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Ethics for the New Millennium

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, February 13, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

 

On this day (when we acknowledge and celebrate our long-standing relationship with our Partner Unitarian churches halfway around the world in Romania, especially our sister church in Fiatfalva) it seemed only right to focus on the Dalai Lama's, new book - Ethics For the New Millennium - which is all about his conviction that there is an urgent spiritual need for humanity to understand (and compassionately act on) its fundamental interconnectedness.

How startling it was for me to read a book written by someone from a profoundly different culture and faith tradition (living a very different lifestyle from a very different worldview than my own) which somehow managed to express almost everything I myself (as a Unitarian Universalist) believe to be spiritually real and true. Halfway through reading this book, I put it down on my desk and marveled: "this remarkable little book (although permeated by a Tibetan Buddhist sensibility that is essentially foreign to me), succinctly summarizes almost everything I and modern day Unitarian Universalism believes and hopes about our shared human future on this planet." The Dalai Lama (the exiled Tibetan monk whose courageous story of resistance to the tyrannical leaders of China you surely all know) has written just such a book at the turning of this new millennium. Maybe the fact that this simple Tibetan Buddhist monk could write a book with such universal power, clarity and is evidence that our world is indeed becoming that shrinking, interdependent "global village" communication guru Marshall McLuhan dreamed of so long ago. This morning, I want to share with you the essence of the Dalai Lama's hopeful Ethics for the New Millennium...and then reflect upon how it might instruct and inform our own Unitarian Universalist hearts at this critical juncture of human history.

But first, I have a small confession to make. In my life as a teacher of preaching (I have repeatedly taught it at the seminary level), I have generally eschewed what I have called "book report sermons." I tend to view this genre of sermon as vulnerable to becoming rather stilted and arcane. But this morning I am unashamedly and enthusiastically going to offer you just such a sermon...basically a book report which will (hopefully) both accurately relay (and then hopefully -- at least somewhat wisely -- reflect upon) the core message of this deceptively simple (and profoundly idealistic) book. I know some of you have already gotten your hands on a copy of this extremely readable little volume, and hope (frankly) that this sermon this morning will stimulate many more of you to go and do so. But I wanted to give all of you the opportunity to be at least somewhat exposed to the hopeful, challenging essence of the Dalai Lama's message - for I believe he has correctly identified a universal spiritual ethic which we as members of the human family desperately need to incorporate (and incorporate quickly) into our individual and collective lives as we struggle to live together to build a life worth having on this rapidly spinning and shrinking planet.

So, here we go.

The Dalai Lama, internationally known as one of contemporary Buddhism's greatest religious teachers and moral leaders, begins his treatise on ethics for the new millennium with a surprising disclaimer, "...this is not a religious book," he declares, "Still less is it a book about Buddhism. My aim has been to appeal for an approach to ethics based on universal rather than religious principles." He then goes on to make an important (and I think valid and useful) distinction between: 1) Religion, on the one hand, and 2) Spirituality, on the other.

"Religion" [he writes] "I take to be concerned with faith in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another...Spirituality I take to be concerned with those [universal] qualities of the human spirit - such as love and compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, a sense of responsibility, a sense of harmony - which bring happiness to both self and others....Religion is something we can perhaps do without...the reality is that the majority of people [on the globe] today [5 out of 6 in fact] are unpersuaded [in their own lives] of the need for religion...[despite] the enormous value of each of the major faith traditions...[and despite the fact that for me] Buddhism remains the most precious path]...we humans can live quite well without recourse to religious faith...What we cannot do without [however] are these basic spiritual qualities [I just named]...Whether or not a person is a religious believer does not matter much. Far more important is that they be a good [ethical] human being."
So what the Dalai Lama is calling for in this book is not a religious revolution, but a global spiritual revolution, that will transcend all religious faiths (including his own) and will not (in his view) occur as a vast mass movement, but will occur primarily within one person at a time - one human heart at a time -- as individuals begin to live their lives out of a radical new ethic of connection with and compassion for others. He's calling for an ethical awakening in the universe of each of our hearts...an ethical awakening that will help us to understand that (as human beings around the globe) we radically belong to one another and must therefore routinely act with concern not for the self, but for other human beings to whom we are (if we would spiritually know it) intimately related.
"My call is for a spiritual revolution," he writes, "it is a call for a radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with self. It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected and for conduct which recognizes other's interests along side our own."
And thus he arrives at the spiritual premise (you'll recognize it as pure Universalist!) upon which his ethic for the new human millennium is based. I quote him,
"Meeting innumerable others from all over the world and from every walk of life [over the course of my travels] reminds me of our basic sameness as human beings...we come to see that the habitual sharp distinction we make between 'self' and 'others' is an exaggeration... Indeed the more I see of the world the clearer it becomes that no matter what our situation, whether we are rich or poor, educated or not, of one race, gender, religion or another, we all desire to be happy and avoid suffering...[our universal] desire or inclination to be happy and avoid suffering knows no boundaries. It is in our nature."
Though in making his case for our fundamental sameness as persons the Dalai Lama does not mention this biological truth, I am reminded (as he writes of our powerful connectedness) that the Genome Project (the complete mapping of all human chromosomes which is happening right over at there NIH with the help of our own RRUC member Elke Jordan) has revealed the stunning biological fact (which President Clinton is fond of reciting) that any two human beings from anywhere around the globe, from any race, (no matter how different they might be in appearance, personality or physicality) share an astounding 99.9% of their genetic code...lending cold, hard scientific weight to the Dalai Lama's spiritual assertion that indeed our human differentiation (one from one another around the globe) is vastly overstated.

Again and again in the book, the Dalai Lama returns to this very simple (and I think spiritually sound) Buddhist assertion which I mentioned both last week and just a few moments ago: the great universal truth of human life is that all individuals (no matter what part of the world they live in, no matter what their race, nationality or religion, no matter what level of poverty or affluence, ease or difficulty in their lives), naturally devote every waking moment to: 1) Seeking happiness and 2) avoiding suffering. Isn't this true? Think about your own life for a moment...what do you do in your daily life that is not directly related to either seeking happiness or avoiding suffering? Buddhism has it right here, I quote him again, "Everywhere, by all means imaginable, people are striving to improve their lives...ultimately we are all brothers and sisters...there is no substantial difference between us...all others share my desire to be happy and avoid suffering." He goes on to suggest that this universal human phenomenon (of personally seeking happiness/avoiding suffering) is such a powerful connection and commonality that it should quite naturally lead human persons to treat one another with expanding empathy, compassion, kindness and care. But the Dalai Lama -- looking with both realism and discernment at the imperfect state of human affairs around the globe -- notes that this is obviously not so in our world today. All around the world, in almost every corner and culture people regularly fail (often spectacularly) to live gently, justly and compassionately with one another -- primarily because (the Dalai Lama believes) we (as individuals living in this modern world) are distracted by our own imagined autonomy as persons, and are thus not yet fully spiritually awake to that indissoluble connection to and commonality with all others. He writes,

"We find modern living organized so that it demands the least possible direct dependence on others. The more or less universal ambition seems to be for everyone to own their own house, their own car, their own computer, and so on in order to be as independent as possible...people enjoy...increasing autonomy...This in turn encourages us to suppose that because others are not important for my happiness, their happiness is not important to me. We have...created a society in which people find it harder and harder to show one another basic affection, [compassion and concern]."
But the Dalai Lama says the web of global forces which are operating now on this rapidly shrinking planet (just look at all the increasing economic, ecological, political, racial and cultural interconnections that are getting made in our increasingly complex world - trans-national currencies (like the Euro), the exponentially exploding medium of the worldwide web and e-mail, burgeoning multi-national corporations, global and regional ecological initiatives to name a few) necessitates that we must all quickly learn to find new ways to show one another PRACTICAL COMPASSION...to feel EMPATHY for one another, and act COMPASSIONATELY and GENEROUSLY from that feeling of connection and concern - not only because it is the right spiritual thing to do for our brothers and sisters to whom we are so indissolubly connected, but also (and this is very important to his argument ) IT IS IN OUR OWN DIRECT AND IMMEDIATE BEST SELF INTEREST. Can there ever be genuine, lasting peace, security and happiness for any in the human family (especially for those who are privileged and successful like most of us in this room) if billions of others around the world suffer unnecessarily? The Dalai Lama argues that not only does compassion and concern for others ensure our own personal happiness, security and safety, it also results in the (highly valuable) outcome of our survival as a species sharing an ever smaller planet). I quote him,
"If the self had intrinsic identity, it would be possible to speak in terms of self-interest in isolation from that of others'. But because this is not so, because self and others can only be understood in terms of relationship, we see that self-interest and others' interest are closely interrelated...they converge...It is in everybody's interest to do what leads to happiness and to avoid that which leads to suffering. But because...our interests are inextricably linked, we are compelled to accept ethics as the INDISPENSABLE INTERFACE between my desire to be happy and yours...When we act to fulfill our immediate [personal] desires without taking into account other's interests, we undermine the possibility of [our own] lasting happiness...In other words, ALTUISM is an essential component of those actions which lead to [our own personal] genuine happiness...The more we can expand our focus to include others' interests alongside our own, the more securely we build the foundations of our own happiness."
And thus the Dalai Lama arrives at his impassioned call for all human people everywhere to begin to live their everyday lives with ever expanding (practical) circles of CONNECTION WITH and COMPASSION FOR others both near and far. "All the world's major religions stress the importance of cultivating love and compassion...Let us now consider the role of compassionate love and kind-heartedness in our daily lives." Though an unfettered idealist (some might read this book and dismiss him as a wild-eyed dreamer), the Dalai Lama knows how difficult this spiritual journey toward human connection and compassion will be.
"Developing the compassion [for others] on which [our own] happiness depends...[requires] inner restraint...The undisciplined mind - that is, the mind under the influence of anger, hatred, greed, pride, selfishness, and so on - is the source of all our [avoidable human] troubles...If...we wish to be happy, we need to curb our response to negative thoughts and emotions. This is what I mean when we must tame the wild elephant that is the undisciplined mind."
The Dalai Lama clearly understands how arduous and uneven the spiritual journey toward human compassion and connection will be (for example) in places like the Balkans where Serbs, Croats, and Kosovars have been habitually hating and slaughtering each other for so long they have not even yet begun to imagine their indissoluble human belonging, one to another. Still he calls humanity -- one person at a time...you, then me...a Croat, then a Serb -- to a new universal ethic of compassion and connection, concern for "the other" which (again) he believes (in the end) is in the best interest of "the self."

And in making his spiritual case, he answers a question he is sure is on the minds of many who might be skeptical about all this expansive compassion,

"Does [living with such restraint [controlling our negative emotions and setting aside our imagined autonomy]mean that we must abandon our own interests entirely? Not at all. In fact, it is the best way of serving them...[serving the needs of others] constitutes the wisest course for fulfilling self-interest."
So the Dalai Lama is under no illusion that it will be easy for most individual human beings to see their indissoluble connection to others and begin living with a steadily expanding practical compassion toward all. But he persists in his ultimate hopefulness, right to the last page of the book:
"This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith...There is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine, or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion. Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are...[is] all we need. So long as we practice these [virtues] in our daily lives...as long as we have compassion for others and conduct ourselves with restraint out of a sense of responsibility, there is no doubt we will be happy...There is no denying that our happiness is inextricably bound up with the happiness of others. There is no denying that if society suffers, we ourselves suffer. Nor is there any denying that the more our heart and minds are afflicted with ill-will, the more miserable we become...Compassion...is one of the principle things that makes our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy...Through kindness, through affection, through honesty, through truth and justice toward all others we ensure our own benefit...[the only] spiritual practice] we need...consists of nothing more than acting out [ever wider and deeper] concern for others...[and] providing you undertake this practice sincerely and with persistence, little by little, step by step you will...find that you enjoy peace and happiness yourself."
So there you have, in a nutshell, the Dalai Lama's heart-felt dream of a universal human ethic for the new millennium: to achieve the happiness you so desperately seek for yourself (and to help humanity as a whole survive on this shrinking planet), choose as much as you humanly can to be compassionately connected with all other persons, the members of your human family to whom you are so intimately related [even when you cannot readily sense or see it]. In the 231 pages of this volume, he of course spells out his vision of expanding human compassion and connection in much greater detail and nuance than I can provide you in this sermonic format, and if you want the fine points of his spiritual vision, you simply must read the book for yourself.

So what, in the end, does all this Buddhist idealism have to do with us, privileged American Unitarian Universalists entering the new millennium? Everything, I would suggest. Even though most of us do not primarily self identify as Buddhist (and while some who believe themselves to be realists about the obvious brutishness of the human condition might find the Dalai Lama's sweeping global optimism a bit fanciful) I would suggest to you that he has (from his own Tibetan frame of mind) basically articulated the primary spiritual thrust of our own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism. Please look again, if you will for a moment, at the "AFFIRMATION" printed on the inside cover of your orders of service this morning. If you think about these seven principles (which are the principles that bind all Unitarian Universalists together into one faith community) you realize that our tradition has a dream for the world much like the Dalai Lama's Tibetan Buddhist one. We too believe people in every corner of the globe (however they come in all their pleasing diversity) are connected to one another by their universal and unquenchable worth and dignity. We too want to promote happiness and end suffering by establishing "justice, equity, compassion...peace, liberty, and democracy" in human affairs and institutions (and at every level of human society), extending all the way out to "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Though as a rational, practical, hands-on religious movement that has long struggled with the persistent cruelties and agonies of the human enterprise we Unitarian Universalists are perhaps a bit less sanguine about humanity ever achieving the sweeping kind of COMPASSIONATE CONNECTION of which the Dalai Lama dreams, THE ESSENTIAL VISION AND MORAL WORK OF OUR RELIGION IS PRECISELY THE SAME AS THE DALAI LAMA'S BOLD NEW ETHIC OF HUMAN INTERCONNECTION AND CARE. The spiritual roadmap leading to the kind of world humanity should build which the Dalai Lama has drawn is familiar to us!

But this roadmap is a hard sell. In our culture...here...inside the Beltway...in affluent and individualistic Montgomery County where comfortable homes are built precisely to be as far away from one another as they can, the Dalai Lama's new ethic of radical connection and compassion is a hard sell. "Why," some successful venture capitalist or internet developer living in a big house with his or her family on 10-and-one-half luxurious acres might ask, "Why is my personal happiness (and that of my immediate family) dependent upon my helping to end the suffering in Sub-Saharan Africa? I've managed so far to do very well, thank you, basically ignoring the suffering of so many unfortunate others - everything from street people at Metro entrances to starving Sudanese - explain to me please why I really have to care, feel any connection, or compassionately share resources...why?"

Here is my Unitarian Universalist answer as to why I side with the global spiritual logic of the Dalai Lama. Sure in the short term we sitting here so comfortably in our amazing American affluence, privilege and freedom can build apparently secure walls around the "accouterments of our contentment," but in the long term (both in our individual lives and in society and the world at large) the injustice, the sorrow, the cruelty, the indifference, and the suffering we allow to break the lives of untold millions poisons the heart, gnaws at the conscience and (as I have said, over time endangers all). Buddhism...Unitarian Universalism...and indeed most of the other major religions of the world all believe that it is a fundamental human duty to ever expand the practical compassion they directed toward the rest of humanity to whom we are essentially connected. The great Golden Rule that runs as a holy thread holding all the world's religious traditions is simply the injunction to "Do unto others as you would have them to do." I believe the Dalai Lama is right. If we are to ever find TRUE, SUSTAINABLE happiness and contentment in our private lives...if we are to ever begin establish workable justice and create lasting peace in our communities and around the globe...if we are to succeed in saving our fragile little planet and ourselves from sorrowful destruction of one sort or another...then we must (in this new millennium) quickly begin to grow wise and tender hearts which evermore SEE and then COMPASSIONATELY SERVE our blessed, universal, indissoluble human connection to one another. As I said last week, we must CONSTANTLY EXPAND THE CIRCLE OF KINSHIP we feel with humanity and the world. It is just that simple...it is just that pressing...and (like the Dalai Lama dreams) it is preciously possible, by God...it is preciously possible.

 

Amen.

 

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