Mumbai, Maharashtra, India - His Holiness the Dalai Lama drove under heavy monsoon skies across Mumbai to the leafy campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) this morning. He was welcomed on arrival by chairperson of the TISS governing board S Ramadorai and TISS Director Prof S Parasuraman. They escorted him to the auditorium where proceedings got off to a start with everyone standing for the Institute song.
Prof Parasuraman formally welcomed the guests. He reported that work on the Secular Ethics for Higher Education Course had begun in 2013. Now that it is complete, all TISS students can take the course, which will earn them credits. 300 students have signed up to start with. TISS hopes to be able to offer the course at other Higher Education institutions, as well as making it available to the business community.
S Ramadorai also welcomed His Holiness and his colleagues from the governing body, remarking that His Holiness’s presence on the campus made the day a momentous occasion. In connection with the launch of the Secular Ethics program, he took the opportunity to remind all present of the code of ethics observed within the Tata group that was introduced in 1998.
One of the principal authors of the Secular Ethics course, Dr Monica Sharma, who is Tata Chair Visiting Professor at TISS, spoke next, calling the course an investment in future leaders. She qualified the term secular as celebrating diversity and said the course built on three aspects common to all human beings: compassion, an impulse for equity, or sense of fairness, and a sense of self-esteem whatever your background.
The course has already been run once as a pilot program with 60 students, who reported it excellent. It is value based and rests on three pillars drawing on people’s deepest assets. It is results oriented, not merely theoretical. It seeks to ensure gender equality. It focuses on transformation by embodying universal values individually and collectively.
The course draws on our ability to think creatively, which is driven by a sense of humanity, rather than just innovate, which tends to be driven by technology. It’s a system designed by human beings. Dr Sharma also likened the course to a fractal because it incorporates patterns that repeat themselves, much as we see in nature. She mentioned three patterns of learning—inquiry, generating insight and putting into practice.
The course also deals with discernment, a quality of judgement enabling us to grow within human values and to see from that perspective. Such discerning also involves not being attached to a point of view.
Dr Sharma referred to the course’s potential usefulness in a business context, envisaging the possibility of business grounded in ethical values. She concluded that she hopes it will be a compass for life, showing the way to ethical values and leadership.
His Holiness took part in the formal launch of the course in Secular Ethics with the release of the course primer. He was then invited to address the gathering that included Vice-Chancellors from allied institutions, business people and staff and students of TISS.
“Good morning,” His Holiness began, “I can speak standing at the podium because I feel fresh in the morning. It’s only as the day wears on that tiredness gets the better of me.
“Respected elder and younger brothers and sisters—I always start with words like these because on a fundamental level we are all the same as human beings. We focus on differences like family background, nationality, faith and so forth, but these are only secondary and should not be a cause of suffering. I always consider myself to be just another human being and when I meet others I see them as fellow human beings too. This brings me inner strength and enables me to make friends easily. There is direct benefit. If, instead, you get bogged down in secondary differences it just creates distance between you and others.
“I want to congratulate you on completing this book. It’s really wonderful that you’ve reached this point.
“As a Buddhist monk I get up early every day and I start by making prayers for the welfare of all sentient beings. But whatever beings there are elsewhere in the universe, there’s little we can do for them. And even when I look at the animals, birds, insects and fish on this planet there’s not a lot we can for them either. Those we can help are among the 7 billion human beings with whom we can communicate.
“In the past when communities were more self-sufficient and isolated it might have been appropriate to think of other people in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In today’s global economy, however, and in a world where climate change threatens us all, we have to learn to live side by side with a sense of the oneness of humanity.
“Many educationalists and scientists are of the view that our present education system is not adequate. In the past people looked to religious tradition for ethical guidance, but today more than 1 billion people declare they have no interest in religion. We need something to fill the gap, to show that warm-heartedness leads to improved well-being. We need something to indicate that what destroys our inner peace is anger. We may feel it’s a natural part of the mind, but anger and compassion cannot co-exist. If we ask what use anger is to us, we find that it destroys our peace of mind and upsets family life, so it’s of no use.”
His Holiness explained that much of this is described in ancient Indian psychology, which modern Indians have neglected, but which intrigues many scientists. He observed that we need a secular approach to ethics based on scientific findings, common experience and common sense. One of the aims of secular ethics is to teach how to achieve peace of mind.
“In modern India, ahimsa is still part of public consciousness, as is secularism. Ahimsa or non-violence is the expression in conduct of karuna or compassion. I congratulate you on your work so far. It will also serve as a basis for further development.”
His Holiness offered to take questions once he had sat down. The first asked how relevant compassion is in today’s world. He answered, “Very relevant. This relates to understanding how the whole system of our emotions works. For example anger is not reduced by anger—just as violence doesn’t reduce violence.”
In responding to a question about women’s role in peacemaking, His Holiness offered an explanation of the emergence of a need for leadership and how the criterion of physical strength led to male dominance. Now, education has removed that inequality and there are many significant women leaders. Since women have been shown to be more sensitive to others’ suffering, their leadership may be more effective. His Holiness suggested it’s time for men to withdraw and for women to step forward.
He acknowledged that there is still discrimination against women related to old ways of thinking derived from a feudal system. He also outlined three aspects of religious tradition—actual religious practice, philosophy and cultural conventions. He cited the role of the Dalai Lamas as political leaders as a Tibetan cultural convention that had outlived its usefulness and compared this to Indian customs like the caste system and discrimination against women that it’s time to change.
His Holiness related a question about inequitable salary differences in business to the gap between rich and poor, suggesting that people on both sides of the gap need to work to close it.
Among questions from the press he was asked about tensions with China on the Indian border and declared that neither India nor China have the ability to completely defeat the other. China is powerful, but so is India. The two countries have to live together. His Holiness was also invited to define ‘secular’ and he explained it as respect for all religions without bias, as well as respect for the views of those who have no faith. He alluded to India’s secular constitution.
After lunch with industry leaders and Vice-Chancellors His Holiness gave an account of the evolution of his thinking from beginning to memorize texts at the age of 7 to his first visit to Europe in 1973. It was then that he realized that, despite the extent of material development that had take place in the West, people were still unhappy. He was also surprised to learn on a visit to Mongolia via Moscow in 1979, that just as Europe was wary of being attacked by Russia, the Russians were extremely apprehensive about NATO.
“I realised that peace of mind is found through the practice of compassion and a sense of the oneness of humanity, not as a result of fear and threats.
“Now, I believe we need to revive the ancient Indian knowledge that we have kept alive, which tells us how, for example, to tackle our emotions. Secularism too is part of that tradition. If ancient Indian insight into the workings of the mind can be combined with modern education it will have an impact on India, and in the longer run, perhaps China too. This course on Secular Ethics for Higher Education is like a pilot project in this larger context. Please keep it up.”
In his summing up Prof Parasuraman anticipated that the 300 students who have signed up for the Secular Ethics course will soon grow to 5000 or more. He mentioned that a Minister in the government has asked him to provide this training for MPs. Noting that the Vice-Chancellors of the Central Institute for Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, the Vivekanand University, the Ambedkar University and so forth were present, he hopes they will also take it up and report back. He ended by making an appeal for support.
As His Holiness left the TISS building on his way to his car, students who had gathered to see him let out an friendly cheer. He smiled and waved before driving to Mumbai airport to fly to Delhi. Tomorrow he will return to Dharamsala for a period of much needed rest.