Putting Universal Ethics into Practice

The human mind is both the source and, if properly directed, the solution to all our problems. Those who attain great learning but lack a good heart are in imminent danger of falling prey to an anxiety, a restlessness that results from desires incapable of fulfillment. Material knowledge can easily be a source of negative thoughts and feelings. Conversely, a genuine understanding of spiritual values brings peace. – The 14th Dalai Lama

When, at the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, His Holiness explained why we need to talk about universal ethics, he said that a significant portion of the seven billion people on this planet do not have any particular faith, and stated that we cannot offer these people a system of training the mind that is founded on a particular religion. He said that it’s very important that this system of training is founded in secular education.

The financial crisis had just exploded in America then, and on that same occasion he said that most of the leaders of Wall Street were from Ivy League Universities. How could it be that the greed and deceit so apparent during the crisis had not been tackled at the time of their education? Now this center at MIT is engaged in learning how to address greed, deceit and negativity by understanding how emotions shape our decision-making and understanding the long-term ramifications of the decisions we make.

His Holiness has also spoken of how to put universal ethics into practice, suggesting three points:

  • The ethics of restraint
  • The ethics of virtue
  • The ethics of altruism and compassion.

The ethics of restraint is how to abandon the negative habits of our body and speech. His Holiness has said that the body is gross and the mind is subtle. If we cannot even control the body, what hope do we have of controlling the mind? By first observing the negative habits of the body and speech and then the mind, we exercise ethical restraint, which permits us then to engage in the ethics of virtue. This means enhancing our positive behavior, such as compassion, kindness, forgiveness and discernment. This finally brings us to the ethics of altruism or compassion, in which we dedicate our lives to others.