Buddhism: A Pathway to Peace and Conflict Resolution
June 24, 2016
On June 22, the Royal Thai Embassy and the Berkley Center invited two Western-born Theravada Buddhist monks, Ajahn Pasanno Bhikkhu and Ajahn Jayanto Bhikkhu, to share their perspectives on how Buddhist principles are relevant for conflict resolution and peace. The event was moderated by Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.
Ajahn Pasanno shared that in a world of human suffering and conflict, Buddhism teaches that individuals must first understand their own personal suffering and understand their own hearts. Only then can an individual understand and empathize with others; otherwise, he said that empathy becomes theoretical. Ajahn Jayanto, too, addressed how Buddhist principles of peace and communal harmony stem from individual responsibility and individual recognition of oneself; lack of individual reflection can make us numb to the suffering and condition of the community around us. He reminded the audience that “we are all brothers and sisters in suffering,” and that although we can get caught up in our ideals, it is important to recognize that we are no different or better than any other individual. We are all caught in the same problem of human suffering in this world, and although we are born into different situations, we share a collective responsibility to address the problem of suffering and conflict in the world. Ajahn Jayanto then explained that the roots of outside conflicts, on a larger scale, stem from the same things that drive our personal conflicts, such as greed, desire, etc. So when we understand ourselves, that increases our capacity to understand conflicts and better equips us to judiciously respond to those.
Ajahn Jayanto used a metaphor of a sinking ship to further illustrate this point. When a ship is sinking, everyone who is onboard must work to save the ship, and each person has a different role; some may have to use buckets to bail out the water, some may have to work on fixing the holes in the ship, etc. Thus, each individual has a unique role in addressing complex problems, whether it’s a sinking ship, or violence and conflict in the world. Understanding that role through self-awareness and self-reflection is what Buddhism encourages each individual to start with in the journey to bring peace to the world.
Another theme that Ajahn Pasanno addressed was that humans have a desire to always know what is right or wrong and to define everything as either black or white. But human relationships and conditions are often gray, and it can be difficult to accept this, and be comfortable without forcibly categorizing everything. At the event, I could sense a deep inner peace that the monks possessed that stood out from the rest of the room; it wasn’t nonchalance, but rather, it was this exact ability to organically embrace the present situation that Ajahn Pasanno had described.
When asked about the role Buddhism plays in the state, Ajahn Pasanno stressed that with his experience in Thailand, Buddhism does not engage with the state or directly become involved in the political process; although sometimes, Buddhist monks are consulted for advice. He expressed that when religion becomes tied to a state or state policy, it loses its autonomy and its ability to have “spiritual gravitas.”
Finally, addressing religious extremists, Ajahn Jayanto said that some people point out all the harm that religiously-affiliated people are doing in the world; but it is equally easy to point out all the harm that non-religious people do as well. So it’s important to focus on the individual, rather than their affiliation, and not attribute actions of an individual to an entire group of people made up of countless more distinct individuals who are not doing harm.
What resonated most with me was when Ajahn Pasanno said, “The Buddha didn’t actually teach Buddhism...he taught the way of human understanding.” This event reminded me of the importance and role of the individual in creating peace, because often, the focus is on what governments and institutions can do as whole organizations to create change. But each organization is made up of individuals and is only as strong as the individuals it is composed of, and thus, we cannot ignore individual responsibility. Individual respect and empathy transcend the boundaries of religion as we strive towards cultivating a more peaceable world.