During the last 2,500 years in Buddhist monasteries, a system of seven practices of reconciliation has evolved. Although these techniques were formulated to settle disputes within the circle of monks, I think they might also be of use in our households and in our society.
The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting. In a convocation of the whole sangha, everyone sits together mindfully, breathing and smiling, with the willingness to help, and not with the willingness to fight. This is basic. The two conflicting monks are present, and they know that everyone in the community expects them to make peace. Even before anything is said, the atmosphere of peace is already present. People refrain from listening to stories outside of the assembly, spreading news about this monk or other monks, commenting on the behavior of this monk or the other monks. That would not help. Everything must be said in public, in the community. So the two monks are sitting facing each other, breathing and, how hard, smiling.
The second practice is Remembrance. Both monks try to remember the whole history of the conflict, every detail having to do with the conflict, while the whole assembly just sits patiently and listens: “I remember that that day it was rainy, and I went to the kitchen and you were there. . . ,” telling as much he can recall. This is quite important, because the monks are trying to mend the things of the past. The principle of sangha life is to be aware of what is going on every day. If you are not aware of what is going on, one day things will explode, and it will be too late. If the community is sitting in assembly and there are two monks confronting each other, already the conflict has exploded into the open. To sit and try to recall details from the past is the only thing to do now, as far as the past is concerned.
Suppose a woman and a man get married and then live a neglectful life, not knowing what is really going on subconsciously. Their feelings and their perceptions are creating a dangerous situation. Sometimes things occur beneath the surface which will eventually explode, and by then it is too late to deal with, so the only recourse is divorce or fighting or even killing each other. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on in yourself, your feelings, your body, your perceptions, your family. This is very important for any kind of life. The second technique is to recall, and the more details which the community has, the easier it is to help.
The third principle is Non-stubbornness. Everyone in the community expects the two monks not to be stubborn, to try their best for reconciliation. The outcome is not important. The fact that each monk is doing his best to show his willingness for reconciliation and understanding is most important. When you do your best, trying to be your best in understanding and accepting, you don’t have to worry about the outcome. You do your best, and that is enough. The other person will do his or her best. The atmosphere of the assembly is crucial. Because everyone has high expectations for the two monks, they know they must act well or they will not be recognized as brothers.
The fourth practice is Covering Mud with Straw. You know when you walk in the countryside after a rain, it is very muddy. If you have straw to spread over the mud, you can walk safely. One respected senior monk is appointed to represent each side of the conflict. These two monks then address the assembly, trying to say something to de-escalate the feeling in the concerned people. In a Buddhist sangha, people respect the high monks. We call them ancestral teachers. They don’t have to say very much; whatever they say is taken very seriously by the rest of the community. One says something concerning this monk, and what he says will cause the other monk to understand better and de-escalate his feeling, his anger or his resistance. Then the other high monk says something to protect the other monk, saying it in a way that the first monk feels better. By doing so, they dissipate the hard feelings in the hearts of the two monks and help them to accept the verdict proposed by the community. Putting straw on mud— the mud is the dispute, and the straw is the lovingkindness of the Dharma.
The next stage is Voluntary Confession. Each monk reveals his own shortcomings, without waiting for others to say them. If the others say them, you feel differently. If you yourself say them, it is wonderful. First you reveal a minor weakness. You may have a big weakness, but you tell only of some minor transgression. (There is an art in all that.) As you make a confession, you might say, “On that day, I was not very mindful. I said such and such a thing. That is horrible. I am sorry.” Even though it is a very minor confession, it helps the other person feel better. It encourages him to confess something of the same magnitude. (Imagine the Soviet Union and the United States trying to slowly de-escalate the small things.)
This atmosphere is encouraging. Everyone is supportive, expecting that de-escalation will be realized. The Buddha nature in each monk has the opportunity to come out, and the pressure on each monk from his anger or resentment will lighten. In this kind of atmosphere, the capacity of mutual understanding and acceptance will be born. Then the senior monks remind the feuding monks, “First of all you are part of the community. The well-being of the community is most important. Don’t think only of your own feeling. Think of the well-being of the community.” And then each monk will be ready to make a sacrifice, and get ready to accept the verdict or decision made by the community.
The sixth and seventh practices are Decision by Consensus and Accepting the Verdict. It is agreed in advance that the two monks will accept whatever verdict is pronounced by the whole assembly, or they will have to leave the community. So, after exploring every detail of the conflict, after realizing the maximum of reconciliation, a committee presents a verdict. It is announced three times. The head of the community reads the decision in this way: “After meditation, after exploration, after discussion, after all efforts have been made, it is suggested that this monk will do so and so, that monk will do so and so, this should be repaired in this way, that should be repaired in that way. Does the assembly of monks accept this verdict?” If the community remains silent, that means, “Okay.” Then he repeats exactly the same words, “Does the noble assembly accept this verdict?” And then, silence. And a third time, “Does the community accept this verdict?” After a third time of silence, he pronounces, “The noble community of monks and nuns has accepted the verdict. Please, both sides carry out the decision.” This is the end of the session. There may be many sessions to solve one case. If one of the monks rebels against the verdict, his voice is of no weight, because he has already agreed to obey any verdict made by the assembly.
These seven methods of settling disputes have been adopted by Buddhist monks and nuns in India, China, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, and many other countries for more than 2,500 years. I think we can learn something from them to apply in our own households and society.
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In the peace movement there is a lot of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding. The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter. We need to learn to write a letter to the Congress or to the President of the United States that they will want to read, and not just throw away. The way you speak, the kind of understanding, the kind of language you use should not turn people off. The President is a person like any of us.
Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can be peace. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.
I hope we can bring a new dimension to the peace movement. The peace movement is filled with anger and hatred. It cannot fulfill the path we expect from them. A fresh way of being peace, of doing peace is needed. That is why it is so important for us to practice meditation, to acquire the capacity to look, to see, and to understand. It would be wonderful if we could bring to the peace movement our contribution, our way of looking at things, that will diminish aggression and hatred. Peace work means, first of all, being peace. Meditation is meditation for all of us. We rely on each other. Our children are relying on us in order for them to have a future.
Reprinted from Being Peace (1987, 2005) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California. www.parallax.org