16 Guidelines for a Happy Life
by Alison Murdoch
Alison Murdoch was appointed as the Director of the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom at its first formal Board meeting in March 2005. She has been working full time on the development of Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom since May 2004. In June 2005 she gained a Millennium Award from UnLtd, the UK foundation for social entrepreneurs, in support of her work on Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom. Alison was born in the UK and gained an Honors degree in Modern History from Oxford University. After five years of working as an art expert for Sotheby’s, the international auctioneers, she left to travel in Asia and America. On her return she spent the next nine years working with homeless people: running night shelters and day centers, conducting a research project into begging, setting up a national support network for UK projects, and providing training courses. From 1994 to 2004 she was the Director of Jamyang Buddhist Centre, London, overseeing the purchase and renovation of a 10,000 square foot historic Courthouse in South London as an innovative educational, spiritual and community resource.
Alison has appeared on various UK radio and TV programs and appears regularly on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4. She was a contributor to the Rough Guide’s Women Travel, is featured in Vicki Mackenzie’s book Why Buddhism? and has worked as a freelance journalist for the BBC World Service.
Benny Liow of Eastern Horizon met with Alison at Jamyang Buddhist Centre in London and interviewed her on her role in developing the 16 Guidelines for our modern day communities around the world.
Benny: I understand the 16 Guidelines have its origin in a 7th century Tibetan King. Could you explain how a 7th century teaching is applicable in the 21st century?
Alison: The inspiration behind the 16 Guidelines is the 16 Human Dharmas of King Songtsen Gampo. He was the first Buddhist king of Tibet, and introduced them into what was then quite a lawless country as a code of ethical conduct for ordinary people. I sometimes wonder whether the reason my teacher Lama Zopa Rinpoche (Spiritual Director of the FPMT, and also the Honorary President of our Foundation) chose the 16 Human Dharmas as our first program is because when you look around, you could say there’s a similarly urgent need for a basic code of ethical conduct in today’s world.
We did have to do quite a lot of work refining the original Tibetan into 16 universal words that everyone can remember and relate to. This is why we say that the 16 Guidelines are inspired by the 16 Human Dharmas – because our 16 words can never fully represent the subtlety of the original text. But the essence is there. And our 16 words will never go out of date – they’re at the heart of what it means to be a good-hearted human being, in any century, country or situation.
How are these Guidelines related to the concept of Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom?
[NB: this replaces the label Essential Education] Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom is a system of inner development that enables people of all ages, cultures and traditions to lead a happy and meaningful life and to be of service to others. In the mid to longer term, we hope that the 16 Guidelines will be just one of many practical programs that take these aims forward.
The original vision for Universal Education came from the late Lama Thubten Yeshe. He spoke about the importance of ‘changing the clothes’ that Buddhism wears to make it more accessible to a modern audience, of bringing science and spirituality back together, and of the key role played by teachers and role models. This is very close to the vision shared by HH The Dalai Lama in books such as Ethics for the New Millennium, The Universe in a Single Atom, and Beyond Religion. We try to reference all these ideas in the 16 Guidelines program, particularly when we run training workshops.
In the 16 Guidelines, there are four sections – thoughts, actions, relationships and finding life’s meaning. Where does meditation fit into these Guidelines?
The four sections provide a philosophical framework for the Guidelines, whereas meditation is one of the most important methods that we introduce for deepening our understanding of them.
We call the four sections the ‘wisdom themes’, and each one is balanced by a myth.
When you see the wisdom themes and myths together, it’s clear that many of the key aspects of Buddhist philosophy and psychology can be introduced within this framework. And the great thing is, I’ve never found anyone, whether people of other faiths, or hard-nosed business people, who disagrees with them, because they’re supported by logic and reason. In fact, business people often recognize and relate to the myths as obstacles that they face within their staff teams.
How do you apply these Guidelines in one’s daily lives so that they do not just remain as nice sounding words without practical value?
Ah, that’s the nub of the issue! If we don’t apply the Guidelines in our daily lives, what’s the point?!
One of the best tools we’ve come up with is the 16 Guidelines playing cards. There’s one per guideline, and we encourage everyone to pick a card each day, motivate in the morning to apply that guideline, and check up again before we go to sleep. Many of us have found this life-changing, because each of the simple words functions as a portal to whatever compassion and wisdom we already have inside. We also carry the cards around with us and pick one at random when a challenging situation comes up. The
insights this brings can be extraordinary. It takes you right back to basic values in the middle of a hectic day, and challenges you to behave in a different way. And of course the more our international community uses the Guidelines, the more ideas come up on how to make them applicable to modern life.
Are there specific situations where these Guidelines have been applied successfully?
After over 70 workshops in 23 different countries, nearly all by local invitation, we get a lot of positive feedback. Some people tell us about the difference that the Guidelines have made to them on a personal level. We got an email out of the blue from a man in Thailand earlier this year, who said that he’d found the Guidelines online and they had helped him at a particularly difficult and despairing moment of his life. That made my day.
Other people take the Guidelines into their professional work – in schools, colleges, hospices, hospitals, prisons and businesses. We’ve not been able to keep up with everyone, so we’ve just launched an international survey to try and find out the scope of what’s actually going on.
We’re happy for people who’ve been on our training workshops to think global and act local, adapting the Guidelines to the needs they see directly around them. For example, in Mexico City, Brenda Tapia teamed up with a child psychologist to develop a project for street children, which has been so successful that she’s now setting up her own nonprofit, using the 16 Guidelines as one of her core programs. In Ontario Canada, Craig Mackie took them into his work in a residential center for young
people with addictions.
There are also some great success stories in SouthEast Asia. Losang Dragpa Centre in Kuala Lumpur is in the fourth year of a popular program called ‘Dharma for Kids’ which presents the Guidelines to children aged 5- 12 years, blending it with Buddhist teachings and traditions and using all kinds of fun exercises and games. We’ve also run two workshops for the 40 senior managers of a major retail company in the region, with the CEO saying she was “100% happy” with the results, particularly in the area of teambuilding.
New stories come in to us all the time, and we feature them in our newsletters and on www.16guidelines.org.
The Guidelines are really universal in values rather than specifically Buddhist – has it received much acceptance in the non-Buddhist world?
We’ve already got some facilitators with Christian and Muslim backgrounds on the team, and have run activities in a church and for mixed groups of religious leaders. However because the 16 Guidelines are genuinely suitable for people of any faith or none, they go beyond inter-religious or inter-faith work, and even beyond the religious/secular divide.
I’m happy when religious practitioners find the Guidelines helpful in understanding or applying their own traditions, but even happier when we reach people who aren’t getting any kind of spiritual teachings or support.
Do you think it is more effective to impart these Guidelines to young children than to adults whose minds may already be too contaminated with the “Me first” philosophy?
Both are necessary – and you could say that when someone has a strong ‘Me first’ philosophy, then it’s the perfect moment to apply the antidote of the Guidelines. As the Dalai Lama often says, being kind to others is the most effective way of looking after your own interests, and our experience is that people aren’t stupid, and get that point very quickly.
Having said that, working with young children is clearly a priority, because they are at a very receptive moment when they are creating habits for the rest of their lives, both psychologically and physically, in terms of neuro-plasticity, the way their brain develops. We’ve also got some lovely stories of young children introducing the guidelines to their parents, for example at mealtimes or in the car on the way back from school. On one occasion, the parents of a small child reported that he spontaneously sang a song about Guideline #2, which is Patience, to calm the family during a delay at the airport!
Are the 16 Guidelines endorsed by any contemporary spiritual masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama?
Lama Zopa Rinpoche has been working closely with us over the years. He’s nearly completed a new translation of the original Tibetan text, which may lead to a minor revision of the 16 Guidelines books and program. We’ll wait until after that’s been done before presenting it to The Dalai Lama. It’s still early days – five years is nothing, in dharma terms! I’d also like to present the Guidelines to spiritual masters from other traditions, such as Desmond Tutu, who we adopted as the role model for Guideline #10, which is Forgiveness.
Is the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom established to promote just the 16 Guidelines?
The particular niche we see for the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom is to offer the best possible training and support to the ‘community educators’ who want to take Universal Education for Compassion and Wisdom out into the world. The 16 Guidelines have been so popular that we can’t see the program fading away, but in other ways it’s no more than an appetizer.
We’ve now started work on three major new training programs: on Secular Ethics; How to Develop a Good Heart; and the Science of the Mind. Quite close to the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, you may notice!
Learning from our experience with the 16 Guidelines, we’re putting together a team of Buddhist scholars with long-term experience of sharing the dharma with modern audiences in a non-dogmatic way. Their task is to create a set of top quality manuals for the new programs, testing them out as they go with a focus group of community educators.
If you imagine an iceberg, for the next 3-5 years this development work will be going on under the water, and the 16 Guidelines and other Universal Education programs such as Creating Compassionate Cultures, Transformative Mindfulness and The Potential Project will be what you see above the water. On the one hand the R & D work is frustrating, because we see so much urgent need for Universal Education in the world, but on the other hand, our teachers have warned us that this is the work of many generations. The creation of these new programs will also depend on the success of a fundraising appeal that we’re launching next year.
Perhaps you can tell us how you got involved with these 16 Guidelines, and how have they have transformed your life?
When Lama Zopa Rinpoche asked me to set up the Foundation for Developing Compassion and Wisdom in 2004, I flew to California as soon as I could to seek his advice face to face. I was surprised and even a little disappointed when all he talked about was the 16 Human Dharmas. They seemed rather obvious and even banal to me, compared to his profound teachings on subjects such as emptiness. So I experienced quite a lot of resistance in my mind. It was only when I began to apply them to my own mind and daily life that I saw how transformative they can be.
I think my favorite is still guideline #1, humility. In many ways humility seems counter-cultural to succeeding in today’s world, and it was never something I’d thought about very much. When I did, I realized that humility is the starting point of knowledge – how can you learn anything if you think you know it already? – and it’s also the fast track to peace of mind. For example, I used to feel nervous at large gatherings or parties, but now I’ve realized it was only because of pride – wanting to be witty, popular and respected. I now try to consciously remember humility before entering the room, and it takes all my fears away. Humility also enables me to ask for help more often, and to be more alert to the qualities of other people. It’s done wonders for my relationships, both at work and at home.
A few years ago, the CEO of a corporation that has been giving us financial support asked if I could develop a half-day workshop on humility for his senior managers. He felt that their ego was getting in the way of their performance. I ran the workshop in both London and Singapore to an initially reluctant but then enthusiastic group, and I’m sure the reason it went so well is because I was speaking from personal experience. The success of the Guidelines is mainly due to the growing number of us who’ve tasted their transformative power for ourselves, and want to share that with other people who are suffering. EH