Dalai Lama,
Beyond Religion
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

The spine of this slender book seems deeply ironic: Beyond Religion [by] His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Yet I think it captures the book's central message that we can hold religious beliefs while applying universal, secular ethics towards everyone, including those who don't share our religion. In short, it's about how we can finally learn how to get along on an increasingly crowded planet.

At just under 200 pages, Beyond Religion is a brief but powerful statement. The Dalai Lama starts by re-positioning secularism as complementary rather than antagonistic to religion, and argues for a universal approach to ethics that everyone can adopt. Subsequent chapters place the basis for secular ethics in our shared humanity and interdependence and explore our innate empathy. It's not all sunshine and lollipops: the Dalai Lama also looks at how compassion and justice would mesh in a world run on secular ethics.

The first half of the book is a wise, compassionate and surprisingly down-to-earth approach to ethics. The second half, which is more instructive in nature, lost me a little. Although it's practical (dealing with destructive emotions, practicing mindfulness, cultivating virtues like patience and self-discipline), I wasn't really expecting advice on setting up a meditation practice. I see why it could be a good idea, but I have yet to get over my association of meditation with new age hipsters.

Not being spiritual or religious, I have never read anything else by the Dalai Lama and was pleasantly surprised by this book's generosity, humility and universality. I think all thoughtful people, religious or not, will find something of value in it. That said, while the language and tone are not difficult, it took me a while to get through the book. My usual non-fiction is heavily fact-oriented, and Beyond Religion is mostly philosophy, with big, broad-ranging ideas.

I have no doubt that a world that lived by the principles outlined in Beyond Religion would be a more thoughtful, peaceful and tolerant one. I hope the Dalai Lama turns out to be right in his optimistic view of human nature and our future.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

30 March 2013

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