For most of his 76 years, the 14th Dalai Lama has been the spiritual light for followers of Tibetan Buddhism, his every word parsed for guidance to living a better, more fulfilling life. Awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, the Dalai Lama has been an outspoken advocate for compassion, meditation and religious tolerance.
Now, as he steps down as leader of Tibet, the perpetually smiling monk in saffron and burgundy robes makes in "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World" what some may regard as a heretical pronouncement: You don't need religion to lead a happy and ethical life.
Amid the clash of global, multicultural societies and religious values today, he argues in his new book that what is more important is "an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally accessible to those with faith and those without; a secular ethics."
A metaphor the Dalai Lama likes to use goes like this: The difference between ethics and religion is like the difference between water and tea. Ethics without religious content is water, a critical requirement for health and survival. Ethics grounded in religion is tea, a nutritious and aromatic blend of water, tea leaves, spices, sugar and, in Tibet, a pinch of salt.
"But however the tea is prepared, the primary ingredient is always water," he says. "While we can live without tea, we can't live without water. Likewise, we are born free of religion, but we are not born free of the need for compassion."
This is anything but a book denouncing faith. But some readers, particularly those with strong religious beliefs, are bound to find the Dalai Lama's argument troubling. Even the power of prayer has dissipated in his eyes. "In fact, I consider prayer to be of immense psychological benefit," he says. "But we must accept that its tangible results are often hard to see. When it comes to obtaining certain, direct results, it is clear that prayer cannot match the achievements of, for instance, modern science."
This volume could be viewed as the distillation of the Dalai Lama's lifelong interest in science and its evolving understanding of consciousness, subjective experience, rhythms of nature and the fabric of the universe. It draws heavily from personal recollections and regular meetings with researchers in the fields of physics, cosmology, biology, psychology and neuroscience.
In language that is relaxed and clear, the Dalai Lama suggests that a concern for the welfare of others, "when combined with reflection on our personal experiences and coupled with simple common sense, can, I believe, offer a strong case for the benefits of cultivating basic human values that does not rely on religious principles or faith at all. And I welcome this."
Buddhism, which has a history of adapting to changing times and cultures, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama in India about the 6th century BC and then spread to China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Vietnam. It arrived in the United States in the 19th century and was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s by the likes of Buddhist missionary D.T. Suzuki, author Alan Watts and beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Today a new American hybrid of Buddhism is blossoming, fed by a large representation of Jewish practitioners.
Some may disagree with the Dalai Lama's perspective, but he does a credible job of arguing why we should "move beyond our limited sense of closeness to this or that group or identity, and instead cultivate a sense of closeness to the entire human family."
"The sequencing of the human genome, for example, has shown that racial differences constitute only a tiny fraction of our genetic makeup, the vast majority of which is shared by all of us," the Dalai Lama writes. "In fact, at the genome level, the differences between individuals appear more pronounced than those between different races. The time has come I believe for each of us to start thinking and acting on the basis of an identity rooted in the phrase 'we human beings.'"
Given that the Dalai Lama has given more time to getting in touch with his inner-Buddha than anyone else alive, his book offers a fascinating approach to moral guidance in an age of technological globalization and multicultural societies.