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Importance of Secular Ethics in Educational Curriculum
By Email[Wednesday, July 12, 2017 19:08]
by Tsewang Gyalpo Arya

There is nothing amazing about being educated; there is nothing amazing about being rich. Only when the individual has a warm heart do these become worthwhile .

~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama

"Teachers are the builders of nations" is an old universal adage, and the saying is as relevant today as it has been in the past. The young students that we have in the schools and colleges today will ultimately be the ones who will succeed us and take over the administration and lead the nation. And the quality of service and leadership that they will provide in the future will define the quality of education that these young people have received from us. So the role of the teachers and the educational value that we impart to the students are very important. This brings us to think about what education is and what the teachers' role is. Education that we generally impart in the colleges is focused on the information and knowledge related to the subject matter that the students are studying. Emphasis is more on making them professional and knowledgeable to enable them to stand on their feet and make a good living. But in the process, moral and ethical development is neglected.

We have achieved substantial progress in the field of higher education in producing a large number educated people: leaders, experts, professionals, etc. But has the quality of the things around us like leadership, public service, neighborhood security, law and order improved proportionately? It is difficult to say. Despite the increased level of education and professionalism, we have not been able to eradicate many of the ills in the society and people are indifferent to the sufferings of others around them. Human values like love, compassion, tolerance and the concept of putting others before self, have taken backstage. These are the ethical values that our youngsters need to inherit and practice if the humanity is to survive.

We have many educated professionals who are good in making their living but are indifferent to others' and societal needs. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, "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. "

Therefore, we need to see that the education that we impart to our youngsters makes them positive and caring members of the community. Education offers knowledge to live a better (successful?) life for oneself. Education with ethics offers wisdom to live a meaningful life for oneself and for others. Education with moral ethics is what we need to achieve a better and more compassionate society for all. Many of the ills and problems in the society are man-made, especially by the educated people. These educated people have great potential to help the people around them and make a meaningful contribution in the society. But they are not aware of this positive potential, because their knowledge is not supported by a good heart and moral ethics. "The good heart which is the fruit of virtue is by itself a great benefit to humanity. Mere knowledge is not."

Let me share something about Buddhism here. Buddhism is known in western countries more as science of mind than as religion. It talks about Bodhicitta mind [altruistic mind] as a motivational factor to achieve Buddhood. Bodhicitta is a strong wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings. Buddhahood is achieved due to the force of this altruistic mind to help others. Nirvana in Buddhism means liberation from the samsara for oneself. Here the motivational factor is not Bodhicitta but self liberation. Nirvana can be compared to the achievement of an educated person who can fulfill most of his immediate material needs, whereas Buddhahood can be compared to the achievement of a person who can fulfill the needs of the society.

Ethical mind can be a strong wish to achieve educational goals motivated by ethical values for the larger community. A teacher with strong ethics can inspire the students in realizing their ethical mind. So, the ethical mind as a motivating factor is necessary to use educational knowledge for the benefit of all. Without this ethical motivational factor, education can end up fulfilling the narrow interest of the individual person and not of the society as a whole.

According to Buddhism, the basic human nature is pure and compassionate. But we are not able to realize this Buddha nature or the pure aspect of our being because of mental obscurations due to our negative emotions . Once we are able to tame and overcome these negative emotions, our compassionate Buddha nature mind is revealed. This is the source of joy and benefit for oneself and for others. Scholars have thus summarized the Buddha's teaching in a stanza as follows:

Don't do non-meritorious [unethical things] deeds,
Do things which are meritorious [ethical things].
Conquer [tame] your mind,
This is the Buddha's teaching .

If we look at this stanza, there is nothing religious about it. Ethical values are something very much in us; we only need to awaken it through education and practice. Educated people should be made aware of this ethical mind to stir the positive potential within them to look beyond their individual interest and needs. In the good old days, we heard folk stories from our parents. Most of these ancient tales contain strong moral messages which we as children held dear to our heart. These days, we don’t have time for folk tales. I see these moral and ethical values as the Buddha nature within us that can be activated through proper education and training. So, we need to educate our youngsters in conquering the negative emotions and activating the ethical values within them. This will greatly enhance the human value. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has made promotion of human value as one of the three important commitments in his life. Compassion is one of the core aspects of human values. Compassion is the key to a happy and peaceful society. This compassion can be generated and realized only through our proper understanding that we are all same in wanting happiness and not suffering, and that we all are dependent on each other.

It is very important that we take good care in inculcating positive ethical values in our youngsters. We need to inspire and invoke the innate goodness and the compassionate mind lying deep within them. The role of the religion is important in directing these educational knowledge and professional skills for the betterment of oneself and the humanity. But when we say religion, many are very cautious. Although most religions are the epitome of universal ethics, it may not be advisable to suggest a religious connotation or attribute these values to any particular religion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that in today's world, religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. The teaching and approach to ethics should be based more on universal truth and understanding than on religious principles; it should be acceptable to those with faith and those without also. This is the essence of secular ethics as emphasized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his book "Beyond Religion" in promoting human values.

While referring to the word secular and secularism, His Holiness has clarified on several occasions that by secularism, he ascribes to the age old Indian tradition of respecting and accepting diverse religious traditions. It does not mean rejection of religious principles and beliefs, but rather inclusion of all, including the non-believers. Secular ethics, therefore, means teaching on universal ethical values without relating it to any religious teachings. Compassion, warm heartedness, altruistic mind, universal responsibility, etc. are some the important human values that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has been sharing with people around the world.

It is only through incorporation of secular ethics in our educational curriculum that we can build a warm and compassionate society, and educationists have a great role in stimulating the ethical values latent in the minds of our youngsters. A teacher's vision should be to impart education with strong ethics that will motivate his or her students to venture beyond their narrow self interest and enable them to discover meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in their life through helping others. This altruistic vision to see the students full of compassion, driven with a genuine sense of responsibility and sincere concern for the welfare of others, can be a great motivating factor to improve morale, delivery and the learning outcome for the teachers.


1 HH the Dalai Lama, Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, Ethics for the New Millennium, p-35
2 H.H. the Dalai Lama, Ethics for the new millennium, p-188
3 ibid, p-118,
4 Ignorance, attachment, aversion, anger, greed, jealousy etc.
5 My translation to bring the stanza in the present context [Tib: sdig-pa ci yang mi bya shhing, dge-ba phun-sum tsogs par spyod, rang gi sems ni yongs su 'dul, 'di ni sangs-rgyas bstan-pa yin]
6 H.H. the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion, p-xiii~

• H.H. the Dalai lama:
o Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, Ethics for the New Millennium, Abacus
o Beyond Religion, Ethics for a Whole World, Harper Element
o Buddhism of Tibet, Snow Lion Publications
o Introduction to Buddhism & Tantric Meditation, Paljor Publications
• International Journal of Applied Ethics, Vol-3, Centre for Ethics and Values, Ramanujan College, University of Delhi
• In Praise of Dharmadhattu, Tibet House teaching material, May 2016
• Lauren Alderfer, Teaching from the Heart of Mindfulness, Green Writer Press

The author is Secretary, Bureau of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in New Delhi. The above paper was presented at a Concalve of Ethicists and Educationists at India Habitat Center, New Delhi. on 21st April 2017.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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