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Nov 08
Dharma Teachings
Conflict in Enlightened Society
cherry trees along the Charles River, photo by Terry Rudderham

cherry trees along the Charles River, photo by Terry Rudderham

by Shastri Jennifer Woodhull
Cape Town, South Africa

Among those of us committed to building an enlightened society, there is a widespread perception that our failure to “fix” the personal conflicts that arise in our communities somehow takes us in the opposite direction from enlightenment. Therefore, goes the assumption, that we ought to get our act together and figure out how to resolve the conflict. The community will often enthusiastically support this interpretation of “enlightened society”, since it confirms the conviction of all involved that the troubled relationship is responsible for their suffering.

Editor’s Note: We are currently on hiatus from publishing new articles; in the meantime, please enjoy this classic item reprinted from our back issues.

Where there are humans, there will be conflict. Even those of us who are sincere meditators, pacifists or activists dedicated to building a kinder world will inevitably run up against situations where we simply can’t get through to one another. Our best efforts at honest, courageous communication backfire, fueling a dynamic that serves instead to exacerbate our suffering. Parties on both sides of the divide feel unheard, misunderstood and even deliberately sabotaged. Finding ourselves in such a situation can lead to intense feelings of failure and shame.

It’s at times like these that we can draw significant guidance and support from the foundational teachings of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that suffering is part of the human package. It’s not the result of anyone’s error or failure; we can simply expect it as an aspect of ordinary experience.

In this life, conditions will reliably continue not to meet our preferences. Our reflexive tendency in the face of the resulting discomfort is to blame the conditions that give rise to it — and when those conditions originate with other people, we imagine those others need only change their attitude and conduct for our discomfort to be resolved. In fact, the greater our discomfort, the more convinced we are that those others have a duty to resolve their conflict. We’re typically very skilled at justifying our opinion that, as the source of the “problem”, they should “fix it”. We can get quite angry at them for not doing so, further spreading our distress to others who compulsively react to their anxiety by adding their blame to our own. The all-too-familiar result is factionalism fueled by assumptions and gossip.

The dharma — and by extension, the Shambhala teachings — urges us instead to make a relationship with whatever discomfort life brings us, and leave others to work on their own conflicts as best they can.

An enlightened society is not one in which everyone gets along. Rather, it is one in which all do their best to be authentically who they are, to take care of themselves with as much kindness and as little self-delusion as they’re capable of, and to organize their lives so that they can be of as much service to others as possible. Thus, an important quality of an enlightened society is that it’s spacious enough to accommodate conflict for as long as it takes for that conflict to realize its own resolution. This view of conflictual situations doesn’t absolve the parties involved of the responsibility to do their own work, but it challenges everyone affected to do likewise. Rather than applying pressure to the warring parties to stop warring, community members can create a strong, caring container for the chaos of war by taking responsibility for their own hopes and fears.

One or more people engaged in conflict might decide to suspend social interactions and restrict their contact to necessary business exchanges — or even to refrain from any contact whatsoever. In an enlightened society such a choice would arise, not out of hatred or rejection, but rather from an honest realization that attempts at mediation, communication and other forms of contact are not yielding the intended results. When instances of contact are clearly triggering further conflict, both the parties involved and the entire community are best served by minimizing such trigger points. Perhaps counter-intuitively, suspension of contact in such situations may not be a sign of cowardly withdrawal from the challenge, but rather an expression of loving-kindness, compassion and sanity.

The lojong teachings of Mahayana Buddhism offer us another helpful practice: abandoning any hope of fruition. From inside the fire of conflict, we can’t see what its resolution might look like. But we can be certain that approaching it from an insistence that conflict and confusion be banished will only create more conflict and confusion. Given the truth of impermanence, we know that the situation will continue to move — if, that is, we refrain from freezing it to fit our hopes, fears, preferences and preconceptions. Getting interested in its movement may prove to be the best way forward.

How, then, might those of us proceed who are affected by conflict between people we care about? How can we best support their efforts to move through the messy, painful territory that lies before them? How do we deal with our distress, our longing for the warring parties to resolve their differences, our nostalgia for how things were before the conflict arose? How can we support one another in working with the fear and anger that inevitably arise when others’ failures of sympathy make our own lives more difficult?

Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

Shastri Jennifer Woodhull

From the perspective of enlightened society, we can respect the choices of those involved in the conflict to handle the situation according to their own best judgement and capabilities, without pressure from us to conform to our ideal scenario. And meanwhile, we can aspire to bring our personal discomfort to the path of practice. Since the situation is painful, we can practice kindness. Since the situation is unfathomable, we can refrain from judgement. Since the situation is stuck, we can practice patience. Since the situation is confusing, we can practice curiosity. These are the practices of an enlightened society.

The personal conflicts in which we find ourselves and those we love are a reflection of our world: basically good, and doing its best to meet its challenges by bringing its innate intelligence to creating the conditions in which kindness and sanity can flourish. This world never ceases to lavish its generosity upon us. When conflict arises, we can show our appreciation by recognizing it as an expression of our humanity, and resolving to use it to become more fully and genuinely the quirky, loving, unconditioned, provocative, heartbroken, brilliant beings we truly are.

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21 responses to “ Conflict in Enlightened Society ”
  1. Connie Rogers
    Nov 9, 2018

    Such a beautiful reminder. Thanks again for these wise words Jennifer. Very helpful at this time.

  2. Aparna Pallavi
    Jun 16, 2013

    Thank you for this beautiful piece, Shastri Woodhull. I especially like the part about suspension of social interactions, because that is something I have been practicing in my personal and social life for some time. I am still trying to work out a meaningful way to relate with those I love and with society in the face of conflicts, and meanwhile, I find it very helpful to just relax into suspension — to just let the conflicted side be while I go on living my life. Your advice is of great, great use! Thanks again.

  3. Thank you Shastri Woodhull for talking about conflict, it is so refreshing.
    It is amazing how the outward conflicts are played in the mind: following the breath shows this conflictual energy clearly. It is very difficult not to be judgmental with my own breathing: “am I following the breath, am I thinking, it feels good now, now it feels speedy”. Giving space to these judgments makes me feel a bit more spacious afterwards. “Trying to create space” brings more conflict indeed.

  4. It’s striking and sad to me that this article seems to go along with the status quo in Shambhala. It seems to argue that we are best working out conflict intrapersonally, that is, each person within themselves, rather than doing the sometimes messy work of confronting conflict interpersonally- in relationship. I believe a lot of the work we need to do to create enlightened society can’t be done on the cushion, but only in relationship. I wish our leaders would encourage us to get started- we have a lot of work to do.

  5. Katja Hafemeister
    Jun 3, 2013

    Thank you so much for these words! Reading them I feel my mind relaxing and my heart opening up. “Since the situation is painful, we can practice kindness. Since the situation is unfathomable, we can refrain from judgement. Since the situation is stuck, we can practice patience. Since the situation is confusing, we can practice curiosity.” I feel very inspired by that. Thank you!

  6. Elaine Yuen
    Jun 3, 2013

    Thank you Jennifer for your piece that reminds me that “giving space ” within a conflict is a specific gesture that we can embody, as much as our programs and solutions which involve “doing” are. It also reminds me that we don’t always know what the best path out of a conflict might be. I’m on the Shambhala Diversity working group, will share with them, hopefully you’ll see Charlene Leung, our chair, out at SMC.
    Best, Elaine

  7. Mary Whetsell
    Jun 2, 2013

    One more thought! For those of you who are interested in this topic, a couple of years ago John Fox of the Vancouver Shambhala Center wrote a wonderful article for the Times called Bringing Conflict to the Path. Here’s the link: http://shambhalatimes.org/2010/03/14/bringing-conflict-to-the-path/

  8. George Ramsey
    Jun 2, 2013


    Thank you for your thoughtful piece. Your words are excellent reminders on how we can skillfully engage in difficult relationships—news we can use!

  9. Mary Whetsell
    Jun 2, 2013

    I would like to share an initiative that’s being developed within the Office of Societal Health & Well-being, called the Pathfinders Corps. Our corps of Pathfinders will be available to City and Land Centers to help with communication impasses and conflict resolution, having been trained in Transformative Mediation, an approach to mediation/facilitation that is remarkably congruent with the Shambhala view of basic goodness. Following the fourth Transformative Mediation training which will occur in July, we will have a large enough corps of Pathfinders (roughly 50 folks) that we can roll out this project to the mandala as a whole. That step will involve educating Shambhala Centers about this service, including how to access the service and when it is appropriate to do so. We expect to do this between August, 2013 and November, 2013. The roll out will be targeted to Center Directors, Desung and local SHWB Directors, plus there will be general information (such as this) that will go out to the mandala as a whole.

    The Pathfinders team is composed of professional-level volunteers. Following are the prerequisites for attending the Pathfinder training:
    • Very strong pre-existing baseline skills in communication and significant life experience with helping people work through disputes. This could include people who are counselors, attorneys, human resource professionals, etc. While professional experience in these areas is strongly preferred, if a person has had deep life experiences that have yielded the required skills, professional experience could be waived on a case by case basis.
    • Maturity as a practitioner so that the person doesn’t lose her/his seat when working with conflict in Shambhala.
    • Willingness to be a part of the Pathfinder Corps, which would involve being available to facilitate mediated conversations in the mandala.
    • Personal interviews with Mary Whetsell or Basia Solarz to explore each applicant’s interest in this kind of work and to ensure they understand the commitment involved with becoming a Pathfinder.

    So please stay tuned, everyone, for more information about the Pathfinders Corps. In the meantime, if you have ideas, comments or questions please feel free to contact me at [email protected] . I would love to hear from you!

    Mary Whetsell, Director
    Office of Societal Health & Well-being

  10. Jennifer Woodhull
    Jun 2, 2013

    Hello, dear Kristine—of course you’re free to publish my article as you see fit. May it benefit beings!

    Will I see you at SMC next week?


  11. Jennifer Woodhull
    Jun 2, 2013

    Thank you all for these gentle, fearless and intelligent responses. You’ve given me plenty more to contemplate regarding this volatile and commonplace issue.

    Dan, I very much appreciate your introduction of a third way, other than disengaging or trying to “fix.” I agree that this is an excellent practice for those not directly involved in the conflict. For those of us in the heat of it, though, I’m mindful of Frank’s vivid experience: “entering this individual’s ambit with the hope of [accessing the other’s basic goodness] has proved repeatedly damaging.” When contact between the warring parties routinely and predictably generates further useless suffering, the sanest route really is to give the situation space. That said, for others in the sangha to be “radically present and in contact” with both sides of the schism can definitely help maintain some kind of dynamism in an otherwise stuck scenario. When I proposed that people “leave leave others to work on their own conflicts as best they can,” I was specifically thinking of the compulsion to dispense unasked-for advice based on unquestioned assumptions about the nature of the conflict and the motivations and aspirations of the parties involved. Thanks for picking up on that omission: I wouldn’t want to be understood as telling sangha members affected by conflict to shove off and mind their own damn business.

    Joe, I think that a consideration of unevenly balanced conflict would be very timely and helpful. “The person with the least power” isn’t always the one others might think it is, though. I think of several occasions when I’ve learned of someone in an abusive relationship where I would have sworn that the perpetrator was the less powerful of the two. There are so many elements to consider: not only external markers (therapist-client, MI-student, director-participant) but also determinants such as class, age, gender, race, financial status—not to mention personal histories and karmic conditions opaque to anyone but those involved (and sometimes not even to both of them). This seems to me just one more area where as practitioners, we can fruitfully apply the practice of nonjudgment. But by that I don’t mean nondiscrimination: like you, I feel it’s important to acknowledge and address power imbalances, especially the hidden ones.

    Mostly, in writing this piece I wanted to draw attention to our compulsive tendency to plug the extraordinary and radical Shambhala Buddhist teachings into our routine pleasure/comfort/security-oriented world view. By making others wrong because their suffering makes us feel bad, we simply plant the same old karmic seeds—and, of course, reap the same old karmic fruits.

    With much appreciation to all,


  12. Kristine McCutcheon
    Jun 1, 2013


    May I have permission to re-publish in our weekly paper? You really hit the crux of the matter.

  13. Lovely piece but I wonder what you might add about relating with conflicts that are unevenly balanced. I have noticed that situations which emerge from, and reflect, the abuse of power are sometimes treated by observers as “interpersonal conflicts,” in a way that leaves those who have been abused feeling unprotected and alienated. Avoiding neurotic attempts to fix is good advice but how are we to judge whether a given situation, which may appear to be an interpersonal conflict, is a lateral disagreement or a vertical abuse, and how does that judgment inform our response? I’ve always liked this quote which I believe came from bell hooks: “in any conflict, listen to all sides but always look over the shoulder of the person with the least power.”

  14. What is called “conflict” is often what we call “waking-up”, a re-engagement with others or society from which we have otherwise retreated because of emotional discomfort. In this sense, conflict is revealed as the energy of Basic Goodness in which the truth of change, potential and transformation is fully manifest. Thanks for opening up this extremely important topic.

  15. Frank Reynolds
    Jun 1, 2013

    I really appreciate this article, Jennifer, and also feel it’s news I can use, since a very painful longstanding personal conflict in my own life erupted again recently. I recall that when Chögyam Trungpa was once asked about his relationship with someone who was highly and publicly antagonistic toward him, he replied, “The world is big enough for both of us.” After having numerous attempts to “normalize” the aforementioned problematic relationship backfired, this stance of allowing a great deal of space now seems to be the sanest. Per Dan Hessey’s comment, I feel that I do need to abandon the relationship, but not abandon the individual in terms of giving up on the person. Thus I remind myself that the person has basic goodness, with awareness that I don’t seem to be able to access that goodness, and that entering this individual’s ambit with the hope of doing so has proved repeatedly damaging. Thank you again.

  16. Daniel Hessey
    Jun 1, 2013

    Thank you, Jennifer, for a deeply considered, provocative and beautifully written contemplation on conflict and caring. As we engage the teachings of Shambhala, all of us must think deeply about these issues, and you have provided a really useful example of having done so.

    As I think about it, it seems to me that rather than disengaging—to “leave others to work on their own conflicts as best they can.”—in order avoid trying to “fix” conflict so we do not have to feel its discomfort, there is another path that neither disengages nor tries to fix in the conventional senses. This is the path of being radically present and in contact, especially with the direct experience of seeing the Basic Goodness of oneself, the protagonists in the conflict, and the social world in which the conflict is taking place. Being aware and present in this way invites the dralas—literally “above aggression”—, the tendency for the situation to re-understand itself in a way not based on conflict. This is not fixing, but it is also not abandoning. There is a lot of subtlety to this approach, described in the Six Ways of Ruling and the Four Dignities.
    Thanks for getting me thinking about this important topic!

  17. Ans de Vries
    Jun 1, 2013

    Very well said!

  18. Why does Shambhala always seem to feel that suffering has to an inherent part of the human existence? Why not try to be centered and non judgemental and try and see maya as a blissful spiritual journey in a human body that is neither good or bad, it just is? From a Shambhala perspective, it seems the glass is viewed as always being half empty rather than half full.

  19. Ira Abrams
    May 31, 2013

    This was bracingly provocative and I wish there had been a little more. For instance, I would have liked to see you say something about how this approach of non-engagement works with other teachings that we have on sangha relations–especially how a culture of kindness looks from this point of view.

  20. Ellen Berger
    May 31, 2013

    Boy, do parts of this article hit home.! I am glad to see it on Shambhala times website.

  21. Noel McLellan
    May 31, 2013

    Thank you for this excellent teaching Shastri Woodhull. It reminds me of this line written by the Dorje Dradul, “The manifestation of an enlightened society is not in its achievement of any ideal end-state, but in the nature of its movement at any point on its way.”

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