H.H. Dalai Lama: Dimensions of Spirituality

 His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Compassion is the Universal Religion

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: Compassion is the Universal Religion

Dimensions of Spirituality

By His Holiness the Dalai Lama

This teaching was given at the National Tennis Centre, Melbourne, Australia. May 4, 1992

Two Levels of Spirituality

Brothers and Sisters, I would like to address the topic of spiritual values by defining two levels of spirituality

To begin, let me say that as human beings our basic aim is to have a happy life; we all want to experience happiness. It is natural for us to seek happiness. This is our life’s purpose. The reason is quite clear: when we lose hope, the result is that we become depressed and perhaps even suicidal. Therefore, our very existence is strongly rooted in hope. Although there is no guarantee of what the future will bring, it is because we have hope that we are able to continue living. Therefore, we can say that the purpose of our life, our life’s goal, is happiness.

Human beings are not produced by machines. We are more than just matter; we have feeling and experience. For that reason, material comfort alone is not enough. We need something deeper, what I usually refer to as human affection, or compassion. With human affection, or compassion, all the material advantages that we have at our disposal can be very constructive and can produce good results. Without human affection, however, material advantages alone will not satisfy us, nor will they produce in us any measure of mental peace or happiness. In fact, material advantages without human affection may even create additional problems. Therefore, human affection, or compassion, is the key to human happiness.

The First Level of Spirituality: The Religions of the World and Their Value for Humanity

The first level of spirituality, for human beings everywhere, is faith in one of the many religions of the world. I think there is an important role for each of the major world religions, but in order for them to make an effective contribution to the benefit of humanity from the religious side, there are two important factors to be considered.

The first of these factors is that individual practitioners of the various religions—that is, we ourselves— must practice sincerely. Religious teachings must be an integral part of our lives; they should not be separated from our lives. Sometimes we go into a church or temple and say a prayer, or generate some kind of spiritual feeling, and then, when we step outside the church or temple, none of that religious feeling remains. This is not the proper way to practice. The religious message must be with us wherever we are. The teachings of our religion must be present in our lives so that, when we really need or require blessings or inner strength, those teachings will be there even at such times; they will be there when we experience difficulties because they are constantly present. Only when religion has become an integral part of our lives can it be really effective.

We also need to experience more deeply the meanings and spiritual values of our own religious tradition— we need to know these teachings not only on an intellectual level but also through our own deeper experience. Sometimes we understand different religious ideas on an overly superficial or intellectual level. Without a deeper feeling, the effectiveness of religion becomes limited. Therefore, we must practice sincerely, and religion must become part of our lives.

The Importance of a Close Relationship Among Religions

The second factor is concerned more with interaction among the various world religions. Today, because of increasing technological change and the nature of the world economy, we are much more dependent on one another than ever before. Different countries, different continents, have become more closely associated with one another. In reality the survival of one region of the world depends on that of others. Therefore, the world has become much closer, much more interdependent. As a result, there is more human interaction. Under such circumstances, the idea of pluralism among the world’s religions is very important. In previous times, when communities lived separately from one another and religions arose in relative isolation, the idea that there was only one religion was very useful. But now the situation has changed, and the circumstances are entirely different. Now, therefore, it is crucial to accept the fact that different religions exist, and in order to develop genuine mutual respect among them, close contact among the various religions is essential. This is the second factor that will enable the world’s religions to be effective in benefiting humanity.

When I was in Tibet, I had no contact with people of different religious faiths, so my attitude toward other religions was not very positive. But once I had had the opportunity to meet with people of different faiths and to learn from personal contact and experience, my attitude toward other religions changed. I realized how useful to humanity other religions are, and what potential each has to contribute to a better world. In the last several centuries the various religions have made marvelous contributions toward the betterment of human beings, and even today there are large numbers of followers of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so forth. Millions of people are benefiting from all these religions.

To give an example of the value of meeting people of different faiths, my meetings with the late Thomas Merton made me realize what a beautiful, wonderful person he was. On another occasion I met with a Catholic monk in Monserrat, one of Spain’s famous monasteries. I was told that this monk had lived for several years as a hermit on a hill just behind the monastery. When I visited the monastery, he came down from his hermitage especially to meet me. As it happened, his English was even worse than mine, and this gave me more courage to speak with him! We remained face to face, and I inquired, “In those few years, what were you doing on that hill!” He looked at me and answered, “Meditation on compassion, on love.” As he said those few words, I understood the message through his eyes. I truly developed genuine admiration for this person and for others like him. Such experiences have helped confirm in my mind that all the world’s religions have the potential to produce good people, despite their differences of philosophy and doctrine. Each religious tradition has its own wonderful message to convey.

For example, from the Buddhist point of view the concept of a creator is illogical; because of the ways in which Buddhists analyze causality, it is a difficult concept for Buddhists to understand. However, this is not the place to discuss philosophical issues. The important point here is that for the people who do follow those teachings in which the basic faith is in a creator, that approach is very effective. According to those traditions, the individual human being is created by God. Moreover, as I recently learned from one of my Christian friends, they do not accept the theory of rebirth and, thus, do not accept past or future lives. They accept only this life. However, they hold that this very life is created by God, by the creator, and that idea develops in them a feeling of intimacy with God. Their most important teaching is that since it is by God’s will that we are here, our future depends upon the creator, and that because the creator is considered to be holy and supreme, we must love God, the creator.

What follows from this is the teaching that we should love our fellow human beings—this is the primary message here. The reasoning is that if we love God, we must love our fellow human beings because they, like us, were created by God. Their future, like ours, depends on the creator; therefore, their situation is like our own. Consequently, the faith of people who say, “Love God,” but who themselves do not show genuine love toward their fellow human beings is questionable. The person who believes in God and in love for God must demonstrate the sincerity of his or her love of God through love directed toward fellow human beings. This approach is very powerful, isn’t it?

Thus, if we examine each religion from various angles in the same way—not simply from our own philosophical position but from several points of view—there can be no doubt that all major religions have the potential to improve human beings. This is obvious. Through close contact with those of other faiths it is possible to develop a broadminded attitude and mutual respect with regard to other religions. Close contact with different religions helps me to learn new ideas, new practices, and new methods or techniques that I can incorporate into my own practice. Similarly, some of my Christian brothers and sisters have adopted certain Buddhist methods—for example, the practice of one-pointedness of mind as well as techniques to help improve tolerance, compassion, and love. There is great benefit when practitioners of different religions come together for this kind of interchange. In addition to the development of harmony among them, there are other benefits to be gained as well.

Politicians and national leaders frequently talk about “coexistence” and “coming together.” Why not we religious people too? I think the time has come. At Assisi in 1987, for example, leaders and representatives of various world religions met to pray together, although I am not certain whether “prayer” is the exact word to describe the practice of all these religions accurately. In any case, what is important is that representatives of the various religions come together in one place and, according to their own belief, pray. This is already happening and is, I think, a very positive development. Nevertheless, we still need to put more effort toward developing harmony and closeness among the world’s religions, since without such effort, we will continue to experience the many problems that divide humanity.

If religion were the only remedy for reducing human conflict, but that remedy itself became another source of conflict, it would be disastrous. Today, as in the past, conflicts take place in the name of religion, because of religious differences, and I think this is very, very sad. But as I mentioned earlier, if we think broadly, deeply, we will realize that the situation in the past is entirely different from the situation today. We are no longer isolated but are instead interdependent. Today, therefore, it is very important to realize that a close relationship among the various religions is essential, so that different religious groups may work closely together and make a common effort for the benefit of humankind.

Thus, sincerity and faith in religious practice on the one hand, and religious tolerance and cooperation on the other, comprise this first level of the value of spiritual practice to humanity.

The Second Level of Spirituality: Compassion as the Universal Religion

The second level of spirituality is more important than the first because, no matter how wonderful any religion may be, it is still accepted only by a very limited number of people. The majority of the five or six billion human beings on our planet probably do not practice any religion at all. According to their family background they might identify themselves as belonging to one religious group or another—”I am Hindu”; “I am Buddhist”; “I am Christian”—but deep down, most of these individuals are not necessarily practitioners of any religious faith. That is all right; whether or not a person embraces a religion is that person’s right as an individual. All the great ancient masters, such as Buddha, Mahavira, Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, failed to make the entire human population spiritually minded. The fact is that nobody can do that. Whether those nonbelievers are called atheists does not matter. Indeed, according to some Western scholars, Buddhists are also atheists, since they do not accept a creator. Therefore, I sometimes add one more word to describe these nonbelievers, and that is “extreme”; I call them extreme nonbelievers. They are not only nonbelievers but are extreme in their view in that they hold that spirituality has no value. However, we must remember that these people are also a part of humanity, and that they also, like all human beings, have the desire to be happy—to have a happy and peaceful life. This is the important point.

I believe that it is all right to remain a nonbeliever, but as long as you are a part of humanity, as long as you are a human being, you need human affection, human compassion. This is actually the essential teaching of all the religious traditions: the crucial point is compassion, or human affection. Without human affection, even religious beliefs can become destructive. Thus, the essence, even in religion, is a good heart. I consider human affection, or compassion, to be the universal religion. Whether a believer or a nonbeliever, everyone needs human affection and compassion, because compassion gives us inner strength, hope, and mental peace. Thus, it is indispensable for everyone.

Let us, for example, examine the usefulness of the good heart in daily life. If we are in a good mood when we get up in the morning, if there is a warm-hearted feeling within, automatically our inner door is opened for that day. Even should an unfriendly person happen along, we would not experience much disturbance and may even manage to say something nice to that person. We could chat with the not-so-friendly person and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation. But on a day when our mood is less positive and we are feeling irritated, automatically our inner door closes. As a result, even if we encounter our best friend, we feel uncomfortable and strained. These instances shows how our inner attitude makes a great difference in our daily experiences. Therefore, in order to create a pleasant atmosphere within ourselves, within our families, within our communities, we have to realize that the ultimate source of that pleasant atmosphere is within the individual, within each of us—a good heart, human compassion, love.

Once we create a friendly and positive atmosphere, it automatically helps to reduce fear and insecurity. In this way we can easily make more friends and create more smiles. After all, we are social animals. Without human friendship, without the human smile, our life becomes miserable. The lonely feeling becomes unbearable. It is a natural law—that is to say, according to natural law we depend on others to live. If, under certain circumstances, because something is wrong inside us, our attitude toward fellow human beings, on whom we depend, becomes hostile, how can we hope to attain peace of mind or a happy life? According to basic human nature, or natural law, affection-compassion-is the key to happiness.

According to contemporary medicine, a positive mental state, or peace of mind, is also beneficial for our physical health. If we are constantly agitated, we end up harming our own health. Therefore, even from the point of view of our health, mental calmness and peacefulness are very important. This shows that the physical body itself appreciates and responds to human affection, human peace of mind.

Basic Human Nature

If we look at basic human nature, we see that our nature is more gentle than aggressive. For example, if we examine various animals, we notice that animals of a more peaceful nature have a corresponding body structure, whereas predatory animals have a body structure that has developed according to their nature. Compare the tiger and the deer: there are great differences in their physical structures. When we compare our own body structure to theirs, we see that we resemble deer and rabbits more than tigers. Even our teeth are more like theirs, are they not? They are not like a tiger’s. Our nails are another good example—I cannot even catch a rat with my human fingernails alone. Of course, because of human intelligence, we are able to devise and use various tools and methods to accomplish things that would be difficult to accomplish without them. Thus, as you can see, because of our physical situation we belong to the gentle- animal category. I think this is our fundamental human nature as shown by our basic physical structure.

Compassion and Conflict Resolution

Given our current global situation, cooperation is essential, especially in fields such as economics and education. The concept that differences are important is now more or less gone, as demonstrated by the movement toward a unified Western Europe. This movement is, I think, truly marvelous and very timely. Yet this close work between nations did not come about because of compassion or religious faith, but rather because of necessity. There is a growing tendency in the world toward global awareness. Under current circumstances a closer relationship with others has become an element of our very survival. Therefore, the concept of universal responsibility based on compassion and on a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood is now essential. The world is full of conflicts—conflicts because of ideology, because of religion, even conflicts within families: conflicts based on one person wanting one thing and another wanting something else. So if we examine the sources of these many conflicts, we find that there are many different sources, many different causes, even within ourselves.

Yet, in the meantime, we have the potential and ability to come together in harmony. All these other things are relative. Although there are many sources of conflict, there are at the same time many sources that bring about unity and harmony. The time has come to put more emphasis on unity. Here again there must be human affection. For example, you many have a different ideological or religious opinion from someone else. If you respect the other’s rights and sincerely show a compassionate attitude toward that person, then it does not matter whether his or her idea is suitable for yourself; that is secondary. As long as the other person believes in it, as long as that person benefits from such a viewpoint, it is his or her absolute right. So we must respect that and accept the fact that different viewpoints exist. In the realm of economics as well, one’s competitors must also receive some profit, because they too have to survive. When we have a broader perspective based on compassion, I think things become much easier. Once again, compassion is the key factor.


Today, our world situation has eased considerably. Fortunately, we can now think and talk seriously about demilitarization, or at least the idea of demilitarization. Five years ago, or perhaps even as recently as two years ago, it was difficult even to think about it, but now the Cold War between the former Soviet Union and the United States is over. With regard to the United States, I always tell my American friends, “Your strength comes not from nuclear weapons but from your ancestors’ noble ideas of freedom, liberty, and democracy.” When I was in the United States in 1991, I had the opportunity of meeting with former President George Bush. At that time we discussed the New World Order, and I said to him, “A New World Order with compassion is very good. I’m not so sure about a New World Order without compassion.” I now believe that the time is ripe to think and talk about demilitarization. There are already some signs of weapons reduction and for the first time, denuclearization. Step by step, we are seeing a reduction in weapons, and I think our goal should be to free the world—our small planet—from weapons. This does not mean, however, that we should abolish all forms of weapons. We may need to keep some, since there are always some mischievous people and groups among us. In order to take precautions and be safeguarded from these sources, we could create a system of regionally monitored international police forces, not necessarily belonging to any one nation but controlled collectively and supervised ultimately by an organization like the United Nations or another similar international body. That way, with no weapons available, there would be no danger of military conflict between nations, and there would also be no civil wars.

War has remained, sadly, a part of human history up to the present, but I think the time has come to change the concepts that lead to war. Some people consider war to be something glorious; they think that through war they can become heroes. This usual attitude toward war is very wrong. Recently an interviewer remarked to me, “Westerners have a great fear of death, but Easterners seem to have very little fear of death.” To that I half-jokingly responded, “It seems to me that, to the Western mind, war and the military establishment are extremely important. War means death—by killing, not by natural causes. So it seems that, in fact, you are the ones who do not fear death, because you are so fond of war. We Easterners, particularly Tibetans, cannot even begin to consider war; we cannot conceive of fighting, because the inevitable result of war is disaster: death, injuries, and misery. Therefore, the concept of war, in our minds, is extremely negative. That means we actually have more fear of death than you. Don’t you think?” Unfortunately, because of certain factors, our ideas about war are incorrect. Therefore, the time has come to think seriously about demilitarization.

I felt this very strongly during and after the Persian Gulf crisis. Of course, everybody blamed Saddam Hussein, and there is no question that Saddam Hussein is negative—he made many mistakes and acted wrongly in many ways. After all, he is a dictator, and a dictator is, of course, something negative. However, without his military establishment, without his weapons, Saddam Hussein could not function as that kind of dictator. Who supplied those weapons? The suppliers also bear the responsibility. Some Western nations supplied him with weapons without regard for the consequences.

To think only of money, of making a profit from selling weapons, is really terrible. I once met a French woman who had spent many years in Beirut, Lebanon. She told me with great sadness that during the crisis in Beirut there were people at one end of the city making a profit selling weapons, and that every day, at the other end of the city, other-innocent-people were being killed with those very weapons. Similarly, on one side of our planet there are people living a lavish life with the profits made from selling arms, while innocent people are getting killed with those fancy bullets on the other side of our planet. Therefore, the first step is to stop selling weapons. Sometimes I tease my Swedish friends: “Oh, you are really wonderful. During the last period of conflict you remained neutral. And you always consider the importance of human rights and world peace. Very good. But in the meantime you are selling many weapons. This is a little bit of a contradiction, isn’t it?”

Therefore, since the time of the Persian Gulf crisis I myself made an inner pledge—a commitment that for the rest of my life I will contribute to furthering the idea of demilitarization. As far as my own country is concerned, I have made up my mind that in the future, Tibet should be a completely demilitarized zone. Once again, in working to bring about demilitarization, the key factor is human compassion.

Conclusion: The Meaning of Compassion

I have talked a great deal about compassion without explaining its precise meaning. I would like to conclude by explaining the meaning of compassion, which is often misunderstood. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the rights of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for his or her problem. This is genuine compassion.

Usually when we are concerned about a close friend, we call this compassion. This is not compassion; it is attachment. Even in marriage, those marriages that last a long time do so not because of attachment— although it is generally present—but because there is also compassion. Marriages that last only a short time do so because of a lack of compassion; there is only emotional attachment based on projection and expectation. When the only bond between close friends is attachment, then even a minor issue may cause one’s projections to change. As soon as our projections change, the attachment disappears—because that attachment was based solely on projection and expectation.

It is possible to have compassion without attachment—and similarly, to have anger without hatred. Therefore, we need to clarify the distinctions between compassion and attachment, and between anger and hatred. Such clarity is useful in our daily life and in our efforts toward world peace. I consider these to be basic spiritual values for the happiness of all human beings, regardless of whether one is a believer or a non-believer.

WISDOM PUBLICATIONS is both honored and delighted to make available for free distribution around the world, this teaching and others in booklet form by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, such as A Human Approach to World Peace (65,000 copies in print), Compassion and the Individual (61,000 copies), The Global Community and the Need for Universal Responsibility (15,000 copies), and Words of Truth: A Prayer for Peace in Tibet and Compassion in the World (7,000 copies). Tens of thousands more copies of most of these booklets are also in print in many different languages.

THE PUBLISHER GRATEFULLY ACKNOWLEDGES the kind help of the Gere Foundation, Zachary Gasper, and the Victoria Committee for the 1992 Tour of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama for sponsoring the publication of this teaching in booklet form. We also thank members of the Committee for transcribing the tapes and for the initial editing of the text.

Printed in 1995