Just over a month ago I my exchanged life as an Oxford academic for that of a volunteer teacher and free-lance writer based in a small hill-station in central India, where my wife and I are home-schooling our two children. It is a big change, and we are still finding our feet in a new continent. But one great advantage of the move already experienced is that it has given me more time to reflect personally on my priorities in life, and to try to work on those areas of inner disaffection which have long bothered me.
When Alexander Norman, the director of the DLCC in Oxford, asked me to write a blog for the Centre’s website on the ethical life in general, and about how life in India compares to life in Oxford, I thought a helpful way of framing my post might be through what I am calling “an agnostic’s experiment in ethical living”, which is inspired by my deep respect for the Dalai Lama and his life’s work, a respect that was in particular developed when I had the opportunity to work with him on his book Beyond Religion.
Here, in this post, I explain what this is all about, so that in subsequent posts I can share my musings on life in India and the struggle to live ethically, while bringing such musings to bear on the three commitments explained here. I hope the patient reader will be rewarded, and please do leave a comment, question, or a criticism at the end if you have time.
What do we mean by ethics?
There is no avoiding the basic fact that we humans are all ethical creatures. In fact, I would say that our sense of right and wrong goes to the heart of our identity as humans. It is what distinguishes us from animals. And when we think something is right – or more often when we think something is wrong – we feel it intensely. And when wrong is inflicted on us personally, our sense of indignation is so strong we feel ready to fight, even to sacrifice our lives, to redress the injustice.
No human can ever accept with ease that what they do, or say, or think, is wrong. We either find ways to justify our behaviour – by appealing to external standards, by changing the subject, by comparing ourselves to others and so on and so forth – or, in acknowledging our own imperfections, we try to correct ourselves. We apologize to those we love for the offense we have given, we make resolutions to change for the better, and so on. But we can never rest with the thought that we are wrong. So, we are all in a constant struggle to make our behaviour consonant with our cherished self-image, as someone fundamentally good, and someone fundamentally right.
But by what yardstick, or on what basis, are we to distinguish right and wrong? We live in a world with so many competing ideologies, so many competing demands on our attention, and so many competing interests to serve. Are we in danger of being ethically confused and conflicted? Are we in danger of being unable to live with conviction and confidence because our sense of right and wrong is muddied by doubt and uncertainty?
For many in the past, and also today, it is religion which provides the North Star by which we can confidently navigate an ethical course through our lives. Religion, of whatever stripe, holds up countless examples of the good life and the bad – of saints and sinners – by which the faithful can orient themselves away from that which is perceived to be wrong and detrimental, and towards what they perceive to be in keeping with their sense of personal integrity and dignity. These models of virtue serve a purpose akin to the role of the pole star for the navigators of yesteryear. The modest sailor is not trying to reach the north star, but he uses it as a point of stability in the firmament, by which to chart his course, and to correct himself when he strays from that course.
Now, as I have said, I am an agnostic. No religion holds my exclusive loyalty. And I cannot or will not accept the bald certainty with which religions assert answers to questions such as life after death, nor the inevitable aspects of corruption one finds in institutional religion. And I am not alone in these reservations. We agnostics are in fact everywhere. Not just in ‘developed’ largely secular societies like the UK, but also ostensibly religious societies such as India, which is now my home.
So in the absence of religion, what is to be our pole star? Where can I find those simple formulas through which religion helps others chart their course? Well, there are, of course, many secular ethical formulations adduced by venerable philosophers, some of whom I studied as a philosophy undergraduate at Oxford. There is, for example, Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ whereby one judges a maxim right or wrong by universalising it: If everyone acted in accordance with this rule, would that be an acceptable outcome? If so, that action is morally fine, but if not, I should abstain. Or there is the utilitarianism, which is so often evoked in political ethics: the right course of action is that which ‘brings the greatest benefit to the greatest number’.
But there are many problems with such universalising ‘philosophical’ answers to ethical questions. They can lead us down some very dark routes. And furthermore they lack any kind of emotive appeal or inspiration. They call on us to engage in rational calculation, but our ethical intuition is one that transcends the rational mind – it is part of our emotional constitution. So this must also be acknowledged in our search for a realistic pole star with which to orient our lives.
So this is where the Dalai Lama can help. But it is not to the teachings of the Dalai Lama that I am appealing to here (great though those may be). I appeal rather, as an agnostic, to his example. The Dalai Lama is certainly among the greatest Buddhist scholars of our age and his many books are both inspiring and deeply edifying (see for example his Kindness, Clarity and Insight or The World of Tibetan Buddhism), but I am not here advocating making the Dalai Lam one’s guru. Rather what I am suggesting is that his life and the priorities he has pursued in that life, can serve as model for an ethical life which requires no religious subscription whatsoever. For he is a man who has met tremendous adversity in his own life with good humour, good sense, and sound leadership – and if we can make his example relevant to our own lives, then we may have a chance (no guarantees!) of coming to greater peace with ourselves as ethical creatures, while also making a positive contribution to the lives of those around us and the cause of a healthier planet.
The Dalai Lama’s Three Commitments
The Dalai Lama’s Three Commitments are mentioned in many of his books. It is unclear to me whether this formulation is something coined by His Holiness himself, or whether it is a crystalisation formulated by his interpreters, foremost among whom, for a western readership, has been Geshe Thupten Jinpa. Either way, for my purposes here it doesn’t matter. The point is that these Three Commitments can be transposed as a model for our own lives without the adoption of any religious faith, or any idea of Ultimate Reality, Liberation, God and so on.
Amongst other places, The Dalai Lama’s Three Commitments are stated in the preface of Towards a True Kinship of Faiths, and it is worth quoting at length:
Over the years I have come to recognize that I have three principal commitments in my life – one might even call them missions. First, as a human being, I am committed to the promotion of what I call basic human values, by which I mean especially compassion, which I see as the foundation of human happiness… My second commitment, as religious person, is to the promotion of inter-religious understanding and harmony… Finally, my third commitment, as a Tibetan and as the Dalai Lama, is to the pursuit of a happy and satisfactory solution to the sad crisis of Tibet and its people. (His Holiness the Dalai Lama Towards a True Kinship of Faiths, New York: Doubleday 2010, p.x)
My Agnostic’s Three Commitments
Now, for the sake of my ‘ethical experiment’, I have reformulated and re-ordered these commitments in my own words to make them into generalized principals which can be relevant for all. And I believe that these Three Commitments could constitute a sound and comprehensive approach to the pursuit of a fulfilling ethical life.
When in doubt, move to the nearest commitment, and see where it leads you. This is my experiment. So the Three Commitments are as follows
- (Corresponding to the Dalai lama’s “Tibetan” commitment above): As members of communities (family, school, locality, workplace etc) we can commit to helping our communities, and particularly the most in need within them, when and where we can.
- (Corresponding to the Dalai lama’s “person of religion” commitment above): As people of conviction – which we all are we can commit to tolerance towards those of differing convictions, to trying to build understanding between those of differing views. And
- As human beings, we can commit to using the inner value of compassion or kindness and its associated values of forgiveness, generosity and unselfishness, as our primary resource for overcoming both inner and outer conflicts.
So here, in italics, we have in our hands, I suggest, a mutually-supporting three-pointed ethical system which might just be able to satisfy the emotional needs of our ethical nature, while also providing a balanced way to navigate a happy and reliable course towards a better world.
How one interprets each of these commitments in practical day to day terms, will of course depend on our personal circumstances. But it seems to me that between them these three, every ethical situation we encounter is catered for, simply by moving to the nearest commitment.
So, for example, in commitment 1 (the Community Commitment), how we define our “communities” is up to us – our family community, our school community, our local community, our work community, even our football team, and so on. Likewise how we interpret “conviction” in commitment 2 (the Tolerance Commitment) is up to us. It needn’t just be about religion, but could also refer to political convictions, say, or even our aesthetic preferences.
As for the third commitment (the Compassion Commitment) – namely the use of compassion and kindness as our primary means and first port of call when dealing with both inner and outer conflicts – this is a very rich area. For compassion fundamentally means kindness (the desire to alleviate suffering), and as such it implies the further virtues of forgiveness, generosity and selflessness. So, when one finds oneself in conflict – either with others, or within oneself, one’s first response is to engage a sense of compassion, or kindness – whether towards oneself or towards others, depending on the context – and to see where that leads.
So this is my experiment: To start every day with a brief contemplation of the three principals in turn, and their possible implications for the day ahead. And to finish each day by pausing to think “have I observed my commitments today?” “in what area might I have done more, or might I have done better, to live by my commitments?”
The beauty of these Three Commitments is that they come without any religious baggage whatsoever. There are no proscriptions with regard to diet, dress, or language. There is no schedule of daily prayers, nor any threat of heaven or hell. Instead, we have a simple daily exercise of calling to mind one’s guiding constellation, so as to check whether one’s course is true. Where this gentle experiment in ethical living may lead me, I have no idea. Maybe nowhere. But if you are curious to find out, or to hear my ethical journey through our new life in India amidst monkeys, parrots, snakes and many many many new people, as well as my musings on world affairs , please do check back on this blog.
Panchgani, Maharashtra, India
14th November 2015