Reviving Ancient Indian Values

I’ve been asked to speak about the revival of ancient Indian values, which is one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s four main commitments. This topic deals with several issues

  • Firstly, what are the ancient Indian values? 
  • Secondly, what are the aim and purpose of reviving them?
  • Thirdly, what does it mean to revive them?
  • Fourthly, what are some practical, effective methods for bringing about their revival?

Let’s examine each of these issues, one by one.

What Are the Ancient Indian Values?

When we look for what the ancient Indian values are, there are two directions that we can go in:

  • One is the direction of ahimsa and karuna – non-violence and compassion – two ancient Indian values that His Holiness regularly promotes. Taught in the Indian religious traditions, they also form the basis for modern-day secular ethics, universal values and the SEE Learning program of social, emotional and ethical learning developed by Emory University. This program is currently being implemented in many schools in India, as well as in several other countries around the world. 
  • The other direction is that of emotional hygiene – another ancient Indian value that His Holiness promotes, and which is found primarily in the teachings of the ancient Indian tenet systems on the mind, the emotions, ways of knowing and ways of reasoning.  

I’d like to focus here on reviving this second aspect of ancient Indian values: emotional hygiene. If we speak of Indian science, philosophy and religion, as His Holiness does in reference to the Buddhist teachings, then emotional hygiene would for the most part be in the sphere of Indian science. It overlaps, however, with Indian philosophy when dealing with issues relating to the self, truth and reality. How we regard ourselves and others and what we consider reality and truth clearly affect our emotional well-being. 

The ancient Indian tenet systems include four Buddhist and eight non-Buddhist tenet systems, and several of them have a few sub-schools. Each of these tenet systems, however, is a complete system, with its own unique assertions in respect to all aspects of emotional hygiene. Each offers its own map of the mind and emotions, its own assertion of the relation between the mind and the self, its own cognition theory and its own structure of logical proofs. Furthermore, they all have quite different views concerning the philosophical topics of the self, truth and reality. 

In addition, all of them, with the exception of the Charvakas, present their scientific and philosophical assertions within the context of the main topics of Indian religions. These topics include karma, uncontrollably recurring rebirth (in other words, samsara), the sufferings of samsara, ignorance about the self and reality as the cause of samsara, and the correct understanding of the self and reality as the means for attaining liberation from samsara. Since our emotional states are affected by ignorance and affect, in turn, our karmic behavior, they bring about the sufferings of samsaric rebirth. The methods for ridding ourselves of these emotional states based on ignorance are all designed to lead to liberation from samsaric rebirth. Thus, it is not a simple matter to disentangle the Indian science of emotional hygiene from the basic assertions of Indian philosophy and religion.  

Given this wide diversity of views concerning the basic assertions shared in common by ancient Indian science, philosophy and religion, what actually are the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene? They are: 

  • The value of using rational, analytical thought to differentiate between fact and fiction
  • The value of understanding how our minds and emotions work in order to overcome the sufferings that we create for ourselves and thus also for others.

The methods shared in common by these ancient Indian tenet systems for maintaining emotional hygiene reveal further shared values. 

  • First is the value of education. All of these systems advocate, for overcoming ignorance and suffering, training the mind by hearing or reading their teachings and then thinking critically about them to gain a correct understanding and conviction that they are true and beneficial. Study and critical thinking are the foundations for proper education. 
  • Second is the value of integrating into our lives what we have learned, understood and gained conviction in. As the method for doing this, all Indian systems teach meditation in order to build up beneficial habits. 
  • Third are the values of ethical self-discipline, concentration and insight. All teach disciplining our bodies and speech with ethical behavior in order to gain the discipline to train our minds. Then to train our minds, they all use the meditation methods of shamatha for developing concentration and vipashyana for developing the insight that removes our ignorance. Shamatha is a state of mind that is stilled of all mental wandering and dullness and which is settled single-pointedly on an object. It does this while regarding its object in a correct way, such as its being impermanent, or with a beneficial attitude toward it, such as compassion. Vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind that, while maintaining a state of shamatha, is able to discern, in depth, all the details and implications of this understanding or attitude toward its object.

In short, then, the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene are the values of 

  • Education
  • Rational, analytical thought
  • Understanding the mind and emotions
  • Ethical behavior
  • Meditation for developing concentration and insight.

What Is the Aim and Purpose of Reviving the Ancient Indian Values of Emotional Hygiene?

The word “values” means things that are considered important for achieving a positive goal. Physical hygiene is based on the values of cleanliness, healthy diet, exercise and safe behavior. All are important because they help prevent disease and contribute to the well-being of both ourselves and society. Similarly, emotional hygiene is based on the values of education, rational thought, correct understanding, emotional balance, constructive behavior, concentration and insight. All of these are important because they help prevent irrational thought, emotional unrest, and compulsive behavior that is destructive to both self and society. 

The aim and purpose of the ancient Indian teachings on emotional hygiene has always been to help people overcome suffering. Although the ultimate goal was to overcome the sufferings of samsara – namely, uncontrollably recurring rebirth – these teachings are also helpful for overcoming everyday problems and suffering. They do this by providing people with analytical schemes for understanding how their minds and emotions work, how their emotions affect their behavior, how to identify the troublemakers in their minds and emotions, and how to employ valid cognition, logic and reason, discipline and meditation to rid themselves of these troublemakers. 

The aim and purpose of now reviving these teachings is to complement present-day scientific knowledge of the workings of the brain and psychological theories of the mind and to expand the methods available for helping people. Helping people does not mean just treating seriously disturbed patients in a therapeutic setting, but also includes helping ordinary people to deal in better ways with their everyday lives. Helping all beings to overcome suffering is, perhaps, His Holiness’ most central commitment.

Reviving the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene is especially important in our present age. Often, we hear of our current times being called the “post-truth age.” Disinformation and so-called “fake news” are rampant. Many consider truth to be based simply on what they emotionally believe to be true, rather than based on verifiable facts. This leads to irrational behavior and societal disharmony, dysfunction and conflict. In short, it leads to many problems and much suffering. Reviving the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene can help with this situation by indicating ways to counter and eliminate misconceptions about reality and the disturbing emotions and compulsive, destructive behavior that stem from them and bring about suffering.

Let me give an example. His Holiness often speaks of the similarity between the Buddhist Chittamatra Mind-Only view and the implications of quantum mechanics. Both lead to the conclusion that there is no such thing as objective reality, but that the mind of the observer affects the state of the objects observed. Thus, from different points of view, different states are true, such as a photon being a particle or an energy wave, depending on the observer and conceptual framework with which it is measured. A classic Buddhist example is that what humans experience as water, gods experience as nectar and preta ghosts experience as pus. Just as a photon being a particle and an energy wave are both relatively true, likewise, for each of these types of beings, what they experience is relatively true and functions in terms of cause and effect. Water quenches people’s thirst, nectar brings intense pleasure to the gods and pus causes pretas severe pain. 

However, this relativity of viewpoints and experience concerns only conventional truth, not deepest truth. But even in terms of relative, conventional truth, there is a distinction between valid conventional truth and invalid conventional truth. It is not the case that anything someone thinks is true is, in fact, true, just because they believe it is true. Just because someone believes that pouring oil on a fire will extinguish the flames does not, in reality, cause a fire to go out. One of the benefits of reviving the ancient Indian value of critical thinking based on logic and reason is to help people navigate through the challenges and chaos of this post-truth age.

What Does It Mean to Revive These Ancient Indian Values of Emotional Hygiene?

These diverse Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems did not develop in isolation from one another. They had a long history of debate with each other at great Indian universities such as Nalanda. Another of His Holiness’ commitments is to religious harmony, based on knowledge and respect for all traditions. From the point of view of that commitment, and in keeping with the tradition of Nalanda that His Holiness reveres, the revival of ancient Indian values would mean reviving the teachings on emotional hygiene found in all these Indian tenet systems, both the Buddhist and the non-Buddhist ones. 

Reviving the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene, however, does not mean simply translating the Sanskrit texts into modern languages, although that is an important part of the task. The root texts and their Indian commentaries, and even the Tibetan commentaries to the Indian Buddhist ones, are difficult to understand. They are extremely advanced and require a great deal of background study and learning to comprehend. To revive the knowledge contained in these texts will require graded levels of explanation of the material in them, starting at the beginner level. Only with such graded materials will they become accessible to those with no background in traditional Indian thought. 

Presenting graded levels of these teachings, however, does not mean arranging and studying these systems in a graded order, as if each were increasingly more precise and valid. To do so would imply that one system is superior to all others, and that study of what are considered the “lower systems” forms stepping-stones to studying the one that’s the highest and best. Although many scholars arrange the study of the Buddhist tenet systems in this graded way, to apply this approach to the study of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems is completely contradictory to the values of interreligious harmony that His Holiness promotes. Presenting the Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings in a graded order mean presenting each of the tenet systems individually in graded orders of complexity.      

His Holiness often says that the teachings on Buddhist science and philosophy can be studied as academic subjects, devoid of religion. This would apply to Indian science and philosophy as well. Revival of this ancient wisdom, however, should not be limited to merely preserving it so that it can only be studied like a museum piece in academic institutions. Many universities around the world already have departments of South Asian Studies that include courses on ancient Indian philosophy. Expanding these programs in India by founding a new Nalanda University to specialize in these studies is an important step, but it is not enough. 

As His Holiness always promotes, the importance and value of emotional hygiene need to be introduced to children as well, by integrating these values into the school curriculums on all levels, from kindergarten to university. His Holiness strongly believes that the best avenue for making positive change in society is to start with the education of children. Thus, His Holiness advocates that the ancient Indian values of not only ahimsa and karuna – nonviolence and compassion – but also of emotional hygiene need to complement the current materialistic emphasis in children’s education. 

Following a long-term strategy of introducing the ancient Indian values into the secular education system is the most stable way to make a comprehensive positive impact on society. Since the teachings that promote these values derive from Indian sources that share the set of basic premises found in all Indian thought, His Holiness advocates that these values first be revived in India. Based on the results of this program, strategies can then be devised for introducing these values on a global scale to those who do not share these premises.  

For these teachings and values to be truly revived, they also need to be brought back to life with explanations and practical guidelines for how to apply them to the problems people face in their present-day lives. This will require adapting the teachings, even in India, to a secular framework devoid of their original religious aspects concerning karma, rebirth and liberation. This is especially important since the various Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems explain these topics in often conflicting manners. However, finding a common ground is even more complicated since even the philosophical assertions of the various Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems about the self, truth and reality also often conflict with each other. These differing assertions in the realm of religion and philosophy affect, in turn, these tenet systems’ presentations of the various facets of emotional hygiene. 

For example, all the Indian tenet systems assert in common that ignorance about reality is the cause of suffering. They also assert in common that this ignorance underlies all emotions, both destructive and constructive ones, as well as all feelings of happiness and unhappiness. They all agree that 

  • by understanding how the mind knows things, 
  • by differentiating valid ways of knowing from invalid ones, and 
  • by employing logic and reason, 

we can eliminate this ignorance and thus bring our suffering to an end. 

The similarities end there. The non-Buddhist systems assert that the self is an unchanging entity that, when liberated from suffering and rebirth, continues to exist independently of a body and mind. In keeping with this assertion, they teach that ridding ourselves of ignorance means ridding ourselves of all emotions and feelings. Therefore, to gain liberation, we need to overcome all emotions, both constructive and destructive, and all feelings of happiness and unhappiness. The self then continues to exist without a body, a mind, emotions or feelings.  

The Buddhist systems, in contrast, teach that the self exists dependently on a body and mind, even when liberated. When ignorance is eliminated, we are still left with constructive emotions untainted by ignorance and feelings of happiness similarly untainted. The liberated self then continues to exist on the basis of these untainted emotions and untainted feelings, experienced with a body and mind similarly untainted by ignorance. Thus, although both the non-Buddhist and Buddhist systems agree that emotional hygiene depends on ridding ourselves of ignorance about reality, the resulting state is quite different. The non-Buddhist ideal state of emotional hygiene is to have no emotions or feelings of happiness at all, whereas the Buddhist ideal state of emotional hygiene is to have untainted constructive emotions, such as love and compassion, and untainted happiness. In this way, the philosophical and religious assertions of the various ancient Indian tenet systems strongly affect their assertions concerning ideal emotional hygiene.      

Reviving the ancient Indian teachings on emotional hygiene as an academic subject in universities can comfortably include teaching the religious and philosophical contexts of the purely scientific aspects of the various tenet systems’ presentations of an emotional map of the mind, cognition theory, ways of knowing and ways of reasoning. Students should be intellectually mature enough to deal with these differences. The differing religious and philosophical teachings, however, would be too complicated and too confusing for school children to study.

What then are the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene that are general enough to be suitable for introducing into the educational system? These are 

  • The value and importance of knowing how our minds work
  • The value and importance of analyzing our emotions and how they are affected by our attitudes and by how we think 
  • The value and importance of understanding how our emotions and attitudes affect, in turn, our behavior and well-being
  • The value and importance of thinking critically and rationally, based on logic. 

We can also include 

  • The values of ethical discipline and meditation to develop concentration and insight.

The philosophical and religious differences that form the context for these values are of secondary importance for school children.    

What Are Some Practical, Effective Methods for Bringing About the Revival of These Ancient Indian Values?

His Holiness has already taken the first step needed for reviving the Buddhist teachings on emotional hygiene. He has commissioned Tibetan scholars to collect the material on Buddhist science and philosophy from the Tengyur, the collection of Tibetan translations of the commentaries by Indian masters to the words of the Buddha. This monumental work has now been completed and published in Tibetan, and already partially translated into English as Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics. Translations into other modern languages are planned as well. The second volume of this work, Mind, available already in English, covers the material on emotional hygiene. This is a great step in fulfilling His Holiness’ commitment to reviving these ancient Indian values. Reviving the teachings on these values found in the non-Buddhist Indian tenet systems will require similar compilations and translations from their classic texts.

Even having the material on emotional hygiene already gathered from the Tengyur and translated still leaves many challenges in making it accessible to a modern audience. First of all, the Indian texts, even with their Indian commentaries, are still very difficult to understand. They require further explanations. What makes reviving the teachings in them even more complicated, however, is that various Tibetan masters, all of whom are heirs of the Nalanda tradition, have interpreted these Indian texts in very different, and often conflicting manners. This is especially evident in their analyses of cognition theory and ways of knowing. 

For example, the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma followers of Sakya Pandita’s (Sa-pan) commentaries assert that visual cognition, which is non-conceptual, perceives just one moment of colored shapes at a time, such as one moment of the colored shapes of an orange. Visual cognition does not determine these colored shapes to be a commonsense object. Only a conceptual cognition cognizes the orange as a commonsense object that includes a sight, smell, taste and physical sensation, and which extends over time. Only such a conceptual cognition determines its object to be an orange. 

The Gelug followers of Chapa (Phyva-pa), in contrast, assert that visual cognition perceives not just one moment of the colored shapes of an orange, for instance, but also the orange as well, and it determines it to be a commonsense object. These two contrasting views then, in turn, affect the interpretation of many other aspects of emotional hygiene, such as what is a valid cognition and what is actually real? 

Such Tibetan explanations as these need to be added to supplement the Indian Buddhist sources in order to get a clearer understanding of their teachings. But, again, the question needs to be asked whether this additional variety of explanations needs to be added to only the university-level academic study of emotional hygiene or can it be added to at least the higher levels of public education before university?

Since one of the main objectives of reviving the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene is to promote rational thinking, a possible answer to this question, both on the university and pre-university levels, is to give students the ancient Indian tools of logic and debate and let them debate the pros and cons of these different theories themselves. This procedure could apply as well to the points on which the various Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems differ, such as what is ideal emotional hygiene. 

Where to Start?

In Requests to the Seventeen Glorious Nalanda Masters, His Holiness has indicated an approach to studying the Buddhist teachings of the Nalanda masters that is more suitable to the modern mentality. It starts with understanding the two truths, then from the two truths to the four truths, and then from the four truths to the three refuges. This sequence may also be helpful as the starting point for teaching emotional hygiene in a secular manner, although the last point need not be specified in terms of the Buddhist three jewels of refuge. It can be presented as a safe direction to put in life for protecting oneself from suffering. 

Let’s explore His Holiness’ recommendation. In the most general terms acceptable to anyone, the two truths are, on the one hand, false appearances that we believe are true and, on the other, actual reality. We believe that how things appear to us are true simply because it emotionally feels to us like they really are true, and so, uncritically, we accept that they correspond to reality.  But, if we examine these deceptive appearances, we discover that they are like an illusion; they do not correspond to reality. Actual reality is based on fact and can be verified; illusion, on closer examination, is found to be false. All Indian tenet systems, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, agree on this point. Even young children can relate to this distinction in terms of imagining there is a monster under their beds and then looking and seeing the reality that there is no monster. 

Once children understand the distinction between the two truths, they can be introduced to the most general idea of the four truths. If they believe their fantasies are real, they are frightened and unable to sleep. They suffer. The cause of their suffering is not knowing that what they imagine is real is, in fact, not real. Their fear and unhappiness will go away, however, when they look and see there is no monster under their bed. 

Based on understanding these four truths of suffering, unawareness of reality as its cause, and getting rid of suffering by understanding what is real, children can then be led to think, “How wonderful it would be never to be frightened or unhappy again. How wonderful it would be to understand things clearly. Through education and training my mind, I can reach that state. That is the direction I want to go in; going in that safe direction is how I can protect myself from fear and suffering.” 

Progressing in this way from the two truths to the four truths to a safe direction to follow in life, not only children, but also people of all ages can learn that the main source of their fears and unhappiness is actually their minds and disturbing emotions, and they can learn to appreciate the value of gaining emotional hygiene for overcoming those problems. Appreciating the benefits and value of emotional hygiene and developing the wish and intention to work to achieve it is the essential foundation for all further training. 

Once this foundation of understanding the difference between deceptive appearances and reality is secure, the next steps are introducing the tools for emotional hygiene. Since each of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist tenet systems offer a wide variety of differing assertions concerning each of these tools, we need, as a start, a general introduction to the complete set of tools, explained in a general enough manner that would be acceptable to all of the systems. Then, for more advanced students, the presentations of the complete set of tools in each system can be explained in detail, one system at a time. It would be unfair to these ancient systems to mix them all together like a stew. 

To understand and train the mind and emotions requires first understanding what mind and emotions are. Some non-Buddhist systems, such as Samkhya and Vaisheshika, identify the mind and emotions as material entities. This view is reminiscent of the Western scientific one that reduces the mind and emotions to physical processes in the brain. The non-Buddhist Nyaya school accepts the Vaisheshika materialistic assertion, but also adds valid ways of knowing as a separate entity. The Buddhist systems, in contrast, reject reducing the mind to a purely physical entity or physical process and, instead, define mind as clarity and awareness. As His Holiness explains, clarity is the activity of giving rise to a cognitive aspect of an object, like a reflection in a mirror, while awareness is the simultaneous activity of cognitively engaging in some way with an object. Thus, clarity and awareness describe the same mental event. 

All the Buddhist and non-Buddhist systems bring in the role of the self to complete their presentations of how the mind gives rise to cognition accompanied by emotion. But without bringing in the contrasting views in these systems concerning the self and its relationship with mind and emotion, what these varying views can accept in common is that, for the purposes of emotional hygiene, cognition with emotion refers to the subjective experiencing of objects. With simple exercises, people can recognize what this definition refers to.

What would follow next is drawing, on this common ground, a map of the mind and emotions. The most general map would need to include types of consciousness – sensory and mental – and basic mental factors such as interest, attention, concentration, feeling levels of happiness or unhappiness, and so on. Also needed would be the various emotions, from love to anger, and how they affect our ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. Although more research is needed in order to compile a list of the basic mental factors and emotions asserted in common by all the ancient Indian systems, all of them identify the primary troublemakers as longing desire, anger and ignorance. 

Next would follow a presentation of how non-conceptual and conceptual cognition work, which would include a discussion of the types of objects involved with each. This presentation can then be expanded with an introduction to the various valid and invalid ways of knowing objects, especially bare cognition and inference. The discussion of inference leads naturally to the presentation of debate, and valid and invalid ways of reasoning. Finally, as a supplement to this general study, the basic meditation methods for developing concentration and insight can be introduced. 

On completion of this general survey of the tools of emotional hygiene shared in common by all the ancient Indian systems, students could then, depending on their aptitude, capacity and interests, study in depth each of the systems, one by one, or specialize just in one system. But on all levels of the training, exercises can be given, at each step of the way, for recognizing and applying what they are learning to examples from their everyday lives. On our studybuddhism.com website, our Berzin Archives team has already developed many such exercises. 

Such training programs as outlined here can go far to fulfilling His Holiness’ commitment to reviving the ancient Indian values of emotional hygiene. As His Holiness often says, “As human beings we are intelligent and have the ability to think things through. We can use our minds to change how we think to cultivate happiness and reduce suffering.” Thank you.

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