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KATE OLSON, correspondent: Since its founding by the Methodist Church in 1836, Emory University has had a commitment to “educate the heart as well as the mind.” This is just what educational institutions need to be doing, echoes a visiting professor—His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

HIS HOLINESS THE DALAI LAMA (speaking at podium): You made me an honorary professor of this university. But I always describe hopeless professor. Mainly I’m a very lazy person. I never do homework.

OLSON: But the Dalai Lama has a serious message: how to address the urgent problems in society and the moral crisis he says the world is facing.

Dalai Lama

DALAI LAMA (at podium): The society lacks a real conviction to moral principles, the ultimate source of inner strength. So how to bring the real conviction, those basic values that are basis of happy life?

OLSON: Wendy Farley is a professor of religion and ethics at Emory.

PROFESSOR WENDY FARLEY (Department of Religion, Emory University): We’re in extremely desperate times, and in terms of global warming, in terms of warfare, in terms of the increased gap between rich and poor in our country and around the world—I myself have thought, where do you get a lever for change?

OLSON: To solve these universal problems, the Dalai Lama says, people must face them together. To do so he promotes what he calls secular ethics, a system of ethics that draws on basic human values and can appeal to everyone, religious and nonreligious alike. At the heart of this approach is the cultivation of genuine compassion. Paul Root Wolpe directs the Center for Ethics at Emory.

PROFESSOR PAUL ROOT WOLPE: (Professor of Bioethics and Director, Center for Ethics at Emory University): The Dalai Lama’s compassion-based ethic says if you meditate on compassion, and you make yourself a compassionate person, when the ethical issues arise you will have the correct personal approach to it.Paul Root Wolpe

OLSON: Because religions often divide us, the Dalai Lama says, he turns to education to teach secular ethics.

DALAI LAMA (at podium): Religion, no matter how wonderful, it cannot be universally accepted.

GESHE LOBSANG TENZIN (in secular ethics classroom): Can we find a way to relate to them from our heart?

OLSON: Developing what the Dalai Lama calls “warm-heartedness” is part of a for-credit class called “Secular Ethics 101.” Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, a former Tibetan monk, teaches the class.

LOBSANG: In proposing secular ethics, His Holiness is not proposing something irreligious form of practice, but rather something that all religions have a lot to say, a lot to contribute to and guide us, but also something that we as human beings have in our biology, whether we follow one religion or not, and those kind of universal or the basic human values that perhaps we have developed before we even had religions.

(guiding meditation in class): Tune to this fundamental aspiration…

Geshe Lobsang Tenzin

OLSON: Lobsang guides a meditation on compassion which begins with recognizing the fundamental longings he says everyone shares.

LOBSANG: To be able to recognize at that deeper level how we are all in the same boat. We have the same goals and aspiration, deep aspiration to be happy, free of suffering, if we can relate to others from that common aspiration we share.

OLSON: The other key to compassion, Lobsang says, is developing awareness of the interdependence of all life.

LOBSANG: That kind of awareness helps us develop gratitude towards others, and the gratitude is what leads to a certain sense of endearment towards others, and when we feel affection towards someone it’s very hard to harm them.

OLSON: To develop his curriculum, Lobsang drew from a thousand-year-old Tibetan Buddhist practice called Lojong, which is designed to transform negative states of mind, such as anger and suspicion, to positive emotions such as empathy.

LOBSANG: In Lojong literature, there’s a phrase if I may use, it goes something like, “Whenever I’m about to react physically or verbally, may I be able to remain still like a log.”

Students MeditatingFEMALE STUDENT: I feel I have started to develop that space we talked about, between the stimulus and the reaction, so rather than just saying something nasty back to them and regretting it later, I kind of have developed an ability to pause and think about our interconnectedness.

OLSON: While the Dalai Lama offers insight and training in compassion, Professor Root Wolpe says he does not present a way for thinking through complex ethical issues.

WOLPE: The ethical issues that engage us are the ones where it isn’t clear what the right answer is, where we have different ethical needs competing with each other, where both answers express compassion in some way. So it isn’t compassion or not compassion. It’s which one is the right compassion, and for that we need the discerning mind. What the Dalai Lama does not do is give us any help in the discerning part.

OLSON: Bringing together the insights from science and spirituality is paramount to the Dalai Lama’ s vision of a more compassionate world, as reflected in the crimson robes of the Tibetan monks who are part of an exchange program.

LOBSANG: We are at a very important time, really, where science and the wisdom traditions are both finding a way to have a conversation and collaborate in understanding our human condition.

OLSON: Wendy Farley says the dialogue on secular ethics is reminding everyone of who we really are.

FARLEY: We’re people who are connected to one another. We’re people who can care and be compassionate and delight in one another. That’s who we are. If we can remember that, we will act differently in the world. We would hopefully act differently about poverty, we would act differently about climate change, we would care about the suffering we’re producing. We would have the courage of heart to face these things.

OLSON: And action is what the Dalai Lama stresses.

DALAI LAMA: So human intelligence and human potential of warm-heartedness combined, these two things, I think I’m quite sure a lot of man-made problems can reduce if not eliminate, that’s quite sure. I think within this century I think world can be more compassionate century.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Kate Olson in Atlanta.

The Dalai Lama’s Secular Ethics

Emory University students in “Secular Ethics 101” learn compassion meditation and discuss the possibility of an ethic that will unite the world.

  • cipher

    PROFESSOR PAUL ROOT WOLPE: The ethical issues that engage us are the ones where it isn’t clear what the right answer is, where we have different ethical needs competing with each other, where both answers express compassion in some way. So it isn’t compassion or not compassion. It’s which one is the right compassion, and for that we need the discerning mind. What the Dalai Lama does not do is give us any help in the discerning part.

    I tend to agree, but his followers would insist that embracing Tibetan Buddhism will enable one to cultivate both compassion and wisdom, which will result in a discerning mind. Years of involvement with Tibetan Buddhism exposed me to the fundamentalism that is pervasive throughout the community of Tibetan teachers and the community of their Western followers. Among the latter, especially, I met few if any who were capable of any kind of real discernment. They simply believed whatever a lama, monk or nun told them.

    The Dalai Lama has been promoting the idea of secular ethics for some time. He also tells people, if they have a desire to engage in religious practice, not to become Buddhists but to practice the faith traditions of their birth. I believe him to be sincere, and see him as a very good and selfless man (perhaps enlightened, if that has any real meaning) – but he does little, as far as I can see, about the fundamentalism within his own ranks. He stands by while his Tibetan followers tell their Western students that Tibetan Buddhism alone is the “clear and unmistaken path”, and that without the practice of it (and frequently even with it) they’ll almost certainly take “lower rebirth”.

    If he believes this, he should say so publicly. If he doesn’t (which I believe to be the case), he should also say so publicly and strongly discourage the other lamas from teaching this to their Western students, who are uniformly gullible and prone to believing whatever they’re told.

  • Humanist3000

    Very nice reporting. You can be good and do good without being religious.

  • tomas rader

    Secular ethics is a contradiction in terms. Who decides what is right and wrong is as relative as a moving target. Who decides absolute truth that’s not self evident and observable?

  • Mary Ann King

    The professor is accurate in his assessment. Discernment is an attribute which few possess and even fewer want the responsibility of. Wisdom comes with experience…life experiences. And if the practice of Buddhism, Christianity, or any other faith solved problems, rather than creating them, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The bottom line is simple…nothing is fundamentally fact…but rather theoretical thoughts. Ethics has been debated for thousands of years…the evolution of morality is determined by societal acceptance…today society tunes in to reality TV and tunes out real life…that stands as a significant factor in advancing humankind. How can society participate in ethical debates devoid of the rudimentary requisites for educated conversations?

  • Mary Ann King

    The professor is accurate in his assessment. Discernment is an attribute which few possess and even fewer want the responsibility of. Wisdom comes with experience…life experiences. And if the practice of Buddhism, Christianity, or any other faith solved problems, rather than creating them, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The bottom line is simple…nothing is fundamentally fact…but rather theoretical thoughts. Ethics has been debated for thousands of years…the evolution of morality is determined by societal acceptance…today society tunes in to reality TV and tunes out real life…that stands as a significant factor in advancing humankind. How can society participate in ethical debates devoid of the rudimentary requisites for educated conversations?

  • silc

    Nobody has said that being a Buddhist is a requirement for enlightenment. Not HHDL not any serious serious teacher out there.
    What he HAS said many times, and stressed in on one of the first days of his recent Lam Rim teachings at Serajay Monastery (which was attended by individuals of just about every possible religion), was to beware fraudulent teachers (such as fake Rinpoches, etc) and further added that IF such individuals were not afraid of the Buddha they certainly would not fear him (HHDL).
    He suggested that they should be reported to the authorities or discredited by reports to the media, etc.

  • Sara

    Ethics can be explained in a few words—care for all living beings as you would care for yourself.

  • cipher

    Nobody has said that being a Buddhist is a requirement for enlightenment. Not HHDL not any serious serious teacher out there.

    To the contrary, Tibetans tell this to their Western students all the time. If you claim otherwise, you simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

    None of the rest of this addresses anything I said.

  • Mary Ann King

    Have you considered the fact that America ranks around 27th in health care and education in the world? We use more pharmaceuticals than any other nation and have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We are also the most wasteful. If that is caring for yourself then it will follow that we are doomed. Before ethics can be addressed society must assume responsibility for its actions. Society does not just mean ones own personal responsibility…but also that of its governing bodies: the two go hand in hand. Integrity………..where is it?

  • mitaky

    How can we be more mindful of secular ethics in business, economics, politics, professional conduct and within family values, even everyday speech? What if our education embraces dialogue on secular ethics as early as middle school. First ethics of life in the planet needs to be respect, compassion and non-harming behavior towards all living beings.