My own view, which does not rely solely on religious faith or even on an original idea, but rather on ordinary common sense, is that establishing binding ethical principles is possible when we take as our starting point the observation that we all desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering. We have no means of discriminating between right and wrong if we do not take into account others' feelings, others' suffering. For this reason, and also because-as we shall see-the notion of absolute truth is difficult to sustain outside the context of religion, ethical conduct is not something we engage in because it is somehow right in itself. Moreover, if it is correct that the desire to be happy and avoid suffering is a natural disposition, shared by all, it follows that each individual has a right to pursue this goal.
ON A RECENT TRIP TO EUROPE, I HAD THE opportunity to visit the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Even though I had heard and read a great deal about this place, I found myself completely unprepared for the experience. My initial reaction to the sight of the ovens in which hundreds of thousands of human beings were burned was one of total revulsion. I was dumbfounded at the sheer calculation and detachment from feeling to which they bore horrifying testimony. Then, in the museum which forms part of the visitor center, I saw a collection of shoes. A lot of them were patched or small, having obviously belonged to children and poor people. This saddened me particularly. What wrong could they possibly have done, what harm? I stopped and prayed - moved profoundly both for the victims and for the perpetrators of this iniquity - that such a thing would never happen again. And, in the knowledge that just as we all have the capacity to act selflessly out of concern for others' well-being, so do we all have the potential to be murderers and torturers, I vowed never in any way to contribute to such a calamity.
Events such as those which occurred at Auschwitz are violent reminders of what can happen when individuals -and by extension, whole societies- lose touch with basic human feeling. But although it is necessary to have legislation and international conventions in place as safeguards against future disasters of this kind, we have all seen that atrocities continue in spite of them. Much more effective and important than such legislation is our regard for one another's feelings at a simple human level.
When I speak of basic human feeling, I am not only thinking of something fleeting and vague, however. I refer to the capacity we all have to empathize with one another, which, in Tibetan we call shen dug ngal wa la mi sö pa. Translated literally, this means "the inability to bear the sight of another's suffering." Given that this is what enables us to enter into, and to some extent participate, in others' pain, it is one of our most significant characteristics. It is what causes us to start at the sound of a cry for help, to recoil at the sight of harm done to another, to suffer when confronted with others' suffering. And it is what compels us to shut our eyes even when we want to ignore others' distress.
Here, imagine walking along a road, deserted save for an elderly person just ahead of you. Suddenly, that person trips and falls. What do you do? I have no doubt that the majority of readers would go over to see whether they might help. Not all, perhaps. But in admitting that not everyone would go to the assistance of another in distress, I do not mean to suggest that in those few exceptions this capacity for empathy, which I have suggested to be universal, is entirely absent. Even in the case of those who did not, surely there will at least be the same feeling, however faint, of concern, which would motivate the majority to offer their assistance? It is certainly possible to imagine people who, after enduring years of warfare, are no longer moved at the sight of others' suffering. The same could be true of those who live in places where there is an atmosphere of violence and indifference to others. It is even possible to imagine a few who would exult at the sight of another's suffering. This does not prove that the capacity for empathy is not present in such people. That we all, excepting perhaps only the most disturbed, appreciate being shown kindness, suggests that however hardened we may become, the capacity for empathy remains.
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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