As someone nearing seventy years of age at the time of writing, I have accumulated enough experience to be completely confident that the teachings of the Buddha are both relevant and useful to humanity. If a person puts them into practice, it is certain that not only they but others, too, will benefit. My meetings with many different sorts of people the world over have, however, helped me realize that there are other faiths, and other cultures, no less capable than mine of enabling individuals to lead constructive and satisfying lives. What is more, I have come to the conclusion that whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good human being.
I say this in acknowledgment of the fact that though a majority of the earth's nearly six billion human beings may claim allegiance to one faith tradition or another, the influence of religion on people's lives is generally marginal, especially in the developed world. It is doubtful whether globally even a billion are what I would call dedicated religious practitioners, that is to say, people who try, on a daily basis, faithfully to follow the principles and precepts of their faith. The rest remain, in this sense, non-practicing. Those who are dedicated practitioners meanwhile follow a multiplicity of religious paths. From this, it becomes clear that given our diversity, no single religion satisfies all humanity. We may also conclude that we humans can live quite well without recourse to religious faith.
These may seem unusual statements, coming as they do from a religious figure. I am, however, Tibetan before I am Dalai Lama, and I am human before I am Tibetan. So while as Dalai Lama I have a special responsibility to Tibetans, and as a monk I have a special responsibility toward furthering interreligious harmony, as a human being I have a much larger responsibility toward the whole human family - which indeed we all have. And since the majority does not practice religion, I am concerned to try to find a way to serve all humanity without appealing to religious faith.
Actually, I believe that if we consider the world's major religions from the widest perspective, we find that they are all - Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and the others - directed toward helping human beings achieve lasting happiness. And each of them is, in my opinion, capable of facilitating this. Under such circumstances, a variety of religions (each of which promotes the same basic values after all) is both desirable and useful.
Of course, both as a Tibetan and as a monk, I have been brought up according to, and educated in, the principles, the precepts, and the practice of Buddhism. I cannot, therefore, deny that my whole thinking is shaped by my understanding of what it means to be a follower of the Buddha. However, my concern in this book is to try to reach beyond the formal boundaries of my faith. I want to show that there are indeed some universal ethical principles which could help everyone to achieve the happiness we all aspire to. Some people may feel that in this I am attempting to propagate Buddhism by stealth. But while it is difficult for me conclusively to refute the claim, this is not the case.
Actually, I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or nirvana. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer, and so on. Spirituality I take to be concerned with those qualities of the human spirit - such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony-which bring happiness to both self and others. While ritual and prayer, along with the questions of nirvana and salvation, are directly connected to religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say that religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.
Reprinted from Ethics For The New Millennium by His Holiness The Dalai Lama by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by His Holiness The Dalai Lama. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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