Grass covers the Earth: A Buddhist Concept for Settling Disputes

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Jürgen Habermas said in The Theory of Communicative Action: “… even where there are no courts, there are routines for peacefully settling disputes that affect the interests of an individual and his family or the welfare of the collective as a whole.”[1] Buddhism provides good examples of such ‘routines’ with its successfully organized Saṃgha and sophisticated Vinaya system. The term dispute itself is quite disputable. In the contemporary world, dispute is sometimes identified with controversy and thus tends to be positively valued for democratic processes. Marcelo Dascal suggested a classification of ‘discussion’, ‘dispute’ and ‘controversy’, according to which dispute was defined as “a polemical exchange which also seems to have as its object a well-defined divergence” and “is rooted in differences of attitude, feelings, or preferences”.[2]

If the dispute is closely associated with feelings and preferences, its destructive aspects should not be ignored, for those feelings and preferences could be misleading and harmful, in Buddhist terminology, they could be ignorance – Avidyā.

As the other religious communities, the Saṃgha often confronted with the problem of disputes, whether internal or external. In the scriptures of Early Buddhism, a concept for disputes resolution is already reasonably well established. According to Early Buddhist literature, the Buddha has taught the six roots of the dispute (六諍本) and the seven rules of settling disputes (七 止諍). The basic framework of this teaching is not only included in Madhyamâgama 196 周那and T 85 息諍因緣of the Chinese canon but also in Majjhima Nikāya 104 – Sāmagāma Sutta – of the Pāli canon, with some variations. Therefore, this teaching per se may be accepted as a common doctrine of the (Mūla-)Sarvāstivādins and the Theravādins.

Firstly, let us look at the six roots of the dispute. They are presented in Madhyamâgama as follows: 1) the anger and anxiety (瞋惱); 2) the speechlessness (不語); 3) the miserliness and envy (慳嫉); 4) the flattery and deceit (諂誑); 5) the shamelessness and recklessness (無慚無愧); 6) bad desire and erroneous views (惡欲邪見; Sanskrit: Skt. mithyā-dṛṣṭi), the indomitable unwholesome nature (惡性不可制). Some of the causes are also mentioned in T 85 and in Dīrghâgama which is attributed to the Dharmaguptakas. T 85 showed the most agreement with Madhyamâgama 196, however, gave the second root as the attachment to the existence and the unwholesome/careless speech, seemingly in contrast to the speechlessness in Madhyamâgama. The third version – the version in Dīrghâgama – listed the fierceness and carelessness (佷戾不諦) instead of the speechlessness, and the persistence in own wrong views (自因己 見謬受不捨) instead of the shamelessness and recklessness. The Pāli version has an appreciable distinction from the versions of the (Mūla-)Sarvāstivādins, however, relatively approximates the version of the Dharmaguptakas.[3]

Secondly, we come to the question of the seven rules of settling disputes. They are the following: 1) Settling disputes by confrontation or through the Vinaya on the ‘Presence’ (現前毘尼滅諍法, 面前止諍). It means that the monks who hold the truth tell the other the wholesome dharma; 2) Settling disputes by recollection or through the Vinaya on the ‘Remembrance’ (憶念毘 尼滅諍法, 憶止諍). It means that one who is guilty of this mis-speech should recall what he has done as wrong; 3) Settling disputes through ”non sanity” (不 癡毘尼滅諍法, 不癡止諍). It applies to one who has been ignorant and later recovered his original (undefiled) mind; 4) Settling disputes by self-confession or self-revealing (自言治滅諍法, 自發露止諍); 5) Settling disputes through the conference or the group talks (多人語滅諍法, 君止諍); 6) Settling disputes by gradual resolution or through recognizing ‘what he has done’ (知所作滅諍法, 展轉止諍); 7) Settling disputes by ”covering over as with grass” (如草覆地滅 諍法, 如棄糞掃止諍). This rule is especially interesting. It means that the guilty monks confess their sins to the opposite group/camp respectively, if the confession was not accepted by their own group. All these rules, which are also found in Vinaya texts, provide de facto a complete solution of disputes and seem to be able to ensure justice of speech and opinion to a certain extent.

In summary, Early Buddhism provides operable measures of settling disputes. These measures are generally based on the fundamental teaching of early Buddhism, which is represented inter alia by the Mātṛkās. Nevertheless, some measures seem to be of universal significance. Among them are the presence of both sides of controversy, the consideration of psychological state of transgressor, the necessity of ”marks of sin” proofs, the respect of statement of transgressor, the collective and not individual conviction, the clear understanding of process and the conversation between the two sides of dispute.

Furthermore, it should not be ignored that these rules are practical methods, not the complete teaching of the peaceful dispute resolution proposed by Early Buddhism. The very first foundation of the application of these methods, is the deep insight or mindfulness. It is the self-awareness with which the Bhikṣus pull out the roots of the dispute. Moreover, the Early Buddhist texts also provide six dharmas of harmony and respect (六種和敬法), which should be followed by the Monks after the resolution.



  • Anālayo (2011). Studies of Discourses 91 to 152, Conclusion, Abbreviations, References, Appendix. In: A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Vol. 2. Taipei: Dharma Dhrum Pulishing Corporation, X, [527]–1084.
  • Dascal, Marcelo (1998). “Types of Polemics and Types of Polemical Moves”. In: Dialoganalyse VI.1. Ed. by S. Cmejrková et al., pp. 15–33.
  • Habermas, Jürgen (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action. Lifeworld and System: A critique of Functionalist Reason. Trans. by Thomas McCarthy. Vol. 2. Beacon press.
  • Lloyd, Geoffrey (2007). “Towards a Taxonomy of Controversies and Controversiality. Ancient Greece and China”. In: Traditions of Controversy, pp. 3– 15.

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