I am not a Buddhist. While I respect and admire Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, for many reasons, I do not revere him the way that many do. Rather than a holy icon, I simply see an intelligent and compassionate man who wants to help the world in whatever way he can. Fortunately, that also seems to be the way he sees himself.
Because of this, rather than the preachy and unsupported religious mandates conveyed by so many religious leaders, in his book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World, the Dalai Lama appropriately shows one of the great differences between Buddhism and most Western religions by championing good ideas because they are good, not because we have been commanded to do them. He explains why he believes that these things are good for us, for the rest of the world, and why other things are not.
He explicitly is not attempting to win converts to Buddhism. Instead he seems to want to help all of us to benefit from some of its important observations about the world we live in, and how we can best live in and improve it, no matter what our views on religion may be. He simply conveys what he finds to be the best ethical ideas in a secular rather than religious framework.
Although he does show his respect for other religious traditions, given the nature of this book he primarily focuses on practical applications, real effects, and what we know of the science behind our ethical (and un-ethical) desires and actions.
To be sure, many different pieces of this book could be filled out into even longer books by themselves, so this should not be seen as the single go-to book for all ethical questions. Rather it is a book which the non-religious may benefit from by taking its good advice, and perhaps also gaining insight into their own ethical motivations and those of others, and it may also aid the religious in understanding that it is possible, and good, for all of us to follow the same basic ethical guidelines. Guidelines that don’t strictly adhere to or contradict any religious tradition, but which all believers and non-believers alike can agree on, if they are thoughtful and honest with themselves.
Rather than being an extremely in depth exploration of all ethical issues, this is a good introduction to secular ethics through the lenses of eastern philosophy and science; the lenses worn for a lifetime by its author.
There are certain things which I disagree with him on, such as the degree of difference between humans minds and those of other animals, probably stemming from a lack of extensive experience with them, and he seems to believe that there is a primarily good nature in all major religions. I can understand why someone, particularly someone in his position, might see things that way, but I do not share that view.
I do not doubt that the original believers in (if not always the creators of) almost all religions had good intentions and intended to produce something with a good nature, but every one of them was a fallible and (on a cosmic scale) very ignorant person, as we all are. Good intentions are great but when, by your own doing or that of others, negative and even dangerous ideas creep into the works, they can be every bit as much a negative force as the good parts are positive. Even worse, in many religions there is no way to ever truly remove such bad ideas…but I digress.
Fortunately the religious content of this book primarily consists of mentions of characters from the mythology of different religions, which may help to illustrate certain points to the people who know the stories, and occasional tips for believers in certain religions (or no religion). For example when discussing how to meditate, he explains how it is traditionally done, but also suggests that some religious people may be more comfortable or put into the correct frame of mind more easily by kneeling.
None of this is intended to dissuade anyone from reading the book. In fact I highly recommend it. It is simply a recognition that no one is an expert in every area, and that (as should probably be expected), the Dalai Lama’s writing is inclusive of all people, with and without faith, and despite the secular foundation of this book, it does not oppose religion – it just shows that it isn’t a necessity in building an ethical society.