Buddha's Teachings on Social Harmony

The Pali Canon offers a prescription on ethics, conflict resolution and social harmony. Likewise, the Qur'an and Sunnah embody similar social harmony principles that could be the basis for inter-faith dialogue.
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Yangon -- In June and October 2012, scores of Muslims were killed and about 140,000 displaced in clashes between ethnic Arakan Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Rohingyas now live in squalid refugee camps, locked-down and under curfew. The conflict in Rakhine State also has an ethnic dimension; Rohingya are treated as illegal immigrants under Burma's 1982 Citizenship Law, and thereby denied the most basic rights. The virus of sectarian strife also spread to Muslim areas in mainland Myanmar. In March 2013, a Buddhist mob rampaged through the central Burmese town of Meiktila, killing scores, burning mosques, and evicting terrified survivors. Deadly violence spread towards Okpho and Gyonbingauk townships, where mosques and Muslim homes were razed. Inter-communal violence displaced thousands in the country's heartland before a curfew could stabilize the situation.

Sectarian violence is a major challenge to Myanmar's political transition and the consolidation of its democratic reforms. Working with Buddhist and Muslim religious and lay leaders in Myanmar, Columbia University has developed a curriculum inspired by Theravada Buddhist teachings on social harmony. The curriculum draws from the Pali Canon, the corpus of scriptures regarded by Buddhists in South Asia as the authoritative "Word of the Buddha."

Each of the following headings represents a module in the curriculum. Modules include extensive references to the Pali Canon and relevant texts.

Right ViewThe Buddha made right view and right understanding the cornerstone of the Noble Eightfold Path -- "the way leading to the cessation of suffering." The Buddha taught: "Right view is noble, taintless, supramundane, and factor of the path." The Dhamma is a standard of moral authority greater than the authority of any individual. It is the basis of ethical conduct, enabling the individual to be a positive force in the world.

Understanding Kamma According to the law of kamma, unwholesome acts cause suffering, spiritual decay and rebirth in lower life forms. Good kamma originates from wholesome motives and leads to happiness, spiritual progress, and a good rebirth. A peaceful harmonious society emerges when people rectify their thoughts and adopt wholesome standards of conduct (e.g. right speech, right action, and right livelihood). Personal training leads to personal transformation and, in turn, to the transformation of society.

Right ActionEmpathic action is based on the belief that benefitting oneself benefits others, and benefitting others also benefits oneself. "By giving (others) freedom from fear, hostility and oppression, he himself will enjoy freedom from fear, hostility and oppression." But moral conduct is not solely inspired by karmic consequences. Moral virtue is accrued through reflection and "putting oneself in the shoes of others." The Buddha encouraged generosity, virtuous conduct, and mental development. He also taught the "four divine abodes" -- loving kindness, compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. Loving kindness is a wish for the welfare and happiness of all beings. Compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of afflicted persons. Altruistic joy rejoices in the success and happiness of others. Equanimity is impartiality and freedom from bias.

Overcoming AngerThe chief obstacle to social harmony is anger or resentment. Anger is the seed from which hatred and enmity grow. "An enemy wishes for an enemy." Personal training through study and meditation can remove anger, resentment, and other mental defilements. Patience is the best way to deal with anger. Patience is most needed when dealing with provocations or fear. Patience is the key to non-retaliation.

Right SpeechThe Buddha also made right speech a core principle of the Eightfold Path. He stressed the importance of establishing a gentle and compassionate attitude when interacting with others. However, right speech may also involve more pro-active engagement. Rebuking or censuring others is condoned when criticism is due, after carefully examining the situation and choosing the right time and manner to speak. Reproving someone can generate resentment, but there are times when it may be necessary to foster harmony and mutual respect.

RelationshipsGood friendships represent the foundation of a harmonious society. The Buddha describes attributes of a good friend. "(1) He gives what is hard to give. (2) He does what is hard to do. (3) He patiently endures what is hard to endure. (4) He reveals secrets to you. (5) He preserves your secrets. (6) He does not forsake you when you are in trouble. (7) He does not despise you." The Buddha also teaches how to create a healthy community. "Giving, endearing speech, beneficent conduct, and impartiality. These are the four means of embracing others."

Conflict ResolutionThe Buddha provided several discourses on managing disputes, including a process for addressing the root causes of a disagreement before it escalates into a schism or conflict. For the Sangha -- the Buddhist community -- to thrive, its members must routinely correct, admonish, and encourage one another to follow the noble eightfold path. Receiving advice can, however, hurt the ego thereby arousing resistance and resentment. To address this problem, the Buddha recommends reflection. Apology is the basis for reconciliation.

Root Causes of ConflictThe Buddha identified endemic poverty, the abuse of political power, and ethnic discrimination as the root causes of discord in society. He taught good governance, espousing a model of leadership that avoided the arbitrary exercise of power. He described the righteous king who rules in compliance with the Dhamma, as the ethical justification for his rule. As the law of righteousness, the Dhamma is also the basis for the rule of law, enabling a reign of peace and virtue. The enlightened and benevolent ruler over earthly matters is the secular counterpart of the Buddha, who reigns in the spiritual domain. The sutras describe "Ten Precepts for the Rightful Ruler." The enlightened king rules for the welfare and happiness of all people, extending protection to all within his realm (even the animals and the natural environment). People will lose interest in harming others once they enjoy a satisfactory standard of living. Then the country will enjoy peace and tranquility.

The Pali Canon offers a prescription on ethics, conflict resolution, and social harmony with practical appeal to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Likewise, the Qur'an and Sunnah embody similar social harmony principles that could be the basis for inter-faith dialogue.

Working with Burmese religious scholars and community leaders, Columbia University is adapting a curriculum on "The Religious Roots of Social Harmony" to conditions in Myanmar. Its local partners will impart the curriculum across the country. Rather than misrepresent Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian traditions to divide the country's communities, the curriculum is envisioned as an antidote to extremism and a tool for peace-building.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

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