The Problem of Conflict
By Bhikkhu Bodhi
It is one of the bitterest ironies of human life that although virtually all human
beings cherish a desire to live in peace, we continually find ourselves embroiled
in conflict, pitted against others in relationships marred by tension, distrust
or open hostility. This irony is particularly poignant because it is immediately
evident to us that cordial, harmonious relations with others are a necessary condition
for our own genuine happiness. Not only do such relations allow us to pursue undisturbed
the goals we consider essential to our personal fulfillment, but they bring us
the deeper joy of meaningful communion with our fellow human beings. Contentious
living, in contrast, is always intrinsically painful, involving a hardening of
our subjective armor, a tightening of the knots of anger and hate. Indeed, whatever
the outcome of conflict may be -- whether victory or defeat -- the result itself
is ultimately detrimental for both victor and victim alike.
Nevertheless, although harmonious living promises such rich blessings while discordant
relations entail so much harm and misery, for the most part our lives -- and the
lives of those around us -- are entangled in a raveled net of quarrels and disputes.
Conflict may simmer within as silent suspicion and resentment or it may explode
into violent rage and devastation. It may implicate us at the level of personal
relationships, or as members of an ethnic group, a political party, a social class
or a nation. But in one or another of its many manifestations, the presence of
conflict in our lives seems inescapable. Peace and harmony hover in the distance
as beautiful dreams for a summer's night or noble ideals to which we pledge formal
allegiance. But when reality knocks and dreams are dispelled, we find ourselves
drawn, usually against our better judgment, into an arena where the pleasures
that we seek exact as their price the hard cash of struggle and contention.
The teachings of the Buddha, while framed around the goal of individual deliverance
from suffering, are also expounded for the purpose of instructing us in how we
can live in harmony with others. Such harmony is desirable not only as a source
of satisfaction in itself, but also because it is a prerequisite for treading
the path to the higher freedom. The final peace of enlightenment can arise only
in a mind that is at peace with others, and the mind can only be at peace with
others when we are actively committed to a course of training that enables us
to extricate the roots of conflict that lie buried deep within our hearts.
Once, in ancient India, Sakka the ruler of the gods came to the Buddha and asked:
"By what bonds are people bound whereby, though they wish to live in peace,
without hate and hostility, they yet live in conflict, with hate and hostility."
The Master replied: "It is the bonds of envy and avarice that so bind people
that, though they wish to live in peace, they live in conflict, with hate and
hostility." If we trace external conflicts back to their source, we will
find that they originate not in wealth, position or possessions, but in the mind
itself. They spring up because we envy others for the qualities they possess which
we desire for ourselves, and because we are driven by an unquenchable avarice
to extend the boundaries of what we can label "mine."
Envy and avarice in turn are grounded in two more fundamental psychological conditions.
Envy arises because we identify things as "I," because we perpetually
seek to establish a personal identity for ourselves internally and to project
that identity outward for others to recognize and accept. Avarice arises because
we appropriate: we attempt to carve out a territory for ourselves and to furnish
that territory with possessions that will titillate our greed and sense of self-importance.
Conflict being thus rooted in envy and avarice, it follows that the path to non-conflict
must be a course of relinquishment, of removing the constrictive thoughts and
desires that pivot around the notions of "I" and "mine," the
drives to identify and to possess. This course reaches consummation with the full
maturity of wisdom, with insight into the empty, ego-less nature of all phenomena;
for it is this insight, which exposes the hollowness of the notions of "I"
and "mine" that underlie envy and avarice. However, although the final
liberation from clinging may lie far away, the path leading to it is a gradual
one, growing out of simpler, more basic steps that lie very close to our feet.
Two such necessary steps are changes in attitude with the power to transmute envy
and avarice. One is altruistic joy (mudita), the ability to view the success of
others with the same gladness we experience at our own success. The other is generosity
(caga), the readiness to give and to relinquish. The former is the specific antidote
for envy, the latter the antidote for avarice. What is common to both is a lifting
of the sense of identity from its narrow fixation on the self, and a broadening
of it to encompass others who share our desire to be happy and free from suffering.
As private individuals we cannot hope to resolve by our will the larger patterns
of conflict that engulf the societies and nations to which we belong. We live
in a world that thrives on conflict, and in which the forces that nurture conflict
are pervasive; obstinate and terribly powerful. But as followers of the Enlightened
One what we can do and must do is to testify by our conduct to the supremacy of
peace: to avoid words and actions that engender animosity, to heal divisions,
to demonstrate the value of harmony and concord. The model we must emulate is
that provided by the Master in his description of the true disciple: "He
is one who unites the divided, who promotes friendships, enjoys concord, rejoices
in concord, delights in concord, and who speaks words that promote concord."