The Language of Conflict

Following the recent terror attacks in London and Manchester and the apparently “retaliatory” attack last night outside a mosque in Finsbury Park this article by Andrew Olendzki on conflict is so appropriate………….

A lot of fighting is going on in both private and public discourse today. In a text known as the discourse about not doing battle (Aranavibhanga Sutta, MN 139), the Buddha puts forth suggestions on how we might lessen the conflicts around us. One stands out as making an important point about how we can use language to either provoke or reduce conflict.

It is very common for people to speak something like this:

All those who are committed to [x] are on the wrong path.

All those who are not committed to [x] are on the right path.

You can insert as the variable any belief, opinion, practice, or behaviour.

According to the Buddha, the trouble with this way of speaking is that it engages in “extolling” and “disparaging.” The real problem with this mode of expression is that it is praise or blame directed at a person, and either extols or disparages people who hold the views and engage in the activities specified. We can easily think of examples of arguments, debates, or political talks that are little more than ad hominem attacks, which focus on one’s opponent personally rather than on the matter at hand. As soon as the issue has to do with persons, we tap into primitive instincts for self-preservation and self-aggrandisement and evoke the deep psychological forces identified in the Buddhist tradition as greed, hatred, and delusion. Anytime a “self” is involved, that self is driven by the need to get or hold on to whatever serves it, at any cost, and by the need to deny or destroy anything that threatens it. When a person is extolled, their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness increases, and when a person is disparaged, their reflexes for self-defence are triggered. Both praise and blame evoke a sense of self, and the self always shows up ready to fight.

However, the Buddha was also very clear about the existence of a right path and a wrong path. His message is not that we should avoid conflict by not making distinctions or judgements about what is healthy or unhealthy, skillful or unskillful. Indeed, the clarity of his insight into what is harmful and what is beneficial for sentient beings is among the major contributions made to world civilisation by the Buddha. The matter is more carefully stated this way:

Being committed to [x] brings about suffering and is the wrong path.

Not being committed to [x] does not bring about suffering and is the right path.

The point is a simple and timeless one. There are all sorts of beliefs, opinions, practices, and behaviours that lead to harm, and many others that lead to well-being. By all means, let’s be clear about which is which, and share with others what we understand about this. But when we do this by disparaging people for their views, it will only trigger their existential defence mechanisms—and likely bring out their worst side. They may be hurt or get angry, and because of this either strike back or in some other way speak and act badly. Similarly, if we extol ourselves for our beliefs, it will feed into our own narcissistic tendencies. When alternately one criticises the beliefs and practices themselves, rather than the people that adhere to them, we create some space between the two.

At its worst, of course, the separation of persons from their views or behaviours does little good, for people often identify so strongly with these things that any criticism is taken as a personal attack. If you disparage my beliefs, I hold these so much as a part of who I am that you are essentially disparaging me. This is the insidious side of grasping, and of creating a self to which so many things belong.

At its best, the practice of discussing ideas rather than praising or blaming people allows for everyone to hold different viewpoints without going to battle. I can believe strongly that I am right and you are wrong, but still respect you, while you can maintain the view that you are right and I am wrong, and still put up with me. It is inevitable that there will be a wide range of beliefs, opinions, practices, and behaviours in this large and diverse world. It is not inevitable that people must hate one another on account of this.

It may be a modest contribution, but let’s see whether following the Buddha’s suggestion of using depersonalised language to critique harmful thoughts, words, and deeds, rather than attacking the people who wield them, can help end some of the fighting and muffle the call to battle.

Buddha Statue Saved for Kabul museum

I came across this amazing picture of a Statue of the Buddha which was found in a copper mine in Afghanistan. It is thought to be around 1,800 years old but you can still see the original colours.

Having withstood time, the elements, looters and war, this spectacular Buddha was restored and removed from one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous regions to make its public debut in the country’s national museum.

The exceptionally well-preserved piece, with its colours still vibrant, was found in 2012 at the Mes Aynak site about 40 kilometres southeast of Kabul, in the now Taliban controlled Logar province.

Its discovery was made possible after a Chinese consortium began digging a massive copper mine that uncovered an ancient monastery complex stretching out over an area of four square kilometres.

A Poem That I Like

When I visited the Newport Soto Zen Group the other week Val, one of the group’s members, offered a reading from an English rendering of the Satapañcasatka otherwise known as Matrceta’s Hymn to the Buddha. The translation is by Ven. S. Dhammika……

 

In Praise of Benefits Conferred
 
Just to hear you brings joy; 
just to look upon you calms the heart; 
your speech refreshes and your teaching frees. 
 
People rejoice at your birth, 
they celebrate as you grow, 
they benefit from your presence 
and sorrow in your absence. 
 
To praise you removes faults, 
to recollect you brings joy, 
to follow you gives understanding, 
to know you purifies the heart. 
 
To approach you brings good fortune, 
to serve you gives wisdom, 
to worship you dispels fear, 
to wait upon you bestows prosperity . 
 
You are a great lake of goodness, 
with waters purified by virtue, 
surface calmed by meditation 
and depths stilled by wisdom. 
 
Your form is a jewel to see, 
your speech is a jewel to hear, 
your teachings are a jewel to reflect upon. 
Truly, you are a mine bearing the jewels of goodness. 
 
You are an island for those swept along by the flood, 
a shelter for the stricken, 
a refuge for those in fear of becoming, 
a resort for those who aspire to liberation. 
 
To, all living beings 
you are a useful vessel because of your virtue, 
a fertile field because of your perfect fruit, 
a true friend because of the benefits you confer. 
 
You are admired for your altruism, 
charming for your tenderness, 
beloved for your gentleness 
and honoured for your many virtues. 
 
You are cherished because of your flawlessness, 
delightful because of the goodness of your form and speech, 
opulent because you promote the good of all, 
and blessed because you are the abode of virtues. 

Comment on “Watered down Buddhism”

Further to the previous post “Watered Down Buddhism” I received an email from a long time correspondent, A.W. (Jack) Kennedy who runs the Bowerchalke Buddhist Meditation Group over in Wiltshire on the Dorset, Hampshire border.

He had tried to post a comment on the article but it exceeded the permitted word count. It is an excellent take on the subject so I am posting the entire piece here……….

Stephen, 

Thanks for this post. You point to an interesting article by Funie Hsu (accessible with a bit of searching on the ‘Lions Roar’ website). It is plucky of you to venture into the thorny arena of Buddhist hermeneutics: the way in which Buddhism has been, and is being, re-interpreted to suit contemporary western (American and European) social life, and precisely who claims authority to perform those acts of hermeneutics. 

Your post is brief, so please allow me to make a few comments by way of expansion: 

1. American and British Buddhism are not identical. Historical conditions have affected them in different ways they cannot be conflated. Certainly, there are two forms of Buddhism (indigenous immigrant and white convert) on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Britain there has generally been respect and interaction between the two. Hsu, and others, are concerned that the majority of white convert Buddhists should show respect and solidarity towards Japanese, Black, and LBGT minority Buddhists, in the face of neglect and oppression from the wider community, in the past and under Trump’s new world order. We should listen up, and make sure that neglect and oppression of marginalised communities doesn’t happen over here. 

2. Yet, any person, whatever their origin, has the right to inform themselves about the vast gamut of Buddhist teaching and practice, and the right to decide for themselves what’s meaningful and what’s meaningless in the light of their own cultural circumstances, which these days are usually scientifically-informed and liberal about human rights. Authority can, of course, be claimed by Buddhist teachers, but in the final analysis authority is only provisionally granted by those that decide to accept a teacher. My point is that white convert Buddhists can’t be expected to rely on indigenous immigrant teachers, or on traditional texts, without any right to apply their own forms of interpretation. 

3. You mention the ‘cultural appropriation’ and the ‘translation’ of Buddhism into western contexts. Whenever these terms are used, I think it only fair to reference my old PhD. supervisor, Philip Mellor, because he was the first person to use these terms and address these issues, and because subsequent commentators tend to forget his original contribution: Mellor, P.A. 1989, The Cultural Translation of Buddhism: problems of method in the study of Buddhism in England (University of Manchester, unpublished PhD thesis); Mellor, P.A. 1991, ‘Protestant Buddhism? The Cultural Translation of Buddhism in England’, in Religious Studies, 29, pp.111-127. Coming from an ‘outsider’ Catholic perspective, Mellor had a rather biased view of western Buddhism, but he made three interesting points: that Buddhism is being translated into Protestant forms of religious behaviour; that Buddhist practitioners are not particularly aware of this alteration, and that it is difficult for ‘the analyst’ (the academic observer) to disentangle western Buddhist discourse and practice from western psychotherapeutic discourse and practice.
You note that the Robert Ellis’s ‘Middle Way Society’ is independent of Buddhism; could that also be said of the Mindfulness movement? Robert Ellis, as is his right, has made up his own mind on the basis of his own interpretation of Buddhism, and in the light of his sceptical philosophy. He has generated an impressive website but has few followers, therefore, not much effect on the progress of Buddhism in Britain. Might not the Mindfulness movement prove more damaging? Is today’s Mindfulness movement not an outcome of the entanglement of Buddhism with psychotherapeutic discourse, and is there not a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain?

4. I want to defend the memory of the Secular Buddhist UK website. It was established by Anantacitta Tunnell, a thoroughly decent Birmingham social-worker who used to be a member of the FWBO/Triratna Community. He worked hard to create an open forum for the discussion of secular Buddhist ideas and practice, with Stephen Batchelor’s blessing but without the benefit of his involvement. Nobody was willing to take over the site when it became too much for Anantacitta. Since I was a contributor, I must share some of the blame for that misfortune. Regrettably, it went into abeyance, WordPress closed it down, and the archives vanished into digital oblivion. But I remain dependent on Buddhism, as does the American Secular Buddhist website, as (I think) does Stephen Batchelor. Nobody can wholly escape the influence of their (white, western, contemporary, protestant, scientific) upbringing, but, of course, we can be Buddhists nonetheless, if Buddhist practice is truly applicable to all sentient beings.

Thank you Jack. As you note the original post was somewhat brief when touching on this subject but it was prompted by the demise of the UK secular Buddhist website and the rest sort of just followed as background context.

I feel that secular Buddhism is a genuinely Western response to the Dharma and although I have the greatest respect for the various Eastern schools into which the Buddha’s teachings have evolved that evolution has taken place within the context of cultures other than my own. It can feel somewhat of an affectation when performing, for example, Japanese or Tibetan rites and rituals when one is not Japanese or Tibetan. Secular Buddhism addresses this by removing the cultural accoutrements but then also jettisons anything “mythological”. The question then arises as to what is myth or just a good story loaded with parable, allegory and fable that teaches the Dharma in the succinctly skillful way the Buddha had of pitching his message.

That said, I cannot but agree with your comment about “there (being) a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain.” 

I know that there is a counter argument that Mindfulness practise is in fact inculcating the Buddha’s teachings “by the back door” but various mindfulness teachers that I know who are Buddhists say that apart from a brief comment that these practises are derived from ancient Buddhist ones Buddhism itself is never mentioned.

But, ultimately, despite all of the challenges that Buddhism faces in the West it will, in time, develop into a truly Western practise. A while back I ran a series of stories on the plight of Buddhist nuns in various traditions who are denied full ordination. Many have now achieved this, “illegally” according to their parent traditions. But they have done this by side stepping the established protocols of the purely Asian schools of Buddhism. They have separated and moved away and formed their own monastic settlements here in the West where they can enjoy the liberal, progressive freedoms denied them within the traditional, Asian context of Buddhism.

International Day of Peace

Today is the United Nations International Day of Peace.

The day is marked by the striking of the Japanese Peace Bell. Traditionally, the Bell is rung twice a year. It is tolled on the first day of Spring at the time of the vernal equinox, in celebration of the annual Earth Day ceremony initiated by Earth Day Founder, John McConnell.
It is also tolled on every opening day of the UN General Assembly’s yearly session in September, coinciding with the International Day of Peace established by the General Assembly in 1981. This occasion is observed by the Secretary-General.

The bell tower was modelled after the Hanamido (a small temple decorated with flowers) that symbolises the place where Buddha was born.