama thinks this may be partially because we are helpless for such a long period (relative to other species) as infants. We are only alive as adults because someone was patient and compassionate enough to take care of us when we were young. Without a strong mechanism for empathy and compassion somewhere in our minds, our species wouldn’t last long.

And this isn’t restricted to the parent/child context, of course. We frequently seek out compassion from others, and we also may find it satisfying to show compassion. The first beneficiary of the compassion that we show for others, perhaps unintuitively, is ourself. This is partially because compassion is a good avenue for acquiring the sense of purpose and feeling of connectedness that the Dalai Lama suggests are important to genuine happiness. He also asserts that compassion “reduces our fear, boosts our confidence… brings us inner strength… [and] gives us respite from our own difficulties.” It can also contribute to health and friendship, two of the earlier-mentioned components of transient happiness.

So, while compassion is other-focused, it is also in our own individual (enlightened) self interest — what he calls “wise selfishness,” in contrast to short-sighted or narrowly-focused “foolish selfishness.”

Our natural, ingrained compassion is typically limited in scope — it applies most strongly to those closest to us (family, close friends), and fades off as people become more distant, less well-known, and less similar in superficial attributes like accent, custom, and race. It is often also conditional on reciprocity or on the recipients of our compassion going along with our plans.

A second, more universal and unconditional form of compassion is based on the object of compassion’s personhood itself — that universal part of human nature we all share, such as our common avoidance of suffering and pursuit of happiness — without regard to who they are or what they’re up to. This sort of compassion doesn’t come naturally but must be deliberately cultivated.

Compassion and Justice

The sort of compassion-centered ethics that the Dalai Lama is building is sometimes attacked by people who prefer a justice-centered ethics. Compassion promotes tolerance and forgiveness and discourages retribution, and so the critics believe that it tends to work to the advantage of unjust wrongdoers and thereby increases the amount of injustice in the world.

The Dalai Lama responds to this by saying that the sort of compassion he is promoting is not meant to be a meek, turn-the-other-cheek variety, but a strong and sometimes confrontational one — something like Gandhi’s program, I think.

He does counsel nonviolence, and a “hate the sin but love the sinner” attitude toward wrongdoers. This would not satisfy critics who think that retribution is a valid goal of justice, but it does leave the other commonly-cited objectives — deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation, and restitution — available.

A compassionate approach to wrongdoers has the advantage that it leaves open the possibility for reconciliation and reform. An approach that prioritizes vengeance or retribution tends to restrict the outcomes to either vanquishing a resentful foe, or failing to do so and thereby inviting further retributive injustice — neither of which bode well for the future.

Forgiveness is an important part of this. It comes from this distinguishing the deed from the doer, but also from imagining how you look at yourself when you have done something wrong that you regret — unless you’re unhealthily neurotic, you don’t identify yourself with your misdeed and you don’t think of yourself as permanently tainted by your sin.

Motives or Consequences?

In the Dalai Lama’s framework, ethics is largely a matter of the motives you have when you take action, rather than of the actual consequences of the action. Consequences are too subject to unpredictable factors to be a firm basis for ethics.

But good intentions alone are not enough. You must also cultivate “discernment” in order to translate your good intentions into beneficial actions. This means learning what actions are really beneficial, what consequences are most likely to follow from certain actions, and so forth. Only reality-based good intentions are really compassionate.

But on a day-to-day basis, you make far too many decisions to subject each of them to careful scrutiny and to follow all of your actions forward through all of their possible consequences. For this reason, you should develop ethical heuristics that can carry some of the weight — that way, when you do encounter situations that require careful ethical discernment, you will have enough mental energy to do the job. (You may recognize this as also a line of thought Adam Smith’s pursued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.)

There will be times when your ethical heuristics aren’t up to the task — for example, when they contradict each other in a moral dilemma. Here is how the Dalai Lama uses discernment to find the best way forward in such cases:

I always start by checking my motivation. Do I truly have others’ well-being at heart? Am I under the sway of any disturbing emotions, such as anger, impatience, or hostility? Having determined that my motivation is sound, I then look carefully at the situation in context. What are the underlying causes and conditions that have given rise to it? What choices do I have? What are their likely outcomes? And which course of action, on balance, is most likely to yield the greatest long-term benefit for others? Making decisions in this way, I find, means they are not the cause of any regret later on.

From here, he briefly mentions some pressing global issues, in a fairly superficial way. His point though, is that in each case, what may seem like structural problems in our institutions and governments and such are really ethical problems in the people who make up these bodies, and that we aren’t going to solve these problems with changes at the organizational level unless people become more ethically educated and motivated. (And who is educating and training people in ethics these days? It seems like just about everybody has dropped the ball.)

How to Cultivate Ethics

Part two of the book is more of a practical how-to. How does one develop compassion and discernment?

The Dalai Lama believes that it is a three-stage process, with each stage building on the one before it:

  1. restraint — don’t harm others
  2. virtue — cultivate positive values
  3. altruism — live selflessly

These three things apply to our actions, thoughts, and motives. The tools we can use to achieve these stages are heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness. Heedfulness is a sort of state of alert and caution, knowing that we may have habits or tendencies to violate these goals of restraint, virtue, and altruism, and that we need to be on guard. Mindfulness seems to mean keeping these goals in mind and seeing how they apply to whatever situation we are in. Awareness is a sort of introspection with the design of rooting out impediments to self-control.

“Conscience,” as an independent mental faculty that acts as a sort of ethical lodestone, is something unfamiliar to Dalai Lama’s philosophical heritage, he says. In its place is a conscientiousness motivated by self-respect and by consideration of others’ opinions. These respond to personal misdeeds in a way analogous to “conscience” — self-respect says “this deed is unworthy of me” and consideration-of-others says “and I’ll be poorly thought-of for doing it.”

Destructive Emotions and Drives

People are motivated by a variety of emotions and drives. Most of these are healthy in moderation but can cause problems if they become pathologically exaggerated. Others, like hatred, are not good even in small amounts. The destructive emotions (or exaggerations of otherwise-healthy emotions) come in three categories:

  1. anger (e.g. hatred, enmity, malice, irritation, agitation, hostility, temper)
  2. attachment (e.g. greed, lust, craving, desire)
  3. mixed (e.g. envy, jealousy, pride, intolerance, prejudice, anxiety, guilt)

All destructive emotions share the trait of distorting our perception and of making it more difficult for us to practice virtues like compassion. What can we do about this?

First off, we can adopt a mental attitude of opposition to destructive emotion — which is more easily done when you reflect on their negative consequences — and we can cultivate certain antidotes. “For example, the main antidote for anger is forbearance, for greed is contentment, for fear is courage, and for doubt [such as anxiety or guilt] is understanding.” Other examples are patience, self-discipline, generosity, and forgiveness (the Dalai Lama describes some of these virtues in detail). Most important is compassion, which can cover a multitude of sins.

And secondly, we can further develop our emotional awareness. This means learning the triggers that set off destructive emotions, our emotional habits, how to recognize the physiological signs of being under the influence of destructive emotions, and so forth.

How to Get from Here to There

All of this may seem easier said than done. In the final chapter of his book, the Dalai Lama lets us in on the secret. Becoming more ethical, like learning other difficult skills, takes attentive practice and a lot of time. The practice he recommends is meditation, and he suggests and very briefly sketches several varieties of meditation that strengthen particular skills (like heedfulness, mindfulness, and awareness) that are important to ethical development.