Painting of meditation cushions scattered on floor.

Embracing Conflict in Sangha

More and more American sanghas are turning to new and creative approaches to address interpersonal conflicts in their communities.

By Todd Stein

Photo by Marco.

The story of dharma in the West is one of great success, marred by the occasional, but very public, failure. In some cases, entire sanghas have split into warring camps or been torn asunder by the interpersonal conflicts of their members. Over the years, a handful of teachers have been dismissed or disgraced, and countless disillusioned students have moved on. While the vast majority of sanghas continue to thrive, some are finding it necessary to adopt new, non-Buddhist approaches to resolving the conflicts that inevitably arise.

Consider these recent examples:

Why would modern Buddhists turn to Native American culture, the Twelve Steps, and Jungian psychology for help resolving internal conflicts? It’s not as if traditional Buddhism lacks direction on the topic—the Vinaya, with its hundreds of rules, has held together monasteries for generations in more than a dozen countries. Still, a growing number of modern dharma teachers seem to have concluded, after decades of struggling to introduce selfless Asian ideals to the West, that the old rules just don’t cut it in the New World. When it comes to dealing with internal disputes, these teachers are experimenting with creative new fusions of Eastern and Western practices.

“Given the monastic setting that we had in Asia, and that it was not families, it was not couples, there are certain things missing when we integrate Buddhism into American sanghas,” says Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, head teacher at Kanzeon Zen Center and an outspoken advocate of cross-cultural dharma. “If something’s helpful for establishing buddhadharma in the West and if it helps people to awaken, then I’ll use it. I don’t feel hogtied to something just because that’s the way they did it in Japan.”

That’s something of an understatement for Merzel. In 1999, he developed a practice called the Big Mind process, which boldly combines traditional Zen meditation with psychological techniques developed at the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, where Merzel studied for two decades while working with his teacher, the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi. In group sessions, Merzel uses a Jungian process for accessing unconscious “shadow” traits—jealousy, hatred, or other “disowned” qualities that contradict our self-image—to help students experience the nondual mind of Buddha. He believes the intensely personal Big Mind group process works, and as proof he points to a “dramatic improvement” in the quality of Kanzeon sangha members’ interpersonal relationships. “It’s not that conflict never arises, but it does seem to curtail conflict when we integrate those shadows back into our lives and stop blaming others for them,” he says.

Gil Fronsdal, founder of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, also thinks Buddhist sanghas could benefit from a more psychological approach to conflict. “Buddhist cultures focus on loving-kindness and compassion and not being caught up in anger, but whenever you have a culture that has those values, it tends to create a shadow,” says Fronsdal. “People tend to hide or avoid anger, because anger is one of the things Buddhists are trying not to express. And that can lead to a culture that’s unsafe.”

Fronsdal, like Merzel, has his own prescription for developing an emotionally healthy sangha. He suggests creating community rituals that give the sangha “a process to talk about things that are important, where people get to know each other in a deep way.” In his center, for instance, the sangha regularly breaks into small groups to explore topics such as greed, anger, and love. It’s an approach that seems to work well for a small, non-residential sangha like Fronsdal’s. But for larger dharma centers, where dozens of people may live and work together for years at a time, preventing disputes, or resolving them, may call for more than the occasional fifteen-minute heart-to-heart.

In recent years, two big centers have sought Fronsdal’s help in crafting institutional structures that blend traditional Buddhist approaches with modern conflict resolution theory. The first was the San Francisco Zen Center, which is one of the oldest and biggest residential Buddhist centers in the West. The other was Spirit Rock Meditation Center in nearby Woodacre. Fronsdal’s mark on the two communities is evidenced in the groups that oversee their conflict resolution programs. They are called Ethics and Reconciliation Councils, or EAR Councils for short; Fronsdal admired the name and its resulting acronym so much when it was coined at the Zen Center in the mid-1990’s that he carried it to Spirit Rock in 2000. The two programs resemble one another in allowing sangha members to file formal grievances against teachers or other authority figures who behave unethically—a markedly Western strategy. But the Zen Center program is far broader, and about to get broader still. Its EAR Council recently decided to take a shotgun approach to interpersonal conflict by providing conflict-resolution training for every one of the Zen Center’s more than one hundred staff members.

“My hope is that the training will help the community see conflict as a field of practice,” explains Laura Burges, a schoolteacher and longtime Zen student who co-chairs the EAR Council. “It will help us as a sangha to develop a common vocabulary, and skills that we can use in our day-to-day lives with each other, and to see that every conflict has within it the seeds of reconciliation.”

The Buddha’s response to conflict within the sangha can be found, among other places, in the Upakkilesasutta (Discourse on Defilements). This early Pali sutta describes a monastery in Kosambi where the monks are “disputatious, quarrelsome, and contentious…wounding one another with the weapons of the tongue.” When one of the monks hears that the Buddha is visiting a friend nearby, he seeks the teacher’s help. The Buddha agrees to visit the monastery, where he entreats the monks to cease their contentious ways. But he is told in no uncertain terms to mind his own business, “for it is we [the monks] who will be accountable for this dispute, quarrel, contention, and argument.” As the Buddha prepares to leave, he reminds the quarrelsome monks that “Not by wrath are wrathful moods allayed…but by not-wrath are they allayed.” He advises the monks to leave the monastery: “Better the faring of one alone than companionship with the foolish.”

Soon after departing the monastery of the quarrelsome monks, the Buddha happens upon a bamboo grove inhabited by three monks who live together “on friendly terms and harmoniously, as milk and water blend, regarding one another with the eye of affection.” He asks what their secret is. The monk Anuruddha responds, “Having surrendered my own mind, [I] am living only according to the mind of these venerable ones. …We have diverse bodies but assuredly only one mind.” Anuruddha then describes how the one mind of sangha is expressed in daily activity. The three monks follow precise rules concerning who is responsible for what task (putting out the drinking water or cleaning up after a meal, and so on). And they are careful to talk only every fifth night, when they gather to discuss the dharma.

Otherwise, they live together in perfect silence.

The Upakkilesasutta confirms what other early Buddhist texts call the guiding principle of sangha—kalyana mitrata, or spiritual friendship. The three monks whom the Buddha found living together “harmoniously, as milk and water blend, regarding one another with the eye of affection,” embodied kalyana mitrata. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha tells Ananda that kalyana mitrata is “the whole of the spiritual life.”

Early Buddhism’s emphasis on friendly interpersonal relationships among the monks may explain why the original Indian sanghas had no problem working out their conflicts in public. Today, while most sanghas prefer to resolve disputes in private, many dharma centers the world over still honor the early Buddhist community’s commitment to openness by holding bimonthly uposatha, or repentance ceremonies, on the full or new moon. During these ceremonies, sangha members ask each other’s forgiveness for any offense of “body, speech, or mind.” Also, Zen centers throughout the world observe the full-moon bodhisattva ceremony, ryaku fusatsu, in which practitioners acknowledge their karma, receive the precepts anew, and rededicate themselves to practice. Similar rituals are performed by Burmese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Thai, and Tibetan Buddhists.

But the ceremonies are not universally popular. At Metta Forest Monastery near San Diego, abbot Thanissaro Bhikkhu says the repentance ceremony ritual has become “so automatic that it doesn’t have any meaning anymore.” To complement the traditional ceremony, he asks that monks who feel they’ve violated the Vinaya rules discuss it with him personally, face-to-face. But that’s as far as Thanissaro Bhikkhu goes in bending the letter of the Vinaya. In most other ways, the monastery strictly adheres to the centuries-old rules.

“For the monks, it really helps that we have such a clear code of behavior,” says Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American who studied in Thailand for fourteen years before founding the California monastery. “We don’t have to get into arguments about what’s wrong and what’s right, and I find it really smoothes life among the monks.” Nonetheless, the traditional rules haven’t necessarily been a natural fit for the monastery’s mostly American monks, especially when it comes to airing conflicts. Thanissaro Bhikkhu blames the vast cultural distance between Thais and Americans. “When it comes to conflict, Americans usually try to see who’s right and get rid of the bad guys,” he says with a laugh. “The Asians say, ‘Hey, we all have to live together, so let’s deal with the wrongdoers without pushing them out of the group.’ For me, the most challenging part of being an abbot here has been getting Americans to accept that mindset.”

Michael Conklin, the resident teacher at Kagyü Changchub Chuling, a Vajrayana Buddhist center in Portland, Oregon, encourages his sangha to respond to conflict by practicing shamatha, or calm abiding meditation. When sangha leaders gather for meetings, for example, one of them is assigned to ring a bell if things get tense. Upon hearing the bell, the group is instructed to stop speaking and to meditate on the emotions they feel. After a few minutes, the conversation is resumed.

“I find, in that situation, that the strength of my emotional activity is often such that I can put my awareness on it with very strong clarity,” says Conklin, a lama who prefers not to use his formal title. “This way, the reaction doesn’t die, but I’m not carried away by it. It’s like crawling out of the river and watching the white water that just a moment ago terrified me. And we try to engender a sense of gratitude for the individuals in this situation. Buddha said no one ever attains enlightenment except on the shoulders of all beings. This situation is a practical implementation of that. The added piece, after resting the mind on the reactivity, is to see this situation and these people as a gift. If even three of ten people really do that, the space in the room really changes and the feeling is palpable.”

Conklin is careful to note that this use of a traditional meditation practice is not a form of conflict resolution. In fact, Conklin is politely dismissive of such approaches as little more than “diplomacy,” and he worries that the increasingly common blending of Buddhist meditation with modern conflict-resolution techniques risks “trivializing” the dharma.

“I think we’re in danger of reducing [the dharma] to an aspirin,” he says. “We want to say, ‘If it’s useful and beneficial for others, do it.’ On the other hand, we want to be careful not to reduce this spiritual tradition to just an enhancement to psychotherapy or conflict resolution. As an authentic spiritual tradition, the view of the practice needs to be constantly expanded to include concerns that we have beyond this life—to an unbounded view that future lives will be a continual unfolding of this moment—and therefore that virtue in this life is about doing things that will bring about long-term benefit to me and others, as opposed to the short-term view that says, ‘OK, let’s ring this bell so we can get through this meeting without being too wound up’.”

Dana Curtis believes most Buddhists—and everyone else, for that matter—would rather be right than be connected. Curtis teaches mediation at Stanford Law School as a member of Stanford’s Negotiation and Mediation Program; she’s also an advisory member of San Francisco Zen Center’s EAR Council and teaches workshops on mindfulness to professional mediators at several dharma centers.

“The biggest problem with interpersonal conflicts is that, when in conflict, we close our heart, and so lose the opportunity to communicate from our most generous intention,” says Curtis. “If instead we come from the intention of wanting to experience our interconnectedness, then we create an opening for reconciliation. And, for Buddhists, the intention to reconcile is not only for personal reasons, or for the sake of the one-to-one relationship, but also for the sake of the community.”

Unfortunately, Curtis worries, many Buddhists respond to conflict by withdrawing and looking inward, missing the opportunity to be authentic, share who they are, and so experience a deeper connection with others. In retreating from conflict, they may be guilty of “putting peace on a pedestal,” says Buddhist scholar José Ignacio Cabezón. Writing in Buddhist Peacework: Creating Cultures of Peace, Cabezón warns of the Buddhist tendency to idolize inner peace so that it becomes “a kind of self-absorption whose main result is the reinforcement of narcissism.” He urges Buddhists to work at transforming their interpersonal relationships with the same energy and devotion they apply to meditation.

Diana Lion has spent most of her life trying to perfect the art of relating. Lion is the founding director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship Prison Project, which brings volunteer meditation instructors into close contact with hardened criminals in jails and prisons across the United States. A dharma practitioner since 1974, Lion is also a certified trainer of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a process designed “to strengthen our ability to inspire compassion from others and to respond compassionately to others and to ourselves,” according to its website. Created in the early 1960’s by a Detroit clinical psychologist named Marshall Rosenberg, today NVC has a presence in virtually every country and annually trains 50,000 people.

NVC also has a growing presence in Western dharma centers. Lion and other NVC trainers have led numerous workshops on the communication model at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and at Spirit Rock, San Francisco Zen Center, various Shambhala centers, and dozens of smaller dharma centers across the country. Lion says sangha interest in NVC has ballooned in the last two years. She fields e-mails and phone calls each month from dharma practitioners who say their sanghas need help with nonviolent communication. Why? “The sangha life is not for sissies,” says Lion. “It’s hard practice getting along with everybody. The Buddha knew that, and that’s why the Vinaya has like nine million rules that all grew out of particular problems. But the question is, how do we get along in the West, where things are so different?”

It’s easy to see why NVC is popular with Buddhists. The process blends modern communication strategies with a philosophy that echoes key dharma principles and a technique that often resembles insight meditation. NVC emphasizes developing compassion as the motivation for action rather than fear, guilt, shame, blame, coercion, or threat. It trains people to make careful observations of their own mind-states, free of evaluation, and to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting them. And it emphasizes taking personal responsibility for one’s actions and the choices one makes in responding to others.

At IMS, several staff members have received training in Nonviolent Communication and conflict resolution techniques. Resident teacher Amy Schmidt says NVC gives practitioners an important set of tools for dealing with conflict when it arises. “It adds to the things that the Buddha mentioned about metta and kindness and not attaching to views and opinions,” says Schmidt. “It adds a whole new piece—how specifically do you respond to someone who makes you angry?”

Without skills like those developed by NVC, Schmidt worries that Buddhist practitioners often get stuck in a communications dilemma. When it comes to difficult conversations, inexperienced practitioners usually go down one of two equally mistaken paths—either the nonreactivity of emptiness (“This is all conditioned, so I don’t need to respond.”) or the hyper-reactivity of form (“My feelings are real and I’m going to tell you about them!”). The first can lead to increased isolation and denial, while the second can create discord. “The beautiful thing about working with people here now is they have the ability to express themselves using nonviolent communication skills, but they can also step aside and see everything as empty,” says Schmidt. “So they can flow with it and see [their difficulty] as a mind-state, and they can work with conflict on multiple levels.”

But IMS doesn’t limit its work to resolving disputes that have already surfaced. In addition to NVC training, the community has experimented with several creative approaches to fostering a conflict-free environment. In weekly departmental meetings, Schmidt regularly asks everyone to describe how and why they appreciate one particular person in the group. For the target of these appreciation fests, Schmidt tries to pick “someone who’s feeling a little out of the circle, a little removed, as a way for them to feel included in the group.” Taking the practice further, each IMS department intermittently creates “metta circles” of appreciation for group members. Each week, a childhood photograph of a person on the work crew is installed on the department altar to remind the other crew members to “send metta to them.” The office crew recently began to load their metta-targets’ photos on their computer screensavers. “The effect is really magnanimous, it’s marvelous,” says Schmidt. “I think of it as building a metta environment on a day-to-day basis, fertilizing the ground so that when the weeds of conflict come up, they’re easy to pull.”

The weeds of conflict are never so thick as in wartime. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on conflict were spawned in the suffering of the Vietnam War. Known for his efforts to resolve conflicts among nations, Thich Nhat Hanh is also perhaps the strongest modern proponent of taking seriously conflicts within the sangha. Several of the fourteen precepts in his Order of Interbeing address conflict and its causes, with the eighth precept (Harmony in the Community) going so far as to invite making “every effort to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, no matter how small.”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s commitment to a mature response to conflicts has transformed the traditional monthly repentance ceremony in his community. Now called beginning anew, the ceremony has become a weekly event for his monastics. Its four steps include naming the beneficial qualities of the person with whom you are in conflict; expressing regret that your interactions have caused discord; sharing, in non-blaming language, something that’s been hurtful to you; and finally, asking the other what actions might help restore harmony to the relationship.

Clearly, the maintenance of a harmonious sangha is vitally important to Thich Nhat Hanh. In his book, Interbeing, he describes a traditional practice called karman procedure, which takes place whenever the sangha gathers to recite the precepts, to make a decision, or to transmit the precepts. The meeting begins with someone asking, “Has the community gathered?” The next question is, “Is there harmony in the community?” He writes: “If [yes] is not the answer, the meeting cannot proceed. This practice [was] established during the time of the Buddha, and has been practiced by communities of monks and nuns throughout the last twenty-five centuries.”

Mary Rinkin, an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing, was so inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to conflict that she co-founded a graduate program in conflict resolution at Oregon State University and included classes on mindfulness training. “Our basic teaching is that it’s through our suffering, and our transforming of it, that we are liberated,” she says. “To me it’s the same teaching; it’s through our conflicts and our ability to transform them that we actually experience harmony and relationship and connection and deeper understanding. For me, conflict is the richest opportunity we have for learning about ourselves, and about others.”

All Buddhist schools share a belief that although conflict in the sangha is inevitable, it’s also an opportunity for practice. In this regard, Buddhist communities have advantages over other communities. Unlike a business or a neighborhood, the sangha is built on a foundation of love, trust, friendship, and a shared commitment to a spiritual life. Those common goals make the sangha a safe learning environment, a fertile laboratory in which to test our practice. Still, no sane teacher would guarantee a comfortable ride. As in the old Zen story, sangha life resembles a barrel of rocks that is shaken just hard enough and long enough to blunt all the sharp edges.

Dana Curtis likens those sharp edges to the ego, and the barrel to interpersonal conflict. “Conflicts give us a chance to clearly see the fixed or rigid self, the one who resists change, who is right at all cost, and makes others wrong,” she says. “It gives us the opportunity to open to our suffering, and the suffering of others, and in so doing, experience compassion, the seed of reconciliation.”

Todd Stein

Todd Stein is a freelance writer and former Sacramento Bee reporter who lives at the San Francisco Zen Center.