Ancient Wisdom: Modern World

Reflections on Professor Paul Lodge’s Michaelmas 2016 seminars on the Dalai Lama’s Ethics

In Michaelmas term 2016, the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion (DLCC) sponsored a public seminar series led by DLCC Fellow Professor Paul Lodge, based on the Dalai Lama’s 1999 book, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for a New Millennium.  Participants, who met in Mansfield College, included writers, scientists, and psychologists as well as Oxford students, academics and staff.

The book is His Holiness’ exploration of the question, “How are we to formulate moral principles to guide us in our daily lives, at a time and in a culture where science and technology have largely replaced religious belief?”

Professor Lodge provided a chapter-by-chapter précis of each section discussed, and this led on to lively debate and conversation in each session. Some of the topics discussed were:

  • Does the book succeed in offering the outline of a positive moral path in a secularised world?
  • Do many of the aspects of compassion (Tibetan nying je) that he mentions also form an important part of the Christian/Abrahamic tradition?
  • Does HHDL’s treatment of the Buddhist theory of dependent origination (ten del) hold its own in this arena? Is it possible to delve into its complexities in a secularised context?
  • The Dalai Lama makes reference to examples from neuroscience and physics in the course of the book. Given that the science has moved on since 1999, are his examples and arguments still valid?
  • Does HHDL’s way of thinking depend in some ways on an acceptance of the idea of an afterlife?
  • Does His Holiness’ treatment of compassion lean towards the transcendent? What is the place of ‘persons’ in his philosophy?

One particularly fruitful discussion, which we returned to on a number of occasions during the course, centred on Chapter Six, ‘The Ethics of Restraint.’ This is an exposition of the advisability of guarding the heart/mind against ‘that which afflicts from within’—Tibetan nyong myong, here translated as ‘afflictive emotions.’ These include anger, pride, envy, lust, infatuation, and so on.  His Holiness makes the point that, except in special cases such as anger at the mistreatment of another, afflictive emotions are ‘wholly destructive’ and in fact ‘useless’ and that engaging with the effort to clear the mind/heart from which all actions spring (kun long) of their influence is crucially important to the its improvement. For the Dalai Lama, the afflictive emotions are the ‘very source of unethical conduct.’

The binary strength of his argument was striking.  In order for this improvement to take place, we need on the one hand ‘to restrain those factors which inhibit compassion,’ and on the other, ‘to cultivate those which are conducive to it.’  What inhibits compassion is ‘lack of inner restraint,’ that is, the failure to mount a guard against afflictive emotions, and to develop ‘insight into their destructive nature.’ His Holiness suggests:

We might think of mind, or consciousness, in terms of a president or monarch who is very honest, very pure. Our own thoughts and emotions are like cabinet ministers.  Some of them give good advice, some bad. Some have the well-being of others as their principal concern, others their own narrow interests. The responsibility of the main consciousness—the leader—is to determine which of these subordinates give good advice and which bad, which of them are reliable and which are not, and to act on the advice of the one sort, and not the other.

In the Dalai Lama’s moral philosophy, in addition to the types of emotions mentioned above, ‘that which afflicts from within’ includes more cerebral habits such as ‘our tendency to project characteristics onto things and events above and beyond what is actually there.’ His Holiness thus implies that this kind of restraint has an effect upon a very broad spectrum of the mind/heart/intellect’s work in the world— our perceptions of things, for example, our thoughts about them and interpretations of them —not just upon our ability to navigate emotional waters. And he notes that ‘gaining insight into our own negativity is a lifelong task and one which is capable of almost infinite refinement.’

In our discussions we often noted the tension between the simple, seemingly dichotomous approach to ethics in the contemporary world that His Holiness appears to be offering, and the ever-present undercurrent of the much more subtle, specialised tradition of knowledge and practice that has developed in the Buddhist world over millennia.  Can this tradition really be ‘boiled down” in the way he suggests?  Is it enough to accede to the appeal he makes at the end of the book, to undertake the practice of simply ‘acting out of concern for others’?  In other words, can that part of ourselves which is ever-focused on our own survival gradually be overtaken by a strengthening intention to serve, through the development of a robust, long-term practice of cultivation of compassion, with its associated states of generosity, tolerance, patience and love—and this, regardless of whether one is deeply immersed in a religious tradition or not? One is left with a sense of the possibility of a path which is both simple and extremely rigorous; straightforward, and yet not easy.

Undoubtedly, as Professor Lodge noted in his summary, in the Dalai Lama’s view the cultivation of compassion is a life’s work. And as His Holiness put it,  ‘those who are religiously minded must understand that there is no blessing or initiation—if only we could receive it—nor any mysterious or magical formula, or mantra or ritual—if only we could discover it—that can enable us to achieve transformation instantly.  It comes little by little, just as a building is constricted brick by brick…’ Indeed, whether one is religiously minded or not, ‘What we are talking about is gaining an experience of virtue through constant practice and familiarisation so that it becomes spontaneous.  What we find is that the more we develop concern for others’ well-being the easier it becomes to act in others’ interests. As we become habituated to the effort required, so the struggle to sustain it lessens. Eventually it will become second nature.  But there are no shortcuts.’

Martha Cass