An Afternoon With the Dalai Lama: Can a Secular Ethic Unite Us?

His Holiness the Dalai Lama spent most of the week of October 7 on the campus of Emory University in Atlanta for The Visit 2013. The University's Presidential Distinguished Professor returned to interact with students, faculty, and the public. I was honored to be seated among the packed audience at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts for a conversation between the Dalai Lama and several faculty members on the topic, "Transcending Moral Differences: Can a Secular Ethic Unite Us?" It was an afternoon I will not soon forget.

The youthful, mirthful 78-year-old Tenzin Gyatso is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, though exiled in India. His courageous efforts toward peace and human rights have led to international acclaim, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize of 1989. Accompanied by his faithful translator, Geshe Thupten Jinpa [and it's worth your time to watch Krista Tippet's On Being interview with him], the Dalai Lama entered the auditorium accompanied by faculty panelists and others as the audience stood in hushed silence. He turned to wave to the packed house, prompting warm chuckles.

The basis of the conversation was the Dalai Lama's 2011 book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, which expands on his bestseller of a decade ago, Ethics for the New Millennium, in which he proposed an approach to ethics founded on universal rather than religious principles. His new book elaborates and deepens his vision for a way "beyond religion" -- one that does not ignore religious ethics but encompasses them with nonreligious approaches. In using the phrase "secular ethics" as a goal, he makes clear that his definition of "secular" is not our typical Western understanding as nonreligious, rather it intends to be inclusive of all approaches, nonreligious and religious; it transcends our concepts of religion. He calls for a "third way," a path to a happy and ethical way of life that involves a global human community centered on understanding and mutual respect.

In so doing, the Dalai Lama -- a widely respected leader of a significant religious movement -- taps into the cultural reality of the growing number of people identifying as "spiritual but not religious." For him, however, it is not an either/or proposition but a both/and. He wishes to include everyone, wherever they may fall on the spectrum of religious belief or nonbelief, in his search for common ethical ground that can better enable happiness and wellbeing for all.

Even so, his approach to this common ethical vision builds upon essential Buddhist concepts of awareness, discernment, and compassion. The world's problems, he says, reflect a failure of ethics; in fact, all human problems are ultimately related to ethics.

In the mainline Protestant milieu of which I'm a part, more specifically as an Episcopalian, this approach rings true and makes spiritual sense. Panelist Dr. Wendy Farley of the Religion faculty noted that her Christian tradition also holds to the ultimate goal of love for all -- that we are to love not only those who are dear to us but also the stranger and the enemy.

She asked the Dalai Lama, when we accept his teachings and engage in practices that support them, our hearts are opened to human suffering and the needs around us -- possibly to the point that we cannot bear it. But the Christian tradition would say that suffering is not the ultimate end. So if one does not hold to a divine scheme for reality, how can we bear the totality of suffering in the world?

He responded by saying that when we see suffering, courage is called for. If we have some sense of a solution, that can create more courage empowering us to do something toward lessening the suffering. If we have only an empathetic reaction to the situation without knowing the possibilities of resolving it, there is no courage, and that can lead to distress and discouragement. Courage is essential.

So how do we cultivate that courage? He acknowledged that religious belief can make a difference. I understood him to say that all of us are created by God, and this very life is created by God, so God is something like infinite love. Since our creator is full of love and compassion, he said, we all have some spark of it. That is the source of courage. "With hope there is a greater chance of a smile. No hope, no smile!" he added with a giggle.

As he conversed with these brilliant scholars with the assistance of his translator, shifting frequently between English and his native tongue, he often reached over to squeeze Dr. Farley's hand (she was sitting next to him), sometimes chuckling audibly at a comment or question, otherwise his shoulders bobbing in silent laughter. This helped to break through the often thick erudition on display.

His comments, I found, were not always easy to follow as he shifted languages; when he spoke in English his voice was low and not easy to hear. I found myself wrestling not only with the vast concepts he so gently and simply espoused, but also with physically hearing what he or his translator were saying. It didn't help that the audio file I made with my recording app simply disappeared the next day, preventing me from listening again. Perhaps that is as it should be. The moment cannot be repeated.

I was struck, though, by his frequent point that often the safest answer to any question in this arena of consideration is simply, "I don't know!"

There is much that we, and all our fellow earthlings, can learn from this holy man.