Dr. Sharif Abdullah, founder/president of Commonway Institute, presents the keynote address at the 2011 Northwest Dharma Association Annual Gathering on

Dr. Sharif Abdullah, founder/president of Commonway Institute, presents the keynote address at the 2011 Northwest Dharma Association Annual Gathering on "Dharma, Conflict & Peace".

Dharma, Conflict & Peace: NWDA Annual Gathering 2011

The Northwest Dharma Association’s 2011 Annual Gathering took place February 26th in Portland, Oregon at the Portland Insight Meditation Center. In keeping with NWDA’s theme for this year, the program focused on “Dharma, Conflict and Peace”.

Dr. Sharif Abdullah, Portland State University adjunct professor in Philosophy and Conflict Resolution, offered the morning keynote address. An author and international peace activist, Sharif is founder and president of Commonway Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to solving challenges of the 21st century with solutions based on a global society that includes all people.

Sharif has had many different life experiences, from abject poverty in Camden, New Jersey (voted at one time “the worst city in the United States”) to sitting at the table with heads of state. He has worked on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. As a result his is the unique perspective of a wide-angle lens with great depth perception.

In places such as Sri Lanka, where he worked to promote a ceasefire agreement in the country’s long civil war, he has witnessed what he calls “The Mess.” The Mess consists of today’s problems, including: genocide, pollution, hunger, homelessness, industrial pollution, crime, and slave labor. Sharif’s presentation addressed the issue of what we can do about the Mess.

Global visions for mending

Global visions for mending "The Mess".

He described three types of consciousness found in three types of people he calls “Keepers”, “Breakers” and “Menders.”

  • Keepers are the indigenous people of the planet who place no load on the planet or on others. They behave as though they are a part of the earth.
  • Breakers are those who think in dualistic terms of “me” and “you”. Breakers seek ever-increasing control over all aspects of life on earth.
  • Menders are those who think in terms of “oneness.” They seek to restore balance with the earth and consciously live their lives as an integral part of a living, sacred planet.

How do we address the Mess? The answer for Sharif (and later presenters as well) is an inside-out approach wherein we first need to make friends with ourselves and then carry that attitude to our relationship with others.

Though not formally a Buddhist, Sharif believes that to begin this work you need a meditation practice and a governing attitude of gentleness. Spirituality, he says, is not about following a certain religious teaching or practice; it means acting with compassion, forgiveness, love, harmony, and sacrifice. Becoming a Mender is a three-step process beginning with spiritual consciousness, then an adjustment of values and the embracing of action in concert with them. The transformation is like that of a butterfly, from all-consuming caterpillar to a being light-as-air.

A panel of teachers and individuals who have led peace efforts within their own groups and communities offered a variety of viewpoints on peacemaking and conflict resolution in the afternoon session of the gathering.

Members of the afternoon panel.  From left:  LaShelle Lowe-Chardé, Ruby Grad, ???, Khenpo Jampa Tenphel, Dr. Robert Gould, and Dr. Sith Chaisurote.

Members of the afternoon panel. From left: LaShelle Lowe-Chardé, Ruby Grad, translator, Khenpo Jampa Tenphel, Dr. Robert Gould, and Dr. Sith Chaisurote.

LaShelle Lowe-Chardé of Portland’s Dharma Rain Zen Center explained the basic principles of Non-Violent Communication (NVC). She broke out four distinct aspects of conversation into “Observation”, “Feelings”, “Needs”, and “Requests.” In Observation, one separates facts from interpretation. In Feelings, you recognize that emotions come from your perceptions. Needs are guiding energies that enter your consciousness. Because Needs are universal, expressing them directly can easily create a connection. Requests are ways to help meet your needs. Here it is important to differentiate between Requests and Strategies. When these get entangled one tends to feel desperate, angry or hopeless. Having many strategies to meet a need results in a sense of spaciousness and flexibility.

Ruby Grad, NWDA board member, attorney and member of Portland Friends of the Dhamma, talked of her experience with conflict resolution serving on the Ethics and Reconciliation Committee at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. These experiences always involved a lay teacher (all the teachers were lay teachers) and a student. Generally the request for conflict resolution services would come from a student. The approach was always to facilitate or mediate, never to impose or arbitrate. When possible the differing parties would come together under the guidance from someone from the Conflict Resolution Committee.

Khenpo Jampa Tenphel, of Sakya Monastery in Seattle, began his talk by noting how precious it was for all of us to come together and learn from each other about peaceful conflict resolution. He wished blessings on all future NWDA events this year. A thank you to you, Khenpo!

Tying his comments to the Bodhisattva practices, Khenpo reminded us the Buddha taught that if you cannot remember all 84,000 of his teachings, try to remember at least these three:

Regarding the practice of virtue, Khenpo turned our attention to the six precepts of Generosity, Discipline, Patience, Effort, Concentration, and Wisdom. He elaborated on his assertion that crises in the outside world begin within us, in our minds. To resolve conflicts we must tame our minds. If there is harmony in us, harmony will manifest itself in all our actions. We should take seriously that all want happiness and want to avoid suffering. These wants are universal.

Dr. Robert Gould, chair of Portland State’s Department of Conflict Resolution, addressed a particular kind of afflictive emotion he called the “Should Monster”. This is the creature that torments us with what we should be doing now, what we are ignoring, what would be a better use of our time, what we should have done better. To make peace with these mental torments Professor Gould suggests we replace guilt with forgiveness and compassion. By making peace with ourselves we can bring peace to the world.

The panel discussion concluded with a presentation by Dr. Sith Chaisurote, president of the Peace Revolution Project/World Peace Initiative. Dr. Chaisurote, who is also a professor of finance at the University of Oregon, introduced us to ways technology can help in bringing about a more peaceful world. Based on a program for youth developed originally in Thailand by the Dhammakaya Foundation, Peace Revolution offers online and MP-3 meditation instruction, multiple activities, and social networking for “Peace Rebels” worldwide. Responding to the motto “World Peace through Inner Peace”, a Peace Rebel commits to regular “Inner Peace Time” and “Self-Development” , recording and reflecting on relationships with self, family, friends and society at large. Currently there are 3,000 registered users from all over the world.

For me, the amazing thing about this conference was how all the speakers addressed the same point my teacher stressed to me the first time he gave me a private teaching: “Dick, work on yourself. A doctor who doesn’t know medicine cannot help his patients. A banker with no money cannot help his clients. Buddhism is about harmony. So if you are meditating at home and your young children come to you wanting to play, stop meditating and be with your children. Buddhism is about harmony, not about creating more chaos.”

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Contributor: Dick O’Connor.
Photos: Jacqueline Mandell.