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A Buddhist philosophy of global mind for a sustainable peace

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A Buddhist philosophy of global mind for a sustainable peace

Juichiro TANABE

About the author: Juichiro Tanabe is an assistant professor of Kumamoto University, Japan. After obtaining Ph.D of peace studies from University of Bradford, UK, he did visiting research fellowship at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, UK. Currently, he is working on two research themes: a holistic peace theory by integrating Buddhist philosophy and Western peace theories; analysis of historical evolution of contemporary conflict resolution theories.


While violence and conflict are the main problems that must be tackled for a peaceful world, they are caused and sustained through our own thoughts. Though external causes must not be ignored, the most fundamental problem is an epistemological one – our way of knowing and understanding the world. Since its beginning, Buddhism has deepened its analysis of the dynamics of human mind, both as a root cause of suffering and as a source of harmony. This paper explores how Buddhism's analysis of human mind can be applied to conflict dynamics, conflict resolution, and building a sustainable peace.

Key words

Buddhism, the conditioned mind, conflict resolution, non-dualistic peace


This paper examines how a Buddhist philosophy of human mind can contribute to achieving sustainable peace. Many of the major problems we face are human-caused. While social injustice, inter-group antagonism, and violence are the main problems that must be tackled for a peaceful world, they are in reality caused and sustained through our own thoughts. Though external causes must not be ignored, the most fundamental problem is an epistemological one – our way of knowing and understanding the world. As the shape of global conditions relies on our own mindsets, both individual and collective, it is imperative to critically analyze mindsets that cause trouble as the world changes when our thoughts and perspectives about the world change. Since its beginning, Buddhism has deepened its analysis of the dynamics of human mind, both as a root cause of suffering and as a source of harmony. This paper explores how Buddhism's analysis of human mind can be applied to conflict dynamics, conflict resolution, and building a sustainable peace.

Following the analysis of basic ideas of Buddhism, the paper offers a critical analysis of the concept of a “conditioned mind” – mind shaped by socially/culturally constructed frames of reference. It is argued a conditioned mind can become a root cause of conflict when it is absolutized. Once absolutized, we become dogmatic and exclude those with different frames of reference. Sharpening such dualistic thinking results in discrimination and violence.

Then, a Buddhist conflict resolution will be examined. The thrust of the analysis is how mutual self-critique and transformation in terms of expanding our ways of thinking and knowing can contribute to resolving conflict by overcoming the absolutized conditioned mind and attaining mindfulness. Mindful or contemplative practice enables us to disidentify ourselves from the socially constructed frames of reference dividing us into in-groups and out-groups, and to be awakened to interdependent and interpenetrating relationships. This recognition leads to transcending dualistic thinking and using multiplex, complementary both/and dialectical thinking to engage in a constructive dialogue.

Finally, sustainable peace is characterized as a dynamic process wherein those with different frames of reference engage in exploratory and ongoing interactions that unfold new values and meanings as a way to achieve and sustain their interdependent, mutually liberating, and transformative relational dynamics. Achieving sustainable peace does not involve abandoning our distinct social values or worldviews. Rather, our values and worldviews can be meaningfully revised and reoriented to accommodate the new understandings and views we acquire through interdependent encounters.

Methodological considerations

As is well known, Buddhism is categorized into three major schools – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Each of these schools further has sub-schools that have respectively developed distinct teachings and traditions along with the shared objective, that is, uprooting suffering. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine all of those schools in detail and to take up all their teachings to analyze their contributions to sustainable peace.

Therefore, the paper employs the following texts and teachings to develop the research: Dhamapada , Surangama-Sutra , Nagarjuna ’s Seventy Stanzas on Emptiness, Catustava or Four Hymns to Absolute Reality. However, it must be emphatically noticed that although it embraces those texts and teachings to unfold the argument on sustainable peace, what is discussed here is merely one of the possible ideas of Buddhist approach to conflict resolution and peace as other texts and teachings would lead us to develop ideas distinct from the one explored in this paper.

Introduction to Buddhism

1. Foundational aim of Buddhism

The main focus of Buddhism is human mind, which is stated in the Dhamapada: “All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” Further, the Surangama Sutra states, “The Tathagata has always said that all phenomena are manifestations of mind and that all causes and effects including (all things from) the world to its dust, take shape because of the mind.” These statements do not mean there are no objects outside our minds. Rather, they signify that “the qualities of the things come into existence after the mind, are dependent upon mind and are made up of mind.” The state of the world around us is a reflection of the condition of our mind.

As the condition of our mind forms the state of the reality, the root cause of problem facing us is also attributed to our mind. Therefore, it becomes crucial to make a critical analysis of the nature of one’s mind or the principles of epistemic function to deepen our understanding of an internal dynamics of suffering including conflict and violence: knowing, first of all, reality as a mind-construct, critically reflecting how mind turns into the root cause of suffering and contemplating and enacting the way to resolve it constitute the core of Buddhism. And the Four Noble Truths doctrine assumes the central role in understanding and addressing human suffering in line with dynamics of human mind.

2. Analyzing the Four Noble Truths doctrine

The Four Noble Truths doctrine is the Buddha’s first and foundational teaching and the doctrinal framework of every school of Buddhism. According to Pereira and Tiso, the Four Noble Truths are “truths of pain, origin of pain, suppression of pain and the way to suppress pain.”

The first noble truth states that our life is basically filled with suffering and trouble. However, it does not present a pessimistic or a nihilistic view of reality. Rather, the acknowledgement of our reality being full of suffering leads us to a deeper and more profound question of “What is the root cause of suffering?” and this is the core of the second noble truth.

The second truth proposes the cause of suffering. It derives from craving, that is, a mental state of attachment characterized as the tendency of mind to cling to specific objects or views. Besides craving, ignorance is seen as a fundamental cause of suffering. It is understood as our basic misapprehension of the nature of reality or lack of self-awareness and correct knowledge of reality. The basic feature of ignorance is that we tend to see things including human beings as having permanent, or fixed nature and cling to anything that reinforces our concept of permanence, pushing away those views that threaten it. Further, craving and ignorance give rise to three mental defilements: greed, anger, and delusion. On Buddhist view, human mind itself is the locus wherein the gap between reality and the human hermeneutical reality represented in conceptual or linguistic rendering accompanied by desire takes place, which results in suffering.

The third truth claims human being will be inspired to overcome suffering by knowing its root cause. What is emphasized here is suffering is neither everlasting nor beyond human reach: rather, since our own craving and ignorance cause us suffering, we can resolve suffering when we properly address those causes. As both the causes of suffering and liberation from suffering are two different states but are created by our minds, the solution is within our minds.

The fourth truth shows the way to address suffering and achieve mental well-being and serenity, which is generally called the noble eightfold path. It is: right view , right thought , right speech , right action , right livelihood , right effort , right mindfulness , and right concentration. The gist of the fourth truth is that when we resolve our suffering, three angles – ethical conduct (right speech, right action, right livelihood, and right effort), mental discipline (right mindfulness and right concentration), and wisdom (right view and right thought) need to work together. When wisdom – an insight into reality, that is, impermanence, interdependence, and empty nature or lack of fixed or unchanging nature, mental discipline – the ability to observe whatever object, view, standpoint we choose or build and to sharpen the level of awareness of our own internal dynamics, and ethical conduct – practicing a moral life with honesty, altruism, and compassion that takes into account others’ feelings, perspectives, rights and well-beings as well as our own are well integrated, we can break suffering and construct a positive and harmonious relationship.   Analysis of a Buddhist conflict dynamics

1. The conditioned mind

The implication of the Four Noble Truth doctrine is that the main cause of problems facing us is basically internal. Although external conditions or causes cannot be ignored, looking at them alone and seeing them as externally created blocks us from deepening the understanding of our problems: examining our own mind and its dynamics enables us to grab the inner cause of problems and to explore what kinds of mind or mind-state we should achieve for conflict resolution and peace. This section examines a conflict dynamics based upon the idea that conflict and violence of any kind begin with our thinking.

At first, to develop an analysis of how our thinking becomes a root cause of conflict, the concept of “the conditioned mind” is proposed. The conditioned mind is characterized as mind shaped by the belief and form of truth that are conventionally accepted as valid and effective in the practical matters of social or cultural life-world. We inhabit socially constructed and historically evolved and succeeded life-worlds that form certain cultural patterns – identities, beliefs, values, norms and so on – as scaffolding for meaningful experience. We build and accept certain frame of reference – certain pattern of worldviews, cultural values, political orientations, religious doctrines, and moral-ethical norms – to lead a meaningful life. The conditioned mind is essential to make sense of reality and acquire ways to think, infer, behave, and interact with other people in a certain and supposed manner.

2. Defining conflict

Besides presenting the basic ideas of the conditioned mind, it is also necessary to define conflict before delving into conflict dynamics in line with human thought. Ramsbotham et al categorize conflict into violent/armed conflict and non-violent one. Armed conflict denotes a conflict where parties in conflict resort to the use of force to harm physically and psychologically the opponents. Further, they present violent or deadly conflict that entails one-sided violence such as genocide and massacre against the opponents, especially, unarmed civilians.

Non-violent conflict refers to the pursuit of incompatible goals by different groups and the heterogeneity of values, beliefs, and perspectives. While armed or deadly conflict needs to be avoided or stopped once it has happened as it claims people’s lives and causes huge damages, non-violent conflict is a normal and universal phenomenon we experience on many occasions. Getting conditioned by different frames of reference and consequently having distinct values, perspectives, or goals is a natural phenomenon in human interaction. However, it must be noted that conflict is a dynamic process that escalates and de-escalates and is formed by a complex interplay of attitudes and behaviors. In other words, non-violent conflict can evolve into violent one. Therefore, the focus of conflict dynamics analysis here is how different conditioned minds or frames of reference turn into a root cause of conflict that involves harsh discrimination, antagonism, and physical violence.

3. Conflict dynamics

The fundamental problem with the conditioned mind lies in our propensity to absolutize any particular frame of reference as universal or complete. Once we establish a certain frame of reference and cling to it as complete, it causes us to fix upon the real – objects, persons, group of people, events and so on –by various supposedly unchanging attributes, which turns non-violent conflict into violent one. Conflict has its deep source in universalizing frame of reference, in the reification of our particular understanding of reality, and the objectification of the other.

When we build some particular thought and claim its completeness, that causes us to be dogmatic, exclusive and intolerant of other views. As fixed idea of identity becomes strong and extreme, we become exclusive of other identities and take extreme behaviors against those with different attributes of identity. The extreme attachment to our own views can elapse into polarity or negation of other views, values, and ultimately of people who are different from us. Once the frame of reference is seen as complete, we are prone to feel threat, anger, or hatred to those with different frames of reference, which can provide us with a self-serving justification for discrimination or injustice and impede engagement in communication with those holding different or opposing views and perspectives.

What should be further discussed is the mode of thinking that predominates the conditioned state. Though becoming conditioned by social frame of reference is natural and essential to us, as Wade insightfully argues, it is fundamentally of a dualistic nature of thought (right/wrong, good/bad, black/white, to name a few) and divides the world into ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group.’ Dualistic thought is informed by the principle of the excluded middle or ‘either-or’ stance. Though the principle of the excluded middle is not the only logic, when frame of reference socially conditions us becomes absolutized as universal, the

dualistic or dichotomous thinking comes to be believed as the only way of thought. When it happens, the dichotomous relationship between in-group and out-group becomes sharpened, whereby an imbalanced attitude invested by extreme in-group self-interest, desire and needs are favored and promoted. Consequently, the subject, relying on the strong in-group ego-consciousness, becomes the generative factor for creating and cementing the discriminatory and oppositional relationship. Further, the mind in dualistic stance swings from extreme to extreme, and clings to dead-ends, whereby values, ideas or norms of our own group are not viewed as one of many alternatives, but the only right one: other possibilities are dimly conceived or denied as wrong or inferior.

Getting socially conditioned and building a provisionally coherent thought system is an inevitable part of everyday human life. However, when dualistic or dichotomous thought mode controls the conditioned states, it causes us exaggerate differences between people and create supposedly firm and fixed boundaries between in-group and out-group by imputing intrinsic and insurmountable differences. Forming the sedimented and habitual ways of seeing the dynamic and complex reality with fixed perspectives restricts patterns of awareness and limits our intentional range and capacity for meaning-making commitments, which blocks a constructive interaction and communication to appreciate mutual differences and contextuality of our thought system, values and perspectives.

Buddhist conflict resolution

1. Mindfulness

The tendency to cling to our own frame of reference and thought system as complete occurs at unreflective stages, causing us to be dogmatic and close ourselves to appreciating different social conditioned states. So the first step for conflict resolution is to de-condition ourselves from the absolutized conditioned state to make it conscious and reflect upon it so that we can listen to and accommodate those with different frames of reference. And mindfulness is proposed.

Mindfulness means disciplining our minds by focusing on a certain object of thought and be letting go of all thoughts and emotions, and observing whatever arises in consciousness. The engagement in mindfulness promotes the moment-to-moment awareness of internal states such as feelings, emotions, thoughts, and attitudes. Instead of being controlled by our habitual behavioral patterns, emotions, and thoughts, we can turn the contents of consciousness, thoughts, feelings and reaction into objects of reflection and analysis. Mindfulness helps us develop a first-hand awareness of the social conditionedness of our thinking and knowing and become less identified with our habits of mind and standpoint. Enhancing awareness of the conditioned state and critical reflection upon it empowers us to recognize all ways of thinking and knowing are socially constructed, contextual and contingent and consequently to know alternative ways of thinking and knowing are available.

As we become mindful of our internal dynamics and reflective of contextual and constructed nature of our conditioned state, we can reach a deeper and more profound intellectual insight into the nature of reality or more specifically conceptual or discursive thought shaping our understanding of reality to address absolutized conditioned state causing dogmatism, discrimination and violence. The reason for transforming our view of conceptual thought is that, since conceptual thought construction gives us a sort of lens to organize our world and builds our lived experience, it becomes imperative to correct our misunderstanding of it when it causes conflict and violence. Though exchanging information and opinions between those in conflict is important, more crucial is to change the foundational cognitive structure that affects how those information and viewpoints are understood and given meaning so that positive and constructive interactions beyond conflictual and antagonistic ones can be explored. Especially, on a Buddhist view, through contemplative and reflective practices, we can be awaken to the interdependent and interpenetrating nature of conceptual thoughts that form different views and understandings of reality and that is one of the cores of a Buddhist approach to conflict resolution.

Interdependent and interpenetrating nature of conceptual thought framing our reality is expounded by Nagarjuna: “Without one there cannot be many and without many it is not possible to refer to one. Therefore, one and many arise dependently and such phenomena do not have sign of inherent existence.” He also states that “if there is something long, similarly (there is) something short; and if there is non-existence, (there is) existence; therefore, both (existence and non-existence) are not existent.” He further states, “Unity and multiplicity and past and future, etc., defilement and purification, correct and false – how can they exist per se?” With these arguments, Nagarjuna reveals a inherent interdependent and interpenetrating nature of conceptual thought and inadequacy of conceiving identity and difference in dichotomous terms.

With the recognition of the dependent-originated nature of any conceptual or linguistic framework, we can understand that any form of symbolic knowledge framing dichotomous human relations cannot be seen as existing outside of the purview of interdependency. This means neither total erasure of difference nor demise of all distinctions into all-frozen sameness, but advocates a need for reformulation of dualistic thinking. While the logic of the excluded middle understands differences as static and fixed, interdependent view of differences sees them as dynamic relationality and temporal phenomena, whereby prima facie opposing views are not seen as fixed pair of opposites, but as inter-relational constructs. When we transcend dualistic thinking, we become empowered to hold multiplex, complementary both/and dialectical thinking and to appreciate the opposite of a deep truth is another deep truth.

2. Dual dimension of dialogue

Dialogue – an intersubjective interaction between/among those having distinct or opposing values, perspectives, or goals - also assumes a critical role in conflict resolution along with contemplative practice. The main goal of dialogue is not just to share information but to uncover processes and struggles those in conflict are having so that mutual respect and a sense of solidarity can be aroused.

However, from a mindfulness perspective, reflective dialogue with ourselves is also critical while engaged in dialogue with others. What must be addressed before and during intersubjective dialogue is a reactive and impulsive interaction between those having different values, perspectives or objectives. And the practice of mindfulness transformation creates mind-state to avoid reactive interaction and engage in a constructive dialogue with others.

Mindful suspension of habitual reaction helps us achieve a different self-sense and more complex and multi-faceted form and order of consciousness to appreciate multiple perspectives and unexpected insights. Dialogue requires the openness to be challenged and transformed by encountering others’ viewpoints and values as well as the willingness and ability to engage in active listening and understanding of them. The enhancement of reflective self-awareness keeps us out of the extreme attachment to a particular frame of reference and serves to loosen the power of habitual thinking and open to differences and creativity to make dialogue constructive and viable.

The integrative expansion of experiential range with the recognition of interdependent and interconnected relationship enables us to construct ways of combining seemingly opposite views into a wider and more holistic framework to address conflict. Normally, in conflict characterized as pursuit of incompatible or contradictory goals or clash of values, ideologies or perspectives, a dualistic or dichotomous way of thinking and perception predominates. However, with transcendence of a fixed standpoint through contemplative practice and perspectival change, the structure of conflict comes to be grasped in the form of mutual interdependence and interpenetration.

When conflict is recognized as a phenomenon of mutual interdependence and interpenetration, it becomes impossible to draw a complete line or picture that judges which party in the conflict is absolutely right or wrong. Rather, those in conflict are closely interwoven on a fundamental level despite their conflictual and dichotomous relation and clash of values or goals. With a dualistic view of conflict transcended, violence against others is to be realized as

an act of violence against ourselves and as an undesirable and unrealistic option or course of action to transform a conflictual situation. The rejection of use of force or violence as a solution leads to transcending dualistic view of the pursuit of seemingly incompatible goals or clash of values or views and realizing imposition of our own views or values would lead us nowhere and end up in predicament and mutual loss. It becomes imperative to go beyond the pursuit of incompatible objectives to explore new perspectives and goals that take both parties’ needs into consideration.

Critiquing our own frame of reference is not easy. However, as resolution of conflict requires cooperation across social/cultural boundaries, the purview of our thinking and knowing needs to be expanded not only to accommodate distinct values, and goals of each in conflict but to create new values and goals. At the core of conflict resolution must lie mutual self-critique and transformation in terms of broadening the way of thinking and knowing to become open to co-constructing more complex framework to understand conflict as interdependent and interconnected problem to resolve together.

Buddhist view of sustainable peace

How can the concept of peace be developed from the analysis of conflict dynamics and conflict resolution? It is to be understood as a non-dualistic peace based on the practice of multiple functions of mindcontemplative mind, a deep cognitive transformation framed by understanding reality or frames of reference shaping reality as interdependent and interpenetrating and compassionate mind – in a synergistic way.

As examined, one of the most powerful transformative methods is contemplative practice including mindfulness to achieve a mind-set that is not imprisoned by an attachment to any particular frame of reference creating social/cultural boundaries. As we transcend particular frames of reference while honoring them, we can move between/among distinct worldviews, perspectives or values to explore the creation of news ones with others in an interdependent and interpenetrating context, which inspires us to see the ultimate undivided nature of human beings. The dynamics of non-dualistic peace arises from the interior self-transformation, that is, transcending the fixed ego-self, freeing ourselves for others, enacting compassion.

Compassion - an exercise of our courage to transcend dualistic view of human relation to interdependent and interconnected one - is an acknowledgement of shared humanity and the commonalities in both suffering and aspiration among those with different identities. It is a capacity to feel others’ pain, sorrow, despair or suffering as our own, but at the same time an ability to have clear awareness of interdependent origination of phenomenon of any kind. Compassionate mind inspires the development of a quality of loving kindness, a universal and unselfish love that extends to ourselves to friends, family, and ultimately to all people including those we are in conflict with. It drives us to take action, care for, and serve others.

Consequently, we become aware that our well-being and others’ are inseparable: our own peace of any kind would be impossible to achieve without considering and acting to promote others’. It is a transition from self-centered and dichotomous tensions of in-group and out-group process to an all-inclusive state of awareness of our fundamental interdependence and interpenetration. The awareness drives us to make an effort to gratify basic needs of all and promote justice

for those with different identities as well as for ourselves. This does not mean all of us achieve the same well-being, basic needs and justice. In reality, contents and meanings of basic needs and justice are diverse and depend upon each of us. Non-dualistic peace refers to that we come to become always conscious of interdependent and interpenetrating nature of different ideas and goals of peace, basic needs and justice to make a mutual contribution to help each other’s peace.

Furthermore, the expanded awareness of interdependence and the ultimate non-dualistic nature of human relationship paves the way for unity in diversity. Diversity does not mean differences exist separately. It is a function of complex and coordination-enriching interdependence, whereby we experience difference or distinctiveness not as a threat or a subject for hatred or antagonism but as an opportunity for mutual insight and inspiration to explore something new to all participants. It is neither to reject nor abandon distinct values or worldviews. It is their meaningful revision and reorientation so that we can add new understandings or views to them according to interdependent and interpenetrating encounters. Unity in diversity in non-dualistic peace means that those with different or even opposing frames of reference engage in an exploratory ongoing and ever-lasting process that explicates or unfolds new values and meanings to achieve and sustain their interdependent, mutually liberating and transformative relational dynamics.


Expanding the purview of thinking and knowing beyond social conditioned state and enacting multiple functions of mind for a constructive conflict resolution and sustainable peace is not easy. However, conflict of any form does not take pre-determined course of action or direction. Rather, since our intention, perspective and reaction affect how conflict unfolds, interaction based on reflective and contemplative practices can turn conflict into a moment for co-emergent and co-creative perspectives, values and truth construction.

By liberating ourselves from social constraint through contemplative and reflective thought, we can open up untapped potential to unfold new forms of imagination and holistic visions of reality. With the development of complex and holistic thinking that integrates seemingly different or opposing views and perspectives, we can engage in a transformative dialogue to amplify and accelerate relationally manifest mutual appreciation and help each other extract unexpected potential to foster sustainable future. This is not an easy task. Nevertheless, as we create subjective and intersubjective realities every day, every moment of our life can be an opportunity to embody the inner resources to create sustainable peace.