Since communities, whether large or small, are composed of human beings, they are inevitably exposed to tensions caused by human frailties. The innate propensity for self-aggrandizement, craving for personal benefits, self-righteousness, and attachment to personal opinions can lead to factionalism and disputes and even split the community into fragments. (From introduction to chapter “Disputes” in The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony by Bhikkhu Bodhi)
This is a succinct re-statement of the Buddha’s first truth, the truth of dukkha. We keep hoping that we can arrange our lives so that we are not bothered by troublesome (to us) people, but inevitably, we fail. The first sutta quoted in the “Disputes” chapter is DN 21 and concerns the question “why?”. In it, Sakka, ruler of the devas (gods), asks the Buddha: “Beings wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity; they wish to live in peace. Yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies. By what fetters are they bound, sir, that they live in such a way?”
The Buddha responds: “Ruler of the devas, it is the bonds of envy and miserliness that bind beings so that, although they wish to live without hate, hostility, or enmity, and to live in peace, yet they live in hate, harming one another, hostile, and as enemies.”
Sakka digs deeper and asks what gives rise to envy and miserliness and the series of questions “what gives rise to…” are answered thus:
- Envy and miserliness arise from liking and disliking
- Liking and disliking arise from desire
- Desire arises from thinking
- Thinking arises from elaborated perceptions and notions.
There are a number of interesting points in this list. Perhaps the most important one is that liking and disliking lead us to divide the world into two parts; the parts we like and the parts we don’t. Based on our likes and dislikes, we spend our energy pulling the former towards us and pushing the latter away. From one perspective, this is the framework for our lives: constant grasping and rejecting. Also, the people and things we like and dislike keep changing, so there is no rest from this grinding of gears.
When the Buddha says that thinking is the root of the problem, he specifies “elaborated perceptions and notions”. There is a word in Pali, papañca, that is normally translated as “conceptual proliferation”. It describes a mental process we are all familiar with in which we ruminate on something until it becomes ever bigger and more ominous. If we could regularly interrupt this process with mindfulness, we would probably not take our thoughts quite so seriously and would consequently have fewer conflicts in our lives.
However, people are people, and we are people, and the unavoidable consequence is that we will have disputes and conflict among ourselves until we are fully awakened. These conflicts are grist for our spiritual mills; they are the teachers and the lessons. When things go wrong, if we look to our own reactivity rather than blaming our discomfort on an outside source, we can recognize and release our unhelpful thought processes and become more free.