The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is intended as a resource for students, teachers and practitioners in fields relating to the reduction and elimination of conflict. It desires to be a free, yet valuable, source of information to aid anyone trying to work toward a less violent and more cooperative world.

The Conflict Within: The Interpersonal Conflict Between Netanyahu and Arafat

Military Intervention in Lesotho: Perspectives on Operation Boleas and Beyond

Graduate Studies in Dispute Resolution: A Delphi Study of the Field's Present and Future

Integrating Buddhist Philosophy and Peacemaking Theory: Further Thought for Development

Women, the Bridge and the Media: Correspondence of Ursula Oswald Spring and Ada Aharoni

An OJPCR interview with Erin McCandless and Eric Abitbol, Co-Editors of Cantilevers

Review: Basic Skills for New Mediators and Basic Skills for New Arbitrators

OJPCR: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution

Integrating Buddhist Philosophy and Peacemaking Theory: Further Thought for Development

John P. Walsh

For a printer-friendly version, click here.

In recent years, critical criminology has moved outside Western conceptions of thought in an effort to explain where criminologists have gone astray in their explanation of crime. Moving beyond an atomized comprehension of crime, a prescription for praxis rooted in Eastern philosophy is offered through the advent of peacemaking criminology. Unlike previous conceptions of crime that attempt to explain theory from an aggregate and an individual level, peacemaking criminology recognizes the "oneness" of all in a larger conception of truth. Through an elaboration of the philosophical underpinnings of Madhyamaka (middle path) Buddhism this paper seeks to establish a firmer foundation for the development of peacemaking criminology. From the middle path tenets laid down by first century C.E. philosopher Nagarjuna, through the Zen school of philosophy in Kyoto, Japan, peacemaking criminologists are offered a rich basis to integrate Eastern thought into a Western perception of crime. These principles are further integrated into current peacemaking perspectives in an effort to provide the student of theory with a clear presentation of an alternative path of action.

The fundamental difference between Eastern philosophy and Western thought is found in the definition of truth. Madhyamaka philosophy argues that through a Western definition of truth thinking becomes trapped in the extremes of absolutism or nihilism. The Madhyamaka philosopher Nagarjuna suggests that, through the application of right mindfulness, we can discard the binds of extremism in favor of the middle path. Finding the middle way requires the realization that all things are impermanent. As this realization is made, the middle way provides a path of action to break the habitual attachment to things that occur through an improper definition of truth. This path of action is represented in Nagarjuna's statement that all things are sunya (often misinterpreted as void, actually closer to asvabhava, not existing by means of its intrinsic value). Philosophically, the middle path is further developed through Nishida's "development of reality" and Nishitani's discussion of "the personal and impersonal". These two Kyoto school philosophers offer the criminologist not only an identification of the middle path, but a clear outline of the route of action to be taken for adherence to the middle path.

Western truth has promulgated itself through the rise of a rationalist perspective. Using the rationalist perspective, propositions are put forward and proven as infallible. An example of this can be readily seen in the social sciences, whereby a hypothesis is proposed and statistical measures are undertaken to disprove a particular theory. When the statistical measures do not disprove the theory, the rationalist claims he/she has found correlation. The same hypothesis and statistical procedure is then replicated and when the same results occur time and time again the rationalist claims they have found cause. As these procedures continue over time, the Western scientist concludes that he/she has found the "truth".

It is not natural - it is unhealthy - for the academic and the intellectual (sociologist, criminologist) to continue strictly in the rational mode of speculative and dualistic thought as he or she matures, although this is the approved and rewarded form for the modern academic (Quinney, 1991A:6).

On the other hand, Eastern truth is explained twofold, whereby there is an Absolute Truth and an everyday truth. The Absolute Truth can never be known because the world is ever changing.

According to Buddhism, the Absolute Truth is that there is nothing absolute in the world, that everything is relative, conditioned and impermanent, and that there is no unchanging, everlasting, absolute substance like Self, Soul or Atman within or without (Rahula, 1959:39).

Everyday truth is what the rationalist tradition is mistaking for Absolute Truth. Everyday truths predicate facts within their own home systems, yet these facts fall apart when they are applied outside of that home system. For example, the characteristics of gravity are an everyday truth on this planet. Yet, this everyday truth is not applicable to the astronaut and cosmonaut who are taking their first space walk. Once the "home system" is left behind there is no absolute in this truth. Buddhism asks us to make an ethical change toward attentiveness and recognize the difference between these two types of truth.

Failing to make this ethical change results in a passive living at one of two extremes. If we follow the path of the rationalist, we fall to the extreme of absolutism. This occurs when we attempt to replace Absolute Truth with that of everyday truth. Insisting upon having answers to that which is unknown creates a life that is passive and still. The other end of the spectrum of extremes is that of nihilism. We live in the passivity of nihilism when we disregard the rationalist explanation of truth and instead regard all truths as senseless and useless. Here we fall into a trap of determinism whereby we refuse to live the active life.

Form itself without a cause
Is not possible or tenable.
Therefore, think about form, but
Do not construct theories about form
(Nagarjuna, in Garfield, 1995:12).

In the above statement, Nagarjuna explains that it is not for us to know what is unknown (i.e., Absolute Truth). Therefore, we should steer away from the path of absolutism and the construction of supposed Absolute Truths. At the same time, Nagarjuna is also suggesting that just because it is not possible to understand the Absolute Truth we should in no way stop thinking about it. Here Nagarjuna is combating the extreme of nihilism. Either extreme leads to passivity, and what Nagarjuna is arguing for is a mean between extremes that leads to the active life.

Nagarjuna explains that the mean between absolutism and nihilism is the middle path. Unlike the rationalist logicians who claim certainty is a possibility, Nagarjuna's path of action accepts that the Absolute Truth will remain unknown. Yet, the middle path does not disregard the everyday truths that the current day rationalists misunderstand to be the Absolute Truth. Instead, the middle way explains that these everyday truths are quite useful in the context of everyday existence. Through attentiveness toward the two differing truths, the middle path is found. Nagarjuna suggests that those who stop at the certainty of absolutism, or the impossibility of certainty that is nihilism, have not gone far enough. In other words, they have stopped following a path of action. The middle path is an attempt at unsettling the grip of these two extremes that we fall into the habit of using.

The path of action is a path of impermanence. To follow the middle path is to accept the impermanence of the world.

To say "it is" is to grasp for permanence.
To say "it is not" is to adopt the view of nihilism.
Therefore a wise person
Does not say "exists' or "does not exist"
(Nagarjuna edit. in Garfield, 1995:40).

What Nagarjuna is arguing in the quote above is that when we see things as objects we falsely perceive them as permanent. This is the mistake of the absolutist. Yet, if we say they do not exist then we are making the mistake of the nihilist. This perspective is not entirely foreign to Western thinking. The idea of a constant activity of the world is similar to that of the PreSocratic Heraclitus who stated "You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters and yet others go ever flowing" (Heraclitus, in Wheelwright, 1966:71). The realization that there are two types of truth is the realization that we cannot know the Absolute Truth. The realization that we cannot know the Absolute Truth leads us to the realization of impermanence.

The two forms of truth, the middle way, and impermanence are all explained by Nagarjuna in his statement that all things are sunya. Other Buddhist sects interpret this statement to mean that all things are void (Nagarjuna 1990:95). This is not what Nagarjuna is implying when he says that all things are sunya. What Nagarjuna is arguing is that all things are not svabhava. Sunya does not mean "nothing," it means svabhava. Svabhava is existing by means of its intrinsic value. If things are svabhava, then we fall into a state of habitual attachment to these things. If we fall into a state of habitual attachment, then we are swerving off of the middle path toward the extreme poles of absolutism or nihilism. Though, this is not to say that Nagarjuna is refuting intrinsic nature.

We do not, indeed, deny the intrinsic nature of things. Nor do we affirm the intrinsic nature of a certain object apart from the things. Now this being so, your criticism: 'If things are devoid of an intrinsic nature, you should explain to what other object, apart from the things, there now happens to belong the intrinsic nature, is thrown far away. It is no criticism at all (Nagarjuna, 1990:130).

Nagarjuna does not fall into the trap of absolutism by accepting the intrinsic nature of things. Nor does he sway toward the other extreme of nihilism by negating the existence of intrinsic nature. By refusing to negate or affirm the existence of intrinsic nature, Nagarjuna follows the middle path. The statement, "all things are sunya" is a wake up call to those who are following the extremes of absolutism and nihilism.

Furthermore, accepting or rejecting the intrinsic nature of things would create the problem of permanence. If we affirm the intrinsic nature of things, we find ourselves clinging to those things through the acknowledgement of affirmation itself. If we deny the intrinsic nature of things, we are using a negation, which means that something must have existed to begin with. If we choose the middle path and fail to affirm or deny, we in turn accept the impermanence of things.

Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945) of the Kyoto school of philosophy expands upon the groundwork laid down by Nagarjuna. In An Inquiry Into The Good, Nishida picks up where Nagarjuna has left off by reemphasizing the difference between Eastern and Western thought.

Our assumption that mind and matter exist independently constitutes the basis of our conduct and in itself based on the demands posed by our thinking. This assumption leaves much room for doubt. Science, which does not take the most profound explanation of reality as its goal, is constructed on such hypothetical knowledge (Nishida, 1990:38).

Here Nishida is asserting the fundamental difference in Eastern and Western thought that had previously been explained by Nagarjuna. Thinking in dualistic terms, such as mind versus matter, or inner versus outer, leaves Western thought grasping for absolute truth within the home systems of their prospective realities. Nishida argues that true reality can be found through pure experience. According to Nishida, "a pure experience has no meaning whatsoever; it is simply a present consciousness of facts just as they are" (1990:4). Experience gives rise to the experiencer and the experience. In Western thinking, the experiencer and the experience are thought of as two separate entities. Yet, Nishida argues that if the experience gives rise to both the experiencer and the experience then they are unified.

Nishida explains experience as participation in the entire universe. Therefore, experience is the underlying activity that gives rise not only to the experiencer and the experience, but, in general, to the subject and the object.

In other words, what is a fact of truly pure experience? At the time of pure experience, there is still no opposition between subject and object and no separation of knowledge, feeling, and volition; there is only an independent, self sufficient, pure activity (Nishida, 1990:47).

Whereas Western thinking suggests that experience is passive, Nishida and Kyoto school Buddhists in general would argue that experience is active. True reality can be found in pure experience and this experience is an active experience. Without its activity there would be no reality.

Ultimate reality is not something far away, over there. It is right here, right now. Everything starts from the here and now. Otherwise everything loses its reality (Masao, 1991, In Franck:69).

By defining true reality as pure experience that is active, Nishida provides the reader with the an argument similar to that which Nagarjuna used when explaining impermanence. Through the activity of pure experience, we negate the passivity of Western ideologies and by doing so we avoid the traps of absolutism and nihilism and continue to adhere to the middle path.

Nishida advances this argument when he peels off a further layer of the specter of dualism and suggests how a self awakening can come about. Accepting that subject and object are unified, and then acting on this by merging the subject of theory and the object of practice, bring us toward this self awakening. "Only when there is a unifying self does nature have a goal, take on significance, and become truly living in nature (Nishida, 1990:71). This unification of theory and practice in one single activity is known as praxis. This unifying activity which Nishida refers to as a self awakening and what other Buddhists would regard as praxis, is the middle path. Therefore, the aim is not merely to know the good (i.e., identify the middle path), this would halt the activity of self awakening at the point of passive reflection. The aim is to become the good by restoring a unity between theory and practice and moving toward praxis.

While Nagarjuna identifies the middle path for us and explains the errors involved with absolutist and nihilist thinking, Nishida offers us the key to getting back from reflection to praxis. Through an existential realization, the self moves from reflection to praxis and is awakened. "To know the true reality of the self means to have an existential realization" (Nishida, 1990:126). By way of an existential realization, the middle path is adhered to and "the good" becomes the true reality for the Buddhist.

We reach the quintessence of good conduct only when subject and object merge, self and things forget each other, and all that exists is the activity of the sole reality of the universe (Nishida, 1990:135).

To know the true reality is to adhere to the middle path and this comes about through an existential realization whereby the inner and the outer, the subject and the object, theory and practice, all become unified in the activity of pure experience.

By breaking the form of thinking that ties us to the passivity of Western positivist cognition, Nishida actively advances the Madhyamaka philosophy. Yet, while Nishida builds upon the foundation laid down by Nagarjuna and the four noble truths of the Buddha, he reminds the student, first and foremost, that all that he has written is merely prataya (a conditioned explanation).

Perfect truth pertains to the individual person and is actual. Perfect truth therefore can not be expressed in words, and such things as scientific truth can not be considered perfect truth (Nishida, 1990:26).

Just as Nagarjuna refuses to affirm or negate intrinsic nature, thereby avoiding the absolutist and nihilist paths, Nishida reminds the readers that they too should not follow the path of the absolutist or nihilist and regard his arguments as the perfect truth. Words should be left behind when it is time to take up another perspective in the cycle of existence.

Keiji Nishitani (1900-1990), explains the middle path in terms of the personal and impersonal. Nishitani argues that as a modern scientific view of the world has taken root human beings have relied on objective truths to answer questions of existence.

As this intellectual process continued, the natural world assumed more and more the features of a world cold and dead, governed by laws of mechanical necessity, completely indifferent to the fact of man (Nishitani,1982:48).

Nishitani explains that as an objective view steeped in scientific revolution begins to consume the field of objective knowledge, the subjective religious views that had been unified with the objective become separated. "The rejection of the existence of a personal God arose as a consequence of the rejection of a teleological view of the world" (Nishitani, 1982:53). According to Nishitani, the rejection of a teleological view of the world can be attributed to the rise of positivist science. As this rejection occurs, the subjective and objective that were unified under religion have now been split into a dualism that drives humanity into nihilism.

The problem that occurs is that humans cannot live entirely from an objective viewpoint. Yet, the personal subjective world of religion becomes separated and distant from that of the objective impersonal world.

Science is not something separate from the people who engage in it, and that engagement, in turn, represents only one aspect of human knowledge (Nishitani, 1982:46).

This dualism created by the scientific revolution implies that man can live a non-subjective life. Yet no one can live a purely objective life. For example, we see positivist researchers hold up in their offices all over campus assessing other human beings from an alleged objective viewpoint, and at five o'clock they slip back into their subjective worlds. If we assess these actions from their own dualist position, we would have to conclude many of the researchers at these universities are suffering from multiple personality disorders. Nishitani's assessment of this separation between the scientist and science illustrates the dogma in this line of thinking.

Nishitani argues that we must look beneath the personal and impersonal to find the middle path. This is what Nishitani refers to as the transpersonal.

Only when a man has felt such an abyss open at the ground of his existence does his subjectivity in the true sense of the word: only then does he awaken to himself as truly free and independent (Nishitani, 1982:57).

This is the equivalent of the existential realization that Nishida is referring to in An Inquiry Into The Good. By digging beneath the personal and impersonal, Nishitani transcends the dualism created by the rise of the scientific revolution and a new religiosity is found. This is where the middle path of Nagarjuna and the self awareness and praxis discussed within Nishida is found for Nishitani.

Through the transpersonal, Nishitani transcends the person-centered view of the person. "The living activity of person, in its very aliveness, is a manifestation of absolute nothingness" (Nishitani, 1982:72). Through absolute nothingness, the chains that hold the person-centered view of the person are broken and an active unified self is freed.

Absolute selfhood opens up as non-objectifiable nothingness in the conversion that takes place within personality. Through that conversion every bodily, mental, and spiritual activity that belongs to a person displays itself as a play of shadows moving across the stage of nothingness (Nishitani, 1982:73).

This non-objectifiable nothingness that Nishitani speaks of is Nagarjuna's adherence to the middle path and Nishida's explanation of true reality through self awareness.

Adhering to the middle path, peacemaking criminology provides an alternative to the two extremes of absolutism and nihilism that are so prevalent in criminal justice today. From the absolutism of mandatory minimum sentencing to the nihilist perspective of "nothing works" many criminologists are fast approaching the existential realization that Nishida and Nishitani speak of as a gateway to the middle path. "The radical nature of peacemaking is clear: No less is involved than the transformation of our human being (Quinney 1991:10). Past radical criminology has been sequestered in ideologies that have consistently conflicted with one another. For example, radical feminist criminology, Marxist feminist criminology, Left Realism etc......

It is that fanatical attitude, that black-and-white vision by which special revolution and the transformation of man are naively seen as two unconnected problems, while, in truth, the one presupposes the other (Nishitani, 1991:24).

Buddhism offers peacemaking criminology the ability to achieve unification in a single activity of theory and practice.

The conception of Western truth outlined by Nagarjuna, Nishida, and Nishitani is reiterated within peacemaking theory when Quinney (1991A) argues;

Being human, we have constructed webs of meaning; and with these shared meanings we have constructed our interpersonal relations, our social structures, and our societies. All is a result of what we have thought (4).

Through the application of "right understanding" and "right mindfulness" outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha, peacemaking theorists argue that the Western rationalist explanation of truth can be replaced with the realization of impermanence. An understanding of the true nature of reality involves the recognition that everything is impermanent (Quinney, 1991A). Once this impermanence is realized, criminologists have freed themselves from the passivity that shackles their study of crime to the poles of absolutism and nihilism.

Following the middle path requires the acceptance of an inter-connectedness that exists among all living things.

Nowadays people are inclined to think that to transform society is one thing and to transform man is another, and that the former takes precedence over the latter. In reality, however, these two aspects cannot be separated so easily (Nishitani, 1991:23).

This inter-connectedness is absent in other theoretical paradigms associated with the study of crime. Whether one looks at consensus or other critical theories, the dualistic approaches of "us versus them", "criminal versus non-criminal", "proletariat versus bourgeois", or "man versus woman" all provide fetters which seek to restrain the criminologist from traveling the middle path.

The result is an anthropocentrism that only exaggerates and misrepresents the importance of the human in the larger scheme of things, but has the effect of denying what is essential to our being human: our intimate and integral connection to all else (Quinney, 1991B:114).

Madhyamaka Buddhists argue that failing to follow the middle path and instead clinging to the extremes of the absolutist or nihilist poles results in passive living. This passive living can also be characterized as the unresponsiveness that Pepinsky refers to in his work The Geometry of Violence and Democracy.

Unresponsiveness at any level is the element that makes people call action "violent". Violence or disregard for others may be direct and personal or indirect and structural, as when the plight of impoverished classes remains unaddressed by privileged classes in a shared economic order (Pepinsky, 1991:17).

Failing to realize the inter-connectedness of all in a unifying whole is what pulls one from the middle path and creates the unresponsiveness that leads to the perpetuation of violence. As Pepinsky (1991) argues, "being responsive to disorder entails trying to create order by regarding oneself as part of the problem" (16). This unresponsiveness created by a failure to realize the inter-connectedness of all has been recently applied to the Northern Ireland peace process by peacemaking criminologists Kieran McEvoy and Brian Gormally (1997), who argue;

While acknowledging the ultimate responsibility of the organizations themselves for any decision to return to war . . . the efforts of Republicans and Loyalists went largely unmatched by a third protagonist, the British state (16).

What these authors are suggesting is that due to the inability of the British state to acknowledge its unresponsiveness, its failure to adhere to the middle path, it continues to perpetuate the existence of violence within this region. This same peacemaking analysis can be applied to the coinciding prison boom and drug war that exists within the United States. Failure to acknowledge our own responsibility in the perpetuation of this state sanctioned terror dooms the discipline of criminology to the extremes of absolutism and nihilism.

Madhyamaka Buddhism offers the positivist field of criminology an opportunity for a more peaceful existence in the future. Through the Eastern definition of truth, Nagarjuna, Nishida, Nishitani and peacemaking criminologists offer arguments against the passivity of the absolutist and nihilist lifestyles that pervade Western thinking. Nishida and Nishitani both offer outlines as to how the middle path can be followed. Will Western theorists in predominantly conservative fields such as criminology begin to reach the existential realizations that must be met on the road to enlightenment?


Masao, Abe. 1991. "God, Emptiness, and The True Self." In F. Franck (ed.) The Buddha Eye An Anthology Of The Kyoto School. New York: Crossroad.

McEvoy, Kieran and Brian Gormally. 1997. Positivist Terrorology, Peacemaking Criminology, and the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Critical Criminology 8:9-30.

Nagarjuna. 1995. The Fundamental Wisdom Of The Middleway. (ed.) Jay Garfield. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nagarjuna. 1990. The Dialectical Method Of Nagarjuna. (ed.) K. Bhattacharya, E.H. Johnston, and A. Kunst. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Nishida, Kitaro. 1987. An Inquiry Into The Good. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nishitani, Keiji. 1982. Religion And Nothingness. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nishitani, Keiji. 1991. "The Awakening of Self in Buddhism". In F. Franck (ed). The Buddha Eye An Anthology Of The Kyoto School. New York: Crossroad.

Pepinsky, Harold E. 1991. The Geometry Of Violence And Democracy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Quinney, Richard. 1991A. "The Way Of Peace". In Harold Pepinsky and Richard Quinney (ed.) Criminology As Peacemaking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Quinney, Richard. 1991B. "Oneness Of All: The Mystical Nature Of Humanism". In Brian McLean and Dragan Milovanovic (ed.) New Directions in Critical Criminology. Vancouver: Collective Press.

Rahula, W. 1959. What The Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press.

Wheelwright, P. 1966. The PreSocratics. New York: MacMillan.

Tabula Rasa Institute

The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution is published by the Tabula Rasa Institute.

About OJPCR | Subscribe | Submit| Contact | Archive | Support

Table of Contents | Author Information

Article Copyrights held by authors. All else ©1998-2000 Tabula Rasa Institute.