Harness Buddhism For Peace Diplomacy

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UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Nepal last month. He flew into Lumbini to pay homage to Lord Buddha, where he urged the world leaders to take inspiration from Buddha’s   teachings and make a commitment to peace and compassion at a time when Middle East crisis has  worsened particularly due to Hamas-Israel conflict. Highlighting the conflicts in regions from the Middle East to Ukraine, and the Sahel to Sudan, and the devastating impact of these conflicts on ordinary people, the Secretary-General expressed concern over the large number of people driven from their homes by violence, conflict, and persecution and worsening impacts of the climate crises.  For the first time, the third UN Secretary General U Thant - a Burmese national - had headed United Nations from 1961 to 1971. He visited Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, in April 1967 and drew the attention of the global community to the importance of Lumbini - the birthplace of Lord Buddha, revered as  the apostle of peace and  non-violence in the world. Himself a devout Buddhist,   U Thant was so deeply moved when he visited and reportedly wrote in his diary, “The visit to Lumbini was one of the most important days of my life.”  

The statement of Guterres delivered at Lumbini resonates with U Thant’s.  Credit goes to the latter to bring the case of Lumbini development into global attention. In today’s world battered due to conflict and violence, relevance and importance of Buddha’s teachings need not be overemphasised. Moreover, Buddha has been adored as the pioneer of mediation and peace practice in the world. Mediation practitioners and conflict experts world over have drawn on Buddha’s ideas and practices in order to shape, legitimise and sharpen their efforts to resolve disputes and build peace. Buddhist teachings of peace have been valued and practiced throughout the world. Although the Buddhist tradition lacks core canonical texts that’s considered authoritative for all Buddhists, thousands of Buddhist scriptures and a vast number of commentaries on these texts hold immense importance. 

Noble truths

It is acknowledged that the stories surrounding key historical figures like Emperor Ashoka, the jataka tales that recount the Buddha’s previous lives and local stories and teachings that have been incorporated into the Buddhist tradition constitute sources of Buddhist values that apply to mediation. It will be in order to take note as to how Buddhists understand conflict and reason behind it. Generally, Buddhists point to three vices (klesas) as the source of all conflict. They’re the universal human dispositions towards greed, anger, and misunderstanding or delusion which are said to be responsible for all forms of misery, including individual, social, and structural. According to Buddhist teachings, as all sentient beings are driven by klesas, conflict is an inevitable part of human life. To resolve it is to eradicate one’s succumbing to the three poisons by shunning greed, anger and delusion.

 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 say that suffering and conflict can be transformed by taking action to create peace.  Buddhists see conflict as opportunities to understand and engage in dynamic processes of change in order to push toward peace. Buddhist thought has an optimistic view of the potential for positive change, even in the most seemingly protracted conflict situations. Buddha had to intervene countless times in disputes between his followers often over issues of correct practice. He listened carefully to the disputing parties, decided on the correct course of action, and then ensured that his decision was recorded for future reference.

As a mediator, Buddha 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.  Buddha demonstrated “right speech” – an important practice in the Buddhist eightfold path of practices that helps one evolve towards enlightenment. Right speech is understood to mean speech that does not cause discord, hatred and contempt but rather helps to bring people together. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Master, wrote the famous book titled “Being Peace” in 1987. In this book, Hanh emphasised 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. 

Meditation

John McConnell, a Buddhist peace builder in the US, has emphasised that Buddhists can approach mediation practice as a means to practice mindfulness. It is a spiritual state of being fully present to reality. Mediators need to be a deep listener. He or she should be able to respond to people’s position in a conflict and see opportunities that arise for mutual understanding. This kind of attentive listening can help ensure that those who are involved in a conflict have their individual dignity recognised within the mediation. This approach can help turn the process of mediation into a form of spiritual advancement for a Buddhist mediator. Through deep listening and attention to others, one can develop a better understanding of the inherent nature of the world as interdependent, dynamic and capable of positive transformation. 

Buddhist practice essentially seeks to move one away from self-centered attitudes and behaviours. As a mediator, one tries to help different parties in a conflict hear and understand the interests and needs of the other. When things become particularly heated or tense, it might also be appropriate to ask for a quiet moment of meditation to allow everyone to make their minds quiet and silent. Moreover, the four central values of loving, kindness, compassion and equanimity can serve as ground rules for a mediation session. Mediation is becoming popular in Nepal both in the communities and courts. As Buddha who preached and practiced mediation was born in Nepal, there is a need to apply and incorporate the Buddhist values and creeds in mediation practices in Nepal. 

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.  rijalmukti@gmail.com)

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