January 3rd, 2012

Books!

Towards a secular ethics ...

This is another book that came into my hands via the “Early Reviewer” program over on LibraryThing.com … sometimes I'm confused as to why I get selected (by “the almighty algorithm”) to get a book, but in this case, I would have been rather surprised if I hadn't been. Back in the 80's/90's I took the Kalachakra initiation three times (Madison, L.A., and NYC) and the Avalokitesvara initiation twice (Madison and NYC) from H.H. The Dalai Lama, and read quite a lot of Vajrayana tradition material, which is in my collection over on LT (which is the primary consideration for the A.A. to pick who gets what), so I would have been quite pouty had I not gotten this book! Needless to say, I was very happy when Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama arrived.

On the surface, this seems to be a somewhat counter-intuitive book. One of the biggest names in religion (and the head of one of the last Theocratic states, if in exile) looking at moving beyond religion … but that's essentially what His Holiness is talking about here … moving towards a global secular ethic which is a human system and not based on any one religion. While I'm sure that the Dalai Lama would not see it in these exact terms, I'm reminded of a line from the late Christopher Hitchens: “Since it is obviously inconceivable that all religions can be right, the most reasonable conclusion is that they are all wrong.” … and it seems to me that this particular reality check is the obstacle that this book is attempting to get past.

A decade ago the Dalai Lama wrote Ethics for a New Millennium, and this is somewhat of a follow-up to that, as indicated by the sub-title “Ethics for a Whole World”. The book is in two parts, A New System of Secular Ethics, and Educating the Heart through Training the Mind, with the former setting up the argument for an ethical secularism, and the latter providing some guidance, from a Vajrayana perspective, for how to make this ethical stance part of one's inner life. In the introduction, he writes:

... as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all. … Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which make no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and hose without: a secular ethics.
It is interesting in the first part watching his examination of the secular from his situation of having been a life-long monk, and he certainly operates with the filter of basic Buddhist concepts of consciousness, empathy, suffering, compassion and justice. Having lived in a secular environment, some of the angles he takes here seem a bit odd, but he is obviously attempting to extract an ethical core from his reality which will stand on its own merits when shifted to the secular mode.

The second half of Beyond Religion sort of turns the equation around and seeks to provide exercises or perceptions to make the secular world more ethical … here's a bit about developing “contentment”:

Cultivating contentment is especially important, I feel, in today's materialistic world of global consumerism. Materialistic society puts people under constant pressure to want more and to spend more long after their basic needs are satisfied. … The materialism of modern society therefore makes the practice of moderation and contentment a daily necessity if we are to resist succumbing to a sense of personal dissatisfaction born of unrealistic craving.
I was somewhere between amused and impressed at how well His Holiness managed to “repackage” essential meditations and reflection practices into formats which would be accessible to the average MBA (to pull a “non-spiritual” type out of the air). Here's how he makes this clear:

Yet, for all the associations of meditation or mental cultivation with religion, there is no reason why it should not be undertaken in an entirely secular context. After all, mental discipline itself requires no faith commitment. All it requires is a recognition that developing a calmer, clearer mind is a worthwhile endeavor and an understanding that doing so will benefit both oneself and others.
I was very surprised to read another part of this. Over the years, I had never developed even a marginal mediation practice, launching into one discipline or another, trying to make progress, and then falling away from it soon after. I wish I'd read this thirty years ago:

It is also important to bear in mind that we should never force ourselves to practice. As noted earlier, beginners will inevitably experience many distractions. It takes time to accustom the mind to the discipline of formal meditation practice. It is therefore essential to remain patient and not to become discouraged. If we find ourselves having to struggle, this can be a sign that it is time to break off the session. Trying to continue under such circumstances will not be effective. The more we struggle, the more exhausted the mind becomes. If we carry on under these circumstances, we will soon begin to dislike practicing. Eventually, even the sight of the place where we conduct our practice may cause feelings of revulsion. So it is important not to reach this point.
I have to wonder, however, how well this would play to other religious traditions. Buddhism is essentially atheistic (despite the multitudes of deities involved in the various sects), and is, generally speaking, not an “expansionist” religion. How Dominionist Xtians or Islamist Muslims would take a call for secular ethics is probably way on the other side of the scale! There are millions of people out there who can't believe you can be a “good person” without reference to their particular imaginary friend or specific “sacred” fairy tale collection, and I doubt they would be willing to make the effort to detach themselves from their delusions.

In any case, I found Beyond Religion a delightful, enlightening, and even entertaining read, and would recommend it to all and sundry (well, perhaps with the exclusion of the folks discussed at the end of the previous paragraph), although the individuals that I was thinking of personally suggesting picking this up were all on the atheist end of the spectrum! This came out just in the past month, so should be available at your local book store, and the on-line guys have it at about a third off of cover price. If you have any interest of developing your inner life, or getting past the religious modality, this will be a great book for you to read.


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