Developing a Healthy Society



One of the most important principles in Tibetan Buddhism is dependent arising. Nothing exists or can happen on its own without being related to and relying on other factors. Moreover, everything arises from a complex of many causes and circumstances; nothing arises from relying on just one cause or from no cause at all. For example, a healthy body arises, on the internal level, dependently on all its organs and systems functioning properly in harmony with each other. On the external level, good health also depends on medicine, nutrition, kind care from others, the environment, and so on. Similarly, a healthy society arises, on an internal level, dependently on all its member groups cooperating with each other and working harmoniously together. On the external level, societal health also depends on economic, political and environmental factors, as well as on the world situation in general.

Ethics also plays a crucial role in bringing about both individual and societal health. If people do not exercise ethical self-discipline to refrain from unhealthy life styles and behavior, and to engage in healthy alternatives instead, they fall sick. Similarly, if the various groups in a society do not uphold the ethical principles they share in common, the society too falls ill. Most important among these ethical principles are refraining from self-centered conduct and engaging, instead, in altruistic behaviors with sincere concern for the welfare of others.

In multicultural societies, each member group has its own specific religion or philosophy to inform and guide its ethical behavior, and some members of the society do not follow any religion or particular philosophy at all. The methods for reducing self-centeredness and cultivating altruism may differ for each group, but if the aim is the same – creating a harmonious and happy multicultural society – such a society will arise dependently on the mutual understanding, respect and co-operation of all of its member groups.

To illustrate this point, let’s imagine being one of the passengers that was on the research ship that was stuck in the ice off the coast of Antarctica in December 2013. Fifty-two scientists and tourists were stranded there for ten days, and the crew of the ship was stuck there even longer after the passengers were airlifted to safety by a Chinese ship that came to save them. During their ordeal, no one knew for how long they would be trapped before rescue came. The only way for the group to survive the hostile environment and the limited food supplies was for them to cooperate with each other. If each person selfishly looked out for only himself or herself, it would be a disaster. The key to their survival was for everyone to follow basic ethical principles, despite their coming from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Let’s imagine that among the passengers were spiritual leaders from the Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Confucian communities, and also a secular leader respected by everyone on board, including those who followed no organized religion or philosophy. How would these leaders each have faced the challenge? What would have been the way of thinking of each of them and how would each have advised the others in the group. After all, everyone was worried and frightened, and some of the passengers were even angry at what had happened or had become quarrelsome, and most were depressed.

Methods for Developing Ethics Based on Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan Buddhist leader might have reminded the other Buddhists in the group of the words of the great Indian Buddhist master, Shantideva, concerning patience: “If it can be remedied, why get into a foul mood over something? And if it can't be remedied, what help is it to get into a foul mood over it?” In other words, if there is something you can do to get out of a difficult situation, then there is no point in being upset, just do it. But if there is nothing you can do, then why get upset? It’s not going to help. In fact, it will only make you feel worse. So there is no reason to get angry or depressed. Instead, you need to develop patience and courage to face the challenge.

Now, what will help in a difficult situation such as being on this ship stuck in the ice is to have a realistic attitude. First of all, the situation has arisen dependently on many factors; there is no one person or factor to place the blame on and to get angry at. The fact that each of you are on this ship arose dependently on so many factors. First, there were different reasons for each of you to join the expedition, and those reasons were related to the fact they each of you has developed expertise in some scientific area or had the interest, money and time to be here. Then there are the karmic causes from previous lives that have ripened into your being in these circumstances in your present life. There was also the influence of others in not only joining the expedition, but also in your being able to join, like there being no objections raised by your families or your employers. Then there are the reasons why the scientific expedition was undertaken, the reasons for the particular date of departure having been chosen, the condition of the ship and the reasons why it was chosen, the geographic location of Antarctica, the weather, and so on. Being stuck here in the ice has arisen dependently on all these factors. That’s the reality. If any one of these factors were missing, you wouldn’t have been here in this predicament. Where, then, in this huge network of causes and conditions, is there anything specific to place the blame on and get angry at? So when you notice that you are starting to get angry or upset, or you are having a lot of disturbing thoughts of worry, quiet down by focusing on your breath, breathing slowly through your nose and, if you like, count your breath in rounds up to eleven.

Remember that, until the weather clears and a rescue ship has time to arrive, there is nothing anyone can do to speed up the rescue. It is a myth to think that any of us can control the situation, because what happens and how we all handle this also will arise dependently on a huge number of factors. Moreover, the reality is that we are all in this situation together. It is not just my problem, or your problem. The problem of survival is everyone’s problem, and so we need to look beyond our own self-centered views to think how can we all deal with this difficult situation? We can’t control the weather or the arrival of a rescue ship, but what we can affect is our states of mind, especially how we regard each other.

One way to overcome thinking just of yourself is to recognize that everyone here has been your mother or father in some previous life and has treated you with kindness and love. So look at each person here as your long-lost mother or father whom you haven’t seen in many lifetimes. With a deep appreciation of the kindness you’ve received in the past from each person on board, you will naturally develop a heart-warming feeling whenever you see any of them. Take that heart-warming feeling further and develop the wish for each of them to be happy and not to suffer, since everyone, after all, has the same wish. Just like you, everyone wants to be happy and no one wants to be unhappy. We are all equal in that respect. Furthermore, everyone has the same right to be happy and not to suffer. Like with our limited food supplies, everyone equally wants and needs to eat. You yourself don’t want to go hungry, and neither does anyone else. With these attitudes of love and compassion, based on equalizing your attitudes about yourself and others, take responsibility, then, to try to bring everyone happiness and relieve them all of suffering. This means looking after the welfare of the entire group in this difficult situation and being of as much help as possible, as you would do for your own mothers and fathers of this life.

The Buddhist leader might have also advised the other Buddhists in the group to develop the strength and courage to help the others by practicing what’s called “giving and taking.” Several times each day, he would have told them, sit quietly in meditation, and start with quieting down by focusing on your breath and reaffirming your motivation of love and compassion. With the strong compassionate wish for others to be free of their suffering, imagine that everyone’s fear and worry leaves them in the form of black light and enters you through your nose as you breathe in slowly several times. Imagine it goes down to your heart and dissolves there into the calmness and clarity of your own mind. Rest in that state of calmness and clarity for a short moment.

Then, with the quiet happiness that will naturally arise from having relieved your previous mothers and fathers of their mental turmoil, imagine that this calm sense of happiness, warmth and love, in the form of white light, goes out from your heart, through your nose as you slowly exhale. This white light of love and happiness enters everyone, fills their bodies, and now imagine that they all have peace of mind and a cheerful, positive attitude. While doing all this, if you recite the mantra of compassion, OM MANI PADME HUM, it will help you to keep your mind calm and focused, and to remain mindful of compassion.

Even though meditating like this might not have any direct effect on the others on board the ship, it will give you strength, courage and self-confidence to deal with the situation, and you yourself will naturally also have peace of mind and a cheerful, positive attitude. This practice will, however, have an indirect effect on the others, because the way you behave and interact with them because of your meditation will set a good example that can be inspiring to others.

Methods Based on Islam

The Muslim spiritual leader might then have spoken to the other Muslims on board. He would have explained that it is God’s will that we all have been stuck here in the ice. We cannot control what will happen; whether we are rescued or we all die is now in God’s hands. But remember, God is entirely merciful by nature and especially merciful toward those who repent their wrongs. So if you have lost faith in God and have begun to doubt, repent and ask God for forgiveness. With full trust in God’s justice, there is no need to worry.

He might have told them to remember the three dimensions of Islamic religion: submission or surrender to God and His will, faith in God based on humility in the face of all God’s creations, and excellence in both character and in acts of service toward all these creations of God. He might have encouraged them by reminding them that if you are firm in your faith in God’s will, you will be totally at peace. There is nothing to doubt or be worried about.

He might further have told them that God has created all of you with His Spirit in your hearts, in a state of primordial purity, and has endowed each person among you with his or her good qualities, such as love. God’s love for us all is His feeling of closeness toward all the excellence He has created. The best way for you to express your love back to God is to worship Him through your excellent acts of service to His creations, especially by your acts of kindness and help to all your fellow passengers. After all, the Qur’an teaches us that God loves those who do what is virtuous and good, those who keep themselves pure, those who act correctly by acting in accordance with the law and their commitments, such as to pray five times a day, and those who are fair and just.

Remember, when you develop love for others in its purest way, your love is not for these people themselves, but is love for God who created the excellence and good character in them. So struggle against your fears, doubts, and self-centered thoughts. The highest struggle, after all, is against the negative dictates of your confused heart that cause you to forget God and that incite you to destructive thought and behavior.

Methods Based on Christianity

Next, the Christian spiritual leader might have addressed the Christians on board. He might also have reminded them that God, our Father, has created us all out of his love. The more mindful you are of that love, the closer you will feel to God. The best way to experience that closeness to God is through adhering to the ethics and values that are based on the love with which you were created. God has created all of you in His image, with the spark of His love in all of you. So you all have the potential to express that love.

Think of Jesus, who, with no thoughts of his own comfort or safety, suffered for the sake of us all, dying on the cross and then rising from the dead to save us from our sins. If you believe in Jesus, follow his selfless example of caring for the sick, poor and needy with the selfless love of Jesus. God created all of them too and God must have had a purpose in creating them. Therefore you need to respect them all, especially the needy, as the children of God. Moreover, God has sent us this situation of being stuck in the ice as a challenge of our faith. There will be many on board who will be filled with fear and depression. Reaffirm your faith by caring for these needy children of God, as Jesus would have cared for them, with love and affection.

Methods Based on Confucian Principles

Next, the Confucian leader might have spoken to the passengers who shared his beliefs. He also might have told them not to worry. You need to act with yi (义),fairness toward everyone, he might have said, in accordance with li (礼), what is proper and appropriate when facing difficult times. Whether you survive or die will be the result of ming (命), fate, but so long as you do what is right, you will have no regrets. The proper thing to do is to follow all the official procedures of the ship for dealing with emergencies. In accord with the principles of zhengming (正名), the rectification of names, if the captain acts as a captain should, and the passengers act as the passengers should, and if fellow passengers act toward each other as fellow passengers should, then you will be in harmony with what the situation calls for.

You all have “ren” (仁), the inner capacity to do what is good, what is right in relation to others. Ren is the source of all benevolent qualities, such as love, wisdom, sincerity and fairness in dealing with everyone. You need to cultivate this inner capacity for goodness, for without it, you will be unable to endure difficulties, you will be unable to do what is proper.

When asked what this inner capacity is, Confucius said, 

When first there are difficulties, to then deal with them – that is called ren

In other words, when faced with a difficult situation like the one we are in now, you will be able to take hold of the situation and deal with it in a proper benevolent manner, with fairness toward everyone, by cultivating your inner capacity for doing what is right. An alternative way to understand this saying is 

Being the first when there are difficulties and the last when taking hold (of gain), that is called ren.

 This indicates that in difficult situations, you do what is right simply because it is right, without any concern for taking credit for it or obtaining anything in return.

You can learn how to cultivate this inner capacity by looking at examples from history of exalted men who have done what is ethically right when faced with a social disaster. Confucius said, 

A person who has cultivated his inner capacity for goodness, when wishing for himself to be set up properly, sets the people up properly, and when wishing for himself to succeed, makes the people succeed. 

Confucius has also said, 

To overcome selfishness and follow what is proper, that is the inner capacity for goodness. If for one day you can overcome selfishness and follow what is proper, then everyone under heaven will revert to ren

When further asked what ren is, Confucius said it is to love the people. Those with ren, he explained, are courageous and brave. So cultivate your inner capacity to do what is right as proper passengers should do, follow the correct procedures as the captain instructs, and then no matter what happens, you will never have anything to be ashamed of.

Methods Based on Basic Human Ethical Values

The secular leader might then have addressed the entire group of passengers. He might have told them that although there are followers of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Confucianism among you, there are also many who do not follow any organized religion or philosophy. We all need to act in an ethical manner toward each other in order to survive this ordeal. That includes the nonbelievers as well. If we fight with one another, we will never survive. Those among you who follow a religious or philosophical system have faith and belief in the teachings of your system to guide your ethical behavior, and that is wonderful. Even though your reasons for acting in an ethical way may differ among you, nevertheless your conviction gives you the inner strength needed to act in a loving manner toward the others. All these religious and philosophical systems teach us to have love, compassion, forgiveness, contentment, and to lessen our self-centered disruptive behavior. These are values, however, that those who lack any faith or belief in an organized system also accept as worthwhile to develop. These are called “basic human ethical values.”

If we think on the level of these basic human values, then all of us have a shared basis for our ethical behavior, and this will be the key to our survival as a group. We need to maintain peace, harmony and cooperation among us, but external peace depends on inner peace. In other words, external peace will depend on each of us maintaining a calm, peaceful mind. Peace of mind is very much related with your attitude toward others. If you harbor unloving thoughts toward others, and are always thinking only about yourself and how you can succeed, then when you interact with others, you are afraid they will hurt you in some way or prevent you from succeeding. You don’t trust them and so are filled with fear and suspicion. They, in turn, will sense this in you and, consequently will not trust you either. This creates a distance between yourself and the others; it makes a barrier to having any real communication with them. This distance and barrier make you feel insecure and lonely. Feeling insecure, you lack self-confidence to face the challenges of our difficult situation. You become depressed. On the other hand, the closer you feel toward the others in the group, the more you will feel that you are part of a community. You feel you belong to the group and this will make you feel more secure. Once you feel more secure, you will naturally gain more self-confidence.

We humans are social animals. Just as when a social animal, like a sheep, gets separated from the flock, it feels very uneasy and frightened, but when it rejoins the flock, it feels happy once more, similarly we also suffer when we become isolated from others. Often, however, even when you are in the company of others, if your mind is filled with mistrust and suspicion, your attitude isolates you from receiving any comfort or support from the group. So please realize that your basic comfort of mind and ability to maintain hope for a joyful outcome of being stuck here in the ice depend on your attitude toward the others in the group. When you develop a feeling of closeness with each of the others, that feeling gives you inner strength and self-confidence. You no longer feel weak and suspicious. Your self-confidence and sense of security enables you to trust each other, and trust brings genuine friendship.

Some people think they will have more friends if they have money or power. But such friends are only friends of your money and power. When your money and power are gone, these friends are likewise gone. True friends are not like that. Genuine friendships that bring you joy and happiness are built on the basis of mutual trust. When you are open and sincere with each other, you feel not only more secure and self-confident, but also your mind is more at ease. In such a state, you can join forces with each other and deal with the difficulties that all of us as a group are presently in. After all, it is not that only I am stuck in the ice or only you are stuck in the ice; rather all of us are stuck in the ice.

Even when we get out of this predicament, if you maintain this positive, open attitude toward others, you will continue to have warm, trusting friendships. There will always be difficulties in life. It is naïve to imagine that you will never face any more problems in the future. But with openness, sincerity, and the self-confidence and trust that come from them, you will be well prepared to join others, and others will be more willing to join with you in dealing with whatever may happen – good or bad.

If you ask, what is the reason for being ethical, it is simply because we are human beings. We must be ethical because we live with each other and depend on each other in order to live. If you are unconcerned about the happiness and welfare of others, and cause trouble instead, it is you who will ultimately suffer by isolating yourself from them and depriving yourself of their care and concern.

There are two types of care and concern for others. One is based on emotion and is more oriented toward yourself and what you can gain from others. So long as others are nice to you or they behave nicely in general, then you like them and are concerned about their happiness. You don’t want them to suffer or to be unhappy. But as soon as they start to misbehave and either hurt you, or even just simply disagree with you, your attitude toward them changes. You no longer like them and don’t care if they are happy or not. You reject them because of their behavior. This is emotionally-based love and compassion, and it is never a stable basis for true friendship.

The other type of care and concern for others is not dependent on their behavior or attitudes. It is based merely on the fact that they are human beings, just as you are. You want yourself to be happy, no matter how you act or what your state of mind is. And it is just based on the fact that you want to be happy that you take care of yourself; you look out for your welfare. But the same is true of everyone else, including those whom you may not like because of how they behave or what their attitudes are. Nevertheless, they too want to be happy; they too thrive on care and love. In terms of the wish to be happy, we all are equal. Everyone wants to be happy. Not only are we all equal in wanting to be happy, we all have the same right to a happy life; and a happy life comes about when you have sincere concern for others and take care that they are happy too. It is based on having sincere friendship with everyone, no matter whom you are with.

Only humans have the ability to be concerned about others who misbehave. Only humans have the ability to take care about their welfare. This ability can come from either your human intelligence or from your faith in some religious or philosophical system of beliefs. Animals have neither of these – they lack human intelligence and faith. If some other animal threatens or causes them harm, they simply attack. As humans, however, not all of us have faith or belief in a religious or philosophical system, but we all have basic human intelligence. We need to use that intelligence to understand the reasons why concern for others’ happiness and welfare is the key to our own happiness.

Whether you believe in a creator, or past lives, or the strong influence of your ancestors, no one can deny that you came from a mother. Without the care and affection of your mother, or of someone who took care of you like a mother when you were a helpless infant, you would not have survived. Scientists have shown that those people who receive maximum love and affection as babies feel more secure, more self-confident and are happier their entire lives; whereas those who are neglected or abused as babies feel insecure no matter what happens to them. They always feel uneasy. They feel deep inside that something is missing in their lives and so they are basically unhappy. Doctors have also shown that a mother’s affectionate physical touch is essential for the proper development of an infant’s brain. Moreover, doctors have also documented how constant anger, fear and hatred eat away the immune system.

Everyone takes care to have a healthy body, so to have a healthy body, you need to pay more attention to having a healthy, calm mind. The important question is how to gain a healthy, calm mind. Even if you were raised as an only child, with much affection and care, still if you faced a great deal of pressure to succeed in a competitive society, whether at school or at work, you might still have felt insecure and stressed. But if you feel you need to defeat the others in order to succeed, and so your mind is filled with mistrust, fear and jealousy, then as a result, your mind will be disturbed and unstable. This uncomfortable state of mind will damage not only your chances for success, but also your health.

If, on the other hand, while trying to do your best, you are also concerned about the welfare of the others, you will realize that just as you would like to receive encouragement, help and friendly affectionate support from them, they too would also like the same from you. If you develop sincere compassion for them – the wish for them not to fail, but also to succeed – this gives you the inner strength and self-confidence to apply your full efforts to the task of working for everyone’s success. Showing compassion and concern for others is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. In fact, it is a source of strength and calmness of mind.

The same analysis applies to our situation here of being stuck in the ice. If you mistrust each other and argue and compete over our limited resources, we will all suffer. We will all become weaker. If you develop sincere concern for each other and comfort each other when any of you become distraught, then like a mother comforting a crying infant, both the mother and the infant will feel much better. With calm minds and a sense of belonging to a loving group of sincere friends, we will all have the strength to survive.

So use your human intelligence. When someone starts to annoy you and you start to get angry and feel like yelling at him or her, remember that doing so will only make things worse. It will upset your own state of mind and also the collective mood of the entire group. Everyone is scared and worried, and so if any of them misbehave, it is because this person is insecure and frightened. Please try to make such persons feel more secure and not to lose hope by showing them care and understanding.

Happiness comes from having hope for a better future, and hope comes with the support of like-minded, affectionate friends. In short, then, on the basis of these fundamental, shared human values, we will all be able to act in an ethical manner. If your religious faith or philosophical beliefs reinforce these ethical values, that is indeed truly wonderful. If you lack such faith, rely fully on your human intelligence and these basic human ethical values alone. With religious harmony among us and everyone fostering these basic human values, we will all survive this ordeal and come out better human beings because of this shared experience.


We can see from this analysis that each of these religions, philosophies and secular views leads to the conclusion that when facing a difficult situation in society, the key to survival is ethical self-discipline. This means overcoming self-centeredness, fear and depression, and cooperating with each other on the basis of love, compassion, kindness and respect. Each of these five views – Tibetan Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Confucian and nonreligious – has its own methods for developing these good qualities:

  • The Tibetan Buddhists see difficult situations as arising dependently on a huge number of causes and conditions. No one factor or person can control the outcome, though everyone can contribute something positive that will affect what develops. They regard everyone as equal, both in having been our parents in previous lives and in wanting to be happy and not to be unhappy.
  • The Muslims see difficulties as coming from God’s will, and the resolution of problems as lying in God’s hands. They submit to God’s will and worship God through excellent acts of service toward all of God’s creations.
  • The Christians see difficult situations as challenges sent by God to test us, and follow Jesus’s example in serving the poor and needy.
  • Those who follow Confucian principles see difficulties as what inevitably arise from time to time. It is up to our fate what happens. To deal with difficulties, they follow the proper procedures as the captain instructs them and cultivate their inner sense of benevolence and goodness to treat everyone fairly, with propriety and love.
  • The ones who follow just basic human ethical values understand that no matter how difficult things may be, everyone appreciates love and affectionate care. As social animals, we need to cooperate with each other in order to survive, and if we look after each other, we gain the strength and self-confidence to overcome any difficulties.

Thus, each of these five groups has its own system of ethics; nevertheless, those who sincerely follow the teachings and advice of each of these systems would achieve the same result. They would be able to accept the situation without getting angry. Even if they found one of the passengers acting in a way that threatened the welfare of the entire group, for instance by hoarding food, and which would necessitate taking disciplinary measures to correct this problem, each of their systems of ethical values would help them to do so not out of anger, but out of concern for the entire group of stranded passengers. They would maintain peace of mind and contribute positively to the welfare of everyone on board. As a result, the community would not only survive the ordeal, but the members would become even closer to each other than before, because of their shared experience of taking responsibility for each other’s welfare.


This example of the ship stuck in the ice of Antarctica is a helpful analogy for understanding how a multicultural society can best face, in a healthy manner, the challenges and difficulties that inevitably arise in life. To accomplish this, the people need to learn about the cultures and beliefs of all the major groups in their society. Fear and distrust of others comes from lack of knowledge about their beliefs. With proper education, we can learn that all religions and philosophies have a system of ethics and that what these systems of ethics share in common is also in accord with basic human ethical values that everyone can accept, including nonbelievers. These are the values of love, compassion, and affectionate care for others with deep concern for their welfare.

When the expression of these basic human values is sincere, regardless of the belief system with which people from the various groups come to them, then the society functions harmoniously, in good times or bad. This is because each group respects each other, based on mutual understanding; and from mutual respect based on mutual understanding comes mutual trust. When people from different cultures respect and trust each other, they live without fear of one another. This makes for a healthy, harmonious society, based on the fundamental ethical principles that everyone shares.

Thus, since a healthy society arises dependently on many factors – economics, the environment, the social, legal and education systems, and, as we have seen, ethics and religious harmony – if any of these factors are weak, the society won’t thrive. We need to start on the individual level, especially in the area of our ethics and respect for others and their beliefs. If we develop a calm mind and a compassionate attitude toward others, and then extend that to our families, our friends, our immediate community, then slowly we build up a healthy society. The health of the whole society will arise dependently on each of its members developing a healthy mind and sense of ethics. This is especially true in multicultural societies and in the multicultural world at large.

Each of the world’s major religions and philosophies, as we have seen in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Confucianism, have a shared set of basic human ethical values that those with no religion or philosophy can also affirm. We need to educate our children in these basic human ethical values, so that slowly the entire world will become a healthier place for the benefit of all. Thank you.

Original Audio from the Seminar