By the time this column is published, I will have attended my 45th law school reunion at the beautiful new Fordham Law School campus. As much as I’ve enjoyed being a lawyer for nearly half a century, I can’t help but wonder how my life would have turned out had I continued my post-graduate work in philosophy instead.
Considering this “what if” question, I couldn’t help but think of my friend and former classmate, Owen Flanagan. Owen never deviated from his dedication to a career in philosophy. Always a brilliant student, today Owen is considered one of the greatest philosophers of our time. Therefore, it only made sense that I should review his works before wrapping up our discussion on the meaning of life.
The Dalai Lama XIV was a very important influence on Professor Flanagan’s philosophical odyssey. Luckily, the last time I saw Owen, he gifted me a copy of his groundbreaking book, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized.” I finally read it this past weekend while preparing this column.
Tibetans regard the Dalai Lama XIV as the reincarnation of the original Dalai Lama. They believe that each successive Dalai Lama is an emanation of Avalalokitesvara, the Buddhist celestial bodhisattva of compassion. Although I reject the notion of reincarnation, I find the Dalai Lama that Flanagan interacts with in his book to be nothing short of brilliant and insightful.
In our modern world, where there often appears to be an irresolvable rift between religion, and the comfort it provides, and the efficacies of science, the Dalai Lama XIV offers a bridge. According to Flanagan, the Dalai Lama XIV does not believe we should ever resist what modern science can tell us about the fundamental nature of reality. In eloquent prose, Flanagan builds on his conversations with the Dalai Lama XIV to outline intricate and underlying connections between Buddhist teachings, neuroscience, psychology and even quantum physics. The Dalai Lama suggests that everything around us is interdependent and, as physics teaches us, it is all part of a uniform whole. The same is true for us as human beings. For him a meaningful life is one that responds to and reflects an understanding of this interdependence.
As for our main question, what is the meaning of life, the Dalai Lama XIV is deeply affected by his Buddhist roots. Yet, the vision that he articulates is a modern secular one, which has at its core ideas that are familiar to us—e.g., freedom of speech and religion, democratic theory, and the importance of science.
A thread that runs through all of the Dalai Lama XIV’s works is a secular version of a very ancient Buddhist teaching: “the doctrine of dependent origination.” The theory has three components: 1) causal dependence—everything occurs as a consequence of innumerable causes and conditions; 2) part/whole dependence—parts depend on the whole for their nature and functioning and vice versa; and 3) conceptual imputation—the identity and function of things depends on how we think about them. These principles exists in the world, the sciences and, even more critically, in society. Our lives and identities are very much the product of the wholes of which we are a part. Consequently a meaningful life is one that responds and reflects an appreciation of this interdependence.
Like Aristotle, he sees happiness as our ultimate goal; which is only achievable in the context of our social interdependence. Like most Buddhists, he views suffering as the reality of all life. Echoing Gandhi, he recognizes that suffering is only exacerbated by consumer capitalism and industrialization. On the plus side he asserts that happiness is within our grasp if we make an intelligent effort to reach it. You might ask yourself; What does he mean by intelligent effort?
Digging deeper into the teachings of the Dalai Lama XIV, we see his roadmap to a meaningful life. The distress in our lives does not emanate from external circumstances but rather from our emotional reactions to adversity. Like traditional Buddhist teachings, he embraces the notion of attachment and aversion. Greed, hate, lust, anger, and jealousy are all symptoms of negativity. If we are ever to be happy, we must be able to differentiate between the negative and the positive, and then actively choose beneficial emotions over destructive ones. This cultivation of virtue and rejection of vice is a lifelong project, and not easy to accomplish.
Reminding me of Nietzsche, this holy man advocates instinctive, spontaneous responses to the world. However, unlike Nietzsche’s Superman, his ideal person is one who follows the path of karuna or compassion. Karuna provides us with commitment and, most importantly, an “altruistic aspiration to act.” For the Dalai Lama XIV, the only true way to find meaning in our lives is the development of a “moral imagination.” We need simply to understand that both the interests and pain of others is ours as well.
As I read the writings of this great thinker, I came to realize why my friend Owen became so enamored with him. His brand of a dutiful compassion is reflective of both a Gandhian and Christian call to embracing moral responsibility. We have a responsibility for the welfare of all, because compassion has no real limitations. Our government today dispenses compassion to one group but not another; for the Dalai Lama XIV, this results in a pathological distinction amongst us. Instead of preferences based on race, geography, power, status, gender, or sexual orientation, our compassion must be universal and rooted in the de-centering of the individual.
While I’ve never had the honor of meeting the Dalai Lama XIV, I would hope that he would look kindly on the career change I made 48 years ago. The central theme of his teachings is that we act selflessly for the benefit of all sentient beings. This teaching is the mantra by which I’ve endeavored to live my life. Reflecting on that fact made my 45th law school reunion all that more satisfying.