Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th and current Dalai Lama. He was activiely exercizing the office of the head of state of Tibet when the Chinese armed forces assumed control of the country in 1959. He was 24 at the time. Since then, he has lived in India and maintained a government in exile known officially as the “Central Tibetan Administration.” He retired in March of 2011 at 76.
Since the 1600’s the Dalai Lama has been the traditional civil authority of Tibet. But he is also the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps it is because of his double role that the present Dalai Lama was keen to write a book called Beyond Religion. (Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 188 pages). For the book suggests that national governments should consider establishing programs that promote “spiritual” values and practices as part of public policy. This may seem to contradict the separation of church and state. But he is quick to point out that the values he speaks about — compassion, universal respect, altruism, fairness, justice — are human social values. They are not “supernatural” or necessarily religious. They belong to humanity; and since they enhance our lives, they are in everyone’s self interest. Nothing could be more “secular,” he says, and therefore they are beyond religion. They can be embraced by people of all religions … as well as those with none.
Despite the possible confusion created by the book’s title, there is no effort on his part to put down religion or eliminate its role. The title is meant only as a reaffirmation of the universal values embedded in the Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. They are truly secular values, he insists, and beyond any religion. Since these same values have traditionally been fostered by the world’s religions, they have unfortunately been considered “off limits” to secular governments. Yes, of course they are espoused by religion, he says, because they are good; but religion does not own them. They belong to humanity. They are something the modern secular state has every right to embrace and encourage. They are universal human values and practices.
And there is another paradox: he identifies “altruism” with “self-interest.” This seems counter-intuitive. We have become accustomed to thinking of them as contradictories, or at least contraries. But if we allow ourselves to assume the perspective he suggests, we realize that we have been operating on an unnecessarily limited definition of “self-interest.” We have accepted a point of view prejudiced by a flawed view of organic human nature. “Self-interest” does not necessarily mean selfish — taking for oneself and disregarding the needs of others. A “self-interest” that leaves out compassion and service of others is not self-interest at all; it is self-defeating. Being secular means to make our own decisions without having to obey the commands of religious authority or sacred writings, but it does not mean losing our humanity or the importance of community. Encouraging compassion and altruism as a matter of public policy, and training the youth in their practice, is the legitimate task of secular society.
The Dalai Lama is making suggestions for secular ethics apart from religion. But what about religion? What I have been talking about in my blogs is religion … and in particular the reform of the Christian religion. There are similarities to the Dalai Lama’s program, I admit: like him I also eschew the supernatural; I focus on ethical behavior whose value is determined solely by what is good for people in this one world and not by “commands” from a humanoid “God” who lives in another; I believe human beings are capable of living a good life without the intervention of forces from another world like “grace” or the sacraments; I agree with him that the “spiritual” is a dimension of material reality, not something separate from or opposed to it.
He brackets religion, including his own. He says nothing of his own private beliefs, except to say that he is “non-theist.” The term as he uses it is designed to contrast with “theist” which by his descriptions evoke the personal anthropomorphic deity of the religions of the “Book.” Many people might find the concept “non-theism” a contradiction of the very meaning of religion. I do not. For me “non-theism” is the most important characteristic that I share with the Dalai Lama. And like him, “non-theism” is meant to describe religion, not secular society.
For non-theism is not just another term for atheism. It rather stands for the complete rejection of a “God” who could interact with humans in ways that characterize relationship between human beings. Non-theism means that “God” is not a “person” it doesn’t matter how “big” you think he is. “God” is not an agent in any sense. “God” does not act in human history. “God” does not have a “will” or issue commands, or reward or punish anyone. “God” neither creates nor permits (nor prevents) natural or human-made disasters — earthquakes, plagues, tsunamis, wars, ecological destruction, genocide — you may have noticed. “God” is simply not a “person” in any way that would allow us the use of the term.
But I go even further. Not only does non-theism mean that “God” is not a person, it also means that “God” is not an entity. “God” is neither a he nor a she nor an it. “God” is not identifiable as a separate, stand-alone item, or unit, or organism, or substance, or object of any kind residing in this world or in some other imaginary world of “spirit.” “God” is simply not a “thing” of any kind. And yet “God” exists and is fully part of this material universe. In fact “God” is its very dynamism. How can we conceive this?
“God” is energy — the energy to exist, to survive. It is the energy that sustains every particle and every collection of particles of whatever shape or kind in the entire universe. It is that “in which all things live and move and have their being.” This energy is neither created nor destroyed, and its thirst for endless existence is responsible for every form and feature and substance and entity and organism in the universe. It has, in this non-directive sense, “created” all things while itself remaining uncreated by anything other than itself. It is self-sustaining and self-explanatory. It is self-elaborating and capable of evolving into virtually anything, even things that apparently transcend its most primitive forms, their own component elements. These highly elaborated composite organisms, like human beings, were once thought to belong to a different sphere of existence altogether, called “spirit.” But we now know they are not. They are matter, like everything else that exists. They are simply the most amazing examples to date of what matter’s energy does to exist and of the unimaginable range of its possible combinations.
Q.: So how is this different from “atheism”? If this “God” is not a person, and not even a separate entity, how can you call these proposals “religion”? These are common, ordinary facts, known and shared by all people acquainted with science. Aren’t these also, like the Dalai Lama’s suggestions, beyond religion?
A.: No. To the contrary, I am saying that this “God” forms the basis of a religion that goes beyond secular society and mere ethical behavior because it is focused on an intimate relationship. This existential dynamism is not just a blind impersonal force because this dynamism is my very self and I cannot possibly relate to myself on anything but intimate loving terms. I love myself and I love my life. We humans relate with recognition, gratitude and love to ourselves and religion is an intimate intersubjective connection to material energy which is, after all, ourselves. We are nothing but matter’s energy. Does that come as a surprise? Just what did we think we were? Aren’t we happy to be-here and to be what we are? How could we not be passionately in love with our existence?
Q.: So, then, is religion really only self-love … self-worship?
A.: No. Because everything else is also made of the same material energy. What I love in myself I have to recognize and love in the plants, the animals, the insects, the stars and galaxies because it is also what they are as well. Just like me, they are nothing but material energy. My love for what I am cannot be limited to me. There is no basis for an individualism here, a selfishness directed at myself alone. This “God” of which I speak energizes us all, and makes us all a community sharing matter’s drive to exist. I am what everything is. The Dalai Lama would agree when I say with the Upanishads: I am THAT. I have an intimate and intense relationship to THAT. This is what I mean by religion.
Q.: Why, then, do you keep using the word “God”? When you say “God” it makes me think of the “God” of the “book,” the “God” who was believed to perform miracles, punish enemies, give commandments, save us from Satan and evil. This “God” you speak of does none of these things. Why call it “God”?
A.: Yes, you are right. The word “God” is not a good word, but I am stuck. What word can I use to make it clear that I am not talking about a mere ethical program, even one about compassion and altruism like the Dalai Lama’s. I need to make it clear that I am talking about a mystical relationship of profound intimacy to the souce of myself and all things … in which I am immersed like a sponge in the sea … evoking the most passionate feelings I can imagine because it IS everything I am, everythintg I have, everrything I love and everything I could possibly hope for. It IS my very self. I need to find a word that says without confusion that I am talking about nothing less than an intimate love-relationship … a relationship of worship … adoration … gratitude … that calls forth my service … a relationship that is not just an enlightened self-interest but passionate union grounded in my very being-here.
Help me out here, someone. How do I say what I mean without sliding back into an ancient imagery built on illusion and ignorance. We once believed “God” was a humanoid puppeteer in the sky, who inexplicably refused to use his almighty power to prevent the torments that nature heaps upon us and who stood idly by while men claiming to act in his his name turned people into groveling self-loathing slaves, stole their dignity and freedom and destroyed their culture and their lives. There is no such “God.” How do you say that … and love the one that is.