How to disagree better

working creatively with conflict in the Order

This project has been initiated by the the Order convenors. It’s aim is to help us to develop our resources around communicating well, especially when we are in disagreement and/or conflict.

We’ve made a start with a framework and assembled some some tools & references for you to use. All the links below are clickable so it’s easier to go straight to what interests you. 

It’s work in progress which will be modified and updated. So, let us know 

(a) what is most helpful to use in working with your disagreements and conflicts

(b) any other sources for tools and approaches that you think others would benefit from. 

You can email these to Subhadassi

Introduction (click to open)

The dimension of the order that Bhante described as “a free association of individuals” is held in high value by many of us in Triratna. If we look around at other Buddhist communities and other faith communities, it is clear that we do enjoy a high degree of freedom within Triratna: whether freedom of expression, exploration or lifestyle.

To maintain such a degree of personal freedom requires us to take both personal and collective responsibility in the Order. How we communicate with one another, how we disagree, and how we repair connections when our communication goes wrong, are all vital practices for our own path to freedom – and for maintaining the health of the Order.

In founding the Order Bhante chose to emphasise our relationships on the basis of kalyana mitrata as a key component of the path to awakening, however challenging this sometimes is for us! As Subhuti reminded us in a 2021 talk, we have no prior, independent existence that is outside of the relationships we have, and therefore how we relate to each other is fundamental to an ethical life.

These resources are mostly drawn from Bhante surveying the whole Buddhist tradition and Subhuti’s synthesising of the sources that especially relate to communication, which he did in the late 1990’s for chapter convenors. There are a few additions from outside of Buddhism where these have been helpful.

It is an attempt to provide reminders, gateways and an overall direction for how to communicate well. Reminders in the sense that many of these ideas or tools are already being used. Gateways in that we give short descriptions for most of the tools with references to further reading. An overall direction to support us in taking responsibility for our own minds, rather than assuming we need to first point to the errors of others.

It isn’t complete or comprehensive, nor have we figured out the best format. We could wait forever to try and get it exactly right. So, here it is as an organic work in progress which can be modified and updated.

We see it as the beginning of something rather than the last word, and we’d love you to join in. Please use these resources in chapters and other situations, adapt them, suggest additions, and let us know how you get on. It would be great to build a hands-on ethical resource to support all our efforts.

It is divided into three sections that follow the framework of the three duties of an Order member. Not every Order member may have come across these (What is the Order?, 1995), but they are a helpful template for how we look at conflict because they progress from self reflection to other reflection. The three duties are to:

  1. Work on oneself (actions, speech and thoughts)
  2. Promote harmony in the Order
  3. Help to create the conditions under which as many people as possible can Go for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

The first two duties are very clearly related to conflict: we need to first of all work on our own minds and secondly build harmony and therefore repair disharmony. The third duty, to help create the conditions for others to go for refuge, allows us to draw out that there is an increased duty of care needed when we communicate with others, especially newer people, or when we use relatively new platforms of communication, such as social media.

1: working on oneself: actions, speech and thoughts

  • using the ten precepts
  • using chapters and kalyana mitrata
  • working on the negative emotions
  • noting and letting go of reactions
  • the four aspects of ethical transformation

2: promoting harmony in the Order

  • building the foundation – the Buddha’s advice
  • taking initiative for restoring harmony
  • a conflict resolution process
  • informal dialogue
  • facilitated dialogue
  • formal resolution

3: help to create the conditions under which as many people as possible can go for refuge

  • healthy boundaries when we teach
  • ethical guidelines for those who teach
  • online communication

1. Working on oneself: actions, speech and thoughts

“the outer course of things I myself cannot restrain. But let me just restrain my mind, and what is left to be restrained?”
(Shantideva, Bodhicaryavatara 5:12-14)
This quote from Shantideva describes a principle that goes directly back to the Buddha: we need to work on ourselves, to transform our states of mind so that they become more and more ethically skilful.

When we are in conflict with someone, this principle is easy to lose sight of because we think we have identified the source of our pain: someone else! We forget the necessary task of self examination which includes looking at the information we have, our motivations, our conditioning, and our history with this person or people like them.

And when that other person is another Order member the danger is that we use our ethical precepts to justify our indignation, saying to ourselves, “they should know better”. When we do this we have forgotten that the precepts are primarily and overwhelmingly tools for self reflection, not weapons for judging the actions of others.

Therefore, even when there is a real need to discuss something difficult, we need to work on our own mind first and always. Then we can attempt to engage those with whom we are in conflict with.

1.1 Using the ten precepts

The precepts are central to our ordination and form the foundation of our ethical practice. They come directly from the Buddha, they are consistent across many traditions and independent of lifestyle.

They are a central resource for how we work to repair and restore harmony, especially the four speech precepts. There has been some discussion in the order along the lines of “aren’t the precepts enough?” The short answer is, if we were all practising the ten precepts deeply enough, they would be enough. But evidence from the history of our own community tells us that this is not always the case. They only work when we are prepared to look deep within ourselves and let what we find there be seen by others – see point 1.5.

The Ten Pillars is available to buy here and the updated pali of the ten precepts here.

1.2 Using chapters and kalyana mitrata

We work on our own minds through meditation and reflection, but also through communication – with good friends, and/or our Chapter. The Chapter is the basic working unit of the Order. We can make disclosures, check out our thoughts and feelings with others, and in doing so bring objectivity to our own subjective experience, out of which heartfelt confession may arise. Our friends will be able to help us to find ways to make amends and avoid repeating our unskillfulness. Being in a chapter is not always an easy practice, but at best it can be a source of inspiration, guidance and help. Bhante highlights the central importance of chapters by saying “if Chapters are alive and effective then the whole Order will be alive and effective”.

You can find two good resources on BCO here. One is called ‘The strength of chapters’ is an 8 page write up of a men’s order weekend in 2015 that began with the premise, we know the theory, so what’s our experience of chapters? Alokavira and Lokeshvara wrote up all the notes from every group and assembled them into 11 headings alongside some stand out points.

The other is about chapter convening, ‘The Little Book of Chapter Convening’, an 11 page condensation by Bodhivamsa, of a much bigger resource assembled by Lokabandhu based mostly on some talks Subhuti gave. It needs a bit of updating, but is still an excellent distillation of what being a chapter convenor means.

1.3 Working on our negative emotions

Although the precepts are our ethical foundation, they are augmented by many other practices and approaches.

For example, many order members use the Metta Bhavana meditation when they are in dispute with someone, putting them “in the fourth stage”. For those who do regular Metta practice, making it as specific as this can help, but there are other ways in which we can work on our negative emotions toward someone we are in dispute with. Drawing on the early canon Buddhaghosha suggests we:

  1. Reflect on what the Buddha said: he spoke again and again about letting go of resentment.
  2. Call to mind some positive quality in the the person you are in dispute with: recognise that there is something that is good in them, and really concentrate on that.
  3. If you can’t find any positive qualities, then reflect, ‘what a pity’, after all, if somebody has got no positive qualities, the appropriate response isn’t hatred but compassion.

These are from a longer list  in the Visuddhimagga. You can find a complete copy here. And you can find a short commentary by Bodhipaksha here. There is also a helpful collection of short suttas on the access to insight website here where the Buddha suggests how to deal with provocative people and situations.

1.4 Noting and letting go of reactions

Subhuti, using early sources and his study of the Abhidharma mind training materials, has developed a framework for self reflection that is sometimes called ‘reaction practice’. It is a mind training practice that can be applied at any time. (listen to Subhuti’s description on FBA here) A version of it can be used in the midst of communication, helping us to get underneath the emotion to the values/needs:

  1. Notice your reaction
  2. Notice where you hold it in your body
  3. Stay with the sensations for as long as you can
  4. Ask yourself what value or view has been threatened
  5. Decide if there might be something worth communicating on the basis of the value or view

Engaging in an embodied reflection like this might help us move from “you are really annoying” to a reflection like “when we communicated I realised I felt threatened because other people were listening and so my response was defensive and a bit harsh”. It requires a bit of practice and patience, but that can also be done outside of the disagreement.

1.5 The four aspects of ethical transformation

In the Bhaddali Sutta, the Buddha describes a fourfold process for ethical transformation (you can find the sutta here),

  1. Seeing a fault as such
  2. Actually confessing it
  3. Making amends
  4. Making a resolution not to repeat it

In his excellent booklet, ‘Remorse and Confession in the Spiritual Community’ Subhuti goes through these four aspects (you can find a pdf on FBA here):

seeing a fault as such’, kaukrtya (remorse) “involves a cognitive or thinking aspect, but the word basically indicates a feeling, specifically a painful feeling of regret and shame for something done or left undone. . . the capacity for kaukrtya is part of being human. This has profound implications, for it means that our consciousness has an intrinsic moral dimension”.

Actually confessing it’, Subhuti describes the inner process of seeing the fault as such “only finds completion in actual confession. . . It is only in the process of confession that the nature of the fault and our attitude towards it finally become fully clear”.

Making amends’, “refers to the fact that any genuine confession must entail a desire to put right, as far as possible, whatever wrong or suffering has been caused by one’s unskilful action”. This desire needs to be activated, in other words turned from a thought into an action, with the help of friends or a chapter to help decide the best way of doing this.

Making a resolution not to repeat in the future’, is about working on our habits and it is not easy to do. But we can build strategies and understand better the conditions we need in order to act ethically and not repeat faults.

Summing up these four aspects Subhuti says we can see that “confession, though an important step, is not enough. For real transformation to occur, we need to understand why we acted in this way through an insight into our own habits and tendencies”.

2. Promoting Harmony in the Order

Harmony is a musical metaphor that denotes concord, peace and agreement. Within a community it is very attractive, but very hard to realise and sustain.

In a community it is hard to attain because it needs to include honest difference and vigorous debate.  Otherwise it can be a superficial papering over the cracks of community, and we lose the chance to mine the gold buried deep in those fissures! 

We can draw on the Buddha’s teaching that there are two main sources of dispute: on one hand there are disagreements about ideas or facts; on the other, there are clashes of emotion and personality. We need to be able to take responsibility for our own emotions in order to have any chance that we can debate and discuss ideas and ‘facts’.

However, it’s not just about our verbal or written communication, harmony is like Dhyana at the level of the community. It is what the ‘continuous flow of positive mental states’ looks like amongst a group of people and it can be seen in silence, in ritual, and through gesture. Just like Dhyana, you can’t grasp at it: it arises when you set up the right conditions.  

So, we have a community of people “having a go at harmony”.  There are all sorts of pitfalls and squabbles along the way. It is important to recognise this is inevitable and that maturity is a long term project.

2.1 Building the foundation - the Buddha's advice

How do we do it? Starting with the Buddha in the Kosambiyā Sutta (MN 48 – see the text here) he suggested six practices that create harmony:

  1. Kindly actions
  2. Kindly speech
  3. Kindly thoughts
  4. Generosity: sharing whatever you have with others
  5. Maintaining spotless ethics
  6. Living in conformity with Right View

These help to establish the conditions, and we also need ways to rebuild harmony when it breaks down.

2.2 Taking initiative for restoring harmony

Restorative process is one of the helpful frameworks ‘borrowed’ from secular practice that has been helpful in the Order. It is based on a principle that, as far as possible, participants in a conflict reach better outcomes if they try and resolve the difficulties themselves and don’t look to some outside party to make a judgement or resolve it for them.

The sort of questions asked in this process are:
What happened?
What were you thinking of at the time?
What have you thought about since?
Who has been affected by what you have done?
In what way have they been affected?
What do you think you need to do to make things right?

There’s a good wikipedia page that explains restorative process here

2.3 A conflict resolution process

The International Council has developed a process that embodies principles from the Adhikarana Samatha, one of the key conflict resolution procedures from the Vinaya. This “begins in the natural relationship of kalyana mitrata, and gradually becomes more formal if the situation makes that necessary, aiming for outcomes that are ‘in accordance with Dhamma’”. You can find the document on the Buddhist centre online here.

What follows is a summary of the key steps. If there is a criminal and/or safeguarding allegation this needs to be assessed first – is anyone at risk of serious harm to themselves or others. If it looks like a law has been broken it goes to the police and no further action is taken until they have investigated. If there is no safeguarding or criminal implication the process proceeds from the informal and local.

2.4 Informal dialogue

The first step in resolving any conflict, where it is possible, is that the people involved get together and to try to sort the issue out between them. This can involve the help of local Order members, office holders or ‘elders’, or kalyana mitras. Communication is not easy in dispute. When a value or opinion is threatened it’s as though our whole identity is threatened. To try and build this dialogue we need to do a bit of work, for example:

  • Establish some common ground – what are the values and outcomes you share?
  • Try and understand what the other person is saying and why
  • Try to understand the context and background of the other person
  • During dialogue, try and repeat back what you have heard the other party say before replying (this can both demonstrate that you have heard what they said, and if you have misheard it gives a further opportunity to clarify what was said and/or meant)

2.5 Facilitated dialogue

If an informal process does not satisfactorily resolve things, the issue could be taken to someone who has the experience or the training to work effectively with conflicts, using a recommended methodology such as the restorative process, or non-violent communication.

If you want help finding someone to help facilitate a meeting you can try the ‘Triratna Restorative / Mediation Service Restorative Coordinating Group’ Every month there is a notice in Shabda: “Disagreements or conflicts unresolved? Co-operation difficult? Harmony lost? For confidential help from within the Order, contact for more information about how we might be able to help. We are now able to hold Restorative meetings online”.

2.6 Formal resolution

If the issue is still unresolved, the matter would be handled by whoever holds formal responsibility. In the movement strand this could mean the trustees of the charity; in an Order context, the Order convenors, or in the case of a serious ethical breach, the private and public preceptors.

This person or group may be required to makes a decision about the disagreement. If all parties in a conflict have agreed that someone can make a decision on their behalf, this can still be considered a consensus decision.

Formal resolution by majority is allowed in the vinaya text that this process is derived from. It is a last resort option because it undermines other values of the Order, including the principle of free association, acting in the ‘love’ mode not ‘power’ mode, in other words trying to bring about the third order of consciousness.

Decisions made by formal resolution are usually done so only when other methods have failed to bring resolution and there are important reasons why a decision is needed, for example due to legal or secular responsibility.

3. Help to create the conditions under which as many people as possible can go for refuge

We have special responsibilities to those we teach or lead who are new to our community, or less experienced in the Dharma life. There is a duty of care we need to honour. Order members have an important status, at least in the eyes of those we teach even if we don’t experience that ourselves, in the sense that we are in a position of trust.

This section describes what maintaining ‘healthy boundaries’ might mean in order to honour that position of trust for those who teach and lead in Triratna. It includes a summary of the ‘Ethical Guidelines for those teaching and mentoring’ which is produced by the European chairs assembly.

Also included are some suggestions for how we best use online communication in service of the Dharma. While some of this communication will be with other Order members, online platforms are a growing interface with the world.

3.1 Healthy boundaries in teaching and leadership roles

As far as Buddha Nature is concerned, there is no difference between sinner and sage… One enlightened thought – and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought – and one is an ordinary person. (Hui Neng)

The archetypal role of teacher carries a great deal of influence, but also carries a responsibility for those holding this position: it is one in which the ‘student’ places great trust. Breaches of trust (misuse of authority, taking advantage of susceptibility, or placing one’s own needs above those of the student) can lead to disorientation and disillusionment. One way of talking about this is by using the language of boundaries.

Boundaries are the limits that allow for a safe connection based on the needs of the less experienced persons. When these boundaries are exceeded, what is allowed into the relationship becomes ambiguous. Such ambiguity is often experienced as an intrusion.

Teachers/leaders have a duty to assume a greater responsibility for maintaining healthy and positive boundaries between themselves and those they lead/teach, and in particular those who are new to the Dharma. If teachers and leaders can establish and maintain healthy boundaries with students, deep connection and trust can flourish.

The US based FaithTrust Institute runs an online Buddhist healthy boundaries course that some of us have done and value. You can see their website here. The course uses some material from Scot Edelsens book, Sex and the Spiritual Teacher, which has some useful perspectives. In the UK it is distributed by Simon and Schuster, internationally it is published by Wisdom here.

3.2 Ethical guidelines for those teaching in Triratna

These guidelines are mainly intended to offer guidance where Order members, or other experienced members of the Triratna community, are presenting and communicating Buddhist principles to those who are new or less experienced, especially in public situations. They describe the duty of care we aspire to using the framework of the five precepts. Here is a summary of them and the full text can be found here.

1. I undertake the training principle of abstention from harming living beings.
With deeds of loving-kindness I purify my body.

Our spiritual community has been defined by Sangharakshita, as ‘a free association of individuals’. While respecting this principle, it is important that individuals in positions of trust and authority as members of Triratna do not misuse their trusted position or authority (real or perceived) for their own benefit or to influence others inappropriately.

Wishing to minimise the harm we do to living beings, we affirm that physical violence and strong expressions of anger have no place among us.

2. I undertake the training principle of abstention from taking the not given.
With open handed generosity, I purify my body.

We wish to offer the Buddha’s teachings in a spirit of generosity, making them accessible to all. Those of us who handle money, property or other resources for a Triratna Buddhist Centre, group or project will take care of them and avoid their deliberate misuse or misappropriation.

3. I undertake the training principle of abstention from sexual misconduct
With stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body.

We encourage all members of our community to conduct their sexual relationships ethically, with awareness and kindness.

Those of us in teaching roles, supporting roles or with other positions of responsibility within the sangha have a particular responsibility in this area, particularly to those new to Triratna.

Relationships are not prohibited between order members and those they teach but we do advise caution, ask for open discussion in one’s chapter and teaching team before beginning an intimate relationship, and request that no relationship begins with someone when you are the main point of contact with the Dharma, in other words you wait until they have several other strong connections in the Sangha.

4. I undertake the training principle of abstention from false speech.
With truthful communication, I purify my speech.

In all our dealings with those we teach we are committed to truthful, meaningful, helpful and harmonious communication, written or spoken.
We will encourage ethical reflection and disclosure in our community, taking care to emphasise that this happens in its own time and at its own pace, though we also note that confession offers no protection from UK law (though this may differ from country to country).

5. I undertake the training principle of abstention from intoxication.
With mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

We aspire to engage with our practice and with each other with as much mindfulness as possible. We aim to provide supportive environments for those wishing to live without intoxicants.

3.3 Online communication

This area needs a special mention because of its prevalence and because it is a relatively new form of communication. Through the growth of social media – from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Zoom, messaging, online comment and discussion – there has been an astonishing increase in the freedom and scope of self-expression.

Because these formats are so new, it is not yet clear about their long term impact on how we communicate, on our mental health, and how we do this well. Potentially, these mediums open up many positive opportunities for communicating and sharing the dharma.

Online communication could, at least in theory, have some advantages over face to face communication. Because you are not forced to respond immediately, there is time to pause, reflect, and be generous. With care, they can provide channels for legitimate questioning, for transparency, for holding each other to account.

Often however, it doesn’t appear to happen like this, and this can result in polarised positions, cynical dismissals, or ad hominem attacks, with very little positive benefit for the participants or the wider audience looking in.

As an Order, we need to keep asking how we use these forms of communication well. Do they need their own ethical code that extends the implications of the speech precepts?
Maybe it is too early to know – here are some suggested starting points:

  1. Clarify why you are online, and find ways to consciously bring the three Refuges into your communication.
  2. Practice restraint – refraining from broadcasting your own negativity, and protect yourself from others’ negativity.
  3. Choose the appropriate forum carefully, considering the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, as well as the audience.
  4. Avoid engaging in comments that will not help create trust, harmony and the awakened mind.

With many thanks to Prajnaketu for his substantial input to this section, which comes from his forthcoming book “Cyberloka: A Buddhist guide to digital life” which will be published in November 2022, by Windhorse.