March 14, 2022

This 1999 book says nothing remarkable. That’s what’s remarkable about it.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is known as a religious or spiritual leader. But he is Buddhist, which is more a philosophy than a religion, and there’s practically no religion in his book. No mention of reincarnation (even though it’s central to his own life story — he was deemed the reincarnation of his predecessor). No mention of any afterlife, or God, or references to scripture.

Leaving all that out makes for a book that can speak to everyone, giving us a take on ethics that’s universal. Unlike efforts messed up by dicey religious notions, this book doesn’t ask the reader to suspend disbelief, with propositions not readily accepted by our rational minds, which must be forcibly overridden by “faith.” In contrast, there’s very little here that doesn’t strike a reader as perfectly reasonable and indeed obviously true.

That might be a formula for anodyne platitudes. But not for nothing has this man spent his life thinking about the issues here addressed. Furthermore, in contrast to so much that’s written under the rubric of “philosophy,” here there’s nothing abstruse, difficult, esoteric, convoluted, or subtle. He tells it straight and clear.

But enough of characterizing the book. What does it actually say?

Everyone desires happiness and avoidance of suffering. So much a part of our nature is this (and it would be strange if it weren’t) that it requires no further philosophical justification. “Suffering” is self-explanatory but “happiness” is a much trickier concept (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill suggesting it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig). The key dichotomy is between transitory sensations and feelings about one’s life as as whole. Gyatso doesn’t deny the pleasures of the former; but beware the “hedonic treadmill,” when satisfying a desire merely sets up the next desire.

In his view, the key to happiness — and to ethics — is avoidance of harm to others. Or, more broadly, promoting their happiness. (Recalling the golden rule.) This actually may not seem so obvious a proposition. I get there by positing that the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings able to feel. Gyatso doesn’t put it that way, but the conclusion is equivalent.

It’s also the essence of ethics — harm avoidance and happiness promotion. But how this figures into one’s own happiness is again tricky. While Gyatso argues that it’s served by promoting the happiness of others, Garrison Keillor queried if one’s purpose is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not actually a supercilious question. Is “pay it forward” a sort of Ponzi scheme? (But the existence of feeling beings needs no justification. They just are.)

A related issue is whether there’s truly any such thing as altruism. If doing something for another makes me happy, per the Dalai Lama, isn’t that actually self-serving? My daughter and I have had this conversation endlessly about my philanthropy.

I answer this way. My feeling good about philanthropy is not a bad thing that negates the happiness in others it produces. It augments it. If both donor and recipient benefit, that adds to the global quantity of happiness. Which is what it’s all about. And though Gyatso suggests there is a difference between self-serving and selfless altruism, I believe our egos and self-regard are so powerful that the latter cannot truly exist.

Notably, a chapter is titled “The Ethic of Restraint.” I read it shortly after writing about how restraint and its lack creates a power imbalance between good and evil. Moral action concerns not just one’s good impulses, but restraining the negative ones we all experience. Gyatso dilates upon how negative thoughts and feelings — anger, jealousy, resentment, etc. — undermine one’s ability to be happy. While positive ones — kindness, compassion, love — serve it. Thus giving us the lifelong task of controlling the former in favor of the latter. Taming a wild elephant, the book says.

This promotes inner peace, deemed the sine qua non of happiness. And inner peace helps us to restrain our negative feelings.

All fine and dandy. But how does one know when one is doing that? Self-justification is also a powerful force. Even from the standpoint of promoting the well-being of others, fallible humans can get it wrong. Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot believed they were working for human betterment. Gyatso would say they lacked inner peace. I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Interestingly, he rejects the idea of “karma” as commonly understood, some sort of cosmic force for giving people their just deserts. Gyatso sees that as powerlessness. Instead, he says, what happens to us does depend on our actions, but as direct consequences, not due to some mystical force. (Which of course does not exist.)

I did not agree with every word. He impugns “the culture of perpetual growth” as leading to “discontents.” He seems to mean inequality, then bizarrely says that if Europe were the whole world, the “endless growth” ideology might be justified; but elsewhere people are starving. In fact he takes for granted that globally, poverty is worsening.

A common mistake. Actually, poverty has been plummeting for decades (apart from the recent pandemic effect) — and it’s thanks to economic growth.Not the cause of poverty and inequality, but their remedy. The world will never be equal, but human life can be made better for more people if there’s more wealth available.

That’s an ethical proposition.