The Dalai Lama on Religion and Spirituality

The Dalai Lama is one of those lucky few whose thoughts are as clear as a mountain stream yet as deep as an ocean. Many of his writings respond to humanity’s plenitude of self-imposed miseries with a complement of practical insights that still serve as a refreshing alternative to some damaging cultural expectations. Although a fair number of Westerners disagree with the Dalai Lama’s metaphysical assumptions, when he’s on task concerning psychological and sociological issues, the spirit of his message deserves attention. The following paragraph, taken from The Pocket Dalai Lama, is a case in point given its smart portrayal of outer and inner experience as behavioral guides:

I believe there is an important distinction to be made between religion and spirituality. Religion I take to be concerned with belief in the claims to salvation of one faith tradition or another–an aspect of which is acceptance of some form of metaphysical or philosophical reality, including perhaps an idea of heaven or hell. Connected with this are religious teachings or dogma, ritual, prayers and so on. Spirituality I take to be 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. While ritual and prayer, along with questions of nirvana and salvation are directly connected with religious faith, these inner qualities need not be, however. There is thus no reason why the individual should not develop them, even to a high degree, without recourse to any religious or metaphysical belief system. This is why I sometimes say religion is something we can perhaps do without. What we cannot do without are these basic spiritual qualities.

This line of reasoning implies that religion is a congregation of ideological assumptions spawned from a static metaphysical vision of our external reality. It is a cultural imposition designed to instill belief at a broad societal level, beginning with the individual, who is taught to accept doctrine, usually from early childhood. There’s no guarantee that any of this leads to happiness. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama sees spirituality as a set of altruistic behavioral patterns that shape the interior world of the emotions in a fluid and productive manner. Not only do qualities like love, compassion, and forgiveness serve as their own reward, but they can also function in the complete absence of any given religious belief system, which many people don’t seem to realize.

Thus, obsessing over unaddressable issues serves a lesser purpose. What matters more is our willingness to show compassion for others through an active focus on meeting more tangible needs. This change in attitude begins with the individual, not some societal imposition. Furthermore, the temples most worth visiting are the ones that exist in our hearts but sit empty all too often. There’s nothing new in any of this. Spiritual leaders from every corner of the globe have been reiterating these ideas for thousands of years. And although these same spiritual leaders are often ignored, exiled, or killed, they never seem to give up the fight. As the Dalai Lama explains on his Facebook page, “All human beings are the same. We all want happiness and do not want suffering. Even people who do not believe in religion recognize the importance of these human values in making their life happier.” It’s easy to appreciate this commitment to decency.