Chapter 5

Buddhism, Ubuntu, and Secular Ethics

By Zara Houshmand


Thupten Jinpa

When it became clear that the Dialogue would have to go forward without the Dalai Lama, Thupten Jinpa stepped up to the plate. As one of the world’s foremost scholars of Buddhism, and chair of the board of the Mind & Life Institute who has played a role in the Dialogues since their inception, and the Dalai Lama’s principle interpreter for over thirty years, Thupten Jinpa is uniquely qualified to represent his views.

He linked the concept of ubuntu to the Dalai Lama’s efforts to develop a discourse on what he calls secular ethics—universal values that are not culturally bound or derived from religious faith. The “oneness of humanity” referred to in the Dalai Lama’s video message is central to this. We all share a similar human condition, regardless of cultural differences. It includes both our vulnerability to suffering and our most basic aspirations for ourselves and our loved ones: we all wish to thrive, to be happy and healthy, and to experience love and compassion.

Interdependence is another foundation of secular ethics. Not only are we all similar, our lives are interwoven. All of us are dependent on others and others depend on us. This concept lies at the heart of Buddhist philosophy, particularly in the writing of the second century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, which holds a relational, non-reductionist view not only of human interactions, but of the nature of reality. The very existence of the physical world is part of this web of interrelationship, and compassion is the ethical expression of this world view. The concept of ubuntu promises a similarly rich and powerful articulation of a relational reality where we actively co-create our selves through our interactions with others.

Thupten Jinpa noted that the dominant Eurocentric discourse defines almost all societal values in individualistic terms, from the sanctity of private property to the definition of human rights. Values of communal relationship, like compassion and empathy, are rarely mentioned. He conveyed the hope that this Dialogue will lead to further research on such values of relationship and a greater openness to contributions from non-Western knowledge traditions. The traditional African concept of ubuntu may find truly universal applications that enrich the way we see ourselves as individuals and relate with others. In a global world, knowledge does not belong to any particular community but can be freely exchanged in a marketplace of ideas.

Given that our reality is unavoidably interconnected, we need to find ways of framing our own interests within the broader context of the interests of a global society. This is why nationalist rhetoric—“our nation first”—is dangerous: it runs counter to the reality of our deeply interconnected world.

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