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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

In Good Faith: A secular ethics for our times

Education can contribute to inner disarmament. It must instil human values that promote compassion, warmth and an appreciation of the necessity of dialogue

Written by The Dalai Lama | New Delhi |
July 1, 2017 1:28:10 am
.Illustration by C R Sasikumar

Time is always moving forward and no force can stop it. At every moment, we have the option of using our time constructively or negatively. The choice we make will determine whether our world becomes a peaceful one or continues to be engulfed in conflict and tension.

All human beings are basically the same, whether Easterners or Westerners, Southerners or Northerners, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, from this religion or that, and whether they’re believers or not. Emotionally, mentally and physically (except for minor secondary differences in appearance), we are the same. We all have the same potential to undergo both positive and negative experiences. Common sense shows us that negative actions always bring pain and sorrow while constructive action brings us pleasure and joy. Therefore, it is important to recognise that each of us has the potential to transform ourselves into a better, happier person, leading to a better and happier society.

The way such a transformation can take place is through adopting a positive mental attitude. We need a new way of thinking that includes provisions for developing our inner world. For centuries, humanity has invested greatly in developing society in material terms, on the basis of science and technology. This has resulted in remarkable improvements in the living standards of people throughout the world. Despite these scientific and technological achievements, however, many problems remain as people continue to cherish an outdated mental attitude.

In the field of international relations, for example, even countries that cherish freedom, democracy and liberty still rely greatly on force and violence. Using force may seem attractive and decisive, but it is counterproductive in the long run. For one thing, violence is unpredictable. Your initial intention may be to use limited force, but once you have committed violence, the consequences are unpredictable. Violence always creates unexpected complications and a violent response.

Violence is also not realistic in today’s world, since every being is so intertwined. Under these circumstances, to destroy your neighbour is actually destruction of oneself. In order to solve a problem, you have to appreciate what is at stake for your opponents. You have to take care of their interests as well as you can, and in that light, try to find a solution. What we need is a kind of inner disarmament. If we cultivate that and an awareness of the effects of violence, then the very notion of military activity will become outdated. We can then think seriously about how to physically disarm. Fortunately, on the issue of nuclear weapons, there are already programmes for dismantling nuclear warheads. We could go further and seek the total destruction of nuclear weapons. Then, the long-term target could be to aim for a demilitarised world.

There is also the mistaken belief that economic growth alone might result in a happier society. But current inequalities in economic development, resulting in a huge gap between the rich and the poor across the globe, as well as within nations, is a source of tensions and practical problems. Unfortunately, not many of us are able to see the reality of our situation, and as a result a great difference separates our perceptions from reality. On the basis of our misconceptions, we adopt attitudes that compound the problems in society.

The future of humanity depends on the adoption of a positive mental attitude by the current generation. This is why education is so important. Knowledge is like an instrument, and whether that instrument is put to use in a constructive or a destructive way depends on motivation. Modern education is very sound, but it seems to be based on a universal acceptance of the importance of developing the brain. Not enough attention is given to the development of the person as a whole, and to encouraging a clear sense of values and a warm heart.

My hope is that our educational systems will pay more attention to the development of human warmth and love. It is important to address moral questions related to the whole life of an individual, including his or her role in the society and in the family. All the way from kindergarten up to university. Through this, there is the potential to make oneself a happy person, to have a happy family, and to live in a happy society.

Parents have a special responsibility to introduce their children to the benefits of basic good human qualities such as love, kindness, and a warm heart. It would also be very useful to introduce children to the idea that whenever they are faced with a conflict, the best and most practical way of resolving it is through dialogue, not violence. If we introduce the idea of dialogue to children at an early age, through their schools, we can train students to discuss different views. In this way, the concept of dialogue will gradually be instilled in them. This is important because there will always be conflicts and disagreements in human society, and dialogue is the appropriate, effective and realistic method of truly resolving them.

Through such education, we can foster the idea that human beings are social creatures, that our individual interests rest on society and that it is in our own interest to be warm-hearted good neighbours to each other. This relates directly to what I think of as basic human values — that is, a sense of caring, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of forgiveness, based on a commitment to the oneness of humanity. We could call these basic human values “secular ethics”, since they do not depend on religious faith. And by “secular” here I mean that whether we embrace religion or not, which is a personal matter, these values still hold true. The very purpose of life is to find happiness, so there is no point in neglecting those very values that are directly related to making us happy.

There is good reason to develop these basic human values, because I believe that human nature is basically gentle. I believe that we are only occasionally aggressive and that generally our lives are very much involved with love and affection. Even the cells in our body work better if we have peace of mind. An agitated mind usually provokes some physical imbalance. If peace of mind is important for good health, that means the body itself is structured in a way that accords with mental peace. We can therefore conclude that human nature is more inclined to gentleness and affection.

On the mental level, too, we find that the more compassionate we are, the greater our peace of mind. In my brief lifetime, I have found that the more I meditate on compassion and think about the infinite number of sentient beings who are suffering, the more I develop an immense feeling of inner strength. As our inner strength and self-confidence grow, fear and doubt are reduced, and this automatically makes us more open. Then we can communicate more easily, because when we are open, others respond accordingly. On the other hand, when we are filled with fear, hatred or doubt, the door to our heart is closed and we relate to others with suspicion. The sad thing about this is that you can develop the impression that other people also harbour suspicions about you, and the distance between you and them increases. This ends in loneliness and frustration.

Younger generations have a great responsibility to ensure that the world becomes a more peaceful place for all. This can happen so long as our modern educational system involves educating the heart along with the brain.

The writer is a Tibetan spiritual leader

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