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The skill of harmonizing with others is developed on top of the skills of generosity, harmlessness and purity. It adds to these the specialized skill of dealing with the complexities of the common human personality as we interact with others, including respect for their humanness and acknowledgement of a conditioned complex of faults and virtues that we all possess (aside from the arahants). It also adds to these a handle on some of our most deeply rutted inclinations, for we commonly reserve a particularly pronounced capacity for harshness for our fellow humans.
As we practice harmony we may often be frustrated at the limits of our control over the consequences. Harmony is something shared by people in relationship or in community, and our practice, yet we exercise control over only one side of the relationship, and over one locus in the dynamics of a community. The best it can do is to uphold in our practice from our side the conditions conducive to harmony and leave the rest up to others, who may have entirely different understandings and intentions than our own. At least that way we do not contribute to the disharmony when it does arise. Recall that our practice and its results are our own.
We must resist the urge to extend our control over the consequences by admonishing others, for unless done with great skill, as we have seen, this risks greater disharmony. There are ways, however, in which we do influence others in the direction of greater harmony. For one thing, others begin to realize that we consistently refuse to participate in the kinds of games that precipitate disharmony, such as responding to insult with insult. We become a kind of refuge from such behavior, a safe space in which they do not have to be so defensive. And soon, they begin to emulate our behaviors. We produce role models.
Also, within any culture certain people enjoy a degree of authority as wise advisors or teachers, either by social role or reputation. In the Sigovada sutta, parents, teachers and ascetics and brahmins may enjoy this status. Granting reverence or veneration to another is an act of trust or faith that opens others up to their advice. The Buddha, to take the primary example, certainly received that degree of venerations from his thousands of disciples and could freely admonish others all day long. It is only through granting this level of respect or trust to the wise that the Buddha’s sāsana has grown. Reverence or veneration in the Buddhist context is the topic of the next chapter.
As we interact with others a range of unskillful thoughts come up, involving anger, resentment, envy, arrogance, vanity, personal insult, conceit and so on. Our practice of purification is gradually to let go of our tendency toward such thoughts. But our first line of defense is not to act bodily or verbally on the basis of such thoughts. It is to remain harmless whatever the mind might be doing. If we can do this, we are already to a degree accomplished in not contributing to disharmony. The speech precepts in particular – not speaking falsely, not speaking harshly, not speaking divisively and not speaking frivolously – take us far in this direction.
One of the most dangerous ways we can act on the basis of such thoughts is through divisive speech. It is helpful to guard against this with a further rule of thumb: Do not speak ill of others.vii There will be cases in which this rule of thumb cannot be sustained, for instance, where we need to warn others out of compassion of the angry man around the corner who is swearing and brandishing a knife. But consider: in general speaking ill of others it is a huge responsibility:
First, in the situation where it is likely to come up, we may well be speaking falsely; if there is anger involved, there is almost certainly some degree of misperception on our part.
Second, the consequences of our speech might easily get out of hand. Even if our intentions are relatively pure, how about the intentions of those we speak to, who are likely to repeat it to others, and so forth? Furthermore, if we are talking with someone who lacks familiarity with the person or group we speak ill of, what is said may produce is likely to color their impressions for a long time to come. The recipient of the disparagement may then repeat it much less skillfully than we will, and with quite impure intentions.
Third, it is difficult to maintain kindness in a mob: Even if we speak ill of another in all kindness for that person, others who agree with us may be of questionable kindness. Another rule of thumb: Never take sides in interpersonal disputes, even if you are friends with one party; don’t become part of a coalition set in opposition to some other person or group.
It is advisable to become familiar with, and participate in, the use of gestures of respect and general etiquette in whatever local Buddhist community you might belong to. It should be noted that although these go back to common Indian roots in virtually any Buddhist community, these have evolved into somewhat different forms through different Asian cultures. It is also wise to become skilled in the modern gestures and etiquette of the prevailing culture. Although these are generally different from those found in most Buddhist communities, they generally served much the same function.
The Buddha’s Teachings on Social and Communal Harmony: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Bhikkhu Bodhi (editor), 2016, Wisdom Publications. This is a systematic look at the Buddha’s teachings on harmony with valuable commentary by a renowned American monk and Pali scholar.
Working with Anger, Thubten Chodron, 2001, Snow Lion. This hightly regarded work, by an American nun, focuses on reconceptualizing situations that normally lead to the arising of anger. It is strongly based on the insights of the great eighth-century Indian monk and scholar Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.