“Ultimately, the source of our problems lies at the level of the individual,” wrote the Dalai Lama in the opening chapter of his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. “If people lack moral values and integrity, no system of laws and regulations will be adequate. So long as people give priority to material values, then injustice, corruption, inequity, intolerance, and greed — all the outward manifestations of neglect of inner values — will persist.”
If we look at the advances in all spheres of human activity, we have many reasons to rejoice. But at the same time, beneath the layers of popular narratives painting too bright of a future, there remains a vast field of suffering, difficulties, and problems. There is no denying that our activity as a collective human body is eating away at our planet beyond a point of no return, a threat that creates unease and preoccupation for the fate of future generations. And on the individual level, all the pressures of modern life cause stress, anxiety, depression, and, increasingly, loneliness. It is obvious we are missing something in the way we’re doing things. But what is it that we’re missing? The Dalai Lama gives an answer:
The fundamental problem, I believe, is that at every level we are giving too much attention to the external, material aspects of life while neglecting moral ethics and inner values. By inner values I mean the qualities … bequeathed by our biological nature as animals that survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection, and warmheartedness — or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being. This is the spiritual principle from which all other positive inner values emerge.
Ethics, the Dalai Lama writes, is not simply a matter of knowing but, first and foremost, doing. For this reason, even the most in-depth and refined ethical understanding, if not applied in daily life, is of no use:
Now, regarding the question of how to put ethics into practice in everyday life, it may be helpful to consider the process as having three aspects or levels…. As outlined in some classical Buddhist texts, these are as follows: an ethic of restraint — deliberately refraining from doing actual or potential harm to others; an ethic of virtue — actively cultivating and enhancing our positive behavior and inner values; and an ethic of altruism — dedicating our lives, genuinely and selflessly, to the welfare of others.
If we want these three stages to be effective, we must consider them in relation to all our behavior: our actions, speech, and ultimately our thoughts and intentions. Starting with the ethic of restraint, the Dalai Lama writes:
Here, as in other areas, we need to observe the “golden rule” found in all of the world’s ethical systems: “Treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When it comes to avoiding harmful actions of body and speech, in addition to this fundamental rule, I personally find a list of six principles from a text by the second-century Indian thinker Nagarjuna to be helpful: 1) avoid excessive use of intoxicants; 2) uphold the principle of right livelihood; 3) ensure that one’s body, speech, and mind are nonviolent; 4) treat others with respect; 5) honor those worthy of esteem, such as parents, teachers, and those who are kind; 6) be kind to others.
If we’re able to follow the ethic of restraint by not harming others in our everyday actions and words, we can start to practice the ethic of virtue by giving more serious attention to actively doing good. The Dalai Lama writes:
We can benefit others through our actions by being warm and generous toward them, by being charitable, and by helping those in need. … Benefitting others through our speech includes praising others, listening to their problems, and offering them advice and encouragement. … It is [also] useful to cultivate an attitude of sympathetic joy in others’ achievements and good fortune. This attitude is a powerful antidote against envy, which is not only a source of unnecessary suffering on the individual level but also an obstacle to our ability to reach out and engage with others.
And finally, the ethic of altruism is a genuinely selfless dedication of one’s actions and words to the benefit of others, which is recognized as the highest form of ethical practice by all the world’s religious traditions. But we shouldn’t feel discouraged if it seems like an unattainable standard of personal excellence, the Dalai Lama reassures us:
This does not mean that altruism cannot be undertaken by anyone. In fact many people in caring professions such as social work and health care, and also those in teaching, are involved in the pursuit of this third level of ethics. … Yet there are countless other ways in which ordinary people can and do lead lives which benefit others. What is required is simply that we make serving others a priority.
Complement Beyond Religion, an enlightening read from one of the most revered spiritual leaders of our time, with Aristotle on virtues as habits, and then revisit Socrates on moderation as a harmony that permeates all aspects of the human soul.