Toward a global spirituality for peace: identity, pluralism, and Buddhism


To explore the potential evolution of a global religious movement for peace, I review four scholarly perspectives on religion’s present and prospective role in global civil society. These perspectives vary by focus of involvement, ranging from involvement strictly at the organizational level, to involvement at both organizational and individual member levels, and finally to involvement that emphasizes individual development as a prerequisite to engaging fully with society. My focus following this review is on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, specifically on how they contribute to developing in the individual a fluid sense of identity and a concomitant genuine pluralism. One may be skeptical about the potential influence of any one individual in a global movement for peace. However, since a global ecumene is best supported by an attitude of pluralism, one that accepts and respects religious differences, a religious philosophy focused on developing a pluralistic mindset in the individual could very well play an important role in the evolution of a global spirituality for peace.


  1. Religious organizations against globalization

According to Frank Lechner, Christian groups played a key role in the global movement that led to the cancellation of the foreign debt of certain developing countries. The unique contribution of religious leaders had been raising moral issues, something secular activist groups do not do. In 1991, the Pope wrote that “the entire socio-cultural system, by ignoring the ethical and religious dimension has been weakened.” This position was echoed by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1998, with its reference to globalization as a threat, “a competing vision to the Christian commitment to [ecumenism],” and calling on churches to resist globalization. (124) The WCC sees life as a “community in diversity [with] the catholicity of the church [serving as a potential] model for the desired plurality within a single ecumenical movement.” (130) Unlike secular alternatives visions of globalization, religious alternatives emphasize the interests of a united humanity and acceptance of cultural differences. From the Buddhist perspective, for example, the Dalai Lama, in a speech in 1998, expressed the need for compassion for every human being: “Deep down there is no difference.” (126)


  1. Religious Transnationalism

While Lechner focuses on religious leaders and organizations involved in global justice, Susanne Rudolph sees global religious involvement evolving on both the organizational leadership and individual levels. Rudolph suggests the possibility of a universal religiosity, a process of transnational ecumenization engaging all world religions. Such a process would be both global and local, and would include “on one hand… intentional, trans-religious initiatives by church [leaders] and, on the other hand…spontaneous neighbourly sharing of informal local practices of different religions. (191) Rudolph offers as examples of this nascent transnational ecumenical community the world summits on different social issues and the World Peace Summit in 2000, where diverse religious groups developed action plans for peace, the eradication of poverty, and the protection of the environment. Rudolph concedes that universal religiosity is challenged by religious conservatives like Cardinal Ratzinger and Reverend Billy Graham, who worry that a universal religiosity blurs distinctions they would prefer to preserve. However, as Rudolph points out, universal religiosity depends on the “more informal, spontaneous social processes of syncretism, emulation, and exchange among people of different religious affiliations,” (195) a popular force not easily overcome by a few conservative voices. One definite impediment, however, in Rudolph’s view, is competitive conversion. Universal religiosity could not thrive in an environment where religions actively pursue new converts.


  1. Genuine religious pluralism and mutual transformation

Rita Gross, a religious historian, argues that bringing about genuine pluralism is the most important challenge for religion in a globalizing world. Gross takes direct aim at the monotheistic religions because, historically, only the monotheisms have been hostile to religious diversity. This follows from the belief that one God controls the whole universe and therefore wants everyone to practice that one religion. Among world religions, Gross distinguishes between two kinds of attitudes toward other religions. The first attitude is universalizing, capable of being “universally relevant and true for all people regardless of culture.” (36) Such religions are prominent in Western cultures, and they often have the strongest missionary tendencies. In Gross’ view, monotheistic religions claim exclusive truth, an attitude that engenders conflict. Gross asserts that Buddhism is the only major non-monotheistic religion to have expanded beyond the culture of its origin. For Buddhism, religious diversity is “inevitable, beneficial, and necessary because of human diversity.” (37)

Gross acknowledges that recently, Jewish and Christian theologians have talked of “multiple covenants” or “anonymous Christians,” and the second Vatican Council, in 1980, encouraged Christians to recognize truth in other religions. What Gross advocates goes further, beyond tolerance to genuine pluralism – accepting differences between religions without judging one as superior. (40) This attitude makes it possible to develop a deeper appreciation for different belief systems and “variety becomes a source of fascination and enrichment” where people are inspired to share and borrow from other religions. (41) While there is already a great deal of religious pluralism in the global village, Gross cautions this alone does not lead to genuine pluralism. Genuine pluralism requires individual psychological change to counter ignorance through education and empathy. (42) Knowledge, understanding, and empathy can lead to genuine pluralism. Moreover, with an attitude of genuine pluralism comes mutual transformation, the idea that every religion has strengths and weaknesses, enabling those with an attitude of genuine pluralism to understand “others” and communicate with “others” as equals. As a consequence, followers often adopt aspects of the other’s religion in a beneficially mutual exchange that transforms them both.




  1. Buddha Dhamma in Israel

Since Buddhism is the only non-monotheistic world religion to spread far beyond its cultural homeland, the recent phenomenon of Jews in Israel – a land embroiled in conflict – adopting Buddhist practices seems relevant to a review of a potential global spirituality for peace. Israeli sociologist Joseph Loss studied members of the three main Buddhist organizations in Israel, where he estimates the total number of Buddhist practitioners at around 6,000 (as of 2005). According to Loss, the major activity of the main Buddhist organizations in Israel is the delivery of Dhamma courses, mostly in silence, where men and women study Dhamma, practice meditation, and hear Dhamma talks by experienced teachers. (85) Most of the Dhamma practitioners do not consider themselves Buddhists, or even Jewish Buddhists. Loss identified three main reasons why Israeli practitioners either do not see themselves as Buddhists or do not see Buddhism as a religion, all of them related to local and global constructions of self-identity. The first reason is that Dhamma includes no God, and since there is no God in Buddhism, it is not a religion. In Israel, national and Jewish identities go together. Thus by denying Buddhism is a religion, they do not need to choose between belonging to their national community or to the Buddhist community. The second reason is their rejection of labels. They refuse the impediment to individual freedom that comes with religious labels. They prefer to be free to construct their own individual identity. As an example of this attitude, one of the women practitioners Loss interviewed had this reply to a question about her self-identification:

If I defined myself as Buddhist, I contradict myself. I have…Israeli, East European, secular, kibbutz, [and youth group] conditionings. These are the conditionings of my upbringing. Should I get into another set of Buddhist conditionings? Why should I? I don’t want conditionings! For me, Buddhism is the ability to see reality with no conditioning.” (90, 91)


The third reason for denying the religiosity of Buddha Dhamma practice was their negative image of religion: a “ritualized, institutionalized, traditional, communal and oppressive blind faith, which divides people, incites communities against one another, and justifies arrogance. “ (92) Interestingly, Israeli Dhamma practitioners do not self-identify as secular, either. They have a favourable view of religious people of different faiths who, like them, prefer the truth of ancient wisdom over science and consumer culture. Moreover, these practitioners combined Jewish symbols and customs with their Dhamma practice, blending, for example, themes common to Dhamma with the Jewish Day of Atonement holiday, such as forgiveness and fasting. Loss concludes the Israeli Dhamma practitioners he studied purify their national identity and hybridize a cosmopolitan identity. They see themselves as not religious but also not secular. They nurture fluid identity constructions as Jewish Israelis and Dhamma practitioners (among others). It could be said that these practitioners represent the kind of genuine pluralism and mutual transformation described by Gross. They appreciate other faiths, and have adopted what they consider to be the strengths of Buddhist practices, without taking on the whole of the Buddhist religion.


Jewish Israeli Buddhist-inspired peace activism

Loss’s article about his study of Jewish Israeli Dhamma practitioners did not deal with peace activism. However, members of the Jewish Israeli Buddhist group called Israel Engaged Dharma (IED) engage in peace work as part of their spiritual practice. When one of their members researched what she had called a “conflict mindset” common in mainstream Jewish Israeli society, IED was determined to develop a spiritual activist response. With the help of psychologists, Dharma practitioners, and group facilitators, IED developed the Mind the Conflict protocol to help people become aware of their “hidden assumptions, entrenched beliefs, and automatic emotional patterns” about the Palestine-Israel conflict. The protocol is used in group sessions with Jewish Israeli non-practitioners, with the aim of shifting participants’ conflict mindset of good and evil and “us” versus “them” to a mindset of peace and reconciliation.

In one such group session, participants heard what they believed to be an objective description of a confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians, but had actually been a description from only the Israeli perspective. Even when they were told how the story had been deliberately related in a one-sided fashion, however, participants could still not picture a valid alternative Palestinian point of view. At that point, the facilitator led the group through a guided Vipassana meditation to simulate the experience from the point of view of the Palestinian civilians in the same situation. Some of the participants were then able to put themselves in the shoes of “the other” and experience the situation as if they were Palestinian. However, the rest of the group refused to acknowledge any alternative point of view. The facilitator then invited participants to delve more deeply together into the emotions they had felt when the confrontation had been described from the Palestinian point of view. With new appreciation for their emotional reactions, participants gained insight into their inner processes, which in turn allowed them to dissolve the psychological obstacles in their conflict mindset. A key to the success of this work is its focus on validating emotions while downplaying opinions. The value of the Mind the Conflict protocol for IED members is related to their sense that a just resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict is not a “top-down approach”. They are certain “only popular enthusiasm will push leaders to break out of the current deadlock.” Interestingly, like the practitioners in Joseph Loss’ study, they reject the Buddhist label and do not refer to themselves as Buddhists.

Originally from England, Stephen Fulder has been a meditation teacher in Israel for more than 30 years. He helped bring Vipassana meditation to Israel in the 1980s, one of several Western Buddhist imports to Israel. Fulder thinks mainstream Israeli society takes the view that “they” are not the ones suffering; “we” are the ones suffering. In one of his meditation groups, Fulder told the story of a Palestinian friend who had wanted to take his very ill mother to hospital but Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint would not let them pass. By the time they finally crossed, three hours later, the mother had died. (Hirschfield) People in Fulder’s meditation group said the soldiers must have had a valid reason for not letting them pass. Fulder is alarmed because “even people on the left, people who are spiritual, support actions that should be opposed.” When he first became a peace activist, he facilitated Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups. What he soon came to realize, though, was that dialogue was not enough. Fulder believes “dialogue needs to be combined with compassionate engagement in the conflict,” and that’s why he founded the Israeli peace activist group Middleway. Middleway organizes Jews and Palestinians in silent group walks throughout Israel. Founded on Buddhist principles, Middleway acts with nonviolence but portrays the Israeli occupation as violent. Consistent with Buddhist psychology, Fulder feels the fear, insecurity, anger, and revenge create a form of national blindness, “in which neighbors become demonized and labeled as the enemy.” He advocates putting “ourselves in the other’s shoes; listen [and] understand what he really wants and what we can do to help each other to get out of conflict.”

Another Jewish Israeli Buddhist peace activist is Neta Golan, who in 2001 co-founded the International Solidarity Movement, a nongovernmental organization committed to nonviolent resistance of Israel’s occupation. Soon after that, she visited Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist community in France, where with mindfulness practice she was able to come to grips with her feelings of anger and pain, as wells as her somewhat ambivalent response to all the violence in her life. Golan’s self-identity is an interesting hybrid. Her father is a committed Zionist Jew, while her mother is an Orthodox Jew. Golan is a secular Jewish Israeli who lives in the occupied West Bank with her Palestinian husband and children. She considers herself a Jewish Buddhist, (Peace Warrior 38) although she admits that Buddhism is not what motivates her activism. Her Buddhist practice, though, is what gives her “the tools to stay sane.” On the one hand, she readily acknowledges the deep need “her people” have for making sure another Holocaust never happens. On the other hand, she is as ready to proclaim that “her people” have nonetheless become “racist, elitist, and indifferent to the suffering of their Palestinian brothers and sisters.” She admits her lack of connection with Israeli spiritual communities, brought about mainly because she disdains most peoples’ spiritual ideals do not seem to have any positive impact on how they relate to Palestinians. Golan is willing to concede, however, that “with what’s happening politically, there is a barrier.” (40)

What the experiences of both Fulder and Golan show is that Buddhist practice does not necessarily develop a self-identity capable of genuine pluralism and empathy. Nor does it automatically dissolve the conflict mindset. It appears that liberation from the “us” versus “them” attitude may require application of the kind of process used by IED.

Thich Nhat Hanh, mindfulness, and Engaged Buddhism

Since 2001, Thich Nhat Hanh has invited Israelis and Palestinians to Plum Village, a monastery and practice center in southwest France, to spend two weeks in meditation and mindfulness practice. “Participants calm their suffering, their anger, their suspicion, and their hate,” Nhat Hanh writes. “After several days they are able to see that the other group also suffers.” (Hanh 15) He explains that when people begin to recognize each other as human beings who have suffered, it becomes possible to see that “the real enemies are actually hate, fear, despair, and especially wrong perceptions.” One thing they do not do at Plum Village is discuss the political situation in the Middle East. The aim is to develop an atmosphere of deep listening and loving speech, with open and non-judgemental communication. Once open communication arrives, “peace will be the outcome.” (Hanh 16) Hanh is one of the leading figures in the global movement of engaged Buddhism. He believes that without a spiritual dimension to peace work, all efforts towards peace may be useless. The spiritual dimension helps to see things differently, more clearly. And that is why meditation, Hanh is convinced, is so important. “To meditate does not mean that you run away from reality, but that you have a chance to sit down, to look deeply at the situation, and to see things more clearly and find a better way to end the conflict and the suffering.” One Israeli man describes his new outlook after his stay at Plum Village:

“There are two narratives in the holy land. Each narrative excludes the other. The Palestinians leave out the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. And most Israelis deny that the Palestinians also have a home there. It is our role to weave together a shared narrative of two peoples who are destined and blessed to live in that land together. A lot of my friends are settlers; a lot of my friends are soldiers; a lot of my friends are Palestinian. My family are the Hamas; my family are the Israeli right wing; we are all part of the same human family…two very broken and confused peoples. This work has the potential to bring transformation on a personal level, resulting in the transformation of society.” (93)


Darren Noy, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, proposes that sociology engage with the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. According to Noy, at the core of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the intention of developing in the individual the sense of “interbeing”, the attitude that living things and the whole of nature are interconnected. (Noy 68) As more people develop an attitude of interbeing, the cumulative effect could contribute to greater peace in the world. Noy explains that Nhat Hanh’s approach aims to develop in the individual the ability to “generate positive energy within, which can then be extended out to the world.” (69) Noy acknowledges the challenge in measuring any potential effect this kind of positive inner energy might have on society as a whole. However, if mindfulness practice and the development of interbeing could extend positive inner energy out into the world, similar to the transformation described above by the Israeli man after his stay at Plum village, Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism is surely worthy of further study.



As Peter Beyer points out, “globally spread concepts like culture [and] religion…have become ‘re-formed’ or ‘invented’ vehicles of different identities in a global context. Fundamentalist religious movements…are examples of this assertion of difference.” Although liberal and secular movements are also engaged in asserting meaningful differences, fundamentalist and ‘strong’ religious movements “seek to create strong ‘communal’ boundaries against the perceived ‘other’, the secular world.” (196, and quoting Gilles Kepel) However, it is not only the secular world that is perceived as other. Different religions are also perceived as other. It seems this assertion of differences is a hallmark of the attitude of “us” and “them”, and therefore impedes a universal ecumene, universal religiosity, seeing humanity as a single human family, and genuine pluralism.

No doubt, all religions have an essential contribution to make toward a global spirituality for peace. Several factors, however, make Buddhism and perhaps especially Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness and engaged Buddhism, uniquely appealing as a spiritual alternative for Westerners wishing to foster a global spirituality of peace. Buddhist meditation is directly concerned with cultivating inner peace as a prerequisite for world peace; as a non-monotheistic religion it does not take a universalist stance and has no conversionary or missionary intentions, embraces diversity, and encourages an attitude of genuine pluralism; it allows non-Buddhists to freely adopt its practices; it encourages individuals to construct a fluid and confident individual and collective identity, even one that rejects the Buddhist label; and as a world religion in the context of globalization, Buddhist teachings and meditation  are becoming ever more accessible. Of all the beneficial characteristics of Western Buddhism and Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness practice, though, a singular significance is the way they complement Western psychology. As the Israel Engaged Dhamma group has shown with its Mind the Conflict protocol, Buddhist practices mesh well with Western psychology in an effective process that can transform the conflict mindset to one of peace and reconciliation.



Works Cited


Beyer, Peter. Religion in the Context of Globalization: Essays on concept, form, and political implication. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Gross, Rita. “Genuine religious pluralism and mutual transformation” Wisconsin Dialogue: A Faculty Journal for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire 11 (1991): 35-48

Hirschfield, Robert. “Stephen Fulder: An Israeli Buddhist’s Resistance to Occupation.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs Vol. 28 Iss. 5 2009: 48. Print.

Israel Engaged Dharma. “Metta, Inquiry and Political Sankharas – Israel Engaged Dharma Report Fall 2013.” Upaya Zen Center Newsletter1 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 July 2014.

Lechner, Frank. “Religious Rejections of Globalization.” Religion in Global Civil Society. Ed. Mark Juergensmeyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 115 – 133. Print.

Loss, Joseph. “Buddha-Dhamma in Israel: Explicit Non-Religious and Implicit Non-Secular Localization of Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions Vol. 13, No. 4 (2010): 84 – 105. Print.

Nhat Hanh, Thich. Peace Begins Here: Palestinians and Israelis listening to each other. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2004. Print.

Noy, Darren. “The Sociological Contexts of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Teachings.” Human Architecture: Journal of Self-Knowledge Vol. 6 Summer (2008) 67 – 72. Print.

“Peace Warrior in the West Bank.” Tricycle – The Buddhist Review Summer 2002 No. 44: 36 – 43. Print.

Rudolph, Susanne. “Religious Transnationalism.” Religion in Global Civil Society. Ed. Mark Juergensmeyer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 189 – 200. Print.