Conflict Resolution?

General Topics: 

(Excerpted from The Service Link,  annual publication of  Theosophical Order of Service, International.)


World peace is one of the principal concerns of people all over the world, and yet the vast majority of us feel powerless to stop our national leaders, international bullies and multi-national corporations making economic and political decisions that will lead sooner or later to war.

The TOS in the Philippines seems to have found ways for its members to contribute constructively to the reduction of violence in society.  The Service Link interviews Vicente Hao Chin Jnr., one of its workers there.

The Service Link:  One tends to associate the Philippines with Muslim unrest, coups d’état, hostage-taking and so on.  However relatively safe it is to go there as a tourist, the fact remains that the Philippines is one of the countries where the most journalists are killed each year.  It is hard to imagine what members can do to stop the fighting between Christian and Muslim groups, for example.

Vic: We are frequently asked what the Theosophical Society or the TOS can do to help stop hostilities in the southern island of Mindanao.  We answer that the present violence is like an erupting volcano.  A volcano eruption occurs because of heat and pressure building up deep in the earth.  Deploying troops to quell violence and conflict is like trying to put a lid on a volcano.  But is there anyone taking care of removing the heat build-up permanently?

The Service Link: We hear all the time about peace negotiations going on.  Is that the main way to release the heat and pressure?

Vic: In 1996 a peace agreement was signed between the government and the largest armed Muslim group in Mindanao, the Moro National Liberation Front.  This group agreed to give up its arms and be integrated into the government.  In fact its leader became the governor of a large new province.  People were saying that peace had come to Mindanao at last.  Within three years, however, this peace broke down and a series of worse armed conflicts broke out with the most shocking atrocities : kidnapping, terrorism, etc.  Things are now no longer just a question of ethnic and religious difference.  They include plain criminal acts.

The Service Link:  So are you saying that accords and treaties are useless?

Vic: No, because three years of ‘peace’ at least saved hundreds or perhaps thousands of lives.  But the treaty was just a lull in the storm.  It was not the real solution.  It did not address the underlying causes of tension.  When children grow up being taught attitudes of prejudice and hostility towards either Muslims or Christians, treaties become just ceasefires, but the war goes on.  And it goes on from generation to generation.

If we reflect upon the various social evils we are faced with in society – around the world and not just here in the Philippines – we will find that they too can be viewed in terms of the build up of heat with almost predictable eruptions.  Take juvenile delinquency,  for example.  We can deal with it as crime, which is a police matter, or we can go deeper into the causes which involve education, parenting and culture.  If we consider pollution, we can try to deal with it by controlling emissions, but at the root of it are societal values of ever-increasing industrial production and uncontrolled consumption.  Young minds are fed with unquestioned values about economic growth, higher production and sales, higher profits and higher GNP.  There is hardly a single company planning for zero or negative growth.  If we don’t deal with these root problems, we will forever be engaged in fighting eruptions, whether in the form of inter-religious war, pollution, animal cruelty, malnutrition, human rights, ethnic violence or a thousand other social ills.  I believe that the work of the TS and TOS is to address the heat build-up in the human psyche, starting with children when they are very young.

The Service Link: So how do we go about doing this?

Vic:  By taking note of two things: the first is culture and the second is individual and collective maturity.  The culture is the conditioning that affects the individual; at the same time, individual maturity is returned to or reflected back on the culture in terms of behaviour.  The two are a like a closed circuit influencing each other.

If we truly wish to help change things, we must break the cycle that allows the two to feed each other. In the long run, it’s the only way.  Solving the problem within the cycle is to go to the level of fire-fighting or putting a lid on eruptions without resolving the causes.

This means a kind of education that will release individuals from the stranglehold of present culture and individual or collective self-centredness.  This may be through schools whose teachers can see beyond current culture.  An overwhelming percentage of today’s schools are just perpetuating the present culture and individual immaturity. In a deep sense, many standard schools may be said to be doing harmful work by their unthinking transmission of the values predominant in commercial, divisive, sectarian or nationalistic culture.  Instead of encouraging excellence and conveying uplifting values, they promote competitiveness; instead of modest and responsible use of resources, they indirectly foster consumerism; instead of integrity, they unwittingly promote cunning and convenience in making a living.

Today’s teachers are the products of existing schools and hence are often embodiments of the same culture and same self-centredness.  How do we cut through such a vicious circle?  It is here that we see the essential role of the perennial philosophy or Theosophy in transforming the self-perpetuating model.  Such wisdom is not beholden to the current culture.  It can cut through the closed circuit and bring about change from the outside and not from within.

The Service Link: So what does this mean in real terms for teachers out in the field?

Vic: I would suggest the creation of curricula to promote what may be called transformative education.  It is an education that goes beyond the values of the prevailing culture; it is one of preparation for global citizenship, recognition of universal values, sensitivity to the welfare of all, transcendence of narrow self-interest, nationalism and rivalry.  It is a programme that translates such values into new behaviour and habits.

Such a programme does not necessarily mean putting up schools of our own, although that may well be the case, as we are now doing in the Philippines. It is a movement that develops effective methodologies for such transformative education, and promotes them among educators and parents.

We are not talking here of curricula for young people alone but of programmes for educators, parents, social workers, professionals, decision-makers - all interested adults, in fact.

In the past several years, teams of theosophists have been conducting in-depth seminars to combined Muslim and Christian groups that address two issues (among other things): core commonality in religion, and dealing with one's own anger and fears in relating to other people or other ethnic and religious communities.  So far the response has been encouraging.  Both Catholic and Muslim organizations are keen on continuing these workshops, organized and funded by them.  We have organized several of these workshops in the past half year alone.

Transformative education is not something that can be introduced in a ‘one-shot’ way. Endless lectures and seminars given here and there from time to time to different audiences cannot make much of a dent in the social system.  There needs to be sustained work with the same group. If transformative education is started with a certain school, for example, then that work must be continued in the same school for years at deepening levels.  Our task is to awaken collective awareness and this awareness will naturally build future society.

The Service Link: Theosophists have been calling for spiritually-oriented education in public educational institutions for as long as the TS has existed.  There’s a big difference between giving lectures on theosophical doctrine to a polite and tolerant audience at the TS, and communicating several times a week with a class of noisy teenagers – or maintaining harmony in a combined group of Christians and Muslims in Mindanao!  How easy is it to apply all this in reality?

Vic: A number of us in the Philippines have been devoting much of our time to this very activity over the past six or seven years.  We have experimented with transformative education among both adults, teenagers and children, with educators and lay people, with Theosophists and non-Theosophists.

The Service Link: How have you got on?

Vic: We have had to learn by trial and error but the outcome of our efforts has exceeded initial expectations.  Numerous secondary and tertiary level schools, governmental agencies, NGOs, the staff of private companies and various religious groups have participated in our training seminars and have become interested in integrating such an approach with their own existing educational or training programmes.

The Service Link:  You’re not saying that your team of TS members is standing up in front of government and corporate employees and talking about Rounds and Races?!

Vic:  No, not the theosophy of the rounds and races, but the theosophy of self-transformation.  It is about our higher and lower nature, the different levels of consciousness, about impersonality, about love and relationships, about strengthening objective reasoning and awakening intuition, about self-mastery, dealing with push-button reactions, facing hidden fears, about core religious mysticism as opposed to external rituals and dogmas, about meditation, about the concept of evolution beyond mere Darwinian survival of the fittest.  It is couched in a way that is understandable not only to intellectuals but the average person.

We have been conducting the self-transformation training, for example, in some of the depressed villages we have adopted, in conjunction with the regular health, nutrition and livelihood programmes.  We have been nurturing groups of active citizens, particularly young people between 15 and 25 and the principal result has been the awakening of a genuine altruism.  In one community, college students have been volunteering every Sunday for an extended period to help tutor up to 100 smaller children.  When we take them on excursions to beaches, they are happy to clean up the rubbish left behind by other beachgoers.  We have found that when our young people (called Golden Link youth) participate in games in their suburban communities, fighting no longer breaks out amongst the ‘roughies’.  This is a small but sure sign that something good is happening, both to the young people and in the communities.

The encouraging results of our pilot work with these communities have motivated us to establish a pilot school which will go up to high school level.  The Golden Link School opened in 2002 and will be opening up fifth grade by next year.  We are adding two grade levels each year.  The Golden Link School is the fourth school we have put up.  In the last national convention of the TS in the Philippines, the members agreed to try to put up another school up to college level within the next ten years.

The Service Link:  Goodness, this is all very encouraging and impressive.

Vic: Yes, we too are greatly encouraged.  This kind of work will never attract headlines, however.  The fruits of the work won’t even be seen immediately.  It is of little interest to many politicians, who are keen on ‘impact’ projects.  I believe, however, that going to the fundamentals of education based on spiritual principles and ethical values is the only long-term solution to the problems of humanity.  What is important is that we begin now, where we are, no matter how small the effort is.  The right seed planted now and nurtured well will not fail to yield the right fruit.  It must be done with intensity over the long-term, though, and eventually of course on a very wide scale.

It has not been easy to train a large team of facilitators and lecturers in these fields.  It involves not merely speaking skills and knowledge, but also integrating spiritual principles into our everyday behaviour and relationships.  It requires  recognizing conditioning, ingrained negative habits, etc.

In the Philippines, we say to people, ‘If you feel that what we are doing is truly worthwhile, we invite you to join hands with us in the TOS.  Let us do this work together.’

The Service Link: What about members overseas, though, Vic?  Can they come to the Philippines to learn how to facilitate conflict resolution workshops for religious communities or to try out the self-transformation programmes?

Vic: Of course they can; they’d be most welcome.  It’s also possible for us to send trainers out into the field.  We’ve already done this.  The training of facilitators has been conducted in Bangladesh, India and Australia.  Self-training seminars have been organized in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.  This year we’re collaborating with TS members on the spot in Malaysia.  It’s an honour for us to work with our fellow Theosophists, wherever they may be.

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