Module 2

Cultivating Ethical Qualities

In the first module of this course we explored the Dalai Lama's foundations of an ethical life. The base of this foundation is the observation that we all naturally desire happiness and freedom from suffering. From this basic understanding the Dalai Lama observes that ethical actions are those that do not harm another's seeking of happiness. In this context, the Dalai Lama introduces an understanding of  reality which emphasizes the common interest of self and other. Finally we looked at the nature of happiness — what is genuine happiness, what is inner peace, and the relationship of inner peace and happiness to ethics and spirituality.

Having laid the foundation and described the goal — spiritual action based on a concern for others — we now look at the process of developing inner peace and compassion. The process is one of learning to identify compassion's causes and conditions — qualities such as patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility — and then learning to cultivating them.

In this module you look more closely at the qualities of a ethical life and how to begin to cultivate these spiritual qualities:

  • Empathy
  • Countering negative emotions with restraint
  • Cultivating patience and resoluteness
  • Cultivating compassion

If we wish to overcome the suffering which arises when negative thoughts and emotions are allowed to develop, cultivating virtue should not be seen as separate from restraining our response to them. They go hand in hand. This is why ethical discipline cannot be confined either to mere restraint or to mere affirmation of positive qualities. 

It's a training program

The Dalai Lama is not offering a to-do list for becoming happy and compassionate. Rather he is teaching us how we ourselves can learn how mental factors affect our happiness and how to examine and know our own mental states.

While not ignoring the basic physical needs — food, shelter, etc. — the Dalai Lama emphasizes the critical role mental factors play in inner transformation. And because we are uneducated about our own mental processes, the first step is learning.

In this module we discover the two-pronged approach of:

  • learning to identify and guard against those factors which obstruct compassion.

  • learning to identify and cultivate those qualities which are conducive to it.

Negative emotions

We first have to learn how negative emotions and behaviors are harmful to us and how positive emotions are helpful. And we must realize how these negative emotions are not only very bad and harmful to one personally but harmful to society and the future of the whole world as well. That kind of realization enhances our determination to face and overcome them.

Positive emotions

And then, there is the realization of the beneficial aspects of the positive emotions and behaviors. Once we realize that, we become determined to cherish, develop, and increase those positive emotions no matter how difficult that is. There is a kind of spontaneous willingness from within.

There is a way

This process of inner transformation — selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging
 negative mental states — is liberating.

Through this process of learning, of analyzing which thoughts and emotions are beneficial and which are harmful, we gradually develop a firm determination to change. Now the secret to my own happiness, my own good future, is within my own hands. I must not miss that opportunity!


The Dalai Lama's good news is that cultivating positive mental states like kindness and compassion definitely leads to better psychological health and happiness. But we may balk at the process, which is one of education. In the West education is often viewed as a painful process; don't students, he points out, look forward to vacations? The kind of education he is presenting is new to many of us — it's the training of our own minds.

Changing how we perceive ourselves, through learning and understanding, can have a very real impact on how we interact with others and how we conduct our daily lives.