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

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Study Guide Week Two
• Chapter 2
• Chapter 3

Chapter 2 - No Magic, No Mystery

Key Concepts
In this chapter The Dalai Lama strives to relate ethics to the basic human experience of happiness and suffering in order to avoid the problems which arise when we ground ethics in religion, i.e.
• The majority of people today are not persuaded of the need for religion so coming at ethics through religion is limiting
• There is conduct which is acceptable in one religious tradition but not another.

Religion and Spirituality. To frame the exploration of ethics, the Dalai Lama makes a distinction between these two:

• Religion is concerned with faith in the claims of salvation, an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or supernatural reality. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayer and so on.
• Spirituality is concerned with those 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. These qualities involve an implicit concern for others’ well-being and can be developed to a high degree without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system.
• Religious faith demands spiritual practice. Spiritual practice involves acting out of concern for others’ well-being and transforming ourselves so that we become more readily disposed to do so.

Identifying and Evaluating Ethical Problems.
The Dalai Lama makes a distinction between two types of suffering – those which have principally natural causes and those of human origin. It is the problems of human origin that we are responsible for, and, because they are essentially ethical problems, they can be overcome. However, they can not be overcome by external methods such as legal systems or rules to address every ethical dilemma, but only by inner discipline and ethical restraint. The source of establishing binding, non- dogmatic ethical principles is the observation that we all universally desire happiness and wish to avoid suffering. Thus one evaluates the ethics of an act (deeds, thoughts, words, desires, omissions) as positive or negative by reviewing:

• the impact on others’ experience/expectation of happiness
• intent
• the nature of the act itself
• motivation

Key among these is motivation, which in the Dalai Lama’s formulation goes beyond conscious intent to include that which inspires our actions – both those we intend directly and those which are in a sense involuntary.

When the driving force of our actions is wholesome, our actions will tend automatically to contribute to others’ well-being. The more this is our habitual state, the less likely we are to react badly when provoked.


The aim of spiritual and therefore ethical practice is to transform and perfect the individual’s motivation, in the most comprehensive sense, and thereby increase positive ethical conduct.

Discussion Questions
1. The Dalai Lama makes a distinction between religion and spirituality. What strikes you about these definitions? With what do you agree/disagree/differ? How is this distinction useful?

2. The Dalai Lama suggests the ethics of an act (deeds, thoughts, words, desires, omissions) can be judged by reviewing the impact on others’ experience/expectation of happiness, the intent, the nature of the act itself and the motivation. An act which does harm or violence is potentially an unethical act based on the review of the other two criteria. Can you think of some of your actions that do harm or violence to people’s happiness that you consider ethical? Unethical? Actions that impacted you? (page 29)

3. “When the driving force of our actions is wholesome, our actions will tend automatically to contribute to others’ well-being. The more this is our habitual state, the less likely we are to react badly when provoked.” React to this statement and discuss what you do in your life to make this more of a habitual state.

Practice Exercises
1. Adopt a daily practice in support of transforming and perfecting your state of mind, orientation towards others, and habitual motivation.


Chapter 3 - Dependent Origination and the Nature of Reality

Key Concepts

How we view the world determines our responses and behavior. If we don’t understand phenomena, we are more likely to do harm to ourselves and others. The perspective in this chapter is based on the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school of Buddhist philosophy. It begins from a rigorous investigation, using logic, of how phenomena – self and world – exist.

Middle Way World View. The central concept, dependent origination, can be understood at several levels:
• Things arise dependent on causes and conditions – a clay pot or oneself.
• Things are made up of parts. Each part itself is made up of parts, ad infinitum. This applies to mental as well as physical objects. In the case of the mind, each moment of consciousness has a beginning, middle and end.
• The independently-existing object can never be found. Things are labels on a basis of designation.

What’s the point of going through this analysis? How can it help us in our daily lives? There are profound implications, including:
• Our whole perspective changes, from a world of isolated entities to the world as an organism, in which we are as interrelated cells, working in cooperation to sustain the whole. Our connection to every other living being is not a matter of sentiment, or religious doctrine, but reasoned fact. That is how life is. Each of our actions, every deed, word and thought, affects others, for good or ill. This is true even of thoughts, and no matter how inconsequential.
• This type of analysis counteracts our tendency to see things and events in terms of solid, independent, discrete entities, and challenges us to see things and events less in terms of black and white and more in terms of a complex interlinking of relationships.
• Even the cherished self can not be found to exist in a concrete way; we come to see that the habitual sharp distinction we make between “self” and “others” is an exaggeration. The precious self is “in the end, no more substantial than a rainbow in the summer sky.”
• “...it is possible to imagine becoming habituated to an extended conception of self wherein the individual situates his or her interest within that of others’ interests.”
• “Due to the fundamental interconnectedness which lies at the heart of reality, your interest is also my interest.”

Not Nihilism. The fact that nothing exists independently does not imply that ultimately nothing exists at all, or that reality is just a projection of the mind. Such a misunderstanding would undermine a sense of ethics. The implication of dependent origination is the opposite: to provide a firm support for a discourse of ethics. The reason is that “...the concept of dependent origination compels us to take the reality of cause and effect with utmost seriousness. By this I mean the fact that particular causes lead to particular effects, and that certain actions lead to suffering while others lead to happiness.”

Discussion Questions

1. At a recent talk at Stanford, one of the panelists said, “I know what it means to identify with my country, but I have no idea what it means to identify with humanity as a whole.” When you think of yourself, where do you “draw the line” between yourself and the world? Do you think of yourself primarily as an individual? A member of a family? A member of your country? A citizen of the world?

2. Is the life of a Nigerian worth the same as the life of an American? Why, or why not? Is it possible, or desirable, to feel that each life is of equal value, and act accordingly?

3. The word “karma” has come into casual usage, along with phrases like “what goes around comes around”. Do you think cause and effect applies to everything in life, or just the physical world? In your view, do thoughts have effects? What would an example be? How could one know what effect a given thought might have?

4. If everything really works according to laws of cause and effect, why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?

5. Think of something in the last week that was a source of upset, suffering, worry, or confusion. How might looking at the situation and players from the Middle Way perspective change how you feel about it, and close off or open more possibilities for dealing with it?

6. The Dalai Lama says, “Due to the fundamental interconnectedness which lies at the heart of reality, your interest is also my interest.” How does this square with the commonsense view that some situations have winners and losers? Is it an idealistic view of how things should be, or is it really how things are?

7. What is an experience you’ve had in which you most deeply and vividly felt that the interests of yourself and another were truly aligned?

8. In this chapter the Dalai Lama presents a viewpoint explicitly based on Buddhist philosophy. This school of philosophy involves discussions that can get into highly technical, involved arguments. In a book that claims to be secular, not based on religion at all, why do you think the Dalai Lama gives such a central place to this philosophy?

Practice Exercises


1. Each day pause and think about situations when you were aware of the interconnectedness with others and the impact of your thoughts, words and deeds on the living organism – our world.




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