There is a story in the pali vinaya (Vin. Kd. 4.1.11 ff.) about a group of monks who decided to spend vassa (rain season, when monastics ceased to travel) in total silence in order to “all together, on friendly terms and harmonious, spend a comfortable rainy season and not go short of almsfood”. The chapter is characteristically titled “Dwelling not in comfort” – the Buddha rebukes the monks for their behaviour, noting that it will not lead to the positive perceptions of the saṅgha in the wider society. Instead of approving of a superficial harmony based on limiting interaction, the Buddha lays down a rule about invitation (pāvaraṇā) to criticism about perceived acts of misbehaviour. Such invitation given to the Order is expected of every monastic, and seen as a way of conduct purification, where misdeeds are acknowledged and amends made (see: Horner and Brahmali, 2014, pp. 1613–17).
This story is very relevant to the problem of right conflict management. What it tells us, is that in order to really dwell in comfort (i.e. the satisfaction and peace of mind resulting from good conduct), one often needs to face uncomfortable situations, criticisms and disagreements. Avoiding such challenges, for example by cutting contact, is in fact described as unwholesome and unbeneficial by the Buddha. Both individuals and groups require feedback about their actions by the surrounding social environment. Such mutual keeping in check provides healthy condition for the Buddhist saṅgha or any other organisation for that matter. That was the reason why the Buddha always kept the monastic saṅgha in a very close contact with the lay society. In addition to its being unwholesome, it is also futile to try to avoid conflicts altogether; speaking very generally, any organised structure (or any individual within such structure) will ultimately be faced with the problem of choice due to the changes of internal and/or external environment. Given the plurality of plausible choices, differences in motivations, backgrounds etc., the creation of conflicting branching groups is a natural and unavoidable process. The goal, therefore, should be to engage in right types of conflict, for the right reasons, and in the right way, and to embrace them for their purifying, clarifying and unifying potential for the present and future contexts. What follows is the elaboration of that goal.
Three stages of intra-Buddhist conflict management
The right way to tackle internal Buddhist disputes must start from the attunement to its common root, the overarching “spirit” of Buddhism, manifested as a particular diagnosis of reality and a way of life. There are, undoubtedly, very good reasons to speak about many Buddhisms – unique traditions separated by time, location, doctrines, language, clothing and even cuisine. And yet, it is equally clear that those varied forms share common evolutionary history, and common core of ideas and values that allow speaking of them as belonging to one Buddhism. More important, perhaps, than identifying precise set of such shared ideas, is emphasizing their common spirit that is expressed perhaps most concisely by the mettā wish: “may all beings be happy and secure” (Sn 1.8). Mettā expresses the sense of the common fate and interdependence of all sentient beings roaming senselessly in samsara and longing to find permanent peace. This stress upon commonality (common condition, common heritage, common goals and aspirations) is a fundamentally important element for beneficial conflict resolution. All further steps should be made with this one as a guiding principle.
The second stage in conflict management and resolution consist in a necessity of promoting a common interpretation of key concepts in agreement with the shared root-values – a sort of a common setting or level playing field for all Buddhist groups, firmly grounded in the spirit of the common Buddhist heritage mentioned above. Fidelity to this spirit will positively influence concepts and ideas crucial for tackling conflict, such as a question how to distinguish wholesome and unwholesome roots of conflicts, how to perceive one’s opponents, what constitutes Buddhist community – saṅgha, or Buddhist heritage. This setting the scene, while keeping with the tradition should be maximally open-ended and inclusive.
The third stage is the most context-dependent, and consists in employing right tools (methods and attitudes) for a given situation. While this tool-set will invariably have to adapt to the specific situation, it should be construed as a natural extension of the first two stages.
Stage two: setting the field
Although there are many issues that could be included here, for brevity only three will be addressed: (1) distinguishing between two types of conflict, (2) the beneficial understanding of the saṅgha, (3) the beneficial understanding of the Buddhist heritage.
Two types of conflict
The first type of conflict I would like to discuss has as an objective money, power, influence, and self-gratification. To secure such a goal, a group is set against perceived competitors or critics. It is an unwholesome type of conflict, springing from the three roots of greed, hatred and delusion. The famous Kālāma sutta (Kesaputtiya, AN 3.65), often described as a promulgation of free enquiry begins with the doubt about establishing trust about teaching and teachers:
Bhante, there are some ascetics and brahmins who come to Kesaputta. They explain and elucidate their own doctrines, but disparage, denigrate, deride, and denounce the doctrines of others. […] We are perplexed and in doubt, Bhante, as to which of these good ascetics speak truth and which speak falsehood. (Bodhi, 2012, p. 280)
The answer of the Buddha leads to the observation that the three roots of greed, hatred and delusion are unwholesome and have unwholesome consequences, and whatever manifests them should be rejected. This type of conflict must therefore be considered incompatible with fundamental Buddhist goals and have no place in Buddhist communities. The two main problems with this type of conflict are (1) that its drivers are omnipresent in human condition and – as we all know, perhaps – if kept unchecked, constitute a default mode of human behaviour, and (2) that its true nature is often obscured by other, superficial causes, that make it appear noble and good, such as defending Dharma against internal and external enemies. Alternatively this type of situation may start as a legitimate polemics concerning some practical or theoretical matter, but later slips into an unwholesome form, because of an inherent tribalism in humankind.
The second form of conflict would truly concern the well-being of Buddhism understood as a force to promote advancement of sentient beings. It could address any issue – past, present or future, practical or theoretical, and – if conducted right – could be beneficial. In its wholesome form, it would require a friendly and respectful dialogue, arguing over differences on an open forum. There isn’t a wont of questions within Buddhism justifiably allowing – often well-reasoned – differences in approach. If those differences are met with the right attitude, their discussion may truly enrich Buddhism. It is possible when the parties always keep in mind the difference between the first and the second type of conflict, and never allow confusing or conflating the one type with the other.
Interpretation of saṅgha
The problem of understanding saṅgha is a natural extension of the question “one Buddhism vs. many Buddhisms”. We may view various Buddhist saṅghas as divided and disconnected groups constantly competing with each other. We can also legitimately view them as constituting different aspects of something that is fundamentally one. There are arguments for both visions, and both undoubtedly find real expression in everyday encounters. The question is how to navigate between the universal and the particular Buddhist identity. Is it necessary to choose one to the exclusion of the other, to be either a Buddhist in general or a Pure Land or Zen practitioner? If not, how those identities relate to one another? Is any primary?
Practice shows that those identities easily coexist. Similar to code-switching in multilingual persons, Buddhist individuals and groups, think, act and refer to themselves as just Buddhists or as members of particular lineage, depending on the context. One must suspect though, that particular group identity, as nearer and more materially embodied in the experiences of an individual, takes chief place. There is nothing problematic with that as long as a healthy balance exists between those two identities. However, there is always the risk that the group-identity might become as strong as to obscure any other. This might be additionally reinforced in European context by being coloured with the notions of “heresy” and “schism” inherited from the background of Christian Europe. In the context of conflict management, this tendency needs to be actively counterbalanced by actively propagating cooperation and stressing commonality and shared heritage – the most profitable way to tackle conflict is ultimately to address it from the standpoint of one saṅgha, from the sphere of “we”, not “us” versus “them”. In defining the borders of the saṅgha understood as “we”, a maximally liberal and inclusive understanding must be employed, in agreement with the spirit of Buddhism discussed above. Like various specialists (mathematician, physicist, chemist, biologist) researching the same object are all scientists, likewise, everyone trying to overcome greed, hatred and delusion, find lasting peace and help on this path fellow beings, belongs to the saṅgha.
Definition of the Buddhist heritage
A subject closely related to the issue of understanding saṅgha is defining textual heritage of Buddhism. Unsurprisingly, the answer follows the same lines as the previous one. To illustrate it let us use a passage from the charter of the Order of Interbeing (chapter 2):
The Order of Interbeing does not consider any sutra or group of sutras as its basic scripture(s). It draws inspiration from the essence of the Buddhadharma in all sutras. It does not accept the systematic arrangements of the Buddhist teachings proposed by any school. The Order of Interbeing seeks to realize the spirit of the Dharma in early Buddhism, as well as in the development of that spirit through the history of the sangha, and its life and teachings in all Buddhist traditions. (“Structure and Organization,” 2011)
The justification for this position can also be found in the exposition of the four great authorities in the Mahāparinibbana sutta (DN 16). It describes a possibility that there will appear a person in the future, claiming to know some genuine Buddhist teaching. The criterion for accepting or rejecting such a claim is a consistency with preserved teaching and discipline. I understand this as a consistency with the fundamental Buddhist spirit described before.
To sum up what have said so far, in conflict management there is the need to be constantly mindful about the fundamental spirit that permeates Buddhism. This should lead to open and permissive understanding of saṅgha and Buddhist heritage, extending beyond one’s particular group. Of prime importance is distinguishing between a wholesome and an unwholesome type of conflict, and avoiding the latter as essentially injuring main Buddhist principles.
Methods and attitudes in conflict management
In the ideal world, keeping to the principles mentioned above would end conflicts or make them easily manageable in a friendly atmosphere. That is unfortunately often not the case. The two main reasons for that possibility are “bad actors” within Buddhist community or some profound communication problem where the two sides speak in incompatible terms, totally diverging in interpretation of key concepts. The question is how to manage conflict in such circumstances. The answer to the latter case is more contact, more exchanges, and more dialogue, in search for the common ground. The answer to the former is at least partially the same – entering into dialogue, to calmly point out the perceived divergences from the Buddhist teachings.
The methods or polemical tools are well established by the tradition: the teachings of the scriptures, reasoned interpretation of them and adaptation to new situations by way of extension, rational analysis of logical consistency of some thesis or its potential consequences. Of particular importance is stressing fidelity to the essence of Buddhism (in spirit, not necessarily the letter) as an important argument.
The right attitudes are perhaps even more important in conflict management. For wont of time and space I will present the points I consider the most important in the form of a list:
Positive mental attitude towards the opponents, expressed by the practice of the four Brahma abodes.
Entering into discussion concerning controversial point in a good faith or refraining from discussion altogether.
Making conflict less of a personal matter helps in keeping it in a healthy state. Any form of self-identification claims is openly criticised in the Pali Canon (in the form of 20 claims concerning Self).
Searching for the answers in evolutionary not revolutionary way, marked by respect for the past and responsibility for the future.
Keeping contacts and dialogue alive as paramount. Whatever matter is of such nature that can be put aside for the resolution in the future in order to secure that goal, it should be put aside. Whenever the matter is perceived as seriously misrepresenting Dhamma the fact should be made known in unequivocal terms.
The matter may concern some person, but while acknowledging that, the criticism should not be construed in a personal way, but rather to address general mechanisms with the conclusions applicable to similar cases in the future.
Openness and transparency at all levels and in all aspects of organisational structures. Lineage, textual heritage, administrative structures, goals, financial settings and transfers should all be made public and easily accessible (we might refer again to the structure of the Order of Interbeing as realizing well at least some of those goals). Transparency influences very positively a general perception and trust.
Putting trust in the general public (saṅgha or not). Referring openly about an involvement in a conflict by an open organisation helps setting the general perception as to the causes, culprits and solutions. A voice of a closed organisation of an opaque structure risks being dismissed or criticised as strictly sectarian.
Making sure the truth is of paramount status, that all parties share the language (understand key subjects in a similar way), and that the discussion is conducted in the right way (right language: truthful, non-divisive, non-hurting, to the point)
Non-engaging in a case of an unwholesome conflict. When confronted with the party with unwholesome motivations and actions, one should resort to the attitudes and actions mentioned above, but not to respond in kind to the offending group.
If all else fails, the goal should be to at least keep conflicts manageable at the base level, by sustaining some rudimentary level of communication, and to openly refer to the public the current developments.
As was said above, conflicts cannot be avoided. What Buddhists need to remember is that a way of responding to a conflict is in itself a reflection of the level of fidelity to the very essence of Buddhist teachings. A conflict may often be a chance for improvement and enrichment of Buddhism; it is however always an exercise in mental cultivation by those engaged in it.
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The text is based on the paper presented during the annual meeting of the European Buddhist Union, shortened and adapted to the requirements of the EBU Magazine.