Friday, July 25, 2014

Right and Wrong

-along a wilderness trail-

I saw a news story yesterday showing an "all to familiar" scene in a Gaza hospital - people crying out in pain, dying and dead children held in the arms of distraught, grieving parents. An emergency room doctor who was being interviewed in the midst of all the carnage cried out in exasperation: "This has got to stop, it is immoral." 

The doctor's use of the word "immoral" really struck me. I rarely hear that word used anywhere nowadays -  bombings, violence, war, destruction are hardly ever described in terms of "morality."  I might possibly expect a priest, a rabbi or an Imam to use a word like "immoral" when referring to a war and the ravages of war but it was surprising to hear a doctor use such a word as he stood in the midst of all that pain and suffering.

Most people think that "talk" about morality and ethics, right and wrong belongs within the realm of religion.  Religious people learn about right and wrong from their teachers in churches, temples and mosques. But if you are not religious or if you work everyday in the secular world- in a hospital or in a business, a law firm, a bank, a politician's office, you don't usually (if ever) talk or think in terms of morality, what is "right" and what is "wrong."  

When I heard that doctor yesterday, I immediately went back and reread portions of the Dalai Lama's wonderful book, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. In the book, His Holiness makes a very convincing argument for removing conversations about ethics and morality away from the realm of religion and into the realm of everyday secular life, suggesting that every human being (religious or non religious, believer or non-believer) shares a common humanity and so we are all have a moral  responsibility for maintaining and nurturing and fostering this shared humanity:

Fortunately, there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that, even from the most rigorous scientific perspective, unselfishness and concern for others are not only in our own interests but, in a sense, innate to our biological nature…interdependence is a key feature of human reality including our biological reality as social animals.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of concern, affection and warmheartedness -- or in a single word, compassion. The essence of compassion is a desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to promote their well-being.  

This all makes such great sense to me. 

"Morality"viewed through the lens of religion often sounds very judgmental - "Do good and avoid evil in order to please God. Follow a certain moral code of conduct or expect to be punished by a Higher Power."  But if we understand "moral responsibility" as "doing the right thing in order to survive and thrive as human beings in this world," then viewing some behaviors as right or wrong,  moral or immoral is not a judgment but rather a pathway to well-being and deeper peace. 

The Dalai Lama suggests that compassion is a moral responsibility for every human being. We are all bound by a universal moral code: to embrace "kindness, patience, tolerance forgiveness and generosity," and to turn away from "greed, malice, hatred and bigotry." 

It was very refreshing for me to hear a doctor label the carnage of war as "immoral." When a banker or a lawyer, a politician, or even a general on a battlefield are able to look at the world through the lens of compassion and determine what is right and what is wrong, we may yet have a chance to survive and to thrive as a human race.  


  1. Good morning Paul once again I find your insights are right on the mark. Compassion is one of the most important aspects of Buddhism if not it's heart and center. It is societies greatest need.

    I am also struck by how often it is said of Jesus that when he saw the crowds or even a single person that he had compassion for those people.The father of the Prodigal is said to have had compassion at seeing the state of his returning son. He ran and embraced him and held nothing against him. He loved him all along and sorrowed for him while he was gone.

    In personal daily life the practice of compassion should be the central part of our interaction with people. Each human interaction is a moral intersection. Each interaction brings with it the obligation of behaving compassionately.

    Sometimes all we can do is cry with someone because their sorrow is so great. I learned this yesterday after talking with a friend. I wrote a poem for her.

    While We Cry Together: A Prayer

    Fill my heart with your sorrows and fears
    let your trembling cease in my arms,
    hold on to me and I will hold on to you
    while we cry together.

    My heart has been empty for years,
    pour into it your sorrows and fears,
    our arms will hold each other
    while we cry together.

    Sharing another's sorrow and bearing another's burden is fulfilling the law of Christ and I feel it is a sign of compassion. It is the kind of thing that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was speaking about. Buddha and Jesus and His Holiness the Dali Lama are peas in a pod

    1. Once again, I am most grateful for your wisdom and for your poetry.

    2. Beautiful poetry, huge hearts here, thank you for your insightful blog. I am glad you shared the Dalai Lama's wisdom. It made me think of how a Christian from my church recently said Buddhists are in the dark." How sad. Love your neighbor as yourself is one of the two most important commandments. I know atheists who know this well. Yes, we all need to be moral and compassionate for the hate and violence to stop.

    3. Thanks. Buddhists are hardly in the dark. Buddhiist teachers have been very helpful for me on my Christian path.

    4. as well. Many,seem to walk The Way of Jesus beautifully.

  2. Buddhists have another approach to verbally expressing the light. In practical terms compassion is the same regardless of any approach. Practicing compassion is a daily work. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is imbued with the same spirit Christ was filled with and which those who have Christ in their hearts are filled with.