Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and I have met more than 30 times in 33 years, and hardly ever have I interviewed anyone so empathic. No one laughs more than he does. According to surveys, he’s the world’s best-liked person. The news is anything but surprising. “I know no enemies,” he said to me more than 20 years ago. “There are just people I haven’t met yet.”
Although Chinese occupation has forced him to live outside his Tibetan homeland since 1959, he feels no hatred for the Chinese and their leaders. On the contrary. “Of course I pray for the Communist leaders in Beijing,” he says. Despite his age, the Dalai Lama is confident that he will live to see the resolution of the conflict with China over his homeland Tibet.
In the last few years, the Dalai Lama has called more and more insistently for an ethic that transcends religion. Today, at the age of 80, he proclaims a view that is surely unique for a religious leader: “Ethics is more important than religion,” he says. “We don’t arrive in this world as members of a particular religion. But ethics is innate.”
His central belief
One of his central beliefs is that in the pursuit of happiness and the desire to avoid suffering, all human beings are alike.
Franz Alt: After the terrorist attack in Paris, you said, “There are days when I think it would be better if there were no religions!” What did you mean?
Dalai Lama: The knowledge and the practice of religion has of course been helpful, but today this is no longer enough, as examples from all over the world show more and more clearly. This is true of all religions, including Christianity and Buddhism. Wars have been waged in the name of religion, “holy wars” even. Religions have been and still are frequently intolerant.
This is why I say that in the 21st century we need a new ethic that transcends all religions. Far more crucial than religion is our elementary human spirituality. It’s a predisposition owards love, kindness and affection that we all have within us, whatever religion we belong to. In my view, people can do without religion, but they cannot do without inner values, without ethics.
FA: What gave you the idea that we need more spirituality than the traditional religions have to offer?
DL: I’ve been in Indian exile for 56 years. It’s a society that lives by a secular ethic. Mahatma Gandhi was profoundly religious, but he was also a secular spirit. He was a great admirer of Jesus and his pacifism of the Sermon on the Mount. He’s my role model because he embodied religious tolerance. This tolerance is a deeply rooted force in India. With very few exceptions, we find not only Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Christians living there in peace, but also Jainists, Buddhists, Jews, agnostics and atheists.
FA: Among the six billion “believers” in the world, there are many who do not take their own religion seriously.
DL: Among those six billion there are unfortunately many corrupt people who only pursue their own interests. But there will only be more external peace on Earth when there’s more internal peace. This is true of all the conflicts going on now—Ukraine, the Middle East, Afghanistan, Nigeria.
Almost everywhere, religious fundamentalism is one of the causes for war. We know very well that it would be tantamount to collective suicide if we were to risk nuclear war. This alone shows how dependent we are on one another.
Modern neurobiological research suggests very strongly that altruistic behaviour is more rewarding than egoism. People don’t have to be selfish; they can just as easily be altruistic and gear their activities to the welfare of others. Altruism makes us happier!
Happiness isn’t just a coincidence; it’s a capacity that every individual has at their disposal. Step by step we can transform the factors that militate against happiness. This is true of individuals and the whole of society.
The aim of secular ethic is to free us of long-term suffering and to develop the ability to support others in the pursuit of happiness. One aspect of compassion is the spontaneous willingness to act for the welfare of others.
FA: You attach great importance to modern brain research. Why?
DL: Our brain is a learning organ. Neuropsychology tells us that we can train our brains like we train our muscles. In this way we can be consciously recipient to the fine and the good, we can influence our brains positively and overcome what’s negative. With the aid of mind and spirit we can change our brains for the better. This is revolutionary progress.
Thanks to this progress we’re now more certain of the fact that ethics, compassion and social behaviour are things we’re born with, while religion is something instilled into us. The conclusion from that is that ethics runs deeper and is more natural than religion.
FA: What questions must we ask ourselves to further develop our capacity for compassion?
DL: Are we open-minded or narrow-minded? Have we considered the whole situation or are we only concerned with partial aspects? Are we thinking and acting holistically? Do we genuinely look at things in a long-term perspective or only in the short term? Are our actions truly motivated by sincere compassion? Is our compassion limited to family and friends because we’re largely able to identify with them?
We must reflect, reflect, reflect. And we need research, research and more research. Ethics has mainly to do with our spiritual condition and not with the formal membership in a religious community. We must overcome our self-imposed restrictions and learn to understand the views of others.
In the present conflict in Ukraine, this means that eastern Europe needs western Europe and western Europe needs eastern Europe. So talk to each other! Realise that we are living in an age of globalisation. The new motto must be, “Your interests are our interests.” Fundamentalism is always harmful. Yesterday’s ideas will get us nowhere. Especially for children, tomorrow’s adults, ethics is more important than religion.
Egoism, natinonalism and violence are the wrong course. The most important question for a better world is: “How can we serve each other?”
FA: Every day we wipe out 150 animal and plant species, blow 150 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air. What can a secular ethic do to stop this?
DL: Mindfulness, education, respect, tolerance, caring and non-violence. In the last century we made huge progress in material terms. All in all, this was a good thing. But this progress has also led to the crippling damage we’re doing to the environment. In the 21st century we must learn, cultivate and apply inner values at all levels.
There are two ways of looking at human nature. One of them says that by nature human beings are violent, ruthless and aggressive. The other view is that we’re naturally attuned to kindness, harmony and living in peace. This second view is my own. Accordingly, I don’t consider ethics to be a collection of commandments and prohibitions for us to observe and adhere to, but a natural, inner drive that can inspire us to seek happiness and satisfaction for ourselves and others. The very simple wish that inspires me is to contribute to the greater good of humanity and the living world.
Ethical instruction from about the age of 14 is more important than religion. Education changes everything. People are capable of learning. In Germany we can see this from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Witnessing that was an unforgettable experience for me.
FA: What can each and every one of us do to make the world a more peaceful and a better place?
DL: If we want to make this world a better place, then we have to become better ourselves. We have to see our enemies as human beings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls this “loving your enemy”. In our own best interests, we should do everything
in our power to ensure that all living beings can thrive. For that we need spiritual schooling and education of the heart.
The real enemy is the enemy within, not the external one. External enmities never last, and the enmity between China and Tibet is no exception. If we respect our enemies, there is hope that some day they can become our friends.
This is why my allegiance to non-violence is unswerving. That’s an intelligent form of love of enemies. Intense meditation tells us that enemies can become our best friends. In this way we can achieve greater serenity, greater compassion and greater acumen. Then we have a real chance of making the 21st century a century of peace, a century of dialogue, and a century of caring, responsible and compassionate humanity.