The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Dalai Lama says we need a 'global system of secular ethics'

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Back in September the Dalai Lama told his Facebook friends that "grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate," and that religion alone cannot foster values such as integrity and compassion. Since that time, the Tibetan Buddhist leader has taken his somewhat surprising message on the road, and is now calling for a global system of secular ethics.


Speaking at the recently concluded Mind & Life Conference in India, the Dalai Lama told attendees that a new global ethical code would be of benefit to everyone, including people who don't follow any particular religion. He said that the new ethics should incorporate the diverse set of values that people of various beliefs hold in common.

Reporting on the conference, Radio Free Asia's Kalden Lodoe tells us more:

"The reason for this is that there are those who have faith in religions and there are many who don't," the Dalai Lama said, adding that even among religious leaders, "there are some who are responsible for injustice, deception, hypocrisy, and exploitation."

Current education, he said, is almost always geared towards economic development, which "neither helps solve individual mental problems nor society-level problems."

"Regardless of whether or not one believes in any religion, the practice of ethical conduct is an urgent, direct need in today's world," the Dalai Lama said.

He noted that based on dialogues with scientists, "it has been proven that being compassionate and kind-hearted is not [exclusively] connected to religion."


Encouraged by the significant number of scientists attending the conference, a group consisting primarily of psychologists and neuroscientists, the Dalai Lama said, "This has turned out to be very productive in promoting mutual understanding of each other's positions, and I am confident of further progress if we continue in this way."

Lodoe also spoke to psychologist Wilson Hurley, a translator of Tibetan texts, who said the Dalai Lama's proposal ultimately boils down to psychological principles." He elaborated:

"The core principle is that everyone is completely equal in wanting to be happy, not wanting to suffer, wanting to be respected, not wanting to be put down."

"If that's honored, then people thrive and move forward," Hurley said, adding that "His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] says that there's nobody who doesn't appreciate being valued and loved."

"And for people who are able to live that way and raise their kids that way, and for societies that are able to cultivate that in their people, there's a power there. It's a very powerful force."

Speaking to Pico Iyer in a recent interview, the Dalai Lama elaborated on his association with modern science, saying, "My engagement with science is in these four fields: cosmo-biology, microbiology, quantum physics and psychology," adding that, "Peace of mind is really important for the health of [the] body."

He also told Iyer about the importance of the separation of church and state, highlighting India's long tradition of secularism:

"India's constitution is based on secularism. Our forefathers like Mahatma Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, who participated in making of the constitution, did very wisely, making it based on secularism. About India's' understanding of secularism is to respect all traditions, [all] religion[s] and there is no preference."

Further he was asked to put some light on a person's [belief in] religion and he says, "Respect all religions, respect even non-believers. Ethics are based on secular faith in a religion and is very wonderful but if not that's okay. Whenever I go for talks in different countries I talk about the importance of inner peace, self- confidence, and positive physical and verbal action which should never be harming others, no negative action to others, no fear because it leads to distress...with respect comes more trust that brings peace of mind." He says, "You have to investigate the 'fear' in you, know the reason for it."


While Tibetan Buddhism is hardly the be-all and end-all of Buddhist thought around the world, the Dalai Lama's personal take is still a far cry from most religions of the world, which tend to make special claims about religion's ability to inform our moral and ethical sensibilities. Moreover, given that the Dalai Lama lives in exile — the result of religious persecution from China — his advocacy for a secular state and global code of ethics is all the more remarkable.

More coverage from the Mind and Life Conference here.

Images: Tenzin Choejor/Ohhdl, the Dalai Lama's office, AP