A lot of fighting is going on in both private and public discourse today. In a text known as the discourse about not doing battle (Aranavibhanga Sutta, MN 139), the Buddha puts forth suggestions on how we might lessen the conflicts around us. One stands out as making an important point about how we can use language to either provoke or reduce conflict.

It is very common for people to speak something like this:

All those who are committed to [x] are on the wrong path.
All those who are not committed to [x] are on the right path.

You can insert as the variable any belief, opinion, practice, or behavior.

According to the Buddha, the trouble with this way of speaking is that it engages in “extolling” and “disparaging.” The real problem with this mode of expression is that it is praise or blame directed at a person, and either extols or disparages people who hold the views and engage in the activities specified. We can easily think of examples of arguments, debates, or political talks that are little more than ad hominem attacks, which focus on one’s opponent personally rather than on the matter at hand. As soon as the issue has to do with persons, we tap into primitive instincts for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement and evoke the deep psychological forces identified in the Buddhist tradition as greed, hatred, and delusion. Anytime a “self” is involved, that self is driven by the need to get or hold on to whatever serves it, at any cost, and by the need to deny or destroy anything that threatens it. When a person is extolled, their sense of self-importance and self-righteousness increases, and when a person is disparaged, their reflexes for self-defense are triggered. Both praise and blame evoke a sense of self, and the self always shows up ready to fight.

However, the Buddha was also very clear about the existence of a right path and a wrong path. His message is not that we should avoid conflict by not making distinctions or judgments about what is healthy or unhealthy, skillful or unskillful. Indeed, the clarity of his insight into what is harmful and what is beneficial for sentient beings is among the major contributions made to world civilization by the Buddha. The matter is more carefully stated this way:

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