[This review of Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama was originally published in Bulletin No 38, March 2012 BIAMS Journal]
The core theme of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s latest book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World is that humanity, as a whole, must become more internally ethically-motivated by undergoing a more rigorous ‘education of the heart’. His words ‘The longer I live, and the more I reflect on humanity’s problems and achievements, the more convinced I become that we have to find a way of thinking beyond religion altogether…’ suggest that this ‘education of the heart’ requires a universalist mindset where religion must open its own heart and cooperate in the task of global ethical conscientisation beyond the strictures of its own particular dogma (if necessary) if humanity is to flourish and indeed, survive.
Philosophically-grounded in the Dalai Lama’s own spiritual tradition of Mahayana Buddhism this book is nonetheless very accessible and readable. He describes our ‘inner spiritual core’ which predisposes us to compassion, kindness and altruism as being like water – essential to life. This, he believes, is distinct from ‘religion-based spirituality’ which is culturally-learned and, like tea, is not essential to life but does greatly enhance it, in the same way that tea enhances the enjoyment of water. Thus, the book takes as its starting point the concept of ‘natural spirituality’ as a logical basis for a shared secular ethical framework.
The book is divided into two parts; the first part presents the Dalai Lama’s vision and rationale for a global secular ethic. Set against the briefly-sketched backdrop of global war, poverty, environmental degradation and the challenges of unlimited capitalist growth in an increasingly interconnected world, he underscores the essential unity of both humanity’s common needs and experience of life (rooted in a briefly explored theory of the mind). His contention is that this biological unity should transcend any distinctions of culture, religion or politics in the quest for developing a globally-espoused set of secular ethics rooted, not in the European tradition of anti-theism and religious antagonism but rather in the Indian tradition of religious tolerance.
The second part of the book turns to address in more detail the practical task of ‘educating the heart through the training of the mind’ as a means to cultivating and maintaining a more ethical mind-set based on ‘principles of inner self-regulation [which] promote those aspects of our nature [which are] conducive to our own well-being and that of others.’ (p.18). The rationale and practice of cultivating mindfulness and other core values such as patience, contentment and generosity whilst at the same time dealing with destructive emotions such as anger, competitiveness and selfishness are simply described accompanied by anecdotal illustrations. The book closes with a chapter describing the art and discipline of meditation as a vital transformative tool which the reader is enjoined to practise little and often in order to ‘become[a] more compassionate human being.’ (p.183)
Beyond Religion speaks urgently and practically of the need to develop a more rigorous global ethical consciousness. The Dalai Lama invokes our ultimate unity as reasoning, biological beings as sufficient reason to mobilise for the common good and affirms the ‘water’ of our natural spirituality as the medium through which we may cultivate ethical flourishing. His writing is sincere and littered with scientific rationales, replete with homilies and proverbial wisdom and is unashamedly practical in his orientation. Yet, the book retains as its core, the serious academic thesis that humanity needs to move towards a future of ‘being’ which is both tolerant of the particular flavours of religion and culture and which affirms, uncompromisingly, the cultivation of mind-sets which are most likely to promote life and happiness for all. Of particular note is the Dalai Lama’s insistence that compassion must be the foundational element of ethical action to promote justice. In much the same vein of thought (though in considerably less depth and detail) as the Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff (who maintains that love and justice in their truest forms are inseparable), the Dalai Lama insists that ‘the exercise of justice, far from being at odds with the principle of compassion, should be informed by a compassionate approach” (p.64).
Readers may be disappointed if they are looking for a deeper analysis of the unethical ‘corporate’ mind-sets which predispose to structural injustice or the imbalances of power inherent in institutionalised religion, politics and government which corrupt and pervert the course of justice; the Dalai Lama’s treatment of such issues is entirely secondary to his focus on the cultivation of individual ethics. As such, it is a book which is rooted in the conviction that justice flourishes slowly, but surely, in the disciplined path of education – of both mind and heart of each individual.
 Wolterstorff, N., (2011) Justice in Love, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans