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Buddhism and Mediation Resources

The author and Buddhist leaders from different schools gather at the White House in 2016 for a Vesak Day celebration.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.

As part of the CSS Mediation Perspectives Blog Mini-Series on the use of religious resources in peace mediation (part one on criteria and part two on Christianity), I look at how, throughout the Buddhist world, peace practitioners have drawn on the religion’s ideas, stories, and practices in order to shape, legitimize, and motivate their efforts to resolve disputes and build peace more broadly. The 2500 year old tradition, born in India and now practiced throughout the world, is ripe with material to support such efforts. Indeed, any attempt to distill such a huge and diverse corpus into key points for the purpose of a blog is a challenge. After all, the Buddhist tradition lacks a core canon that’s considered authoritative for all Buddhists. Rather, thousands of Buddhist scriptures circulate in an ongoing conversation. A vast number of commentaries on these texts are also considered influential, including those written by the 5th century CE Buddhagosa. Moreover, chronicles such as the 6th century CE Sri Lankan Mahavamsa, stories surrounding key historical figures like the 3rd century BCE Emperor Asoka, the jataka tales that recount the Buddha’s myriad previous lives before his incarnation as the historical Buddha, and local stories and teachings that have been incorporated into the Buddhist imagination all constitute wells from which one can draw Buddhist teachings that might apply to mediation. Finally, different teachings, practices, and ideas resonate within different schools of Buddhism – from the Zen of Japan to the Vajrayana of Tibet to the Theravada Forest Tradition of Thailand.

With the above caveat in mind, this blog will try to highlight some particular teachings, stories, values, and practices that are commonly drawn upon by Buddhist peacebuilders to support or shape mediation processes among conflicting parties. Since my effort should not be considered comprehensive, I’ve included further resources at the end of this text.

Buddhist understandings of conflict: Many Buddhists, when asked, will point to the three poisons (klesas) as the root of all conflict. They’re the universal human dispositions towards greed, anger, and misunderstanding, which the Buddha taught are responsible for all forms of misery, including those that are individual, social, and, as many socially engaged Buddhists today argue, structural. Because all sentient beings – aside from those who have achieved enlightenment – are driven by klesas, conflict is an inevitable part of human life. To resolve it in the ultimate sense is to eradicate one’s succumbing to the three poisons by practicing generosity (to combat greed), loving kindness (to combat anger), and right understanding of the reality of things (to combat delusion). In the proximate, one can help address conflict by 1) recognizing how the above poisons  specifically created the situation at hand, and 2) by seeking to bring generosity, lovingkindness, and right understanding to bear on finding a resolution. In seeking “right understanding” of a conflict, one should critically investigate competing claims and consider the situation with equanimity or non-attachment in order to discern the truth of various claims (Kalama Sutta).

Buddhist support for third-party intervention: The first and second Noble Truths of Buddhism teach that suffering is an inevitable part of life, brought about by human desires. The third and fourth Noble Truths go on to say that suffering and conflict can be transformed by taking action, by anyone, to create peace. Put another way, Buddhists see suffering/conflict as simultaneous opportunities to understand and engage in dynamic processes of change – processes that individuals, societies, and nations are constantly undergoing – in order to push all of the latter toward peace. Buddhist thought, in short, has an optimistic view of the potential for positive change, even in the most seemingly protracted conflict situations. That conflict is an inevitable part of human society is demonstrated by Buddhists themselves. In fact, even the Buddha struggled with a lifelong conflict with his cousin, Devadatta. Buddha also intervened countless times in disputes between his followers, often over issues of correct practice (orthopraxy). In many instances, he served as an arbiter. He listened carefully to the dispute, decided on the correct course of action, and then ensured that his decision was recorded for future reference. At other times, the Buddha acted more as a mediator. He asked questions of those in conflict with each other so he could better understand what was driving the dispute, and thereby find a way forward. In these and other cases, the Buddha demonstrated “right speech” – an important practice in the Buddhist eightfold path of practices that helps one evolve toward enlightenment. (Right speech is understood to mean speech that does not cause discord, but rather helps to bring people together. It is described as gentle, honest, and compassionate.)

Characteristics of an Effective Mediator: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master, wrote the famous book Being Peace in 1987. In this book, Hanh emphasized that in order to advance peace, one must first embody it. This means that when one responds to others – in conflict, anger, and so on – one must act with equanimity, compassion, and steadiness. John McConnell, a Buddhist peacebuilder, has emphasized that Buddhists can approach mediation practice as a means by which to practice mindfulness – a spiritual state of being fully present to reality and to others – which is especially difficult in the midst of a conflict where one’s emotions are often strong and self-awareness clouded. These dangers require the mediator to be 1) a deep listener; 2) able to respond to people’s position in a conflict; and 3) see opportunities that arise for greater mutual understanding. This kind of attentive listening and supporting in mediation can help ensure that those who are involved in a conflict have their individual dignity recognized and taken seriously within the mediation, which the scholar Donna Hicks believes can then help ‘unstick’ them from their entrenched positions and deep grievances to move forward. This approach can also help turn the process of mediation into a form of spiritual development for the Buddhist mediator. Through deep listening and attention to others, one can develop a better understanding of the inherent nature of the world as interdependent (paticca samuppadda), dynamic, and capable of positive transformation.

Drawing on Specific Buddhist Teachings to Move Conflicting Parties toward Resolution: The teachings I’ve described here can help mediators maintain their 1) broader perspective; 2) equanimity (or non-biased treatment and balanced response to the parties in conflict); 3) constructive speech; and 4) optimism. Mediators can also reference the above teachings to help Buddhist (and perhaps other) parties in conflict move away from entrenched positions. Buddhist philosophy and practice essentially seeks to move one away from self-centered attitudes and behaviors. As a mediator tries to help different parties in a conflict hear and understand the interests and needs of the other, and reformulate self-oriented/entrenched positions into needs that take others into account, Buddhist ideas can fuel the process. For example, cultivation of non-attachment (“letting go”) helps reduce the influence of the poison of greed, and is considered particularly important in Buddhist practice. Questions such as “What is something you are willing to let go of in order to help us move towards a solution?” can trigger the Buddhist ecosystem of thought around ideas of attachment and the value of non-attachment, yet without being heavy-handed. Reminders of the need for each party to try to listen to the other while silencing their own inner voices, and observing but not necessarily succumbing to their own emotional responses, will resonate with meditation practices with which they may be familiar. When things become particularly heated or difficult, it might also be appropriate to ask for a quiet moment of meditation to allow everyone to still their minds. And the four central values of lovingkindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy (the brahmaviharas) can serve as fitting ground rules for a mediation session, particularly when time is taken to discuss what it might mean to practice those values throughout the process.

Again, this blog was only meant to provide a rough overview of some Buddhist ideas that have been and can be brought to bear on traditional (Western) mediation theory and practice, and thereby support and even shape it in new and more effective ways. For those interested in learning more, I commend the following resources.

John A. McConnell. Mindful Mediation:  A Handbook for Buddhist Peacemakers. Sri Lanka: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1995.

Thich Nhat Hanh. Being Peace. California: Paralax Press, 1987.

Theresa Der-lan Yeh. “The Way to Peace: A Buddhist Perspective.” International Journal of Peace Studies. Vol 11, No 1. Spring/Summer 2006. Pp 91-112.

Sivaraksa, Sulak. Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1992.


About the Author

Susan Hayward is a senior advisor for religion and inclusive societies at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Hayward directs the Institute’s efforts to advance conflict prevention, resolution and reconciliation projects engaging the religious sector. Hayward studied Buddhism in Nepal and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative religions from Tufts University and master’s degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard Divinity School. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in theology and religious studies at Georgetown University, focusing on Buddhist and Christian theological responses to authoritarianism and conflict in Myanmar.

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