His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s thoughts about ethics education

We are very grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his publisher Penguin Randomhouse for allowing us to publish extracts from his book ‘Ancient Wisdom, Modern World. Ethics for the New Millennium’ which outline his vision for ethics education.

Whether visiting one of our schools for Tibetan refugees in India or speaking to student audiences abroad, I am always very happy to meet young people. They have a natural enthusiasm for justice and peace, and they tend to be much more open and flexible of mind than adults. No matter how well disposed towards change we are, we adults undoubtedly find it more difficult. Meeting the young also reminds me that children constitute humanity’s most precious resource. Given that their moral outlook is largely shaped by their upbringing, it is essential to educate them responsibly.

The human mind (lo) is both the source and, properly directed, the solution to all our problems. Those who attain great learning but lack a good heart are in danger of falling prey to the anxieties and restlessness which result from desires incapable of fulfilment. This is because what I call material knowledge can easily be a source of negative thoughts and feelings. Conversely, a genuine understanding of spiritual values brings peace. If we bring up our children to have knowledge without compassion, their attitude towards others is likely to be a mixture of envy of those in positions above them, aggressive competitiveness toward their peers and scorn for those less fortunate. This leads to a propensity towards greed, presumption, excess and, very quickly, to loss of happiness. Knowledge is important, but much more important is the use towards which it is put. This depends on the heart and mind of the one who uses it.

Education is much more than a matter of imparting the knowledge and skills by which narrow goals are achieved. It is also about opening the child’s eyes to the needs and rights of others. We must show children that their actions have a universal dimension. And we must somehow find a way to build on their natural feelings of empathy so that they come to have a sense of responsibility toward others. For it is this which stirs us into action. Indeed, if we had to choose between learning and virtue, the latter is definitely more valuable. The good heart which is the fruit of virtue is by itself a great benefit to humanity. Mere knowledge is not.

How, though, are we to teach morality to our children? I have a sense that, in general, modern educational systems neglect discussion of ethical matters. This is probably not intentional as much as a by-product of historical reality. Secular educational systems were developed at a time when religious institutions were still highly influential throughout society. Because ethical and human values were and still are generally held to fall within the purview of religion, it was assumed that this aspect of a child’s education would be looked after through his or her religious upbringing. This worked well enough until the influence of religion began to decline. But now, although the need is still there, it is not being met. Therefore, we must find another way of showing children that basic human values are important. And we must also help them to develop them.

Ultimately, of course, the importance of concern for others is learned not from words but from actions: the example we set. This is why the family environment itself is such a vital component in a child’s upbringing. When a caring and compassionate atmosphere is absent from the home, when children are neglected by their parents, it is easy to recognize the damaging effects. The children tend to feel helpless and insecure, and their minds are often agitated. Conversely, when children receive consistent affection and protection, they tend to be much happier and more confident in their abilities. Their physical health tends to be better too. And we find that they are concerned not just for themselves but for others as well. The home environment is also important because children learn negative behaviour from their parents. If, for example, the father is always getting into fights with his associates, or if the father and mother are always arguing destructively, although at first the child may find this objectionable, eventually they will come to understand it as quite normal. This learning is then taken out of the home and into the world.

It also goes without saying that what children learn about ethical conduct has to be practised first. In this, teachers have a special responsibility. By their own behaviour, they can make children remember them for their whole lives. If this behaviour is principled, disciplined and compassionate, their values will be readily impressed on the child’s mind. This is because the lessons taught by a teacher with a positive motivation (kunlong) penetrate deepest into their students’ minds. I know this from my own experience. As a boy, I was very lazy. But when I was aware of the affection and concern of my tutors, their lessons would generally sink in much more successfully than if one of them was harsh or unfeeling that day.

So far as the specifics of education are concerned, that is for the experts. I will, therefore, confine myself to a few suggestions. The first is that in order to awaken young people’s consciousness to the importance of basic human values, it is better not to present society’s problems purely as an ethical matter or as a religious matter. It is important to emphasize that what is at stake is our continued survival. This way, they will come to see that the future lies in their hands. Secondly, I do believe that dialogue can and should be taught in class. Presenting students with a controversial issue and having them debate it is a wonderful way to introduce them to the concept of resolving conflict non-violently. Indeed, one would hope that if schools were to make this a priority, it could have a beneficial effect on family life itself. On seeing his or her parents wrangling, a child that had understood the value of dialogue would instinctively say, ‘Oh no. That’s not the way. You have to talk, to discuss things properly.’

Finally, it is essential that we eliminate from our schools’ curricula any tendency toward presenting others in a negative light. There are undoubtedly some parts of the world where the teaching of history, for example, fosters bigotry and racism toward other communities. Of course this is wrong. It contributes nothing to the happiness of humanity. Now more than ever we need to show our children that distinctions between ‘my country’ and ‘your country’, ‘my religion’ and ‘your religion’ are secondary considerations. Rather, we must insist on the observation that my right to happiness carries no more weight than others’ right. This is not to say that I believe we should educate children to abandon or ignore the culture and historical tradition they are born into. On the contrary, it is very important they be grounded in these. It is good for children to learn to love their country, their religion, their culture and so on. But the danger comes when this develops into narrow-minded nationalism, ethnocentricity and religious bigotry. The example of Mahatma Gandhi is pertinent here. Even though he had a very high level of Western education, he never forgot or became estranged from the rich heritage of his Indian culture.

Ancient Wisdom, Modern World. Ethics for the New Millennium.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama

A project from the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion

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