For twenty years the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding has been active around the world helping people in areas of ethnic, religious and political conflict discover strategies for reconciliation and conflict transformation. During the many years since I founded Karuna Center, I have been a professor at the SIT Graduate Institute (formerly the School for International Training) where I developed and continue to lead two annual CONTACT (Conflict Transformation Across Cultures) Programs. My experience of dharma practice naturally calls up principles of the Buddha’s teaching. In the stories that follow, I give examples of ways that Karuna Center and CONTACT have drawn on fundamental Buddhist principles to support healing: the truth of impermanence, the recognition of interdependence or “interbeing,” and the need for a “beloved community” (Buddhists might call this sangha) as an antidote to the Three Poisons of greed, anger and delusion. These stories take place on three continents.
For years Karuna Center for Peacebuilding offered programs in Bosnia focused on intercommunal healing and reconciliation for Muslim and Serb educators. In these workshops I drew on the fundamental Buddhist teaching on impermanence, convening many discussions on how impermanence manifested in the lives of both Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. The Bosnian War of 1992–95 shattered generations of intimate friendships and family connections, leaving death, destruction and mistrust in its wake. Yugoslavia would exist no more.
Recognizing the truth of impermanence helped Bosnian educators let go of their clinging to identities and unlocked fresh possibilities for the future. They realized that although they had been victims or members of violator communities, this need not be a permanent identity. In the beginning of our intergroup dialogues, Muslim and Serb educators could barely tolerate each other’s presence. Over several years of group and school collaborations, their encounters grew more trusting and honest, enabling them to shed their monochromatic ethnic identities and become the full and complex human beings they are.
Vahidin was a young educator I met through a Karuna Center program in Bosnia. His life story was marked by impermanence. Neighbors became enemies; homes and families were lost. Later, land was returned. Former enemies became neighbors again. His city was rebuilt.
At first Vahidin resisted our joint seminars with Serb counterparts. He recalled how his favorite teacher had betrayed the Bosniaks and actually worked in one of the death camps in neighboring Prijedor. Vahidin had lost many loved ones during the three-year Bosnian War. He had become a refugee, having witnessed his entire village bombed into oblivion. After his school’s principal urged him to participate in our program, the experience of being with Serb educators changed his life.
Today Vahidin directs a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Center for Peacebuilding. He travels internationally to train others, and receives prizes for his service. In his current role, Vahidin welcomed a Serb family back to his city, where they had lived before war destroyed the former Yugoslavia. Not many Serbs (Christian Orthodox Bosnians) have returned to the formerly mixed city of Sanski Most, where they had been engaged in a life-or-death struggle for ethnic dominance. Not many Bosniaks would welcome them home.
In the beginning of our intergroup dialogues, Muslim and Serb educators, including Vahidin, could barely tolerate being with each other. But through the dialogues, Vahidin came to acknowledge the hate within himself, and gradually saw how it blocked his development. Milka, a Serb educator who apologized to Muslims for her failure to denounce violators in her midst, is now Vahidin’s close friend and collaborator in teacher-sensitization programs. Together they guide educators to provide wholesome environments where students learn to accept and safeguard their diversities.
Despite change, the struggles of the people of Bosnia are far from over. Their government has done little to rebuild its infrastructure, economy and political processes, or to ease ethnic tensions. Most Bosnians in this formerly mixed region now live in mono-ethnic cities and villages. Vahidin is determined to use his transformation in the service of his country. He is training the next generation to recognize the suffering that arises from clinging to impermanent identities, and to include all Bosnians in their circle of care.
When I facilitate peacebuilding programs for Karuna Center or for CONTACT, whether in Buddhist or non-Buddhist contexts, I encourage participants to recognize their interdependence, experience it with one another in the workshop setting, and then take that understanding into the world to help other communities recognize how they might repair their intergroup relations.
In situations where war has sundered communal ties, there is great resistance to the concept of interdependence because warring groups have suffered greatly at each other’s hands. But in some way the teaching of “interbeing,” Thich Nhat Hanh’s felicitous term, comes as a relief, a first step in rebuilding what has been shattered and must exist again for mutual survival. In a recent Karuna Center program designed to foster interfaith trust and mutuality in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist monk remarked, “At first, we were afraid of each other’s accusations and of being blamed for the horrors of the war. Now we are friends, almost like a family.”
In December 2013, fifty-six students arrived in Kathmandu for our fifth annual CONTACT South Asia Program. They hailed from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Burma. Their numbers included Tibetans in exile and Kashmiris from the India/Pakistan divide, with a few U.S. participants also in attendance.
As South Asians, their nations, lives, conflicts, cultures, religions, customs, climate and crises are deeply intertwined. Bangladesh and Pakistan were carved out of India. Afghans and Pakistanis witness militias in fight and flight on both sides of that tormented and disputed boundary. The Burmese, including radical monks, are violently expelling Muslims and former Bangladeshis from Rakhine State. Nepal and India have an open border with Maoist cadres on both sides. Sri Lanka and India tangle over the future of Tamils living in both countries. The region suffers from dense population, scant water resources, extensive poverty exacerbated by ethnic and caste marginalization, classism, gender discrimination and patterns of endless war.
Participants in the CONTACT Program came together for two weeks. At first they felt tentative and wary. By the third day, they were examining prejudices and fears they carry about each other. By the last day, they celebrated the intricate regional web of interdependence that binds them, understanding that none could survive without pulling together with the rest. They spoke forty local languages, yet all could communicate in English and most had some Hindi. The Indians and Pakistanis, who cannot cross their own borders to meet each other, stayed up all night, building relationships, promising to change the enemy-images of each other when they returned home. The Afghan-Pakistani group met regularly to share struggles with the Taliban, the U.S. military presence, and the militias and factions that have dominated their politics. The Bangladeshis and Burmese struggled to understand perceptions of each other and their conflict.
All the women spoke of their anguish, different only in degree from country to country. From that, a group arose to plan gender-consciousness work regionally. Another group examined regional water resources and impending glacial melt with an eye towards cooperation. Educators gathered to examine how history is taught in their countries; those in media, law, academia, religious leadership and NGO service also planned cross-border programming. They learned to celebrate their commonality, to acknowledge differences and build friendship. Facebook has allowed them to continue from home, their messages to each other flooding my inbox with hope.
At our annual CONTACT Program in the U.S. each June, we explore bonds of interdependence by revealing the prejudices and stereotypes that people bring with them. These are written and read out anonymously. Invariably, they include negative feelings toward Muslims, Americans, blacks, gays, lesbians, Jews, fundamentalist Christians, Hindus, soldiers, women, men, a long list! We have several weeks of an intensive immersion experience to demonstrate the shifting nature of hatred and targeted identities, by which time the enemy-images carried into the program have melted away, replaced by what feels very much like the Dr. Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.”
Last year, an Algerian woman confessed in tears that she had been taught all her life to hate Jews but she loved the Jewish American sitting next to her, into whose arms she fell, sobbing. Similarly, lesbians and gays in the group came out to their colleagues, a risky decision in the company of Muslim and Christian participants from conservative countries, for whom this was an unsettling experience. There were several heartfelt circles over the weeks to further explore sexual identity, for those from closeted societies to meet happy and productive colleagues who happened to be gay or lesbian, and to understand that such people also existed in their countries, under hidden circumstances. Between resolving the dissonance of accepting new friends who happened to be gay, Jewish, Muslim, etc., or rejecting these fellow students with their multiple identities, most choose to connect and weave what Dr. King called “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”
The field of conflict transformation offers many erudite and insightful theories on the multiple and intertwined sources of violent conflict, but none with more clarity than the Buddhist teaching of the Three Poisons of greed, anger and delusion. Teaching in countries such as Rwanda, we probe layer after layer of the roots of mass violence, examining political, economic and social injustice, historic wounds, opposing perceptions, competition for resources, toxic leadership, regional instability, militarism and many more causes of armed conflict. It often seems as if we excavate to the molten rocks at the earth’s center. At the core, we confront greed, anger and delusion. Since all humans are vulnerable to such mind-states, they are completely familiar to Rwandans or any other group of participants. Recognizing the universality of these mental temptations, participants understand the role and power of the Three Poisons in the realm of politics, state institutions and human relations.
Most Rwandans reside on rural hillsides in tiny homes surrounded by banana trees. Hutus and Tutsis traditionally lived side by side, or even closer in intermarriage. Christianity, the Kinyarwanda language and poverty bound them together as one people. Survival required cooperation and fostered interdependence. Historically there had been years of violence and competition for resources based on ethnic identity, but nothing prepared them for what emerged in April 1994 when hatred and brutality resulted in the murder of one million people in one hundred days.
In Rwanda during the genocide, a barrage of media fomented greed, anger, hatred and the delusion of separateness, leading to a frenzy of killing. Hutus were commanded to seek revenge for past grievances and to end cycles of competition and revenge with a “final solution,” eliminating the Tutsi minority. After a murderous hundred days, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi-led army of exiles from Uganda, stopped the genocide, Rwanda lay in waste. In the twenty years since, the government has organized a vast array of programs to repair both the infrastructure and the human dimensions of harm.
Through Karuna Center’s work, I met with Rwandans in 1995 and our engagement has continued since. With a fierce urgency, they needed to understand themselves, to reckon with the destruction to self and others, and to see how they went so wrong. Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu participants in our programs probed how their conflicts emerged, escalated, and finally left them dazed, broken and bereft.
When I first met Eddie, he planned to kill twenty-three Hutus in revenge for twenty-three Tutsi relatives murdered; he became “saved” through church involvement and now runs an NGO. Suzette fled Rwanda rather than face her rapist ever again; she also healed herself and now works in refugee service in the United States. Jean Pierre ran through the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo for six months to escape assassins; he is still bewildered by the experience but on a journey of recovery. There are thousands like them, and despite many problems, Rwanda has moved ahead of most post-conflict countries through its structured reconciliation and forgiveness processes that engage victims, violators and families in dialogue.
Tracing the causes of mass violence through conflict analysis, getting a handle on what went wrong, has helped the Rwandans as it has helped others. Knowledge and insight matter: if participants recognize the extent and the consequences of their frenzied behavior, they may not respond the same way to war-fever next time. One does not have to be schooled in Buddhism to benefit from these dharma teachings. Rwandans, South Asians, Bosnians and others in our programs gain equally from insights into the universality of interdependence, impermanence and the Three Poisons of greed, anger and delusion.
My involvement in Rwanda has been a miniscule part of great efforts by the national government and the international NGO community. Because of what Rwanda has accomplished, each year we bring participants in the CONTACT Graduate Certificate Program to study post-conflict peacebuilding in Rwanda. They meet many like Eddie, Suzette and Jean Pierre who have found ways to engage with former enemies, observe their home-grown truth and reconciliation process, visit work camps where former genocide prisoners rebuild Rwanda, and witness intergroup dialogue programs where former victims and violators recount their genocide memories and create a modicum of trust to move on toward the future.
Peacebuilding is a lifetime process, as is dharma practice, and unfortunately the clouds of war can accumulate as quickly as hearts and minds heal their wounds. Nonetheless, the insights of peacebuilding and dharma find their way into the global media, and create new possibilities for an interdependent future, awakening critical masses of citizens to the necessity of personal and structural transformation. Hopefully, the hard-won wisdom of Nelson Mandela may encourage us: “I always knew that deep down in every heart there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person. People are taught to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than hate.”