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Buddhist Ideas on the Psychological Root Causes of Disputes and Conflicts

By Dipen Barua
Buddhistdoor Global | 2021-06-25 |
Rock carving of the Wheel of Life in Dazu, China. From yourenotfromaroundhere.comRock carving of the Wheel of Life in Dazu, China. From yourenotfromaroundhere.com

In Buddhism, disputes and conflicts arise when we lack insight into the true nature of things. We are all subject to ignorance and therefore perceive and project onto ephemeral phenomena qualities such as “everlasting,” “independent,” “desirable,” and “undesirable.” We come to regard these phenomena as substantial aspects of our “selves.” This false idea of self pushes us to seek sensory fulfilment through them, or to deny others said fulfillment.

The Madhupindika Sutta (Discourse on the Ball of Honey) of the Majjhima Nikaya demonstrates how the unenlightened have been entangled in innumerable impulses to conflict since beginningless time. According to this text, conflict arises due to two factors. First, worldly individuals who are uninstructed in the Buddha’s teaching become entangled in unwholesome and ignorant thoughts. Second, these thoughts lead to conceptual proliferation, which leads to jealousy and avarice when a party perceives another to possess a quality or thing that the party desires intensely and sees the other as undeserving of possessing. A misplaced sense of injustice arises from the same processes that lead to sense-perception.

In this sense, all self-destructive attitudes and hostilities can be said to stem from the defilements, or kilesa: greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha). These three types of defilements have become deeply engrained in the human consciousness. Worse yet, these are mutually reinforcing unwholesome roots that condition our emotional and cognitive habits, driving us to engage in unwholesome activities.

Due to greed, we pursue our objectives through aggression, coercion, and threats. Due to hatred, we perpetrate violence against those we dislike. And because of delusion, we conform to conventional and unenlightened ideas about what constitutes peace.

Peace means different things to different people, but as a result of divergent opinions due to defilements, we develop an “ill-directed mind” with “inappropriate attention” (ayoniso-manasikara), which leads us to justify and rationalize our prejudices and biases as absolute truths. All disputes are seen as inevitable ways of advancing a dogmatic viewpoint while ignoring one’s own misconceptions. Therefore, the Alagaddupama Sutta (Discourse on the Snake Simile) of the Majjhima Nikaya discusses the dangers of clinging to dogma as follows:

Some misguided men learn the Dhamma [teaching] – discourses, stanzas, expositions, verses, exclamations, sayings, birth stories, marvels, and answers to questions – but having learned the the Dhamma, they do not examine the meaning of those teachings with wisdom. Not examining the meaning of those teachings with wisdom, they do not gain a reflective acceptance of them. Instead they learn the Dhamma only for the sake of criticizing others and for winning in debates, and they do not experience the good for the sake of which they learn the Dhamma. Those teachings, being wrongly grasped by them, conduce to their harm and suffering for a long time. Why is that? Because of the wrong grasp of those teachings. (Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi 1995, p. 227).

The above passage is relevant when considering those who are harboring greed, hatred, and delusion. These emotions intensify when there is a focus on an impure object in the mind and the holder of these thoughts steadfastly adheres to dogmatic views that regard all alternatives as inferior. Therefore, when individuals engage in conflict, they are in mired in grudges, hostility, rudeness, jealousy, stinginess, deceit, dishonesty, malice, and wrong views. External disputes, battles, and wars reflect the inner wars between people.

Jealousy and avarice contribute to personal insecurity, which affects the balance of peace in society. They are the core causes of conflict in individual’s factors of personality and interpersonal relationships. According to the Buddhist theory of dependent co-arising, jealousy leads to the conditions for conflicts, particularly in the mind. Jealousy is the mental state in which an individual is dissatisfied with another’s well-being, and believing that that other person is not deserving of happiness. In this regard, conflict in the eyes of Buddhism is understood as predominantly psychological, a manifestaton of physical, verbal, and mental acts.

In the Mahānidāna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya, the nature of conflict is discussed through the theory of dependent co-arising as: 

Feeling conditions craving, craving conditions seeking, seeking conditions acquisition, acquisition conditions decision-making, decision-making conditions lustful desire, lustful desire conditions attachment, attachment conditions appropriation, appropriation conditions avarice, avarice conditions guarding of possessions, and because of the guarding of possessions there arise the taking up sticks and swords, quarrels, conflicts, disputes, arguments, strife, abuse, lying and other evil unskilled states. (Walshe 1995, pp. 224–25)

Tibetan Wheel of Life. From pinterest.com

This passage indicates how conflicts deepen and escalate. When people are already mired in quarrelling, insults, slander, and lies, it does not take much for the conflict to explode into violent behavior. When conflict is at its most intense, an individual is full of hate. He then thinks “I am powerful, and I want power.” (Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Ñānṇmoli 1995: p. 291) It is worth noting that the three doors, body, speech, and mind, are profoundly ingrained and serve as the gates of the three poisons, greed, hatred, and delusion.

How do we preserve lasting harmony together? We should turn to Buddhist textual sources for some answers. The Buddhist scriptures describe four cardinal states called the “four sublime states” (brahma-vihara): loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita), and equanimity (upekkha). These four moods are regarded as the highest conditions for individual and social well-being, and the best antidotes to the three poisons.


Loving-kindness is a positive state of mind in which people show unending consideration and impartial concern for others. Yet it is not clingy, and is a highly agapic form of love. It is also completely impartial and unmarked by passion. Loving-kindness is for even enemies. The Buddha responded with metta whenever he was attacked by Devadatta, his own cousin and fellow monk. Exercising metta does not mean becoming a doormat; compassion is the only way to break the cycle of destruction and revenge. As verse five of the Dhammapada says, hatred does not cease through more hatred, but only through love (Na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācana / Averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano).


Compassion is the right response to misery and misfortune. It is the spur to creating a better world. The Kutadanta Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya highlights the valuable advice directed toward King Mahavijita. Here, the brahmin Kutadanta exhorts the king to distribute the realm’s abundant resources, supplying food for farmers and capital for traders. Poverty is seen as a pernicious force that can be alleviated through compassion and wise governance. National sovereignty and social stability should never be used as shields or excuses for turning a blind eye to suffering. This echoes the Buddha’s emphasis on going beyond even the spirit of brotherhood for just one community, and practicing universal compassion (mahā-karuna) without borders.

Sympathetic joy

Sympathetic joy is the ultimate antidote to jealousy. It refers to rejoicing in others’ happiness and to feel happy for them, alongside them. The successes and joys of others are taken as one’s own joy: after all, if there is no inherent self, then why should the happiness of individuals be atomized as “theirs,” as if there are delineated boundaries? Instead of devaluating or invalidating people’s successes, they should be taken as examples for one’s own life journey and work.


Equanimity is a noble and extraordinary expression of wisdom. Although such character is more prevalent among arahants, who have completely eliminated all unwholesome states, this can still apply to conventional human behavior as an antidote to prejudice and discrimination.

Peace, according to the Buddhist teachings, is a subjective quality that arises when an individual can manifest the elimination of greed, hatred, and delusion. Therefore Buddhism emphasizes “internal peace” (ajjhatta-santi), which is a result of the complete cessation of defilements. Because of this, the Buddha places a greater emphasis on the subjective aspect of moral principles than the mere external activities geared to changing society. Yet these inner psychological changes, once directed outward, have the potential to truly transform the world in a positive manner.


Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.). 2012. The Numerical Discourses of the Buddha (Anguttara Nikaya). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Ñānṇmoli, Bhikkhu and Bhikkhu Bodhi (trans.). 2009. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (Majjhima Nikaya). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Walshe, Maurice (trans.). 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha (Dīgha Nikāya). Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Related features from Buddhistdoor Global

Doing Conflict Better
Developing Consideration of Others
Cultivating Peace: Buddhist-Inspired Approaches to Conflict Resolution
A Buddhist Approach to Interreligious Conflict and Harmony

Buddhistdoor Global Special Issue 2020

Buddhism and Conflict Resolution

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