On the Need for Respect for All Religions, and No Religion, as considered by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is a remarkable individual, for all of the grand reasons that people already know about – and for a reason that is important to me personally: he has written books, parts of which have stayed with me for years. As someone who couldn’t tell you the plot of last seasons TV shows, that I remember specific sections of books, continue to turn them over in my mind, and bring them to the surface when conditions call for it, is truly remarkable.
One of the books in which His Holiness the Dalai Lama achieved this remarkable feat is “The Art of Happiness”. The part that has stuck with me for years was the last section, the last chapter. The section is titled “Closing Reflections on Living a Spiritual Life” and the chapter “Basic Spiritual Values”.
He begins to make his point when he notes:
There are five billion human beings and in a certain way, I think we need five billion different religions, because there is such a large variety of dispositions. I believe that each individual should embark upon a spiritual path that is best suited to his or her mental disposition, natural inclination, temperament, belief, family and cultural background. [Dalai Lama, (2009-10-01). The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living. Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.]
The variety of people calls for a variety of religions. The purpose of religion is to benefit people, and I think that if we only had one religion, after a while it would cease to benefit many people. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]
He provides a simple and fundamental position:
We must respect and appreciate the value of all the different major world religious traditions. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]
Remarkably, he goes beyond. Some men of faith draw a line between their own faith and the faith of others, and sometimes an even more harsh and unforgiving line between those who believe in God and those who are unbelievers. In contrast, His Holiness the Dalai Lama opens his arms and heart, accepts and attends to the rest of humanity who do not identify with religious belief. In other writings, the Dalai Lama has compared ethics and religion to water and tea.
Ethics and inner values without religious content are like water, something we need every day for health and survival. Ethics and inner values based in a religious context are more like tea. The tea we drink is mostly composed of water, but it also contains some other ingredients—tea leaves, spices, perhaps some sugar or, at least in Tibet, salt—and this makes it more nutritious and sustaining and something we want every day. But however the tea is prepared, the primary ingredient is always water. 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. More fundamental than religion, therefore, is our basic human spirituality. We have an underlying human disposition toward love, kindness, and affection, irrespective of whether we have a religious framework or not. [Dalai Lama, H.H. (2011-12-06). Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.]
In the context of his thoughts on Basic Spiritual Values, he offers:
[T]here’s another level of spirituality. That is what I call basic spirituality—basic human qualities of goodness, kindness, compassion, caring. Whether we are believers or nonbelievers, this kind of spirituality is essential. I personally consider this second level of spirituality to be more important than the first, because no matter how wonderful a particular religion may be, it will still only be accepted by a limited number of human beings, only a portion of humanity. But as long as we are human beings, as long as we are members of the human family, all of us need these basic spiritual values. Without these, human existence remains hard, very dry. As a result, none of us can be a happy person, our whole family will suffer, and then, eventually, society will be more troubled. So, it becomes clear that cultivating these kinds of basic spiritual values becomes crucial. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]
Beyond the general outline of his thesis, the part of his discussion that has stayed with me all these years is this simple and very practical analysis:
In seeking to cultivate these basic spiritual values, I think we need to remember that out of the, say, five billion human beings on this planet, I think perhaps one or two billion are very sincere, genuine believers in religion. Of course, when I refer to sincere believers, I’m not including those people who simply say, for example, ‘I am Christian’ mainly because their family background is Christian but in daily life may not consider very much about the Christian faith or actively practice it. So excluding these people, I believe that there are perhaps only around one billion who sincerely practice their religion. That means that four billion, the majority of the people on this earth, are nonbelievers. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]
Indeed. The majority of people on this earth are nonbelievers.
For a man of faith, that is a remarkable statement. For many men of faith, the realization that the majority of people on earth are non-believers would be cause for either separation or a call to proselytize. Not so for the Dalai Lama.
[I]f we believe in any religion, that’s good. But even without a religious belief, we can still manage. In some cases, we can manage even better. But that’s our own individual right; if we wish to believe, good! If not, it’s all right. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]
It’s all right. Simple acceptance of a practical fact. But rather than separating himself from this mass of unbelievers, much of his life’s work has been to find means and mechanisms to have productive discussion with ALL people to reinforce fundamental qualities of compassion, kindness, and caring in pursuit of “a better, happier world.”
[W]e must still find a way to try to improve life for this majority of the people, the four billion people who aren’t involved in a specific religion—ways to help them become good human beings, moral people, without any religion. Here I think that education is crucial—instilling in people a sense that compassion, kindness, and so on are the basic good qualities of human beings, not just a matter of religious subjects. I think earlier we spoke at greater length about the prime importance of human warmth, affection, and compassion in people’s physical health, happiness, and peace of mind. This is a very practical issue, not religious theory or philosophical speculation. It is a key issue. And I think that this is in fact the essence of all the religious teachings of the different traditions. But it remains just as crucial for those who choose not to follow any particular religion. [Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness]