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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Is ethics interesting or boring? When popular books on ethics and morality first started coming out a few years ago, I avoided them because the authors were generally political neoconservatives who seemed to feel they had the final word on the subject. I don't want to be preached at. Unfortunately, discussions of ethics and preaching seem to go together in the Western mind, because generally we associate ethical discussions with laying down the law, and such discussions quickly deteriorate in the imagination into one-sided lectures in which some authority figure (parent, teacher, boss, religious leader) wags a finger at us and tells us what to do.
On the other hand, it's pretty clear from events in the past year — especially a certain President's wagging his finger at us, as well as a certain prosecutor and congresspeople wagging fingers back at him — that ordinary ethical decisions can have profound consequences in our lives. It's not just that the President made all of us unhappy, but it's clear that he made himself profoundly unhappy, which made the whole situation even more painful. Moreover, in the United States at least, we seem deeply confused and unsatisfied with how to talk in public about ethical questions. We're uncomfortable with the sloppiness of situational ethics, with "anything goes"; we suspect that someone posing as a higher authority and telling us how to behave might well be a hypocrite. Read with this dilemma in mind, the Dalai Lama's discussion in Ethics for the New Millennium is both welcome and healing.
One thing that's immediatelysurprisingand brilliant here is that the Dalai Lama disconnects his discussion of ethics from religion. That's not what you'd expect from the leader of six million Tibetan Buddhists. But his point is partly pragmatic — many readers may profess no formal religion but want to lead ethical lives, and as the Dalai Lama also notes, there are many who profess religion but are not particularly ethical. Instead, the Dalai Lama begins with a basic premise, from which he draws many important conclusions. The premise is, simply, that all human beings desire to be happy.
Why is this important? Because when we understand that everyone is trying to be happy, we see that no matter what we might think of another person's behavior, how screwed up, completely annoying, and even dangerous it may be — that person is attempting in some manner to fulfill a universal desire. This gets us away from the always dangerous and hypocritical satisfaction of judging those we disapprove of as "bad" and forces us instead to consider how much we all have in common.
Moreover, this basic premise shows a way out of negative behavior by making a "selfish" argument. While most arguments about ethics tend to focus on the negative impact on others, it's helpful to me to understand that negative behavior will inevitably be destructive to my own goal of being happy. This, of course, is a difficult point, because it's not all that obvious. In fact, it's led in the Western religious circles to the discussion we call theodicy — justifying the ways of God to man, as Milton put it: trying to explain how the wicked prosper and the good suffer, bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad. In some traditions, the only solution is to imagine that there's an afterlife in which the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. Other traditions simply declare that such questions are ultimately unanswerable or mysterious.
The Dalai Lama's answer is quite different. He provides a psychological ethics by focusing on the inner life, the inner mental development of each person. He explains that our negative behaviors always have a psychological effect upon us. "Consider," he writes, "a child going out to play who gets into a fight with another child. Immediately after, the victorious child may experienced a sense of satisfaction. But on returning home, that emotion will subside and a more subtle state of mind will manifest. At that point, a sense of unease sets in. We could almost describe this sort of feeling as a sense of alienation from self: the individual doesn't feel quite 'right.' In the case of a child who goes out to play with a friend and shares an enjoyable afternoon with that playmate, afterwards not only will there be an immediate sense of satisfaction but when the mind has settled down and the excitement worn off, there will be a sense of calm and comfort."
As we grow from childhood, we may lose this childlike sensitivity and become more cynical and less refined in our feelings. That loss of sensitivity is in itself the consequence that will lead us to further unhappiness. While the Dalai Lama agrees that looking out for oneself is a normal trait, "nothing to be angry at ourselves for having," he also points out that if we continually engage in negative behaviors — "meanness, aggressiveness, deceit"- we will be cultivating a state of mind that is a punishment in itself.
He does not mean anything simplistic, "that in every instance when I hit someone, I will be hit myself. The proposition I am making is much more general than this. Rather I mean to suggest that the impact of our actions — both positive and negative — registers deep within us." And such afflictive states of mind — afflictive emotions like anger, greed, lust, selfishness — destroy our capacity to be in a kind relationship with others and inevitably make us lonelier, more isolated, more unhappy. There is also an antidote, which the Dalai Lama describes in some detail, that involves the cultivation of more wholesome states of mind.
Befitting his status as a world leader, the Dalai Lama does not lose sight of "the universal dimension of our individual actions," and his discussion of ethics embraces such global issues as the environment, peace and disarmament, and education. But by rooting that discussion in the immediate and understandable struggle for individual happiness, this book grabs us where we live. Along the way, His Holiness offers some hints and glimpses of his personal life — the Dalai Lama as a guest in someone's house happens to see their medicine cabinet open and draws certain conclusions — and tells some funny stories — a moment of embarrassment in the middle of a religious ceremony, and an encounter between a certain Tibetan and a car hood — that add warmth and color to the discussion. But the major reward in reading this book is to spend hours in communion with an extraordinarily happy mind — one that has trained itself over many decades in the cultivation of precisely the quality of compassion that he argues is the foundation of all ethical behavior.