“I believe that our every act has a universal dimension. Because of this, ethical discipline, wholesome conduct, and careful discernment are crucial ingredients for a meaningful, happy life.
But let us now consider this proposition in relation to the wider community.
In the past, families and small communities could exist more or less independently of one another. If they took into account their neighbors’ well-being, so much the better. Yet they could survive quite well without this kind of perspective. Such is no longer the case. Today’s reality is so complex and, on the material level at least, so clearly interconnected, that a different outlook is needed.
Modern economics is a case in point. A stock market crash on one side of the globe can have a direct effect on the economies of countries on the other. Similarly, our technological achievements are now such that our activities have an unambiguous effect on the natural environment. And the very size of our population means that we cannot any longer afford to ignore others’ interests. Indeed, we find that these are often so intertwined that serving our own interests benefits others, even though this may not be our explicit intention. For example, when two families share a single water source, ensuring that it is not polluted benefits both.
In view of this, I am convinced that it is essential that we cultivate a sense of what I call Universal Responsibility. This may not be an exact translation of the Tibetan term I have in mind, chi sem, which means, literally, universal (chi) consciousness (sem). Although the notion of responsibility is implied rather than explicit in the Tibetan, it is definitely there. When I say that on the basis of concern for others’ well-being we can, and should, develop a sense of universal responsibility, I do not, however, mean to suggest that each individual has a direct responsibility for the existence of, for example, wars and famines in different parts of the world. Clearly certain things, such as the poverty of a single village 10,000 miles away are completely beyond the scope of the individual. What is entailed, however, is not an admission of guilt, but, again, a reorientation of our heart and mind away from self and toward others.
To develop a sense of universal responsibility–of the universal dimension of our every act and of the equal right of all others to happiness and not to suffer–is to develop an attitude of mind whereby, when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will take it in preference to merely looking after our own narrow interests.
Of course we care about what is beyond our scope–we accept it as part of nature and concern ourselves with doing what we can.
An important benefit of developing such a sense of universal responsibility is that it helps us become sensitive to all others–not just those closest to us. We come to see the need to care especially for those members of the human family who suffer most. We recognize the need to avoid causing divisiveness among our fellow human beings. And we become aware of the overwhelming importance of contentment.
I believe that the culture of perpetual economic growth needs to be questioned. In my view, it fosters discontent, and with this comes a great number of problems, both social and environmental. There is also the fact that in devoting ourselves so wholeheartedly to material development we neglect the implications this has for the wider community. This is less a matter of the gap between First and Third World, North and South, between developed and underdeveloped, between rich and poor, being immoral and wrong. It is both of these. But in some ways more significant is the fact, that such inequality is itself the source of trouble for everyone. If it were the case that, for example, Europe was the whole world, rather than home to less than ten percent of the world’s population, the prevailing ideology of endless growth might be justifiable. Yet the world is more than just Europe. The fact is that elsewhere people are starving. And where there are imbalances as profound as these, there are bound to be negative consequences for all, even if they are not equally direct: the rich also feel the symptoms of poverty in their daily lives. Consider, in this context, how the sight of surveillance cameras, and of iron security bars over our windows, actually detracts a little from our sense of serenity.
Universal responsibility also leads us to commitment to the principle of honesty. What do I mean by this? We can think of honesty and dishonesty in terms of the relationship between appearance and reality. Sometimes these synchronize, often they do not. But when they do, that is honesty, as I understand it. So we are honest when our actions are what they seem to be. When we pretend to be one thing but in reality we are something else, suspicion develops in others, causing fear. And fear is something we all wish to avoid. Conversely, when in our interactions with our neighbors we are open and sincere in everything we say and think and do, people have no need to fear us. This holds true both for the individual and for communities. Moreover, when we understand the value of honesty in all our undertakings, we recognize that there is no ultimate difference between the needs of the individual and the needs of whole communities. Their numbers vary, but their desire, and right, not to be deceived remains the same. Thus when we commit ourselves to honesty, we help reduce the level of misunderstanding, doubt and fear throughout society. In a small but significant way, we create the conditions for a happy world.
The question of justice is also closely connected both with universal responsibility and the question of honesty. Justice entails a requirement to act when we become aware of injustice. Indeed, failure to do so may be wrong, although not wrong in the sense that it makes us somehow intrinsically bad. But if our hesitance to speak out comes from a sense of self-centeredness, then there may be a problem.
If our response to injustice is to ask, “What will happen to me if I speak out? Maybe people won’t like me,” this could well be unethical because we are ignoring the wider implications of our silence.
It is also inappropriate and unhelpful when set in the context of all others’ equal right to happiness and to avoid suffering. This remains true even–perhaps especially–when, for example, governments or institutions say, “This is our business” or “This is an internal affair.” Not only can our speaking out under such circumstances be a duty, but more importantly it can be a service to others.
It may, of course, be objected that such honesty is not always possible, that we need to be “realistic.” Our circumstances may prevent us from always acting in accordance with our responsibilities. Our own families may be harmed if, for example, we speak out when we witness injustice. But while we do have to deal with the day-to-day reality of our lives, it is essential to keep a broad perspective. We must evaluate our own needs in relation to the needs of others and consider how our actions and inactions are likely to affect them in the longer term. It is hard to criticize those who fear for their loved ones. But occasionally it will be necessary to take risks in order to benefit the wider community.
A sense of responsibility toward all others also means that, both as individuals and as a society of individuals, we have a duty to care for each member of our society. This is true irrespective of their physical capacity or of the capacity for mental reflection. Just like ourselves, such people have a right to happiness and to avoid suffering. We must therefore avoid, at all cost, the urge to shut away those who are grievously afflicted as if they were a burden. The same goes for those who are diseased or marginalized. To push them away would be to heap suffering on suffering.
I may sound hopelessly idealistic in all this talk of universal responsibility. Nevertheless, it is an idea I have been expressing publicly ever since my first visit to the West, back in 1973. In those days, many people were skeptical of such notions. Similarly, it was not always easy to interest people in the concept of world peace. I am encouraged to note that today, however, an increasing number are beginning to respond favorably to these ideas.
As a result of the many extraordinary events humanity has experienced during the course of the 20th century, we have, I feel, become more mature. In the fifties and sixties, and in some places even more recently, many people felt that ultimately conflicts should be resolved through war. Today, that thinking holds sway only in the minds of a small minority. And whereas in the early part of this century many people believed that progress and development within society should be pursued through strict regimentation, the collapse of fascism, followed later by the disappearance of the so-called Iron Curtain, has shown this to be a hopeless enterprise. It is worth noting the lesson from history which shows that order imposed by force is only ever short-lived. Moreover, the consensus (among some Buddhists too) that science and spirituality are incompatible no longer holds so firmly. Today, as the scientific understanding of the nature of reality deepens, this perception is changing. Because of this, people are beginning to show more interest in what I have called our “inner world.” By this, I mean the dynamics and functions of consciousness, or spirit: our hearts and minds.
There has also been a worldwide increase in environmental awareness, and a growing recognition that neither individuals nor even whole nations can solve all their problems by themselves, that we need one another. To me, these are all very encouraging developments, which are sure to have far-reaching consequences. I am also encouraged by the fact that, regardless of its implementation, there is at least clearer acknowledgment of the need to seek non-violent resolutions of conflict in a spirit of reconciliation. There is also growing acceptance of the universality of human rights and the need to accept diversity in areas of common importance, such as, for example, in religious affairs. This I believe to reflect a recognition of the need for a wider perspective in response to the diversity of the human family itself. As a result, despite so much suffering continuing to be inflicted on individuals and peoples in the name of ideology, religion, or progress, or economics, a new sense of hope is emerging for the downtrodden.
Although it will undoubtedly be difficult to bring about genuine peace and harmony, clearly it can be done. The potential is there. And its foundation is a sense of responsibility on the part of each of us as individuals toward all others.