Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Confronting Conflict and Avoiding Extremes

During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived - everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn't treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.
"You fool," he shouted as he reached for his sword, "don't you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!"

But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. "And do you realize," the master replied calmly, "that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?"

Drenched in the blood of martyrs and saints, heroes and villains is the brutal, and sadly sometime necessary human activity of conflict. Whether it takes a singular form, one person versus one person, or a much larger rage of one culture versus one culture, somewhere, before reason was set aside and emotions took the rank of general, there was lost a beautiful and fleeting opportunity for one side to stand naked before compassion and take the difficult road of understanding and reconciliation. Conflict itself can be violent or non-violent, verbal or physical and is one of the most difficult experiences we us as humans must endure. It is the ultimate expression of extreme beliefs we all take.

Everyday, we all in someway or another participate in small scale conflicts, pushing our notions and concepts over others, or enduring others aggression towards us. We may say we can rise above the fray and be above conflict, but we all know it is neither as easy nor practical for us to follow the lead of the Zen Master in the story above. When it comes to conflict, it maybe difficult at times to figure out what the right thing is to do. So, do we stand our ground no matter the cost or do we give in realizing their may not be a absolute right or wrong?

For there may not be much we can, as singular people, do to defuse large scale conflicts and war, but as individuals, as Buddhists, we can most certainly seek a mindful understanding of personal conflicts, whether at work or home, with friends or strangers. When one side see's an attempt of the other side to reach out a hand of friendship and a kind smile, many volatile situations will resolve quicker and with much less hardship than those that make no attempt at reconciliation. However, nobody expects you to relinquish your point of view or conception of a certain situation, and to do so would just lead to you being stepped on and taken advantage of in future dealings. As in all things, a balance is key.

As tired as you maybe of hearing it, we all know there is almost always a middle way. With right effort and compassion, I see we can indeed become a shepherd of compromise, a voice reason, even in the face of intolerance or ignorance. Perhaps we can point out our similarities and the areas we agree rather than exaggerate the places we do not. 'Hate begets hate' and as Booker T Washington said " I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. " I promise you, when you make an effort to be kind, listen, compromise, you will shock yourself how far the virtues of consideration, charity and grace do go.

Martin Luther King Jr said
"On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, "Is it safe?" Expediency asks the question, "Is it politic?" And Vanity comes along and asks the question, "Is it popular?" But Conscience asks the question "Is it right?" And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come together with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain't goin' study war no more." This is the challenge facing modern man."


  1. But the Zen master shamed the general by pointing out that he was a human being who shouldn't be murdered. This seems like a kind of violence -- justified, but still violence. He didn't try to compassionately understand the general's need to murder or need for deference.

    Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement did something similar. They dressed in their Sunday best and peacefully provoked the racists to brutal attacks with fire hoses with the goal creating moral outrage and shame from the rest of the country.

    Again, fully justified. But its difficult to believe that inflicting shame on your opponent is not violent at some level.

    1. Looking at this in more global terms, and working on the idea of Buddhism being a practice of looking at one's own character and motivations...

      I view the parable as an example of personification of extremes - having the general as the personification of conflict with the zen master as the personification of the lack of necessity for conflict - thus he doesn't bow to it.

  2. I see things a little differently, Mr. Teacup. I don't feel as if the general was shamed, or even the master was saying he shouldn't be murdered. I think the Zen master's comment highlighted his knowledge and understanding of impermanence.

    Also, the master may have been well aware of the general's suffering, but that does not explain a need to murder. That is merely a poor choice.

    Rather than shame the general, I believe he brought a new perspective to him, offering oneness between the two of them.

  3. The Buddha spoke of fear and shame (hiri, ottappa) as two shields that protect the world. In Western culture, we have a different understanding, possibly better, but I think we could also learn from the buddha's teachings.

  4. "... before reason was set aside and emotions took the rank of general, there was lost a beautiful and fleeting opportunity for one side to stand naked before compassion and take the difficult road of understanding and reconciliation."

    Yowza! What beautiful writing!

    I love the integral idea that we can ascend to a position of understanding and appreciating all positions. [Six minute viddie about the basic levels in Spiral Dynamics terms.] The general is Red Meme, the Zen Master, Yellow or Turquoise Meme.

    Often, even if we are 'integrated' -- that is, Yellow or Turquoise -- we lose 'the angel of our better nature' to the tensions and emotions of the conflict. But if we can pull ourself out of our self -- step back and objectify the situation -- we may at least be able to insert wisdom and compassion into the conflict.

    Whether 'our best self' will be able to solve the situation or dampen the dispute is something else, again. It might not make any immediate difference. But being our best self is its own victory, I think.

  5. The general is Red Meme, the Zen Master, Yellow or Turquoise Meme.

    This seems unlikely, considering that Yellow didn't arise until 50 years ago, Turquoise in the last 10. Unless this story is very recent.

    To me, the Zen master was Blue. Just my opinion.

  6. Mr.Teacup, I agree, shame and fear are two very powerful motivational emotions. Though I do not believe the police in Selma Alabama felt much shame while pummeling the black marchers. But, it is a exceptional leverage if used on a more wise opponent.

    Tom - Thank you for the kind words. The whole spiral dynamics thing is rather interesting, kind of integrating science, psychology and anthropology into one spiritual discipline.

  7. Mr Teacup, could you cite where the Buddha said things of fear and shame? It's not something I have heard of before, and I would be very interested to read about it!! Thanks for the insight!

  8. Siteunseen, two resources I've:

    Chariot to Nibbāna, there's a section called "Wholesome Shame and Wholesome Fear".

    And The Guardians of the World.

    Obviously, shame is an important part of many Asian cultures, but quite foreign to liberal secular Westerners. I discovered this aspect of Buddhism while reading Pema Chodron's translation of "A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life". In it, Shantideva expresses strong emotions of shame, and Pema Chodron commentary applies a psychological frame to explain that he really didn't mean it that way, etc., to avoid coming into conflict with her readers' values.

    Pema Chodron is one of my favorite teachers, but its hard to not conclude that some Western Buddhist teachers are concealing or at least soft-pedaling the differences between cultures in order to fit into a pre-existing Western spiritual ethic.

  9. This was quite a refreshing , and sound analysis of attempts of dealing with conflicts from a Buddhist perspective. Thank you.