Book notes: Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama

Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama book summary review and key ideas.

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Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by the Dalai Lama


“Ten years ago, in his best-selling Ethics for a New Millennium, His Holiness the Dalai Lama first proposed an approach to ethics based on universal rather than religious principles. Now, in Beyond Religion, the Dalai Lama, at his most compassionate and outspoken, elaborates and deepens his vision for the nonreligious way.

Transcending the mere “religion wars”, he outlines a system of secular ethics that gives tolerant respect to religion, but, with the highest level of spiritual and intellectual authority, makes a claim for what the Dalai Lama calls a third way. This is a universal code of ethics that transcends religion boundaries, that recognizes our common humanity and advocates for a global human community based on understanding and mutual respect.

Beyond Religion is an essential statement from the Dalai Lama, a blueprint for all those who yearn for a life fulfilled and a better world.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

This book has been on my list for a while and I’m very intrigued by it. I always enjoy reading biographies or memoirs or books by influential people, especially when discussing topics outside of my range of knowledge.

Key notes:

  • Ultimately the source of our problems lies at the level of the individual. If people lack moral values and integrity, no system of laws and regulations will be adequate
  • What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion, and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without
    • A secular ethics
    • His confidence in the feasibility of this worthwhile endeavor is his conviction that all of us, all human beings are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good
    • However, to try to impose moral values from the outside can never be effective
      • Instead, he calls for each of us to come to our own understanding of the importance of inner values
      • For it is these inner values that are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence, and happiness we all seek 

Part One: A New Vision of Secular Ethics

Chapter 1: rethinking secularism

  • One of religion’s great value is that it gives hope and strength to those facing adversity
  • In his mind, although humans can manage without religion, humans cannot manage without inner values
    • Ethics and religion is like water and tea. Humans can live without tea, but they cannot live without water
      • Tea is mostly comprised of water but has a bit of added ingredients to make it more nutritious, sustaining, and something we want every day
  • His goal isn’t the spread of Buddhism but rather the betterment of all of humanity
    • His personal view is that it is not a good idea by and large for people to adopt religious practices which are not well-grounded in their own culture and educational background
      • To do so can be difficult and lead to unnecessary confusion

Chapter 2: Our Common Humanity

  • How people treat their fellow human beings and indeed the world around them largely depends on how they conceive of themselves
    • The way we see ourselves influences our behavior
  • Like all sentient beings, we seek to avoid suffering and are attracted to experiences that are pleasant or make us happy
    • Unlike animals, we have the capacity for rational thought and the ability to project our thoughts into the future and past
    • Empathy is also an essential human trait
      • We often enjoy an empathetic experience enough and seek it out in our lives
      • This is portrayed in our enjoyment of entertainment like movies and television and sports but also seeing it in children
  • We all seek a happy life. No one wishes for difficulties or trouble 
    • In our quest for happiness and the avoidance of suffering, we are all fundamentally the same and therefore equal

Chapter 3: The Quest for Happiness

  • A human being survives only with hope, and hope by definition implies the thought of something better
    • As he sees it, our very survival depends on some idea of future happiness
  • However, if this is the case, we must ask:
    • What is meant by happiness?
    • Where does it come from?
  • Wealth and resources help us to acquire our basic fundamental needs like food, shelter, and clean water
    • Beyond that, the more material things such as a nicer car or a cell phone may not contribute to a lasting satisfaction or contribute to an overall sense of well-being
    • In fact, acquiring more possessions often leads to anxiety, stress, and worry
      • These factors can intern feed anger and even resentment
    • Material wealth can become a source of stress and unhappiness, mental wealth based on love and compassion cannot
      • It is obvious therefore what kind of wealth we should seek
  • Health is undoubtedly a significant factor in our happiness
    • The real source of happiness involves our state of mind, outlook and motivation, and our level of warmheartedness towards others
  • As we are social animals, healthy relationships with others who we can spend time with and share experiences with are important and crucial to our well-being
    • Genuine friendship can only be based on trust and affection, which can only arise when there is a mutual sense of concern and respect
  • In today’s materialistic world in which inner values are often neglected, it is easy to fall into the habit of constantly seeking sensory stimulation
    • Some people’s sense of well-being is heavily dependent on the sensory level of satisfaction

Chapter 4: Compassion, the Foundation of Well-Being

  • At the time of death, the goodwill from others matters immensely, even though this doesn’t make sense rationally
  • Even more important than the warmth and affection we receive are the warmth and affection we give
    • It is through giving warmth and affection, through being genuinely concerned for others, in other words, compassion, that we gain the conditions for genuine happiness
      • For this reason, loving is of even greater importance than being loved
  • Whether we succeed in bringing benefit to others or not, the first beneficiary of compassion is always oneself
    • When compassion or warm-heartedness arises in us and shifts our focus away from our narrow self-interest, it is when we open an inner door
    • Compassion reduces our fear, boosts our confidence, and brings us inner strength
    • By reducing distrust, it opens us to others and brings us a sense of connection with them, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life
    • Compassion also gives us respite from our own difficulties
  • There’s nothing wrong with being self-interested as it is our natural inclination to seek happiness
    • Self-interest also allows us to appreciate others’ kindness and love
    • Self-interest only becomes negative when it is excessively self-focused and narrows our vision
  • Two levels of compassion:
    1. The first level is the biological compassion exemplified by what a mother would show her child
    2. The second level is an extended level that has to be deliberately cultivated
  • When you empathize with someone, having voluntarily chosen to open yourself to the difficulties of another person shows courage and imports confidence
  • Compassion is not only empathy but also a wish for their suffering to be relieved
    • It includes wanting to do something to relieve the pain of another
  • In addition to educating children’s brains, we should also educate their hearts by nurturing their compassionate nature

Chapter 5: compassion and question of justice

  • Compassion does not involve surrendering to the misdeed of others or meekly accepting injustice
    • Far from promoting weakness or passivity, compassion requires great fortitude and strength of character
      • There’s no conflict between compassion correctly understood in the exercise of justice
  • However, we must distinguish between the general principle of justice as a universal precept of fairness based on the recognition of human equality and the narrower understanding of justice as the exercise of the law within any given legal framework
    • Ideally these two will reflect each other but unfortunately, sometimes they don’t
    • A country that promotes nationalism as its main priority and anything against it as criminal, this does not promote the idea of equality for all humans
  • When the law is tied to narrow interests, it fails to uphold the principle of fairness based on human equality
    • For the law genuinely to uphold justice, it must protect universal human rights
  • He believes that all humans have the capacity for change
    • And therefore he is against the death penalty
  • When it comes to justice, compassion and mercy should not be brushed aside
    • It’s helpful to practice compassion and forgiveness to ourselves in order for us to be able to do so for others
    • The very concept of justice itself is based on compassion
  • The inner motivational dimension is the most important aspect of ethics, for when our motivation is pure, and genuinely directed towards the benefit of others, our actions will naturally tend to be ethically sound

Chapter 6: the role of discernment 

  • While intention is the first and most important factor in guaranteeing that our behavior is ethical, we also need discernment to ensure that the choices we make are realistic and that our good intentions do not go to waste
    • We must weigh the pros and cons of our paths and then let ourselves be guided by a sense of responsibility
      • This is what it means to be wise

Chapter 7: ethics in our shared world

  • Ethics must also be considered in finance as unbridled capitalism is motivated only by profit without ethics
    • This can lead to terrible exploitation of the week
    • That’s why we need to adopt an approach to economic justice
  • He thinks microfinance offers a sustainable and responsive line of approach to issues of poverty alleviation and development
    • An approach that could avoid the excess of capitalism on the one hand and the inefficiencies and excessive state control on the other

Part two: Educating the Heart Through Training the Mind 

Introduction: starting with oneself

  • Ethics is not simply a matter of knowing. More importantly, ethics is about doing
  • Dishonesty destroys the foundations of others’ trust and is profoundly harmful
    • Transparency in dealing with others, therefore, is tremendously important
  • Mindfulness usually refers to gaining awareness of our own patterns and behavior, including thoughts and feelings, and learning to let go of those habits, thoughts, and emotions that are unhelpful
    • In his view, the most important meaning of mindfulness is recollection
    • In other words, mindfulness is the ability to gather oneself mentally and thereby recall one’s core values and motivation
  • Altruism is a genuinely selfless dedication of one’s actions and words to the benefit of others

Chapter 9: dealing with destructive emotions

  • The greatest impediments to our individual well-being and our ability to live a spiritually fulfilling life are our own persistent propensity towards destructive or afflictive emotions
    • Such emotions are the real enemies of human unhappiness and the ultimate source of all destructive human behavior
    • It is possible to achieve meaningful change in our emotional and behavioral patterns through conscious effort
  • The concept of brain plasticity and recent scientific studies show that the patterns and structures of the brain can and do change over time in response to our thoughts and experiences
  • Our emotions can be extremely destructive and have the ability to ruin people’s lives if left unchecked
    • Intense negative emotions can also have an insidious effect on our inner well-being
    • Gradually and surely they undermine our inner peace, deprive us of mental freedom, and hinder the expression of our empathetic nature, the source of our greatest happiness
  • Anger most depends on our own inner dissatisfaction: the state of latent irritation or lack of contentment
    • This general underlying mental unease makes us susceptible to the triggering of destructive emotions like anger
  • Emotional awareness develops gradually with patient perseverance
    • The most effective way to deal with moods is to deal with the underlying emotions themselves

Chapter 10: cultivating key inner values

  • Genuine patience requires great strength
    • It is fundamentally the exercise of restraint based on mental discipline
  • Very often people’s transgressions towards us reflect the difficulties and challenges they themselves are facing
    • Recognizing this can moderate our instinct to retaliate
  • Practicing contentment allows us to be happy and satisfied in the moment
    • By limiting our wants and desires, we avoid suffering the dissatisfaction and frustration that greed generates
    • Happiness comes not from wealth, but from setting limits on our desires and living within those limits with satisfaction
  • The virtue of self-discipline must be voluntarily embraced
  • Generosity is the most natural outward expression of an inner attitude of compassion, love, and kindness
    • When one desires to alleviate the sufferings of others and to promote their well-being, then generosity is this desire put into practice
    • Generosity of the heart is closely connected to the virtue of forgiveness
      • We need to be giving out of respect for the recipient not out of a superiority
      • A genuine act of generosity will honor the recipients’ dignity
    • An attitude of generosity has huge benefits in opening one’s heart and bringing one a sense of sympathetic joy and connection to others
      • Some forms of generosity include:
        • Being kind and attentive to others
        • Being honest
        • Offering praise where it is due
        • Giving comfort and advice when it is needed
        • Sharing one’s time with someone
  • An important aspect of the practice of generosity is to take joy in it

Chapter 11: meditation as mental cultivation

  • Knowledge combined with critical reflection allows us to gain deep conviction about what we’ve learned and make that knowledge part of our personal outlook
    • Developing a calmer, clearer mind is a worthwhile endeavor
      • Doing so will benefit oneself and others
  • One useful way to understand the different forms of mental cultivation is to look at each practice from the perspective of its objective
    • The first requirement for mental cultivation is a serious commitment to practice
  • One important benefit of the practice of meditation is the skill you gain of being able to observe your thoughts without being drawn into them
    • So many of our problems arise because in our naïve, untrained state, we confuse our thoughts with actual reality
      • Then we build our entire perception and response to reality based on it
  • We should train ourselves to act in our daily lives as the person we admire would act, so that when we for example become aware of others suffering, we feel disposed to respond as this person would respond
    • One practice is to generate feelings of gratitude towards our enemies because they are actually some of our greatest teachers
      • This will allow us to generate compassionate love towards our enemies as a replacement for the aversion we previously felt towards them
  • In mental cultivation practice, moderate effort over a long period is the key to success

Closing thoughts:

I loved this book so much. Not only was it very insightful and practical, but it came at the right time in my life. The idea of ethics beyond religion as a way of improving one’s life makes it widely more acceptable than simply just passing along the ideas of one particular religion.

I really enjoyed the concept of having a grounded life based on inner values that guide our behavior. There are also a lot of practical applications and advice on how to implement these ideas, which makes it an even more valuable resource for readers.

Even though the ideas presented in this book are generally well-known, I found myself pausing and relistening to some parts because of how much they made me think about it and how I should apply in my own life.

Overall, I highly recommend this book to pretty much anyone looking for more happiness and a desire to improve their overall well-being.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

There are so many good takeaways from this book that it was hard to find just one. Eventually, I settled on this one:

  • We all seek a happy life. No one wishes for difficulties or trouble 
    In our quest for happiness and the avoidance of suffering, we are all fundamentally the same and therefore equal

I think this is a great way to frame the challenges in our lives when it comes to other people. It’s easy to simply double down on our own perspective when we come into conflict with others. However, it’s important to have compassion and empathy for others. Realize that we are all just trying to be happy, so therefore we are all the same.


The Dalai Lama presents a secular approach to ethics for seeking fulfillment based on universal principles rather than religious ones.

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Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


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