Conflict, Culture, Change - Selections

Engaged Buddhism in a Globalizing World


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1. Buddhist Solutions to Global Conflict

Peacemaking, Peace-Building, and Peacekeeping

When two parties listen to each other and see one another not as enemies but as human beings, the animosity between them can be dissolved. So much can be achieved through dialogue. Overcoming dualistic thinking that sees the world as good or evil, friend or foe, is the basis of nonviolence, and nonviolence is the basis of peace.

When Nagarjuna, the great third-century Indian Buddhist scholar, was asked to summarize the Buddha’s teaching, he replied, “Ahimsa,” nonviolence. Nonviolence is the most basic teaching of the Buddha. There is, however, a misconception that nonviolence is equivalent to inaction. Samdhong Rinpoche, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, says, “Nonviolence is an action, not merely the absence of violence.”

Buddha’s teachings define violence in great detail. Every action has three doors, he taught, or three ways we create karma: through body, speech, and mind.

He further posited that every action originates in the mind and is then expressed through either speech or a bodily act. For a violent action to occur, there must first be a wish in one’s mind to commit the action. This mental violence is of three types: greed, hatred, and delusion or ignorance. Known as the Three Poisons, they are regarded as the root causes of the violence that is subsequently expressed through body and speech. Some people may commit a violent act because of ignorance— not knowing right from wrong. Others may do it out of hatred, or anger.

The Buddha taught his followers that there are four types of verbal violence: divisive speech, gossip, harmful words, and slander, and three types of physical violence: killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. For an act of violence to occur, he said, there needs to be an object for that act. The person committing the act always carries it out against an object. So to carry out a nonviolent action you need a desire or intention, an object, and the carrying out of the action. An action can be either partially or completely fulfilled.

Because violence has its origins in the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance, to act nonviolently we must overcome these poisons. We must develop the opposite mental attitude. The paramitas, or transcendental actions, provide the basis for nonviolent action. The Six Paramitas in the Mahayana tradition are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. The Theravada tradition has an additional four—renunciation, truth, resolution, and loving-kindness—and equanimity takes the place of meditation, although meditation is implied if you wish to practice the transcendent action to perfection.

Hence, merely refraining from an act of violence succeeds in overcoming violence only on a basic level. To cultivate good qualities of mind and actively carry out nonviolent actions represents a deeper understanding. So, to truly practice nonviolence we need to transform the Three Poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance and cultivate positive qualities by practicing the Six Paramitas and/or the Four Brahmaviharas, or “Divine Abodes”—metta, karuna, mudita, and upekkha (loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity).

The practice of meditation is very important. Practicing meditation allows us to understand what controls us, to really know our own mind. We can see the love, hate, fear, and delusion in our minds. By understanding and acknowledging these emotions, we can overcome our prejudices. This provides a basis for problem solving, a basis of wisdom and compassion. Together these can provide the basis for a nonviolent response.

Meditation practice cultivates the development of upekkha, equanimity. The one who has equanimity is fully aware of what is going on without being blinded by attachment, or clinging. This does not mean hermit-like isolation, apathy, or insensitivity. It is a mindful detachment that allows the development of wisdom. Wisdom is what really allows us to help others with compassion and understanding.

The bodhisattva, the person committed to liberation of all others, does not turn away from violence and suffering. The bodhisattva has both the wisdom and compassion to understand and respond to suffering. Again, nonviolence does not mean turning way from violence or being passive. It means responding to violence with upaya, or skillful means, action appropriate to the time and circumstance. Let us look at the life of the Buddha for an example of upaya being used to respond to a violent situation.

A conflict had broken out between the Shakyas and the Koliyas over water, and the kings of the two states were preparing to go to war. The Buddha came and said to one of the kings, “How much is water worth, great king?”

“Very little, reverend sir,” he replied.
“How much are warriors worth, great king?” “They are beyond price,” he replied.
Then the Buddha said, “It is not fitting that for a little water you should destroy warriors who are beyond price.”

Those listening fell silent. The Buddha addressed them, “Great kings, why do you act in this manner? Were I not present today you would set flowing a river of blood. You have acted in a most unbecoming manner.”

Had the Buddha done nothing and allowed war to begin, that would not have been nonviolent. Failing to intervene in this situation would have been an act of violence. This illustration shows us that Buddhism is not otherworldly but is actively engaged with the world. Unfortunately, many Buddhists are content with their own inner peace and do not relate to the world around them. Burma, for instance, has many great meditation masters; you can go to the temples there and enjoy wonderful meditation          practice. But what about outside the temples? The country is a military dictatorship, and there are many terrible abuses of human rights. Staying in the temple and meditating is not practicing nonviolence. We need to engage with the world.

We should not forget the law of karma: Everything we experience is the result of previous causes and conditions. And everything we do creates future results. As the opening verses of the Dhammapada teach us, “If one acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows. If one acts with a serene mind, peace follows.” We must be aware that how we act now will affect our life (and the world) in the future. We reap what we sow and cannot avoid the results of our karma. If we have this awareness, we will try our best to sow seeds of peace.

Another story from the life of the Buddha demonstrates the law of karma. The King of Kosala wanted to be related to the Buddha, so he asked for a princess from the royal Shakya family to be his queen. The Shakya clan, into which the Buddha was born, was very caste-conscious and refused to allow the marriage. Although they regarded Kosala as a mighty kingdom, they did not regard that family’s caste as equal to theirs. So, instead of sending the King of Kosala a princess, they sent him the daughter of a slave woman. As Queen of Kosala, she gave birth to a prince named Vidhudhabha. Nobody in Kosala knew that their Queen was an outcaste slave girl. But when the young prince went to visit his maternal grandfather and his other Shakya relatives, he discovered that the Shakyans looked down on him because his mother was a slave. So the young prince vowed to kill all members of the Shakya clan in revenge.

When Vidhudhabha succeeded his father to the throne of Kosala, he marched his army northward. The Buddha knew of the situation and went to sit at the border of the two kingdoms, and on three occasions he was able to stop the king from attacking the Shakyas. But the Buddha was unable to convince the king to transform all his hatred and desire for revenge, and eventually the king did kill almost all members of the Shakya family. On his return home, Vidhudhabha and his troops drowned in a river.

If we understand the law of karma, we realize that each individual, each family, each nation will reap the consequences of their deeds, whether thoughts, speech, or actions. Although the Shakya clan produced a wonderful person who eventually became the Buddha and preached that people should overcome caste and class barriers, they held views in opposition to his teaching. They also deceived the king of Kosala, who was mightier than they. As for Vidhudhabha, his bad thoughts led him to bad action and his life ended tragically.

How does this story relate to armed conflict in the modern world? For Buddhists, the law of karma reminds us that when faced with violence we must not react against it violently. To quote a famous verse from the Dhammapada:

Hatred does not eradicate hatred.
Only by loving-kindness is hatred dissolved.=
This law is ancient and eternal.

Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye just makes the whole world blind.”

Not only Buddhists but Christians, Jews, and Muslims—all religious persons—need to be mindful when confronted with violence. Then they can find the skillful means to deal with the situation nonviolently.

It is very important to understand that nonviolence is an effective and very powerful response to conflict. Peace is not merely the absence of war. Peace is a proactive, comprehensive process of finding ground through open communication and putting into practice a philosophy of nonharming and the sharing of resources.7 Creating a culture of peace is an active process.

When large-scale conflicts erupt, there is no question that they demand a response. The problem is that many people believe that a nonviolent response means doing nothing, and responding with force or violence means doing something. The Middle Way of Buddhism defines very well how one should respond to violence. It is about avoiding extremes—neither doing nothing, on the one hand, nor responding with similar violence, on the other.

We should not think of violence as limited to acts of war or terrorism. It is also important to examine structural violence, violence inherent in the very structures of our cultures and societies. Every day forty thousand people starve to death in a world where there is an abundance of food. The global economic system enriches a few while every day more and more people are pushed into poverty. Twenty percent of the world’s population has over eighty percent of the world’s wealth. In order for a few to enjoy wealth, others must be deprived of a decent livelihood. This is really one of the world’s greatest injustices, the greatest act of violence. The problem with structural violence is that it is difficult to see. Many people dismiss it, saying that’s just the way things are, or it’s somehow unavoidable that things be this way. Similarly, many people dismiss nonviolence because they personally do not see how it can be effective. It does not attract as much attention as violence. Many people do not see how it can be a solution.

The roots of many global conflicts lie in structural violence. The economic forces of globalization, forced upon much of the world by the countries of the North, transnational corporations, and institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization (WTO), not only condemn many to poverty but provide a breeding ground for hatred and greed, which in turn gives rise to violence. The demonic religion of consumerism is based on promoting greed, and in the name of this greed all sorts of violence is committed. The mass media, which are controlled by the transnational corporations (TNCs), are part of the problem of structural violence. They distort people’s worldviews and preach the religion of consumerism. They work hand in hand with TNCs to promote a lifestyle of consumerism and create a global monoculture. Television effectively brainwashes people and acts as a propaganda machine for TNCs. It deludes people into thinking that the more goods they accumulate the happier they will be, even though such a consumer lifestyle is unattainable by the majority of the world’s people and is an ecological impossibility, and to try to attain this unattainable goal inevitably leads to the perpetuation of this structural violence.

Nonviolence can provide a very effective response in situations of global conflict. We can define three types of response to global conflict: peacemaking, peace building, and peacekeeping. Peacemaking means keeping people from attacking each other. It is the process of forging a settlement between belligerent sides. Peace building refers to the entire range of long-term approaches to developing peaceful communities and societies based on principles of coexistence, tolerance, justice, and equal opportunity. Peacekeeping diminishes the most acute conflagrations of violence, and seems to attract the most attention but is a bit like firefighting. It’s necessary to put out the fire of violence by keeping the peace, but it is much better if we can prevent the fire from starting. This is where peace building comes in. In addressing structural violence, conflicts can be prevented. Peace building initiatives can take many forms such as education, grassroots democracy, alleviating poverty, and land reform. These are all fundamentally nonviolent actions.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who coined the term engaged Buddhism, says, “To prevent war, to prevent the next crisis, we must start right now. When a war or crisis has begun, it is already too late. If we and our children practice ahimsa in our daily lives, if we learn to plant seeds of peace and reconciliation in our hearts and minds, we will begin to establish real peace and, in that way, we may be able to prevent the next war.” This idea of peace building, of preventing wars before they begin, is very important. This work attracts no headlines and in fact many never even notice it, but it really is crucial. Once a war has started it is difficult to stop. It requires much more effort and resources, and much damage is already done. Instead, we really need to start thinking about how we can stop the war that will start ten years from now. To do that, we must begin to create a culture of peace.

To create a culture of peace, first we begin by making society more just and give equal rights to all people. The imposition of “peace” is often a tool of suppression. Look at the many programs for pacification taken throughout the world. In many cases, the institutionalized definition of peace is tantamount to the suppression of struggles for equal rights and justice. In other cases, the institutionalization of peace is just propaganda for maintaining the status quo of an unjust government or system. Thus the development of a culture of peace really begins at ground level.

The issue of economic globalization has been put firmly on the agenda by activists worldwide. Major protests against the WTO in Seattle, Prague, and Washington have forced a debate on the consequences of globalization. Media and governments can no longer ignore or dismiss these concerns. Working at the grassroots level is the key to ensuring lasting peace.

Peacemaking is the process of forging an agreement between two sides that are in conflict. The key ingredient is dialogue, and the most important part of a dialogue is listening. Unfortunately, much of the so-called dialogue that goes on in the world today is nothing more than two parties delivering monologues. Only through active listening can genuine dialogue occur. To engage in this active listening, we really need to have sown seeds of peace within ourselves. If we have seeds of peace then we can engage in this dialogue, this listening, without animosity or identifying things as good or evil, or parties as right or wrong. So for dialogue to be meaningful, both sides must be prepared to engage without preconceptions. They must give up any preconceived ideas about the outcome. If dialogue can be approached in this way, the outcome can be unexpected and wonderful for both sides.

Reconciliation is a key part of peacemaking. A peacemaker who can create a culture of truth, forgiveness, and cooperation can foster the acts of reconciliation necessary to bring about peace from discord. A culture of reconciliation is our best hope to heal past injustices and foster individual and societal transformation. Reconciliation simply means that both sides must have a willingness to forgive. While reconciliation acknowledges the past, it also acknowledges the need to live peacefully in the future.

Peacemaking is an endless task. The work never stops—but that does not mean we should cease. One colorful image describes a peacemaker who, knowing that the well needs water, climbs up the mountain to the snow line, takes a spoonful of snow, and climbs back down the mountain to drop it in the well—only to climb back up the mountain for another spoonful. Because the need for peace is overwhelming we should never abandon our responsibility as peacemakers.

Peacekeeping is more problematic. Although it is often done with good intentions, military-led “peacekeeping” simply uses the violent means of ordinary conflict for the goal of peace. While this form of peacekeeping may help minimize the magnitude of a conflict, it simply cannot lead to long-term peace. Although peacekeeping may prevent violence in the short term, the important thing is to address the underlying causes of the violence. This is the only way to ensure lasting peace. It is important to recognize that some forms of supposedly nonviolent intervention are actually very violent. For example, trade sanctions against Iraq (a supposed means of keeping the peace) after the first Gulf War killed more people than the bombs had.

A true nonviolent response is based on metta karuna, or loving-kindness and compassion. The Dalai Lama uses the term “universal responsibility” to describe a sense of concern for the welfare of others. “Universal responsibility” describes the motivation for a nonviolent response to conflict. The Quakers, for example, managed to break the food blockade against Germany and Austria after World War I, motivated by a sense of universal responsibility to the people of Germany and Austria. Thirty years later they were able to assist Jews inside Germany at the height of the war. They did not use threats of punishment or military might. They used only their love and concern for others as a motivation for their action. Because they intervened without threats, their presence was tolerated at a time of extraordinary violence.

Small numbers of people have entered extremely violent situations with a nonviolent spirit, and have successfully tempered conflict with almost no personal casualties. These efforts, ignored by the mass media, are often carried out by idealistic individuals with very few resources. Because they have accomplished so much with so little, just imagine what could be achieved if more people took this work seriously and if these individuals received the kind of support that conventional conflict resolution does. Usually such initiatives are tolerated by governments and other institutions; however, to follow this example further, the Quakers were condemned by the United States government for their evenhanded delivery of aid to North and South Vietnam in the 1960s.17 This can be considered a form of structural violence perpetrated by the government of the United States.

Examples of the successful use of nonviolence are many: the nonviolent overthrow of the Thai dictatorship in October 1973, an event that resembled the demise of the Marcos government in the Philippines; the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe; Xanana Gusmao’s command to Falintil to remain hidden in the jungle while Indonesian militias rampaged through the country after the referendum in 1999, and so many more. Nonviolence takes great courage. The image of a lone protester standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and Aung San Suu Kyi confronting the Burmese military with great determination are two powerful reminders of the courage required to engage in nonviolence.

Although creating a culture of peace is most important, and prevention is better than any treatment, we still need to respond to violent situations in creative and nonviolent ways. Society invests so much in war and violence. If similar investments were made in peace and nonviolence, the results would be beyond imagination. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence.”

It is up to us to make these discoveries.


How to cite this document:
© Sulak Sivaraksa, Conflict, Culture, Change (Wisdom Publications, 2005)

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