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August 11, 2012

Dalai Lama offers insight into 21st-century spirituality

In "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World," Dalai Lama, the beloved religious leader, provides an insight into spirituality for the 21st century. A political head without a country, Nobel laureate professing peace and Buddhist monk practicing nonviolence, the Dalai Lama proposes a universal ethics for the whole world that transcends all religions and conceptions of god and yet offers a moral plan for all humanity.

Since globalization has brought people out of their isolation by creating interconnectedness and multicultural societies, ethics based on a particular religion would not appeal to some of us or not be meaningful for all. Instead, our century needs an ethics that "makes no recourse to religion" and yet appeals to all faiths and those without any: a secular ethics that will serve the inner needs of all humanity.

Dalai Lama says: "This book may seem strange coming from someone who from the very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none."

He proposes a secular ethics inclusive of all people with or without faith, because "all human beings are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good, appreciate kindness of others and oriented toward basic human values of love and compassion." It is his "firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion."

He proposes the development and practice of a new vision that promotes "the need for secular ethics and inner values in the age of excessive materialism." Since grounding ethics on a particular religion is no longer adequate in the 21st century, we need to think about spirituality and ethics beyond religion.

He has been the most unusual guest in India, residing there since 1959 when the Chinese took over Tibet. Dalai Lama admits that he had been brought up both physically and spiritually on Indian food and the writings of the Indian Buddhists.

To find the most inclusive secular ethics for the 21st century, Dalai Lama delves into the Indian and Western views on secularism. He models his secularism after the Indian King Ashoka, who in 261 B.C. emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue by regarding all human beings as the children of one god.

Following its unique historical background, today's India adheres to secularism that implies "mutual tolerance and respect for all faiths as well as for those of no faith." In contrast, the Western secularism developed as a scientific rational movement clashing with religious superstition where the two regarded each other "as belonging to opposing positions -- leading to considerable suspicion and hostility."

As a man of religion, Dalai Lama opts for the Indian view of secularism, which is inclusive of all human beings, and thus closer to his heart.

He believes that though human beings can manage without religion, they cannot without inner values or spirituality. Spirituality has two dimensions: the first relates to our innate human nature predisposing us towards compassion, kindness and caring for others. The second hails from religious beliefs and practices toward life here and now and life after. The difference between the two dimensions is like that between water and tea.

Ethics and inner values without religion are like water that is essential for life whereas with religion it is like tea that garnishes the water. We can live without tea but not without water. Thus Dalai Lama asserts: "we are born free of religion but not born free of compassion." Therefore more fundamental than religion is our basic human compassion or spirituality.

How do we cultivate spirituality? Dalai Lama believes that our shared humanity of aspiration to happiness and avoidance of pain and our interdependence as human beings are the two pillars of secular ethics.

Our desire for happiness depends upon wealth, health and companionship. When pursued selfishly, these bring about only temporary external gratification. However, for lasting inner fulfillment, one needs to cultivate these by sharing one's riches with others, promoting others health and offering them friendship.

Such personal qualities as patience, contentment, self-discipline, generosity and the delight of charitable giving that enrich the inner values could be cultivated through daily meditation in action. Dalai Lama's hope is that these qualities belonging to the heart could be infused in the education of the younger generation of the 21st century, thus leading to a moral world for all humanity.

During this time of religious turmoil where more people are turning to spirituality by getting away from organized religions, it was a breath of fresh air to read "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World" by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Ashok Kumar Malhotra is Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University College at Oneonta, and the founder of the Yoga and Meditation Society and Ninash Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity that builds schools for the female and minority children of India.

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