Let's take a closer look at one of the early Buddhist texts on the root causes of conflict. Below, you'll find a passage from the Collection of Discourses. Use Andrew's guided narration and audio commentary to gain a deeper understanding of the text.
A. Collection of Discourses 935–939
Fear is born from arming oneself.
Just see how people are fighting!
I’ll tell you of the anxious dread
that caused me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
like fishes in shallow water,
so hostile to one another!
—seeing this, I became afraid.
This world completely lacks essence;
it trembles in all directions.
I longed to find myself a place
unscathed—but I could not see one.
Seeing people locked in conflict,
I became completely distraught...
But then I discerned here a thorn,
hard to see, lodged deep in the heart.
It is only when pierced by this thorn
that one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out—
one does not run, one does not sink.
Commentary on the Text
A. These verses are found in one of the oldest parts of the Pali Canon and very likely express the Buddha's own process of trepidation and discovery. This passage begins with the empirical observation that so many people are hostile to one another, fight all the time, and are locked in conflict in various ways. This situation does not seem to have changed very much over the past 2,500 years. One gets the sense that the anxious dread and fear the Buddha mentions is not fear of personal injury, but is rather a deeper despair regarding the human condition. Is it the nature of human beings to struggle so much, and are we thus destined to stay locked in conflict forever?
B. The image of fish living in water that steadily becomes more shallow is a dramatic visual, and one particularly well suited for modern times. This describes so well a world of dwindling resources inhabited by an ever-increasing population. It also evokes a sense of needing to desperately breath but not being able to do so, like the mythical hungry ghosts with large bellies and tiny throats—a similar image conveying the experience of deep craving that can never be adequately satiated.
C. The dramatic breakthrough comes in the fourth verse, with the insight that there is a particular cause of the suffering. It is not that people are inherently hostile, they are only driven mad with the pain of the thorn piercing their heart. People hurt one another because of the greed, hatred, and delusion lodged deep in the human psyche, the ancient hereditary behavioral reflexes that promote selfishness and aggression. Here, we can't help but think of similar stories in European literature about the lion with a thorn in its paw, assumed to be inherently ferocious but only driven to rage by its pain. Both traditions tell stories of healing, for when that thorn is removed the lion becomes a tame and loyal friend. So too does the Buddha demonstrate that we are able to remove the thorn of desire, purge unhealthy toxins driving harmful behavior, and thereby quiet the hostility that underlies conflict. Yes, it is entirely possible for people to live together in harmony.
A. Sutta Nipāta 935–939
attadaṇḍā bhayaṃ jātaṃ,
janaṃ passatha medhagaṃ;
yathā saṃvijitaṃ mayā.
phandamānaṃ pajaṃ disvā,
macche appodake yathā;
disvā maṃ bhayamāvisi.
disā sabbā sameritā;
disvā me aratī ahu;
yena sallena otiṇṇo,
disā sabbā vidhāvati;
na dhāvati na sīdati.
Commentary on the Language
A. The first line of this verse states something that is entirely counter-intuitive. We think ourselves safer when armed for 'self-defense,' but here it is said that the act of taking up (atta-) the stick (-daṇḍa) is not something born from fear but is what gives birth to fear. This sense is given from the compound 'attadaṇḍā' being in the ablative case, so that it is from the taking up of the stick that fear is born. The word daṇḍa just means 'stick' or 'staff,' but is used widely in ancient India to include larger ideas such as law, punishment, and violence. One who is cruel 'takes up the stick,' while one who has renounced the onslaught of living (literally 'breathing' = pāṇa/prāṇa) beings is said to have 'put down the stick.'
B. The word 'saṃvega' in the third line is translated as 'anxious dread,' and the context clearly suggests great distress. The word can also have a positive meaning, however, as the sense of 'spiritual urgency' that comes from contemplating the existential truths of old age, illness and death. As such it provides motivation for undertaking positive action toward transforming suffering. It is often said that hearing (or reading) the teachings of the Buddha (the dhamma or dharma) gives rise to both a sense of serene joy (pasāda) and of urgency (saṃvega) for awakening. The 'anxious dread' described here by the Buddha, then, is also understood to provide one of the conditions that will spur him on to gain wisdom.
C. The phrase beginning the third verse, that the world lack an 'essence', makes use of the word 'sāra.' Originally referring to the 'heartwood' or solid, inner part of a tree trunk, the word can extend out to mean the best of things or the essence of a thing. Buddhists use the idea to express the notion of nonself, that there is no inner core or solid essence of the psyche, as opposed to the Brahmanical teachers of his day. The Upanishads, for example, pointed to a divine essence within each person, the ātman or self, which was ultimately identical to the larger divine essence that enveloped the universe—God or the universal Self. In this verse the Buddha is stating the opposite position, that there is no such stable place in the world, either internally or externally.
D. The thorn (salla, also called an arrow or a dart) lodged in the heart (hadaya) is desire or craving (taṇhā). The insight that craving is the cause of suffering (dukkha-samudaya), that we are all 'pierced by this thorn' (sallenaotiṇṇo), is the second noble truth of Buddhist teaching; and the 'taking out of that thorn' (sallam-abbuyha) is the third noble truth, which results in the cessation of suffering (dukkhanirodha). By removing both positive and negative forms of craving, we can all live together in harmony.