Ethics in Our Human Relationships

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Widely revered and loved, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism. He was presented the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

This article was first published in the December, 2006 issue of Vedanta Kesari.

Our lives become meaningless when we lose the value of justice and ethics. We all have an equal right to pursue happiness; no one wants pain and suffering. And yet justice and equality are uniquely human principles. We should not sacrifice these principles in the pursuit of power or material wealth. Instead, we should employ them in serving others’ interests. But to do so, we need a firm foundation in ethics.

If we are not guided by a sense of ethics and morality, our actions tend to seek our self-interest alone to the detriment of others. Such behavior is the greatest obstacle to the cause of justice and equality. These days, many people complain about the general loss of ethics and morality in our world, to which they attribute the myriad problems we face. I believe that if we want to achieve effective change in our society, we need to promote ethical values.

Everyone benefits if we put others before ourselves. I am convinced that steady effort in this direction will bring about peace and stability in our societies. Since other people need happiness just as much as we do, we should not exploit them for our selfish ends. Regardless of whatever material progress we achieve, if we, who have to share this planet from birth to death, lose our respect, love, friendship and empathy for one another, our lives will become meaningless. On the other hand, if we spend a day preoccupied with kind thoughts, we will feel peaceful in the evening, which, in turn, enables us to sleep soundly. However, if from the time we wake in the morning, we indulge in unkind thoughts and deeds, our triumph over others will leave a bad taste in our mouths. Even our sleep will be disturbed.

Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy. And it is the foundation of a good heart, the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others. Through kindness, affection, honesty, truth and justice towards everyone else we ensure our own benefit. This is not a matter for complicated theorizing. It is a matter of common sense. There is no denying that consideration for others is worthwhile and that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. Nor is there any denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. In fact it is clear that the more our hearts and minds are afflicted with ill-will, the more miserable we become. Therefore, even if we reject everything else—religion, ideology and all received wisdom—we cannot escape the necessity for love and compassion.

In the course of our lives we often make misguided decisions that harm others or ourselves. We do this out of ignorance. We think that a certain mode of behavior will bring us happiness when in fact it brings us suffering. Feelings of self-righteous anger and the urge for revenge may sometimes lead us to harm others in the mistaken conviction that it will benefit us and bring us some kind of happiness. Actually, it creates suffering not only for the victims of our deeds, but also for us. However justified we may feel, doing others harm, even in the name of revenge, severely disturbs our own peace of mind and creates conditions for our own suffering.

Human beings need to live together and are dependent on each other in many essential ways. In human society we therefore need moral codes of behavior in order to live in peace and harmony with one another. Although victims may have a psychological need to feel that justice is being done, the infliction of pain on someone else only serves to add to the suffering already done and does not increase the potential for happiness of anyone involved. Instead of revenge, it is the notion of forgiveness that should be encouraged and developed.

If we truly act out of concern for others’ well being, we will recognize the potential impact of our actions on others and order our conduct accordingly. When we become angry, we stop being compassionate, loving, generous, forgiving, tolerant, and patient altogether. We deprive ourselves of the very things that happiness consists in. And not only does anger immediately destroy our critical faculties, it tends toward rage, spite, hatred, and malice—each of which is always negative because it is a direct cause of harm to others.

If, on the other hand, we can let go of anger and hatred, if we can apply reasoning to analyze the situation, adopt a wider perspective and look at other angles of the situation, the end result, the product of patience and tolerance, is forgiveness. When we are truly patient and tolerant, then forgiveness comes naturally.

Although we may have experienced deep hurt in the past, with the development of patience and tolerance it is possible to let go of our sense of anger and resentment. If we think clearly about the situation, it is possible to realize that the past is past, that continuing to feel anger and hatred serves no purpose. They do not change the situation, but just give rise to further disturbance within our minds and cause our continued unhappiness. Of course, we may still remember what happened, but forgetting and forgiving are two different things. There’s nothing wrong with simply remembering what happened, but with the development of forgiveness, it’s possible to let go of the negative feelings associated with what took place. This is why forgiveness brings us freedom. Forgiveness is not about letting off the perpetrator of some wrong; it is about freeing the victim. If you can forgive, you no longer have to concern yourself with who did what to you and how you are going make them pay for it. You will be free of that entire burden.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that forgiveness, may come to be seen as effective not only in individual’s private lives, but also in the arena of public and even international relations. The idea that concern for others is a matter only for personal interaction is simply short-sighted.   Com-passion and the forgiveness and tolerance it gives rise to belong to every sphere of activity. As the source both of inner and external peace, they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species. On one hand, they constitute non-violence in action, and on the other, they give meaning to our lives and allow us to be truly constructive.

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Ethics in Our Human Relationships