My student, Li Zhe, wrote to me recently and asked me this question:
“Yesterday in our campus there was a speech given by a famous professor. It was a great speech about psychology. Through this speech I found that I had lacked an important thing--basis.
I'm not a guy with basis. So when I'm faced to many problems, I hesitate, drag my feet and become very confused, or even don't know how to deal with it. I considered for a long time, but just can't come up with anything about correct basis.
In addition, there's no a dividing line between right and wrong, and I'm not the man who is wise enough to obey all the rules.
Could you please help me to define what is the correct basis?”
I thought I would share my answer:
Dear Li Zhe,
It is interesting you should ask the question so many have asked before you—Philosophers, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. It is a new question to you, but an ancient one to history.
Religion is a set of strongly held beliefs, values, and attitudes to life.
Ethics is the study of moral choices--about the values that lie behind them; the reasons people give for them, and the language they use to describe them. It is about innocence and guilt, right and wrong, and what it means to live a good or bad life. It is about the dilemmas of life, death, sex, violence and money. It explores human virtues and vices, rights and duties.
There are many western philosophers like Plato, Tomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bentham and Kant who make a variety of ethical arguments.
But this is not a simple web site search, the process of understanding ethics does not come quickly, and you may not really establish a philosophy of your own until much later in life.
Like many westerners, when I was young, I read Rudyard Kipling's poem - 'IF'
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!
Rudyard Kipling's (1865-1936) poem is a set of rules for 'grown-up' living—set in the Victorian context of the British Empire. Kipling's 'If' contains mottos and maxims for life, and the poem is also a blueprint for personal integrity, behaviour and self-development. Lines from Kipling's 'If' appear over the player's entrance to Wimbledon's Centre Court - a reflection of the poem's timeless and inspiring quality.
I was brought up in the Christian faith, and I have studied Buddhism. Now I have come to prefer the simplicity, thinking, and self-analysis of Buddhism to the “I am God, have faith and believe in me” approach of Christianity.
Buddhists have five basic precepts or guides to moral behaviour:
Not to destroy life, and to minimize the suffering of other species
Not to take what is not given, to be dishonest or grasping for material goods
Not to speak falsely, not to lie or give a false impression
Not to use sexuality to harm, and to treat women with respect.
Buddhists cultivate four mental states:
Love - to all creatures including yourself
Pity – compassion for all who suffer
Joy – an unselfish sharing in the happiness of others
Serenity – freeing oneself from the anxieties of success and failure, and being equal minded in dealing with other people.
Both Christianity and Buddhism have some things that are the same:
• A respect for life
• A respect for the weak and disenfranchised
• A rejection of violence
• An emphasis on charity and good deeds
Both religions say: “Treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself”
Buddha: "Consider others as yourself."
Jesus: “Do to others as you would have them do to you."
Buddha: "If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words."
Jesus: "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also."
Buddha: "Hatreds do not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love: this is an eternal truth. Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good ... Overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth."
Jesus: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them back."
Buddha: "If you do not tend one another, then who is there to tend to you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick."
Jesus: "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." (Simply: If you do not care for the least important members of society then you do not care for me.)
Buddha: “Abandon the taking of life”
Jesus: "Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword shall perish by the sword."
Buddha: It's easy to see the errors of others, but hard to see your own. You winnow like chaff the errors of others, but conceal your own — like a cheat, an unlucky throw. If you focus on the errors of others, constantly finding fault, your effluents flourish. You're far from their ending.
Jesus: "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, "Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye," when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye."
Li Zhe, I have spent many years trying to answer your question for myself. Sometimes I think I have accomplished this and sometimes I don’t. My journey, however, has always been an interesting and satisfying one.
Think for yourself, believe in yourself, and treat others with respect. That's a good start for any journey.