DEALING WITH CONFLICT
Lessons from the Kinti Sutta
A talk given at Bhaja in India on 6 January 2000
In my last talk, I looked at the subject of disharmony, and showed that disharmony has its roots in the mind. Disputes have their origin in our negative mental states, such as ill will, resentment, envy, jealousy, and so on. We saw that those mental states destroy our faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and therefore stop us from making spiritual effort and progress. In such mental states, we have no sense of sangha. Therefore we fall into dispute and disharmony with our brothers and sisters in the sangha. This means we have to pull up the roots of dispute in our own minds; we have to work on ourselves spiritually. You, as Chapter Convenors, need to promote harmony in the Order. That means that your first job is to rid yourself of such negative states and then encourage everyone else to do the same.
We also learnt about Buddhaghosa's ten ways of working on resentment and ill will in the mind. They are very comprehensive, and if one really applies these methods, ill will could not continue in one’s mind. So this is your first task as Chapter Convenors. You really need to make sure that people are working on their own minds. You can do this in the Chapter of course, through confession, discussion of your own experience, and so on. But it is especially through meditation that you can get to grips with these roots of dispute in your own mind. Meditation retreats should be an important part of the life of every Order member.
I now want to talk more about how you help others to resolve their difficulties. As a Chapter Convenor, there are two difficult situations that you may have to deal with. The first is a dispute between two factions within the Order; the second is where an Order member commits some sort of offence.
So what are you to do as a Chapter Convenor when you are confronted by either of these situations? I am assuming that you yourself are not part of the dispute. What should you do? I am going to look at this issue in the light of a sutta called the Kinti Sutta. Kinti means 'what if' or 'what next', 'what then'.
In the sutta, the Buddha asks some monks, 'What do you think I am teaching the Dharma for? Do you think I am teaching the Dharma for the sake of robes, for the sake of alms food, for the sake of somewhere to stay, lodgings?' Of course, the Bhiksus say, 'No, we don't think you are teaching just for your own personal benefit. You are teaching out of compassion for us, out of a desire for our welfare'. The Buddha agrees and explains that he teaches them the 37 bodhipaksadhammas – a sort of systematic compendium of his teachings – for their benefit. But he remarks that not all disciples practise what he teaches. Often they do things incompatible with the Teaching. Sometimes, they even start to quarrel with each other. He poses the question, 'If you find two sets of monks quarrelling in this way, what do you do?'
He explains that the first thing to do in such a situation is to find out what is going on, to establish clearly what the basis of the dispute is. Usually, at this stage, we find out that the dispute is not really about anything of any great substance. It is often just about words. People haven't really thought about what they are saying. Or if there is a real disagreement, it probably is not about anything fundamental; and as we have seen previously, there is no need to quarrel or have negative feelings about disagreements. For instance, one of us might say the best way to get to the station is this way; another one might say, ‘No, it’s that way’. The two might not be able to persuade each other, but there is no need to quarrel about it, we can just disagree. In English, we say people can ‘agree to disagree’.
Then you look at one faction to identify the person in that faction who will be easiest to talk to, the one who has got the most reasonable mind, the most pleasant temperament. You go to him and you say, 'Look, you and those others are quarrelling about certain matters, but on more fundamental matters you are in compete agreement, so there is no need to quarrel. You can be in disagreement, but just don't quarrel.' In that way you calm them down. Then you go to the people on the other side and, similarly, you find the most reasonable person on that side. In just the same way you point out to him the fact that both parties agree on fundamental matters. You say, ‘Look, you are arguing about a point you disagree about, but disagreement doesn't necessarily mean disharmony. It doesn't have to lead to a breakdown in communication and negative feelings.’ In this way, you calm the two sides down and they are gradually able to come back into communication.
This method of the Buddha is very sensible and astute. If you see two sets of people who are arguing, there will always be somebody on either side who is more reasonable than the rest. So you use those people to bring the rest of them together. Once you have persuaded the most reasonable person, they can gradually persuade the rest.
You have to approach them in a very polite and friendly way. When we read the Pali Canon, we are bound to notice how polite the Buddha and most of his monks are. Certainly, if you are trying to resolve a dispute, you need to be especially pleasing and polite in your approach to people. Having approached people politely, you clarify the real basis of the disagreement. You separate the real issue from the feelings involved, which allows the issue to be seen as it really is. Then you point out to them the fact that they may disagree on that point, but that does not mean they have to be in disharmony.
Actually, what is most important about the method I have just described is not the method itself the very fact that something is done about the problem. The most fundamental point is that the Buddha does not just let disharmony go on. Somebody must take the initiative to create harmony. Among us, this is part of the duty of a Chapter Convenor. The Chapter Convenor himself might not be the best person to do the actual work of resolving a particular dispute. It depends on the circumstances and the individuals involved. But he should, at least, make sure that something is done – that a more appropriate person takes the initiative to restore harmony. I think that, far too often in our Order, both in the East and the West, we just let disputes go on.
All the Chapter Convenors in any particular area, in a region for instance, should get together at regular intervals and discuss what disputes or disharmonies are going on. In relation to each dispute, they should ask, 'Who is the best person to go and deal with this?' There are some people who are very good and experienced at this. In our own ordination team we have got some very experienced people. Jutindhar and Sudarshan have performed some miracles recently! But there are others too who have this skill. Your duty as a Chapter Convenor is to say, 'Something must be done about this'. Any dispute, anywhere in the Order, affects the whole Order. So you need to take up the issue and you need to make sure that somebody does something. Of course, your personal ability to deal with them will depend upon your ability to deal with yourself! If you don't quite know what to do, you should turn to those with a lot of experience, like Sudarshan. But I think that all Order members need to take much more responsibility for resolving disputes and take opportunities to gain experience in doing so.
In the Vinaya, the Buddha makes an interesting point about resolving disputes. He says there are two kinds of restoration of harmony – in the letter and in the spirit. In other words, there is superficial harmony and genuine harmony. Real harmony only comes about when you have got to the bottom of the matter, when you have made clear what the real basis of the dispute is. Then everybody can see what is going on and they can drop it. It is your duty as a Chapter Convenor, to ensure that this happens.
To summarise what I have said so far, we need to make sure that, where there are disputes, something is done about them. We need to find out what really is going on. And then we need to bring the two parties to a better attitude by going to them, especially by going to the more mature individuals involved on each side, and talking to them. If the matter is just a disagreement about minor issues or the way to do something, we should make the parties aware of this and show them that there is no need to quarrel about such things.
But sometimes, of course, the dispute between the two factions is not just an argument about words. Sometimes there occurs what the Buddha calls a 'bad activity of speech'. In other words, harsh, violent speech is used. Offensive views are expressed. In other words, people think and say things about the other people that are insulting and unpleasant. There is what the Buddha refers to as 'malice in thought, discontent and dissatisfaction'. So what do you do if things have got to this point?
You have to get people to look at their behaviour and what it signifies. Here again, you have to find the people on both sides who are easiest to approach. You approach them in a very polite and friendly way and then gently point out, 'Well, this is the way you are behaving, this is the way you, or others on your side, are speaking. Do you think that the Buddha would approve of the way in which you are behaving? If the Buddha knew what you have done or said, what do you think he would feel about it?' So you invoke apatrapya – the feeling of shame that comes because somebody who you respect greatly disapproves of what you are doing. You ask them, 'Do you think that the Buddha would be pleased with your behaviour?' If they are at all honest they will say, ‘No, he would not'. Then you say to them, 'Well, you have gone for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, you have committed yourself to the spiritual life, and you are hoping through the spiritual life to attain Enlightenment. Do you think that you will gain Enlightenment, behaving like this?’ And of course, if they are honest they will say, 'No'.
Then, of course you go to somebody on the other side and you say the same sort of thing to them. In this way, you try to awaken in the people on both sides their shame and their sense of what is right and what is wrong. You try to recall them to their fundamental spiritual commitment. Finally, you bring both sides together and get them to talk to each other. Of course, all this requires a great deal of skill and positive emotion on your part. But the skill can be learnt, and if you learn it you will have a precious ability to bring people to a more positive and constructive state.
Of course, approaching somebody when they are in a negative state is quite dangerous. They may turn on you. Sometimes, you try to resolve a quarrel, but you end up by being attacked yourself. Then, of course, you think to yourself, ‘I am just bringing a lot of trouble on myself, and maybe I am putting them into an even worse mental state. I am not going to bother'. But the Buddha doesn't let us off so easily. He is very thorough. He says first of all, you should not rush into reprimanding somebody. If you have got to approach somebody who is doing something wrong, you don't just rush up to him and say, 'You shouldn't do that!' You have got to go into things. It may take quite a lot of time and you have got to be very patient and go into things quite slowly and carefully.
You need to make a judgement about the person you are dealing with. Sometimes, when you consider that, you realise, 'It is not going to be difficult for me, it is not going to be difficult for him. He is not an angry person, he is not a reactive person, he is quick to understand things and he is of a receptive nature, he is not difficult to convince.' The Buddha says, in that case, you should speak. Then you consider the other person and perhaps you realise that he is very bad tempered. You know he might get quite upset when you approach him. On the other hand, you also know that he has a logical mind and it will be possible to convince him. So you just have to explain things clearly to him and he will see the point. Yes, he will be quite hurt, it will upset him, but you will be able to bring him from an unskilful state to a skilful one. So in that case too, you should speak.
But, as the Buddha explains, there are other possibilities. What if the other person is not bad tempered, but is rather slow-witted, not very intelligent? You can see that he will find it quite difficult to understand what you are saying. That means it is going to be a lot of hard work for you. You will have to go over each point again and again. When you explain the whole thing and you think you have made it all quite clear, he says, 'No, I don't understand what you are saying'. It is not painful for him but it is a lot of trouble for you. But in the end, you can bring him from an unskilful state to a more skilful one. So of course, in that case too, you should speak.
What if, in a really difficult case, a party to the dispute is very emotionally reactive and also very dim-witted? It will be a lot of trouble for you and a lot of trouble for him. You explain everything to him and he gets very upset but he still doesn’t understand the point you are making. But in the end you are able to convince him. So he moves from an unskilful state to a skilful one. So of course you should peak.
But what happens if you realise that there is nothing you can do? You see that, even if you go into things again and again, the other person is just not going to listen to you and you are just going to upset yourself, perhaps upset them even more, and in the end they are still not going to understand. The Buddha says, 'Well all right, if that is the case, just keep quiet. Don't disturb your own mind to no purpose.'
To summarise, what the Buddha is really saying is that you have to make an effort to resolve the dispute if you think you have got any chance of persuading the other person to come back into harmony. I think people have to be really very deeply closed for you not to take the trouble to try to talk to them. I must say that in my own experience it is very rare that I am not able to get through in the end. You have to take time and trouble, but in the end it is usually worthwhile.
This is very important advice, because the first thing that occurs to you when you think of going and trying to talk to somebody about their behaviour is, 'This is going to be trouble for me'. Perhaps they are going to react. Well, perhaps it is going to be a lot of trouble, but it has to be done. We are members of the same spiritual community and we owe it to each individual, and to the community as a whole, to make the effort.
So we should be extremely unwilling to say, 'Oh, it is impossible to talk to him'. Nearly always, if you are skilful and patient, you will get through. This is a skill that you must all learn - how to take things up with people so that they will listen to you. You need to study the person to see what the best way is. With determined effort, and perhaps with some experience and practice, you will find you get through to people who are caught up in disputes. You will be able to convince them that their own behaviour is unskilful, that the Buddha would not approve of what they are doing, and that it will not lead them to Enlightenment. Then you will be able to bring the disputing parties together.
The Buddha makes one final point in this Sutta. He makes the point that people may be very impressed by what you have done. They may say, 'Oh, look what he has done, he is so clever'. But you must not let your success go to your head. Being a peacemaker is a skill that makes everybody very happy, and they will start to think very highly of you. But if you are a genuine peacemaker, you will realise that all you have done is apply the Buddha's teaching. You have to recognise that, in a sense, it wasn't you that achieved peace, it was the Buddha. You were just the messenger. This is quite important. One of your most difficult and dangerous problems is that you may get a sense of power, when you are trying to be a peacemaker, and that can destroy the work that you are undertaking.
So, in this way, the Buddha ends his discourse. The Sutta ends with the words: 'delighted, those monks rejoiced in what the Buddha had said'.
So we have learnt a lot of very practical things from the Kinti Sutta. We learnt that we must do something about disharmony, we should not just let it go on. We must make sure that we get to the bottom of it. But we must take it up very carefully and skilfully. We should try to understand what is happening, and then find the easiest people to talk to. We should get them to see that there is really no need to quarrel. We should help them to realise that their behaviour is quite contrary to the Buddha's teaching. We must do this very carefully and kindly. But it has to be done. If we don't do anything about disharmony and wrong action it just gets worse and worse.
I must say that my impression is that, in the Order here, we don't have much skill in resolving disputes and in discussing other people's wrong actions. So I think this is something you need to work on. The Chapter Convenors collectively and individually should concentrate on this. In your discussion, you should explore ways in which you can help each other to resolve disharmonies and to tackle people who are acting unskilfully.
One of things that I found most interesting about the Kinti Sutta is that they were having these problems 2,500 years ago. Sometimes we think, 'Oh dear, our Order has got so many disharmonies and so many people who are acting wrongly'. But the spiritual community has always had to face this challenge. That is just what spiritual life consists in, really. Creating a spiritual community is a very hard task and we have to work very hard. But the Buddha suggests to us ways in which we can do that. And I hope that we will begin to build up a body of knowledge and understanding that we can hand on to others.