9 Week Study Course for
"Ethics For the New Millennium"

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Study Guide Week Six
• Chapter 10
• Chapter 11

Chapter 10 - The Need for Discernment

Key Concepts
Ethical discipline. The word “discipline” often has negative connotations for people, because they understand it as something imposed against their will. However, in some situations we all accept the exercise of discipline voluntarily; for example, when we take a doctor’s advice to avoid certain foods, we follow that advice even though it may be hard at first.

Ethical discipline is indispensable because it is the means by which we mediate between the competing claims of one person’s right to happiness against another person’s equal right. If we ignore other people’s right to happiness to advance our own, this will lead to anxiety in our own mind and a sense of disquiet. Restraint is needed in the pursuit of our happiness, so that we do not cause harm to others in the process.

Ethical discipline entails not only restraint in our response to negative emotions, but also the cultivation of virtue, such as love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness. When these qualities are present in our lives, all our actions will contribute to the well- being of all, including ourselves.

Ethical conduct depends on us applying the principle of non-harming. The moral value of an action must be discerned, not left to following rules or precepts. We must use our intelligence to judge in relation to time, place and circumstance, and to the long-term impact on the totality of all others. An action can be moral in one set of circumstances, but not in another. Ethical conduct cannot be reduced to following a set of rules, nor can any particular act be judged as right or wrong when viewed in the abstract, i.e. apart from the fundamental question of happiness and suffering. Ethical action is dependent on many factors:
• Time and circumstance
• A person’s freedom or lack of it
• Degree of remorse
• Intention behind the action

If we are motivated by hatred, selfishness or desire to deceive, our actions will have a negative impact, both for self and others.

Discernment. When we face an ethical dilemma, we need both critical and imaginative powers. They allow us to discriminate between temporary and long-term benefit, to assess the likely outcome of our action, and to choose the greater good over the smaller. We need to consider the ethical dilemma in terms of the “union of skillful means and insight.” Skillful means asks us to consider whether our action is motivated by compassion. Insight evaluates the dilemma in context and lets us take the action that causes least harm.

Discernment must be constantly employed to check our own motivation and ask ourselves whether we are being selfish or broad-minded, thinking short-term or long-term, compassionate to all or partial to our own family.

Basic ethical precepts. Sometimes there is little time to consider and be discerning, so spiritual development is very important. Our spontaneous actions tend to reflect our habits and dispositions. If these are unwholesome, our actions will be destructive. At such times it can be very useful to have basic ethical precepts to guide us in our daily lives. It is most important to keep others’ interests at heart and in the forefront of our mind. Perhaps we can look to basic ethical principles agreed upon by all religions and humanist philosophy, including: No killing, stealing, telling lies, sexual misconduct. All religions agree on avoiding hatred, pride, malicious intent, covetousness, envy, greed, lust, harmful ideologies (such as racism). Sexual misconduct may be questioned in times of easy and effective contraception, but the precepts in every religion reminds us sexual misconduct, especially infidelity, can become obsessive leaving no room for constructive action. It is violent towards one’s partner and can lead to other harmful acts, such as lying and deception, even murder in the case of unwanted pregnancy.

Responding to the conduct of others. We almost never know all the reasons and circumstances for someone else’s behavior. Therefore, it is better to be aware of our own shortcomings rather than find fault with another. We can only correct our own conduct. If someone else repeatedly engages in unethical conduct, we may have to avoid such a person, but not cut them off completely. We may attempt to influence their conduct, provided that our own motives are pure and our methods are non- harming.

Ethical dilemmas of science and technology. Modern science and technology have given us the ability to prolong life. Each case must be considered in the light of reason and compassion, taking into account all circumstances. In situations of genetics and biotechnology, the principle of non-harming is very important. Genetic experimentation should not be carried out for fame or profit. We must proceed with caution and humility, be aware of the potential for abuse. The motivation for such work should be compassion, not utility. Considerations of utility can easily lead to abuse of some groups of people who are deemed to be less useful to society.

Cloning, animal experimentation, and the like are unwholesome actions, as is the inhumanity of factory farming. We need laws and international codes of conduct. But mostly, we need individuals to have an awareness of the harm these practices inflict on humans and animals. Scientists must be motivated by ethical restraint and compassion.


Discussion Questions
1. What is your response to the suggestion of the need for ethical discipline? How is this present in your life? Is it more chosen and internal or imposed and external?

2. What does the Dalai Lama mean by “wise discernment?” How is this present in your life?

3. How are we putting our own happiness above the pain of others, both individually and collectively? Give some examples.

4. Is all ethical conduct relative? How are we to decide what is ethical in any given situation?

5. Do we have a choice in our actions? Think of an action you took in your life that you now consider a mistake: Did you have a choice at the time? Was your action a considered choice?

6. What are some ethical dilemmas in science and technology that you struggle with? Is discernment always the same as a clear distinction between right and wrong? Is it sometimes the same? How is it different?

Practice Exercises
1. Think of an ethical dilemma you face, big or small. Evaluate the situation with the “union of skillful means and insight” and let that guide your actions.

2. Identify a social dilemma that you feel strongly about, and have a strongly-held position on. Delve beneath the surface to find different cases and evaluate the ethics of each case individually, bearing in mind that we must use our intelligence to judge in relation to time, place and circumstance, and to the long-term impact on the totality of all others. How does the principle of non-harming come into play in the issue you are considering?


Chapter 11 - Universal Responsibility

Key Concepts
Our every act has a universal dimension. Thus ethical discipline, wholesome conduct and careful discernment impact not only our personal realm but also increasingly impact the communal realm in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. We cannot afford to ignore the interests of others, nor the planet.

Universal responsibility means that when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we seize it. We avoid divisiveness and cultivate contentment. Our actions reflect our concern for the welfare of all beings and all creation. We reorient our hearts away from self and toward others, acknowledging the equal right of all others to be happy and free of suffering.

Emphasizing our essential unity. Focusing on superficial differences causes divisiveness and suffering. We can emphasize how we all are essentially the same. When we understand that everyone wants to be loved, to be happy, and not to suffer, concern for well-being of others arises almost by itself. Most people naturally understand this in relation to their own families and their friends. It is important to extend this understanding to other communities and nations, for these no longer exist in isolation.

Cultivating contentment is crucial for maintaining peaceful coexistence. Lack of contentment spawns greed and sows envy. It promotes aggressive competitiveness and excessive materialism. It is the source of damage to our environment. Contentment is not only a matter of ethics, it is a matter of necessity. We have to live in the world we create. The Dalai Lama challenges us to question the culture of perpetual economic growth, which fosters chronic discontent. Inequality among nations is a source of trouble for everyone. Even the rich feel the symptoms of poverty in their own lives.

Honesty and justice. Universal responsibility leads to a commitment to honesty, i.e. when our actions are simply what they seem to be. If we pretend to be one thing and our actions reveal something else, this causes suspicion and fear. When we commit ourselves to honesty, we help reduce the level of misunderstanding, doubt and fear throughout society. Universal responsibility and honesty require us to act when we perceive injustice. If we don’t speak, is it out of fear about what others will think? Not speaking could be unethical if we are ignoring the wider implications of our silence.

Working together. As individuals, communities and nations, we need each other to solve our problems. We need to seek non-violent solutions to conflict and further the growing acceptance of human rights and diversity. We must remind ourselves that order imposed by force has, historically, proven short-lived. By contrast universal responsibility is based in the dynamics and functions of our inner world, of consciousness and spirit, of our hearts and minds. Today, individually and as communities and nations, we must consider our needs in relation to the needs of others, and evaluate how our actions will affect others. This is the foundation for genuine peace and harmony, and the path that will allow us to move beyond war and violence as the means we use to resolve differences.

Discussion Questions
1. Think of some recent actions you’ve taken and ponder their universal dimension – their subtle or direct impact on others and the world. Did you have this consciousness at the time you took the action?

2. What is the universal dimension of poverty, i.e. how do you feel the symptoms of poverty in your own life?

3. What is contentment and how do you know when you are content? Does being content influence how you are in the world? Explain.

4. How do you cultivate contentment?

5. What forces in your life promote divisiveness, competitiveness and excessive materialism? What is your response?

6. How can we, as individuals, press for equality and justice among people, communities and nations? What is your personal contribution?

7. How do you know when you are being honest?

8. Have you ever not spoken out for fear of group opinion? How does that feel? What is the impact on you, others, the situation? Have you spoken out against injustice in the face of adversity? What is the feeling and impact of that?

9. When was the last time you showed affection for the marginalized? Connected with someone marginalized and felt an essential human connection with them?

Practice Exercises

1. On the morning of each day of a week, write down one thing in your life for which you feel contentment. Think about it throughout the day.

2. Help one marginalized person in your community in some way.

3. Choose one community or world situation you care about and identify and adopt three simple actions that you will take to assume responsibility for your actions in relation to that situation.

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