Those who practice religion would, of course, be right to say that such qualities, or virtues, are fruits of genuine religious endeavor and that religion therefore has everything to do with developing them and with what may be called spiritual practice. But let us be clear on this point. Religious faith demands spiritual practice. Yet it seems there is much confusion, as often among religious believers or among non-believers, concerning what this actually consists in. The unifying characteristic of the qualities I have described as "spiritual" may be said to be some level of concern for others' well-being. In Tibetan, we speak of shen pen kyi sem meaning "the thought to be of help to others." And when we think about them, we see that each of the qualities noted is defined by an implicit concern for others' well-being. Moreover, the one who is compassionate, loving, patient, tolerant, forgiving, and so on to some extent recognizes the potential impact of their actions on others and orders their conduct accordingly. Thus spiritual practice according to this description involves, on the one hand, acting out of concern for others' well-being. On the other, it entails transforming ourselves so that we become more readily disposed to do so. To speak of spiritual practice in any terms other than these is meaningless.
Here the reader may object that while the transformation of character that such a reorientation implies is certainly desirable, and while it is good that people develop compassion and love, a revolution of spirit is hardly adequate to solve the variety and magnitude of problems we face in the modern world. Furthermore, it could be argued that problems arising from, for example, violence in the home, addiction to drugs and alcohol, family breakup, and so on are better understood and tackled on their own terms. Nevertheless, given that they could each certainly be solved through people being more loving and compassionate toward one another - however improbable this may be - they can also be characterized as spiritual problems susceptible to a spiritual solution. This is not to say that all we need do is cultivate spiritual values and these problems will automatically disappear. On the contrary, each of them needs a specific solution. But we find that when this spiritual dimension is neglected, we have no hope of achieving a lasting solution.
Why is this? Bad news is a fact of life. Each time we pick up a newspaper, or turn on the television or radio, we are confronted with sad tidings. Not a day goes by but, somewhere in the world, something happens that everyone agrees is unfortunate. No matter where we are from or what our philosophy of life, to a greater or lesser extent, we are all sorry to hear of others' suffering.
These events can be divided into two broad categories: those which have principally natural causes-earthquakes, drought, floods, and the like-and those which are of human origin. Wars, crime, violence of every sort, corruption, poverty, deception, fraud, and social, political, and economic injustice are each the consequence of negative human behavior. And who is responsible for such behavior? We are. From royalty, presidents, prime ministers, and politicians through administrators, scientists, doctors, lawyers, academics, students, priests, nuns and monks, such as myself, to industrialists, artists, shopkeepers, technicians, pieceworkers, manual laborers, and those without work, there is not a single class or sector of society which does not contribute to our daily diet of unhappy news.
Fortunately, unlike natural disasters, which we can do little or nothing about, these human problems, because they are all essentially ethical problems, can be overcome. The fact that there are so many people, again from every sector and level of society, working to do so is a reflection of this intuition: There are those who join political parties to fight for a fairer constitution; those who become lawyers to fight for justice; those who join aid organizations to fight poverty; those who care, both on a professional and on a voluntary basis, for the victims of harm. Indeed, we are all, according to our own understanding and in our own way, trying to make the world - or at least our bit of it - a better place for us to live in.
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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