Posted by: lrrp | May 10, 2009

Conflict resolution: How Lord Buddha’s way offers an answer By Sarath N. Silva, Chief Justice of Sri Lanka

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”

According to Buddha Dhamma conflicts arise, within a person and amongst persons; at all levels; within a family, in society, in a country and internationally; due to two underlying common causes. The first is the failure to develop the cognitive faculties to the fullest and to see as it is the factors that cause the conflictual situation to arise. The second is the failure to comprehend its true nature.

From the point of conflict management, our attention should be focused on three stages in the unfolding of a conflict. On a time sequence, the final stage is that of transgression. This connotes the stage at which the ordinary behavioural pattern is disturbed and becomes evident or visible through words or actions engendered by the conflict. The next is the preceding stage in which defiled thoughts, through the impact of conflictual stimuli surge up in the form of unwholesome emotions and volitions. And, the earliest stage when defiled thoughts lie dormant without displaying any activity. In Buddhism the three stages are identified in relation to the activity of the mind as “Vitikkama” (the stage of transgression)’ “Pariyutthama” (the stage of manifestation) and “Anusaya” the stage of latent latency.

Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva

Conflict Management is essentially a practical exercise and the purpose of this article would not be achieved by a mere analysis of the Dhamma. Hence, the relevant aspects of Dhamma would be presented in reference to a situation in which Lord Buddha personally intervened to resolve a conflict in a state of imminent war and, the ethnic conflict in our country which has had a wide impact on the people and has caused loss of life and damage to property.

The Commentaries of the Anguttara Nikaya and the Samyutta Nikaya recount an instance in which Lord Buddha transcended to an imminent battle field to settle a bitter dispute between people of the Sakya clan, being his paternal relatives and of the Koliya clan, being his maternal relatives. As a result of the peace that the Buddha brought about through his intervention and the resolution of the dispute according to Dhamma, a large number of young persons of the Sakya clan entered the Bhikku sasana. This led to a request by the spouses of those persons that they be ordained as nuns. The demand was spearheaded by Buddha’s foster mother Maha Prajapathi Gothami who cared for him and brought him up after his mother’s demise. The Buddha refused the persistent pleadings to establish a bhikkuni sasana and left Kapilavasthu to arrive at the City of Vishala.

Being flexible

Maha Prajapathi Gothami undaunted by this refusal, lopped off her hair and clad in coarse saffron coloured garments followed the Buddha on foot accompanied by the other females, a distance of 150 miles to the City of Vishala. Thereafter, Venerable Ananda, being the Buddha’s attendant reiterated the request and finally the Buddha agreed to establish a Bhikkuni Sasana, subject to eight stringent conditions. This instance reveals that a situation of unrest could be adjusted by being flexible and devising a carefully structured solution. Although it marks an important event in the history of the Buddha Sasana, what is more important to the topic and the contemporary history of our country is the preceding incident of resolving a conflict at the stage of imminent war.

The territories of the Sakya and Koliya clans were defined by the river “Rohini”. The respective clans cultivated land on the two banks of the river using its water. There was a severe drought which reduced the flow of water and clansmen suspected that the other would take more of the available water and deny to one sufficient water for cultivation. This suspicion gradually festered and one clan prepared for war. On seeing this, the other clan too assembled on the bank of the river armed for war. The Buddha arrived at the site of imminent and battle as stated before and questioned the warring clansmen as to who took the decision to wage war. It was then revealed that the decision was not made by any one in the ruling segments of the clans but that suspicions in the minds of the people as to the denial of their share of river water resulted in the people arming themselves and assembling for war.

I would pause at this stage and advert to the genesis of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka with reference to specific instances drawn from recent history in which communal suspicions erupted in outbreaks of violence. These incidents which took place over a period of nearly 50 years can be briefly stated in a time sequence as follows:

In 1959 — with the enactment of the Official Languages Act and the action taken thereon such as the introduction of the Sinhala letter “shri” on the number plates of vehicles;

In 1977 – With the newly formed Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) winning all the seats in the North, in the Parliamentary Election that was held and a false rumour that the Sinhala students of the Jaffna University had been killed and their bodies were being brought in the Northern train “Yal Devi”. The disturbances originated at different “Station Towns” along the rail track, commencing from Anuradhapura.

In 1983 – with the killing of 13 soldiers in Jaffna.; and

In 1987 – with the Indo-Lanka Accord which led to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

In all these instances and in certain minor instances of a similar nature, the disturbances arose at a lower level from small groups, escalating in spirals of violence which resulted in extensive loss of life and damage to property. In each of these situations those in control of Government like their counterparts of the Sakya and Koliya clans got engulfed in the ethnic waves that arose from the bottom and became inactive allowing each situation to aggravate. Be that as it may, one of the deep rooted causes of the ethnic dispute is the distribution of agricultural water and the establishment of Sinhala settlements, particularly in the Eastern Province. A decisive instance is the Weli Oya Project in the northern area of the Eastern Province and North Central Province beneath Mullaitivu being the final seat of battle. The river identified by the Sinhala people as “Weli Oya” is known as “Manal Aru” by the Tamil people. The meaning in both languages is the same.

The “Eelam IV War” commenced with a group of terrorists shutting down the Mavil Aru Anicut at Seruvila in the Trincomalee District and causing damage to the Verugal Aru Anicut and the 1000 meter spill. The anicut was shut down and other damage done, not by persons who had been in any way denied water resources or, by persons who had handled a mammoty or plough for cultivation. They were the acts of essentially young persons who had engaged in violent and armed activity, virtually throughout their lives. On the other hand , having inspected the area on several occasions, I am personally aware that the anicut, spill and the banks, were repaired and the supply of water was restored to thousands of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim agricultural families due to the dedicated action of Tamil engineers serving in the area.

Senseless violence

The language issue and the question of decentralization of power have been redressed adequately by amendments to the Constitution itself. These measures have not been fully implemented due to the continuance of war. The implementation of the Mahaweli “A” system and the improvement of the Yodha Wewa and Malwatu Oya irrigation systems will provide adequate agricultural water to the entire region. It is thus seen that the underlying causes which led to the dispute have receded to the background and the conflict erupted into senseless armed violence perpetrated by youth who have been misled and brainwashed with a ferocious ideology. They do not hesitate to commit suicide and in the process kill indiscriminately.

The method adopted by Lord Buddha on the banks of river Rohini to avert an imminent war and his teaching would be most appropriate in the management of the ethnic conflict in this country, which acquired immensely tragic dimensions.

The preceding account of the Rohini river dispute reveals that the decision to wage war did not emanate from the top but escalated from below due to suspicions of an unequal distribution of river water. Having ascertained this, the Buddha questioned both sides as to the consequences of war. In response they agreed with the Buddha that as a result of war there will be extensive loss of life on both sides. The Buddha then posed the question as to what was more valuable, the water they were fighting for or the blood that would be shed. When all agreed that blood that would be shed is more valuable, the Buddha eased the tension that had built up and brought about an amicable settlement. The important sermon the Buddha delivered at this stage was that, “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”. The very words of this noble sermon have been now incorporated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the UNESCO, denoting its timeless truth.

Deep-seated suspicion

The two facts stated at the beginning, as paving the way to any conflict viz; the failure to see its causal arising, as it is and, the failure to comprehend its true nature, are both mind based. The practical dimension of this proposition can be examined in relation to the incidents cited above. The cause of the conflict between the Sakya and Koliya clans was a fear that there would be an inequality in the distribution of the reduced supply of water. This was further fuelled at the stage of latency “Anusaya,” by the deep seated suspicions between the two clans. At the stage of manifestation ‘Pariyuttana” it acquired a violent dimension. The stage of transgression “Vitikkama” was averted by the timely intervention of the Buddha.

The metomorphosis of our ethnic conflict reveals a like progression. The enactment of the Official Language Act of 1956 led to a fear from amongst the Tamil people that they would be denied employment in the State sector and be deprived of administrative benefits, as a result of Sinhala being the Official Language.

Similarly, the establishment of irrigation schemes and the colonization projects resulted in a fear amongst Tamil people that there would be insufficient space for expansion of the Tamil community in those areas. Furthermore, the continued establishment of strong Sinhala political parties in Government-led to a fear that Tamil people would be left out from the political process.

Both sides failed to rationally see the specific causes that gave rise to suspicion and fear which fuelled the conflict and to understand their true nature. Instead of addressing specific issues and requesting that safeguards be put in place to prevent discriminatory treatment, the Tamil political leaders made demands for a Federal Constitution and a separate State, that went far beyond the causes referred to above. This in turn resulted in a vehement opposition to the demands based on a fear that the territorial integrity of the country would be jeopardized. The neighbouring state of Tamilnadu in India aggravated these fears.

The use of force to negate the demands for a Federal and later separate State led to the emergence of the fearsome “Tiger Terrorists” who had no appreciation of the true nature of the causes of the conflict. Tamil political leaders who made unreasonable demands as a solution to the conflict themselves became victims of the fearsome “Tigers”. The use of military force to put down the violent activities of the terrorists do not form the part of the Buddhist perspectives of conflict management. If Lord Buddha took the view that the underlying dissatisfaction, suspicion and fear could be redressed entirely by war, he would not have brought about peace by visiting the battlefield and averting the imminent war.

Furthermore the fate of the Sakya clan which resulted from a later war also reveals that the Buddha took the view that war cannot be averted in every instance. On the contrary, he has intervened only upon a reasonable belief that such intervention would lead to a peaceful result. Thus a prerequisite of conflict management is that there should be proper understanding of the dispute and a practical flexibility in evolving a feasible solution.

Since, conflict begins in the mind, in management it is foremost that the particular state of mind which caused the conflict to arise be addressed adequately. Hence it is necessary to dwell on the working of the human mind as a prelude to conflict management. In this regard it can be stated without any fear of contradiction that Buddhism is the only religion, philosophy and science which addresses the working of the human mind. According to Buddha all living being, including humans are composed of five aggregates (“Panchaskanda”). One aggregate is the physical form “Rupa” which is visible. Although the physical form is different from one living being to another, whatever be the appearance, it is composed of four elements. They are (i) “Patavi” – the Element of hardness (ii) Apo” – the Element of cohesion (iii) “Thejo” – the Element of heat, (iv) “Vayo” – the Element of wind and pressure.

This painting at the Kelaniya temple depicts the scene where Lord Buddha intervened to bring peace between the two warring factions in Naagadeepa

These four Elements are also known as the “Mahabutha”. The elements in combination form what are known as “Rupa Kalapa” (in relation to the body they would be the “Cells”).

The Buddha Dhamma contains a detailed exposition of the manner in which these Elements and the “Rupa” of which it is composed, function, which would in turn explain the multiplicity of diseases that afflict the physical body, from a common cold to a cancer. Whatever be the extent to which medical science develops, it would to that extent confirm the Buddha Dhamma and not contradict it.

The other four Aggregates, Vedana (feeling), Sanna (Perception), Sankara (formations) and Vinnana (Consciousness) are not visible and constitute the working of the Mind. The function of each of these Aggregates is denoted by its name.

The mind-body (Nama Rupa), combine composed of these five Aggregates function through six organs. These organs are, (Eye – sight), Ear (hearing), Body (feeling), Nose (smell), Tongue (taste) and the Mind (consciousness).

Working of sense bases

Each organ is a distinct functional entity and is described as a “sense base”. According to “Madhupindika Sutta” each sense base functions upon contact (phassa). According to Buddha Dhamma, contact (phassa) is made only upon a meeting of three factors. They are, (1) an external form (to which attention is focussed – “Nimittha” (2) the particular sense base which makes contact with such external form and (3) Consciousness of the particular sense base. The distinct working of each of the sense bases can be understood through a simple personal experience. A fruit that is identified by the eye as being good, may turn out to have a bad odour when taken to the nose. The same fruit may turn out to be tasty when eaten and cause an irritation when it touches the body. On the other hand, the entire fruit may be just rejected out of hand by the working of the Mind itself.

On the basis of extensive research that was carried out, an American scientist has written a book titled “Molecules of Emotion” in which the scientist identified the working of the five organs through an electro chemical process known as Neuro Peptides. It was found that there is a large concentration of Neuro Peptides associated with each of the organs and when contact is made it is transmitted by means of the molecular activity.

When contact is made with an external object in the manner stated above there is “feeling” being the 2nd Aggregate. The “feeling” is identified as being good, bad or indifferent, which is the 3rd Aggregate. Upto this point of the working of the Aggregates of all living beings including four footed animals, creeping and crawling creatures, is the same. At this stage there is a function which is special to humans described as “Vithakka”, “Vichara”, and “Prapancha”. The function of “Vithakka” is to focus the mind on one aspect of the external object with which contact is made. The function of “Vichara” is to spread the mind’s activity only on the selected aspect and the function of “Prapancha” (Proliferation), is to ponder over the matter in relation to the past, present and future. This is the aspect of the working of the Mind which is relevant to our subject of conflict management.

The 4th and the 5th Aggregates being “Formations” and “Consciousness” result in “Kamma” and the continuance of “sansara”, from one existence to another. I would not advert to them since it is not referable directly to the subject of conflict management.

According to Buddha Dhamma, the reaction or response to contact with an external object (Nimiththa”) which may be a living being, thing or event, varies from person to person not because of the physical form (Rupa) of such person but because of the working of the mind, in particular the process of “Vittakka”. “Vichara” and “Prapancha” referred to above. This process is induced by a particular state of Mind described as the “Bhavanga Citta”, which may be translated as “sub consciousness”. It is to be noted that the function attributed in the Buddha Dhamma to this Mind state is different from that attributed to it in the western psychology. “Bhavanga” means the cause of the present existence.

The Buddha described this Mind state as being radiant which functions like a reflector that takes in an image transmitted to it. A contact made through a sense base is transmitted as an image to the Bhavanga Citta, where a process of identification is made which results in the formation of the particular consciousness upon such contact. This accounts for our varied responses to a single external object, as stated above. The “Bhavanga Citta” varies from person to person and from one living being to another and continues throughout one’s existence.

The mind of the terrorist

It is to be noted that “Bhavanga Citta” is the result of a person’s past “kamma”. If in past existence, there had been less greed (craving), less hatred, and less ignorance, the Bhavanga Citta of that person has a higher degree of radiance and the power of assimilation would be refined and of depth. But, where kamma of past existence has had more defilements of greed (craving), hatred, and ignorance the “Bhavanga Citta” is less radiant with a lower level of assimilation and depth and in some with a higher propensity to irrational violence.

We can thus comprehend the Mind state of the Leader of the terrorists who identifies himself with the sign of a fierce animal. His propensity to senseless violence stems from his “Bhavanga Citta” which would not change. Persons of similar “Bhavanga Citta” attract to each other and the behavioural pattern of such persons cannot be comprehended in the same way as of others who have more refined Bhavanga Chitta.

Those who did not understand such distinctions in the working of the Mind, associated with and even attempted to please the terrorists and fell prey to senseless violence, whilst others who trusted them entered into Accords that seriously jeopardized the security of the State and imperiled peaceful citizens. Thus a succession of Peace Conferences and Accords aborted as a result of failure to understand the working of the human mind from a Buddhist perspective.

The process of conflict management should be based on a firm distinction drawn between those with a propensity to senseless violence and the others who form the vast majority. According to the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha when describing the “Bhavanga Citta” as being radiant also stated that it is defiled by external factors which cloud its radiance. A variety of such defilements are noted in different aspects of the Buddha Dhamma but in reference to the ethnic conflict we can identify in particular, “Jathi Vitakka” (racial feelings), “Janapada Vitakka” (national feelings) and “Avannati” (egotism or personal and national pride). These are preoccupations with thoughts concerning “our race” or “our state” that are harmful to the concept of a common humanity.

As stated above it is at the stage of Vittaka, Vichara, Prapancha, that one selected aspect of what is perceived on contact by a sense base becomes the focus of mental activity to the exclusion of other material aspects.

In view of the propensities stated above, the incidents referred to, the Official Language Act, Irrigation and Colonization Schemes and the like, have acquired a racial twist leading to thoughts of discrimination and of unequal treatment.

In truth, the Official Language Act of 1956 was intended to redress the grievances of the Sinhala people who were denied participation in the administration of the country of which the language was English. Similarly, irrigation and colonization schemes were designed to accommodate the growing Sinhala population in the South and Central Province who were denied agricultural land due to the plantations and the unavailability of irrigation facilities in the South.

However, the wrong perception engendered by a communal perspective aggravated due to the failure to address the same issues in respect of Tamil people who were equally denied participation in the administration and opportunities of expanding agricultural pursuits. The failure to view these matters from the perspective of different communities led to a situation of one being ignored and left out feeling victimized.

Therefore, conflict management should primarily address on the causes that have been identified above and the resultant effects from the perspective of each community separately and redressed in a manner that there is equality in the extent to which relief is granted. There can never be one solution encompassed as a Federal State or any other form of Constitution. Such a measure would fail to identify in sufficient detail the manner in which the particular community feels victimized. These perceptions are deeply rooted in practical considerations which should be redressed from the base of its occurrence.
No external intervention or mediation can succeed in the matter of management of the ethnic conflict, since such intervention would fail by focusing on a general solution to a matter which should be addressed in the minutest detail.

The peaceful resolution of conflict is firmly rooted in the Buddhist tradition and its evidence goes back to the beginning of our recorded history in the “Mahavamsa” which recounts two instances in which the Buddha visited Sri Lanka and resolved conflicts in Nagadhipa, an island proximate to the Jaffna peninsular and Kelaniya being the sacred site close to Colombo.

Finally, conflict resolution in relation to the ethnic and all other conflicts should be firmly based in the teaching of the Buddha stated as the “eternal law” –

“Nahi verena verani – sammanti’dha kudacancam
Averenacasammanti – esa dhammo sanantano”
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world;
it is appeased only by non-hatred This is an eternal law.

This article was written to commemorate Vesak and was also in the Lankadeepa News paper.


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