Inquiry

Bioethics is the philosophical study of the controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine. It has addressed a broad spectrum of human inquiry, ranging from debates over the boundaries of life, allocation of health care resources, and the right to turn down medical care for religious or cultural reasons.

Bioethicists often disagree over the precise limits of their discipline, debating whether it should concern the ethical evaluation of all questions involving biology and medicine, or only a subset of these questions. Some bioethicists narrow ethical evaluation to the morality of medical treatment or technological innovation, while others broaden the scope of ethical evaluation to include the morality of all actions that might help or harm organisms capable of feeling fear and pain.

Many religious communities have their own histories of inquiry into bioethical issues and have developed rules and guidelines on how to deal with these issues. Some religious perspectives widen the outlook by attending to additional values that are often absent from ethics such as generosity, altruism, sacrifice, compassion, community, and love. Often, religious values will lead to reinterpretations of secular ideals such as informed consent. Some find that religious views can give a broader, perhaps even utopian, view of what can be hoped for in caring.

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Mantra

A prayer wheel is a cylindrical object on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather, or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit externally on the wheel. Sometimes Dakinis, Protectors, and very often the eight auspicious symbols known as Ashtamangala are depicted. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.

It is said that prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit, and to purify negativities such as bad karma. The idea of spinning mantras comes from numerous Tantric practices where the Tantric practitioner visualizes mantras revolving around the meridian chakras such as the heart and crown. Therefore, prayer wheels are a visual aid for developing one’s capacity for these types of Tantric visualizations.

The spiritual method for those practicing with a prayer wheel is very specific. The practitioner most often spins the wheel clockwise, for the direction the mantras are written is that of the movement of the sun across the sky. Before, during and after the practitioner turns the wheel, it is best to focus the mind and repeat the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra, as this increases the merit earned by the wheel’s use. However, it is said that even turning it while distracted has benefits and merits, and that even insects that cross a prayer wheel’s shadow will gain some benefit.

Some prayer wheels are powered by electric motors. Thardo Khorlo, as these electric wheels are sometimes known, contain one thousand copies of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and many copies of other mantras. The Thardo Khorlo can be accompanied by lights and music if one so chooses. However, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said, “The merit of turning an electric prayer wheel goes to the electric company. This is why I prefer practitioners to use their own right energy to turn a prayer wheel”.

The Dalai Lama has commented that animations on websites work just as well as other prayer wheels. As the animated image turns, waves of compassion emanate in all directions to the surrounding area. Some have suggested that the spinning of a hard drive at several thousand rotations per minute can act in similar function to a prayer wheel by saving an image of Om mani padme hum or other mantras on a local computer or server.

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Heroism

Dāna is a Sanskrit term meaning generosity or giving. In Buddhism, it also refers to the practice of cultivating generosity. As a formal religious act it is directed specifically to a monastic or spiritually-developed person. In Buddhist thought, it has the effect of purifying and transforming the mind of the giver.

Buddhists believe that giving, without seeking something in return, leads to greater spiritual wealth and reduces acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering. Generosity developed through giving leads to being reborn in happy states and material wealth. Alternatively, lack of giving leads to unhappy states and poverty.

The quality of giving is believed to be one of the virtues perfected over numerous lifetimes by Shakyamuni Buddha in his bodhisattva phase, before the final culmination into Nirvana, after he had purified obscurations and released attachment. This is symbolized by the sacrifice of his own body when he has nothing else to offer an unexpected guest in the Jataka folktale entitled Shasha Jataka, where Shakyamuni Buddha is born as a rabbit, and unable to present any other food to a Brahmin come home, roasted himself in a fire.

A similar message is given by the story of King Shibi in the Jataka Mala, who having given away all his wealth, was still moved enough by small insects hovering around him, and inflicted several wounds on his body to feed the mosquitoes. In another narrative from the same text, the bodhisattva throws himself in front of a hungry tigress, who otherwise was on the verge of consuming her own cubs. This is however not the only instance of the Buddha-To-Be sacrificing his physical body partly or fully and numerous tales abound in Buddhist Canonical literature illustrating this theme.

In the ancient Samadhiraja-Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha’s principal disciple Ananda asks how a bodhisattva can cheerfully suffer the loss of his limbs and not feel any pain when he mutilates himself for the good of others. Shakyamuni Buddha explained that intense compassion for humankind and the love of Bodhi (spiritual awakening), sustain and inspire a bodhisattva towards heroism, just as worldly people are inclined to enjoy sensual pleasures even when their bodies are burning with fever.

Ultimately, the practice culminates in one of the Perfections, the Perfection of Giving. This can be characterized by unattached and unconditional generosity, giving and letting go.

Conduct

Compassion is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It is often the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism. Compassion is considered in all the major religious traditions as among the greatest of virtues.

The noted American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion supplies the complement to loving-kindness, whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. It arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear and sorrow.

It is emphasised that in order to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one’s own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said, “It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found.”

Compassion for all life, human and non-human, is central to the Jain tradition. Though all life is considered sacred, human life is deemed the highest form of earthly existence. To kill any person, no matter their crime, is considered unimaginably abhorrent. It is the only substantial religious tradition that requires both monks and laity to be vegetarian. It is suggested that certain strains of the Hindu tradition became vegetarian due to strong Jain influences.

The Jain tradition’s stance on nonviolence, however, goes far beyond vegetarianism. Jains refuse food obtained with unnecessary cruelty. Many practice a lifestyle similar to veganism in response to factory farming. Jains run animal shelters all over India. Jain monks go to inordinate lengths to avoid killing any living creature, sweeping the ground in front of them in order to avoid killing insects, and even wearing a face mask to avoid inhaling the smallest fly.

The life of Jesus embodies for Christians the very essence of compassion. Christ’s example challenges Christians to forsake their own desires and to act compassionately towards others, particularly those in need or distress. In the parable of The Good Samaritan he holds up to his followers the ideal of compassionate conduct. The heritage within Western Christendom of compassion as the principle of charity has resulted in recent times in the growth of remarkable charitable phenomena such as Oxfam and Live Aid, with global reach and budgets of millions of dollars. True Christian compassion, say the Gospels, should extend to all, even to the extent of loving one’s enemies.

The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Satisfaction

Happiness is a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. A variety of philosophical, religious, psychological and biological approaches have been taken to defining happiness and identifying its sources.

Research has identified a number of correlates with happiness. These include religious involvement, parenthood, marital status, age, income and proximity to other happy people. Happiness economics suggests that measures of public happiness should be used to supplement more traditional economic measures when evaluating the success of public policy.

Michael Argyle developed The Oxford Happiness Inventory as a broad measure of psychological well being. This measures happiness as an aggregate of self esteem, sense of purpose, social interest and kindness, sense of humor and aesthetic appreciation. This has been criticized for lacking a theoretical model of happiness and because it is felt that certain aspects overlap.

There is now extensive research suggesting that religious people are happier and less stressed. Surveys by Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center and the Pew Organization conclude that spiritually committed people are twice as likely to report being very happy than the least religiously committed people. An analysis of over 200 social studies contends that high religiousness predicts a lower risk of depression and drug abuse and more reports of satisfaction with life and a sense of well being.

Explanations of happiness in mystical traditions are related to full balance of so called inner energy lines. In a balanced state, two main lines (left & right, Ida & Pingala) form a third line, called Shushumna. Full activity of a third or central line is happiness. Left and right lines include all aspects of normal human life: sleep and awake, body and mind, physical and spiritual. To attain the balanced state of these two lines is a main task of life, a result of all activities and endeavours combined with full relaxation or tranquility.

Happiness forms a central theme of Buddhist teachings. Ultimate happiness is only achieved by overcoming craving in all forms. More mundane forms of happiness, such as acquiring wealth and maintaining good friendships, are also recognized as worthy goals for lay people. Buddhism also encourages the generation of loving kindness and compassion, and the desire for the happiness and welfare of all beings.

Blessings

Prayer flags are colorful panels or rectangular cloths often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding countryside or for other purposes. Unknown in other branches of Buddhism, prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bön, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally they are woodblock printed with texts and images.

The Indian Buddhist Sutras, discourses attributed to the Buddha, written on cloth in India, were traditionally distributed to other regions of the world. These sutras, written on banners, were the origin of prayer flags. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to the Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by the devas against their adversaries, the asuras. The legend may have given the Indian bhikku a reason for carrying the heavenly banner as a way of signifying his commitment to ahimsa. This knowledge was carried into Tibet by 800 CE, and the actual flags were introduced no later than 1040 CE, where they were further modified.

Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements, and the Five Pure Lights and are arranged from left to right in a specific order. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions, purposes and sadhana:

  • Blue (symbolizing sky/space)
  • White (symbolizing air/wind)
  • Red (symbolizing fire)
  • Green (symbolizing water)
  • Yellow (symbolizing earth)

The center of a prayer flag traditionally features a powerful or strong horse bearing three flaming jewels on its back. The Ta is a symbol of speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition.

Surrounding the Ta are various versions of approximately 20 traditional mantras, each dedicated to a particular deity. In Tibetan, deities are not so much gods as aspects of the divine which are manifest in each part of the whole universe, including individual humans. These writings include mantras from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas. In addition to mantras, prayers for the long life and good fortune of the person who mounts the flags are often included.

Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception, rather the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.

By hanging flags in high places the Wind Horse will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings. As wind passes over the surface of the flags which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.

The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.

Some believe that if the flags are hung on inauspicious astrological dates, they may bring negative results for as long as they are flying. The best times to put up new prayer flags are in the mornings on sunny, windy days.

Sets of five coloured flags should be put in the order: blue, white, red, green, yellow from left to right. The colours represent the Five Buddha Families and the five elements. The origin of Prayer flag colors may be traced to an ancient tradition of Tibet where shamans used primary colored plain flags in healing ceremonies. According to Traditional Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements. Old prayer flags are replaced with new ones annually on the Tibetan New Year.

Because the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.

During the Cultural Revolution, prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. Many traditional designs may have been lost. Currently, different styles of prayer flags can be seen all across the Tibetan region. Most of the traditional prayer flags today are made in Nepal and India by Tibetan refugees or by Nepali Buddhists. The flags are also manufactured in Bhutan for local use.

Happiness

The Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life says that there is a phenomenological difference between the pain that you experience when you take someone else’s pain upon yourself and the pain that comes directly from your own pain and suffering. In the former, there is an element of discomfort because you are sharing the other’s pain. However, as Shantideva points out, there is also a certain amount of stability because, in a sense, you are voluntarily accepting that pain.

In the voluntary participation in other’s suffering there is strength and a sense of confidence. But in the latter case, when you are undergoing your own pain and suffering, there is an element of involuntariness, and because of the lack of control on your part, you feel weak and completely overwhelmed. In the Buddhist teachings on altruism and compassion, certain expressions are used such that one should disregard one’s own well being and cherish other’s well being.

It is important to understand these statements regarding the practice of voluntarily sharing someone else’s pain and suffering in the proper context. The fundamental point is that if you do not have the capacity to love yourself, then there is simply no basis on which to build a sense of caring toward others. The capacity to love oneself or be kind to oneself should be based on a very fundamental fact of human existence, that we all have a natural tendency to desire happiness and avoid suffering.

Once this basis exists in relation to oneself, one can extend it to others. When we find statements in the teachings suggesting to regard one’s own well being and cherish the well being of others, we should understand them in the context of training yourself according to the ideal of compassion. This is important if we are not to indulge in self-centered ways of thinking that disregard the impact of our actions on other sentient beings.

We can develop an attitude of considering others as precious in the recognition of the part their kindness plays in our own experience of joy, happiness, and success. Through analysis and contemplation one will come to see that much of our misery, suffering, and pain really result from a self centered attitude that cherishes one’s own well being at the expense of others, whereas much of the joy, happiness, and sense of security in our lives arise from thoughts and emotions that cherish the well being of others.

Another fact concerning the cultivation of thoughts and emotions that cherish the well being of others is that one’s own self interest and wishes are fulfilled as a byproduct of actually working for others. As Je Tsong Khapa points out in his Great Exposition of the Path to Enlightenment, the more the practitioner engages in activities and thoughts that are focused and directed toward the fulfillment of others’ well-being, the fulfillment or realization of his or her own aspiration will come as a byproduct without having to make a separate effort.

At some point the question comes up of whether we really change our attitude. Sometimes the mind is very stubborn and very difficult to change, but with continuous effort and with conviction based on reason our minds can become quite honest. When we really feel that there is some need to change, then our minds can change. Wishing and praying alone will not transform the mind, but with conviction and reason, the mind can be transformed.

Time is an important factor here, and with time our mental attitudes can certainly change. One point that should be noted is that some people, especially those who see themselves as very realistic and practical, are too obsessed with practicality. They may wonder what the point is in trying to cultivate a mind that tries to include every living being. In a way, that may be a valid objection, but what is important is to understand the impact of cultivating such a state of awareness.

The point is to try to develop the scope of one’s empathy in such a way that it can extend to any form of life that has the capacity to feel pain and experience happiness. This kind of sentiment is very powerful, and there is no need to be able to identify with every single living being in order for it to be effective.

True compassion and love in the context of training of the mind is based on the simple recognition that everyone aspires to be happy and to overcome suffering, and that others have the natural right to fulfill that basic aspiration. The empathy developed toward a person based on recognition of this basic fact is universal compassion. This compassion is able to be extended to all sentient beings, as long as they are capable of experiencing pain and happiness.