Monday, May 10, 2004

Dalai Lama and “Secular Ethics”

The Dalai Lama came to Vancouver recently with a few other famous people (April 18 – 20th, 2004) to receive doctorates, give a spiritual teaching and participate in a Dialogue about the head and the heart. He was lauded, celebrated, feted and, in some cases, or so it appeared, worshipped. The occasional journalist who did not “get it” even gently criticized him.

What was there to “get” about the Dalai Lama? Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu, also there to receive honorary doctorates from Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia, in his introduction to the Sunday afternoon presentation on “Universal Responsibility,” likened the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa and said that, like her, the reason for their appeal was that they are “good.” Apparently the two Nobel Laureates like each other very much and their mutual regard and good will appeared genuine and joyful. At one point, the Dalai Lama referred to Bishop Tutu as his “spiritual teacher” and their regard for each other was heart-warming and produced many good-hearted exchanges during the afternoon.

Only a hardened cynic or the religious zealots outside the Pacific Coliseum could have rejected the honest openness that was clearly on display on stage. One jarring note was a couple of loud-mouthed people outside the event who claimed to be Christians but whose profession of certain knowledge that the Dalai Lama was going to hell and that Buddha is already in Hell, rather cast doubt on everything else they yelled. If it is true that “you will know they are Christians by their love” then perhaps they represented something else entirely. One can hope.

Thankfully, inside the Coliseum, Bishop Tutu did not share their certain, and purportedly “Divine” judgments, and used his presence on both occasions to be a shining example of the Love of God in which he believes. He seems to operate by the motto: “have sermons, will travel.”

At both of the events I attended, the afternoon discussion about “Universal Responsibility” (at the Pacific Coliseum) and the Round Table Dialogue, two days later at the University of British Columbia, called “Balancing Educating the Mind with Educating the Heart” there was the same aura of goodwill and even happiness and, at both events, Bishop Tutu preached. What he said was a sharp counterblast to the Dalai Lama’s atheistic Aristotelianism.

Goldie Hawn (the celebrity Hollywood figure) was there at both events as well and the press in attendance took many photos of her. Also in evidence were the former Chief Justice of British Columbia and many leading academics and civic leaders. Tickets for all the events sold out faster than even those for the Rolling Stones’ concerts that periodically entertain Vancouverites.

The Dalai Lama speaks of compassion and the longing that human beings have for happiness. He also speaks of the need for wisdom and a fully reflective human life. Much of what he says, simple though it seems to be, is needed in today’s world and his obvious popularity speaks to a longing in contemporary societies and the receptiveness some people have to the message of love and compassion when it is delivered free from much of the religious trappings that have alienated so many from contemporary religions.

There was one area, however, in which his theories seem to betray the hope he has to create a better world. At both events I attended, His Holiness indicated that “because religions do not agree” we need to develop what he called “secular ethics.”

Obviously, this is a serious error. Whether it is rooted in the Dalai Lama’s translating from the Tibetan (he has an excellent translator but perhaps they have not yet figured out that to use the word “secular,” after excluding religions, guarantees that anti-religion will dominate his “secular ethics”) or in something else, I cannot say. Neither could several of the organizers with whom I spoke. His call for “secular” ethics, will never work until he includes religions in the important task of finding a “shared” or “common” ethics.

To exclude preemptively “religions” from the task of developing “shared ethics” for the modern world is like trying to develop the art of skydiving by starting off banning parachutes. Many could miss the gravity of the situation and it leads to a grave result.

Religions provide the stuff of ethics for most people since ethics are based on the way we understand “right” and “wrong.” While it is true that certain religions disagree about this or that aspect of right and wrong, a reading of many works in this area (such as C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man) would give him a better grasp of why religions in fact contribute in basic ways to the development of the very ethics he supports and the fact that, on many key areas, they agree. “Secular ethics” just don’t cut it and his continual references to the term undermine his own project.

He plays into the hands of the deliberate theory of “secularism” and seems not to be aware of this.

For example, how could Christians participate in furthering “compassion” in the world if they are to jettison their religious understanding of the root of compassion in Jesus Christ? How are Jews to participate if their central religious understandings are excluded at the outset? They cannot and the Dalai Lama’s theory is fatally flawed when he himself attempts to do so. Only by finding common principles within human belief systems (including the religions) can humans move towards the principles that can guide our lives together.

The relationship of suffering to wisdom and enlightenment is important to the Dalai Lama: it is also key to the understanding of religions and if the quest for “secular ethics” is to exclude what for many people is best understood in terms of their religious faiths, they will not be able to participate. If they cannot participate, and religious people make up the vast majority of the world’s population, then there is no possibility of moving towards a Universal Ethic or Universal Compassion or a Universal anything that is worthwhile.

The fact of the Dalai Lama’s rather surprising anti-religious views, might explain why, at the Roundtable, speaking after the Dalai Lama, Bishop Tutu chose to give a retelling about the Prodigal Son and ended with the plea that “God loves us all and is pleading with us to come back to Him…. to come back to His Love.”

As a side point it is curious to note that no Roman Catholics were invited to be part of the program - - a program which, after all, involved a female Professor who is a native Indian, a female Muslim Judge from Iran (another Nobel Prize-winner), a Jewish Rabbi, the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu but which was chaired by another local Anglican Bishop (one who, unlike the Dalai Lama as a matter of fact, accepts same-sex conduct as religiously valid).

In the final analysis the other round-table participants, and most notably, Bishop Tutu, paid no attention to a religiously exclusive “secular ethics” and neither should we, except to beware of its emergence, reject it and work towards something better and richer in the future.

Iain T. Benson©