Can the Dharma provide a framework of analysis for global conflicts? Can it provide a new paradigm for preventing war? During the time of the Buddha, according to legend, two tribes that lived on the island of Thambapanni (modern-day Sri Lanka) went to war over the ownership of a gem-inlaid throne. On seeing this battle unfold with his psychic vision, the Buddha travelled to the island to resolve the conflict, which he ended using a two-pronged strategy: he began by overwhelming the warring parties—appearing in the sky above them, creating night in the middle of the day, and by threatening the immediate destruction of their world. In fear, the warriors lay down their arms, and the Buddha then taught the Dharma to them. The Dharma was the Buddha’s framework for peace. The truth of the Dharma renders any other paradigm for existence pointless: in the case of the two warring tribes, their earlier framework for living had been built on materialism. This outlook was transformed by the truth of the Dharma into a new way for the tribes to engage with each other.
In the modern world, the horror and devastation of war have prompted countless people to search for institutional systems and worldviews that might prevent conflict. When the Second World War ended, the leaders of the Allies strived to lay down a foundation for a peaceful world order. They envisaged an institutional mechanism in the form of the United Nations that would, in the words of the UN’s founding charter, “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Academics such as Johan Glatung and John Paul Lederach contributed to this vision in the ensuing decades, their research positing that peace can be consciously created through restructuring processes aimed at eliminating the inherent structural violence of the state and through the long-term transformation of communities at the grassroots level.
By the 1990s, peacebuilding had been institutionalised by the UN. In his seminal report, An Agenda For Peace, the UN secretary general at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, defined “peacebuilding” as “actions to solidify peace and avoid relapse into war.” This concept has been broken down over the ensuing years into workable mechanisms that can be used in the field by peacemakers and policymakers. Peacebuilding, as the UN’s latest policy documents define it, involves a range of measures targeted at reducing the risk of lapsing or relapsing into conflict by strengthening national capacities for conflict management at all levels, and attempting to lay a foundation for sustainable peace and development. These mechanisms include reforming the state, strengthening state institutions, establishing the rule of law, instituting democratic mechanisms, protecting human rights, and creating economic and political freedom for the people.
Yet since the UN was established, a stream of civil wars, two horrific genocides in Rwanda, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other regional conflicts have devastated and displaced the lives of millions of people—brutal reminders that the capacity for violence and atrocities towards our fellow humans lurks beneath the surface of any individual. The mechanisms of the UN, combined with its bureaucracy and the politics of the global system, have proven to be weak and meaningless when confronted by the forces that drive humankind’s capacity for interpersonal conflict.
As a starting point for analysis, the Dharma recognizes the existence of conflict, cruelty, and war. It acknowledges that mental defilements (Skt. kleshas), such as greed, hatred, and delusion, are fundamental to human nature. The state, made up of citizens and leaders whose minds are filled with defilements, will necessarily be a space with potent opportunity for the manifestation of those mental defilements through word and deed. The basis for conflict in the public and global spheres is ever present in each human. What’s more, as most people do not have a clear understanding of the three essential characteristics of existence: impermanence, (Skt. anitya), dissatisfaction (Skt. duhkha) and absence of a self (Skt. anatman), the state becomes an embodiment of self-interest and conflict over resources and self-preservation.
The Buddhist framework for understanding the existence of conflict resonates with several strands of analysis in international relations (IR) theory. In realist IR theory, the international system is defined as a place of anarchy (a place without a hierarchy), where each state possesses material capacity and acts in favor of its own self-interest. Commercial liberalism, meanwhile, suggests that scarcity of resources is likely to create conflict between states. The global political system is therefore a mirror image of the klesha-filled mind.
On the other hand, the Buddhist path of individual spiritual perfection is one of training the mind by renouncing the kleshas. The Five Precepts, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the four brahmaviharas (the supreme qualities of loving-kindness or benevolence, compassion, equanimity, and empathetic joy) result in peace, both internally and externally. According to liberal IR theory, states that share democratic principles have proven unlikely to wage war with each other. The liberal IR framework of a world system built on democracy, rule of law, rights, freedom, and equity comes closest to the Buddha’s comments on good governance and state conduct. The Buddha labelled the ruling confederate clans of ancient India and Nepal, such as the Licchavis, as exemplary rulers, praising their engagement in debate and discussion and for using an electoral system to decide on a ruler among themselves. The Buddha also provided guidelines for the conduct of rulers, aimed at ensuring that a state would not be subject to decline, and that economic deprivation among its citizens would not lead to social violence.
Yet, during his own lifetime the Buddha witnessed dissent within the monastic order, battles for natural resources between principalities, and even foresaw the eventual decimation of his own clan, the Shakyas, by a rival monarch. Just as contemporary IR theory grapples with the ever-present existence of violence and war, the Buddha similarly experienced human conflict. Even in the Buddha’s time, the precepts, rules of governance, and codes of conduct were never a guarantee of external peace in the human sphere. Mechanisms for building peace—whether contemporary political mechanisms that have been institutionalised, or the spiritual training and moral conduct advocated by the Buddha—will always be subject to the possibility of failure; subject to the nature of kleshas in action. Logical reasoning and debate, which the Buddha used to introduce the Dharma to individuals, may not have the power to transform crowds; people turn to the Dharma, making a deliberate choice to renounce the kleshas, usually after a significant personal experience or realisation.
The legend of the battle in Thambapanni, therefore, provides an ideal for ending war. It embodies a moment of perfect conflict resolution in which peace results when every citizen internalizes the Dharma. By extension, it also suggests a world of peace in which the people are governed by those who have actualized the Dharma. According to Buddhist legend, only a universal monarch is able to rule on the basis of the Dharma, but such unique rulers very rarely appear on earth. Such ideals make two crucial points: global peace requires a complete paradigm shift, and such shifts are an enormous challenge to manifest on a mass scale.
In the legend of Thambapanni, the Buddha catalyses a paradigm shift on a mass scale in two communities that do not have the inner groundwork for receiving the Dharma. He does so by his first act of conjuring a vision of the complete destruction of the world the warring parties inhabited. This act offers an interesting entry point for catalysing a paradigm shift in the contemporary world: each and every modern citizen needs to truly comprehend the possibility of the complete destruction of the world we inhabit; the possibility of the imminent destruction of the self—our destruction of the planet’s ecology has already made this a possibility. Tapping into this primordial fear may create the space needed for an internal change that will compel a large mass of people to begin the process of renouncing the kleshas. They may then be open to understanding the Dharma if it is offered to them. War, conflict, and violence may then finally be relegated to history.