Dalai Lama Calls for 'Secular Ethics'

Tibet's exiled spiritual leader sees hope in kindness and shared human values.

The Dalai Lama (L) participates in a discussion on neuroscience at the Mind & Life Conference in Mundgod, India, Jan. 17, 2013.
Photo courtesy of the Dalai Lama's office

Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has called for a global system of secular ethics, saying religion alone is not enough to cultivate values such as integrity and compassion.

The new system can be of help to all, including those who do not subscribe to any religions, and should incorporate the rich values people of various beliefs hold in common, the Dalai Lama said at the conclusion of the 26th Mind & Life Conference, a gathering of Buddhist monks and Western scientists in Mundgod, India, last month.

“The reason for this is that there are those who have faith in religions and there are many who don’t,” the Dalai Lama said, adding that even among religious leaders, “there are some who are responsible for injustice, deception, hypocrisy, and exploitation.”

Current education, he said, is almost always geared towards economic development, which “neither helps solve individual mental problems nor society-level problems.”

“Regardless of whether or not one believes in any religion, the practice of ethical conduct is an urgent, direct need in today’s world,” the Dalai Lama said.

He noted that based on dialogues with scientists, “it has been proven that being compassionate and kind-hearted is not [exclusively] connected to religion.”

Common ground

Addressing the conference, the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India’s hill town of Dharamsala, praised participants for the efforts already being made to find common ground between contemplative traditions and Western disciplines of scientific enquiry.

“Many scientists have undergone numerous hardships to come here and have taken great interest in the discussions” on the benefits of meditation, the Dalai Lama said.

“At the same time, the monks have also taken a close interest in the talks concerning different fields of science.”

“This has turned out to be very productive in promoting mutual understanding of each other’s positions, and I am confident of further progress if we continue in this way, ” he said.

Speaking in an interview, Virginia-based psychologist and translator of Tibetan texts Wilson Hurley hailed the Dalai Lama’s call for a new system of secular ethics.

"Many of the world’s religions share common values, but some are quite different in their views of life and death,” Hurley said.

“And so those things, I think, have to be left within the domain of religion.”

Basic decency

It is important now to promote a common language among cultures about what constitutes basic decency, said Hurley, co-translator with Tibetan scholar Yeshe Khedrup of The Water and Wood Shastras, verses of secular and spiritual advice by the eighteenth-century lama Gungthang Rinpoche.

“It comes down to psychological principles, actually,” Hurley said.

“The core principle is that everyone is completely equal in wanting to be happy, not wanting to suffer, wanting to be respected, not wanting to be put down.”

“If that’s honored, then people thrive and move forward,” Hurley said, adding that “His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] says that there’s nobody who doesn’t appreciate being valued and loved.”

“And for people who are able to live that way and raise their kids that way, and for societies that are able to cultivate that in their people, there’s a power there. It’s a very powerful force.”

Reported by Kalden Lodoe for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.


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