ETHICS FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM
By the Dalai Lama
Riverhead. 320 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Jack Shoemaker
For many of us raised in America, religious and ethical instruction began with the Ten Commandments, summarized, perhaps, in the catchy and unforgettable slogan, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Even the language is old-fashioned, that archaic "unto" reminding one of summer camps, long rides in the backseats of roomy automobiles with our fathers at the wheel refusing to stop at yet another billboarded attraction featuring grotesque lizards and ice cold drinks, those days when presidential campaigns carried on only from late summer through the first months of one school year or another.
Now we've arrived at the end of the century, where crime, moral chaos, and politics driven by the often hollow sophistications of sociology and psychology all alert us to the breakdown of too many previous assumptions, particularly the coming apart of what might be called our ethical agreements with one another. Late capitalism, in apparent triumph, seems to encourage self-interest over any lingering sense of a commonwealth.
Separation of church and state -- a necessary act of democratic restraint -- has had the effect of removing religious vocabulary and structure from the idea of ethical understanding and behavior. Modern secular society seems to have wantonly declared that without a religious imperative there can be no honestly defensible "reason" behind moral and ethical strictures, as if our commonwealth is an idea as retrograde as monarchy.
Onto this stage of confusion, despair, cynicism and occasionally unfettered -- some might suggest unreasoned -- optimism comes the Dalai Lama, this exiled monk.
The Dalai Lama has reached a public stance rare for an Eastern teacher, becoming a revered religious figure, beloved even by those who understand little of his tradition. Part of this is America's fascination with the exotic, of course, for we have always loved costume. And some of this high regard is due to his being a visible reminder of the ongoing tragedy of Tibet.
In Ethics for the New Millennium he declares, "This is not a religious book." In shying away from religious terminology, he is clearly looking for a more ecumenical stance. He simply and forcefully argues that a combination of our instinct for survival and our common sense, if properly attended and refined by human reason, will lead us to an increased capacity for compassion, and compassion will buttress an ethical understanding and moral practice.
Now this may beg the question of whether common sense is, any longer, common or even sensible. But this simple monk would insist that it is and that it is an instinct no amount of chaos or complexity can kill.
Like any good teacher, he understands that ethical matters are individual matters, that an ethical society is only the sum of its ethical citizens. We must repair our own hearts and actions, then work with our family, our neighborhood, our city, our state and nation, and on to the interrelated world. In this he sounds Confucian. He also sounds like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Billy Graham.
There is nothing difficult or esoteric about this book. The problems of the world are addressed from a religiously neutral stance, and his hope and wisdom are offered to everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. He understands that ethical matters are individual matters, that an ethical society is only the sum of its ethical citizens. In fact some readers may believe he misses an opportunity to frame his arguments to prove the moral superiority of Buddhism, but this is exactly what he wishes not to do. He argues for a spiritual awakening, one that practicing atheists, agnostics or humanists can abide, and an ethical awakening that can vitalize every common and uncommon occasion of being alive in the world today.
While not interested in proselytizing, he is much concerned with the internationalism, these days called globalism, that affects every corner of the world. These days globalism more often refers to business opportunity than to responsibility. But he insists that this interrelatedness of all life -- Buddhists call this "dependent origination" -- offers us the path to peace and happiness. This is the idea, obvious once stated, that everything relates to everything else, that no act or object or being or thing exists except in relationship. We can no longer act as if we are independent agents, neither as individuals or as nations. We are all intertwined, whether we like it or not, whether in fact we acknowledge it or not. This becomes the author's most direct argument for empathy and compassion as the groundwork for our lives.
Even though the Dalai Lama operates, as always, from genuine humility -- he neither knows everything nor pretends to -- his language reflects the authority of someone who honestly wishes to react and to help. The pace of this book is stately. He frames the problems in the first part, "The Foundation of Ethics," with an interesting historical perspective and a directly personal survey. In "Ethics and the Individual," he asks hard questions and explores difficult concepts: restraint, virtue, compassion, suffering, discernment. By the time he arrives at "Ethics and Society," he is ready for the largest questions: What might be the role of religion in modern society? Can a society be ethical? What would that mean and look like? One is reminded in this last section and in the book's closing appeal of why, in 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Let me be as direct as he: These are grave and important questions. We all need to look directly at them and at ourselves. We will not escape this burden without peril to ourselves and to humanity. This book offers help, instruction and inspiration along the way. Its lessons can, just maybe, change your life.
Jack Shoemaker is the publisher of Counterpoint Press and the co-editor of "The Roaring Stream," a new Zen reader.
The Dalai Lama on Warfare
The unfortunate truth is that we are conditioned to regard warfare as something exciting and even glamorous: the soldiers in smart uniforms (so attractive to children) with their military bands playing alongside them. We see murder as dreadful, but there is no association of war with criminality. On the contrary, it is seen as an opportunity for people to prove their competence and courage. We speak of the heroes it produces, almost as if the greater the number killed, the more heroic the individual. And we talk about this or that weapon as a marvelous piece of technology, forgetting that when it is used it will actually maim and murder living people. Your friend, my friend, our mothers, our fathers, our sisters and brothers, you and me.
What is even worse is the fact that in modern warfare the role of those who instigate it [is] often far removed from the conflict on the ground. At the same time, its impact on non-combatants grows even greater. Those who suffer most in today's armed conflicts are the innocent -- not only the families of those fighting but, in far greater numbers, civilians who often do not even play a direct role. Even after the war is over, there continues to be enormous suffering due to land mines and poisoning from the use of chemical weapons -- not to mention the economic hardship it brings. This means that, more and more, women, children, and the elderly are among its prime victims.
The reality of modern warfare is that the whole enterprise has become almost like a computer game. The ever-increasing sophistication of weaponry has outrun the imaginative capacity of the average layperson. Their destructive capacity is so astonishing that whatever arguments there may be in favor of war, they must be vastly inferior to those against. We could almost be forgiven for feeling nostalgia for the way in which battles were fought in ancient times. At least then people fought one another face-to-face. There was no denying the suffering involved. And in those days, it was usual for rulers to lead their troops in battle. If the ruler was killed, that was generally the end of the matter. But as technology improved, the generals began to stay farther behind. Today they can be thousand of miles away in their bunkers underground. In view of this, I could almost see developing a "smart" bullet that could seek out those who decide on wars in the first place. That would seem to me more fair, and on these grounds I could see welcoming a weapon that eliminated the decision-makers while leaving the innocent unharmed.
From Ethics for the New Millennium
By the Dalai Lama