“You’re Right!?” Conflict Resolution from a Buddhist Perspective

BY | Venerable Jian Xin

In early October 2022, I was invited to attend a conference organised by the International Institute of Mediators (IIM). This is a non-profit organisation set up to develop and enhance the mediation and related dispute resolution profession. I was one of the six religious speakers invited to do a presentation and participate in a panel discussion on the topic of “Resolving Disputes Involving Religious Beliefs and Racial Sensitivities”.

Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society, and it is no surprise that many of the conflicts and disputes that happen locally revolve around our different religious beliefs and racial sensitivities. Thus, having a better understanding of dispute resolution from the perspectives of the major religions in Singapore will greatly assist the work of the mediators.

In my presentation, I shared a few anecdotes from our Buddhist context to illustrate profile by Venerable Shi Jian Xin the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s teachings in resolving disputes and conflicts. One anecdote is a story of two monks in a monastery arguing over a point regarding their Master’s teaching. One said yes and the other said no. Finally, they went to the Master to clarify their understanding of the teaching. After the first monk explained why he said yes, the Master nodded his head and said, “You’re right.” The first monk was very happy and went away.

The other monk, of course, was not happy. He also explained to the Master why he said no. Thinking for a while, the Master also nodded his head and said, “You’re right.” The monk was then satisfied and went away.

A younger monk who was sitting beside the Master was very puzzled. He said, “Master, I do not understand. It is obvious that only one of them is correct. They cannot be both right. Why did you say that they are both correct?”

The Master replied, “Hmm, you’re right!”

What is right? What is wrong? Is it always black and white? What about shades of grey? How many times have we gotten into conflicts with others just to prove that we were right? How many times have we been absolutely sure we were right — only to find out later that we were in fact totally wrong?

 Another anecdote is a favourite story of Ajahn Chah, a highly-revered Venerable of the Thai Forest tradition:

A newly married couple went for a walk together in the woods one fine evening after dinner. They were having such a great time being together until they heard a sound in the distance.

“Quack! Quack!”
“Listen,” said the wife. “That must be a chicken.”
“No, no. That was a duck,” said the husband.
“No, I’m sure that was a chicken,” she said.
“Impossible. Chickens go ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo,’ ducks go ‘Quack! Quack!’
That’s a duck, darling,” he said, with the first signs of irritation.
“Quack! Quack!” it went again.
“See! It’s a duck,” he said.
“No, dear. That’s a chicken. I’m positive,” she asserted, digging in her heels.
“Listen wife! That—is—a—duck. D-u-c-k, duck! Got it?” he said angrily. “But it’s a chicken…”, she said softly and was almost in tears.
The husband saw the tears welling up in his wife’s eyes and, at last, remembered why he had married her. His face softened and he said gently, “Sorry, darling. I think you must be right. That is a chicken.”
“Thank you, dear,” she said as she squeezed his hand.
“Quack! Quack!” came the sound through the woods, as they continued their walk together in loving company.

How many of our conflicts are such “chicken and duck” arguments? Do we remember our priorities? What are our more important common goals? Can we choose to focus on our similarities, rather than to generate conflicts due to our differences? Is it sometimes better to be kind than to be right?

During the conference, there was a skit about a mediation session titled “Resolving Racial and Religious Conflicts”. It was an enactment of an actual religious dispute and the discussion of the challenges involved. In the skit, two mediators were trying to resolve a dispute between two neighbours of different faiths — a Buddhist and a Christian. The Christian was infuriated by the Buddhist burning “1-kilometre” joss sticks (an exaggeration, of course) outside her flat that aggravated his mother’s asthma. The Buddhist was also enraged by the Christian for using his fire extinguisher to extinguish her burning joss sticks. In the end, the mediators succeeded in mediating the conflict — the Buddhist agreed to burn shorter joss sticks lasting only 15 minutes each, while the Christian agreed not to extinguish her burning joss sticks. Furthermore, they ended the mediation process by shaking hands with each other, expressing goodwill.

From a practising Buddhist point of view, could this be seen as a “chicken and duck” situation? Isn’t having a harmonious and respectful relationship with a neighbour of another faith more important than burning long, thick sticks of incense? Isn’t it more important to be kind than to be right here?

As practising Buddhists, it is important that we incorporate mindfulness into our daily living and in our interactions with others, so that we can minimise conflicts in our lives. However, if conflicts do arise, we can apply the compassion and wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings to resolve them. The two qualities of wisdom and compassion – seeing things as they really are and mindfully embracing our experience with compassion – are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.