Participatory Action Research with Theravada Buddhist Monks: A Study of Buddhism for Education of Cambodia's Peace Work



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ABSTRACT PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH WITH THERAVADA BUDDHIST MONKS: A STUDY OF BUDDHISM FOR EDUCATION OF CAMBODIA’S PEACE WORK Philip K. Abbott, Ph.D George Mason University, 2020 Dissertation Director: Dr. Susan Allen Key words: socially engaged Buddhism, peace education, participatory action research, conflict analysis and resolution. What remains remarkable in 21st century Cambodia is the extent of continuity between the extractive economic and political institutions of the Khmer Empire and present-day Cambodia. As I learned through my research with socially engaged Theravāda Buddhist monks at Buddhism for Education of Cambodia (BEC), the Kingdom of Cambodia continues to have an overwhelming atmosphere of exclusionism, where very few opportunities for personal development and fulfillment exists, and reaching one’s potential in all areas of life seems circumscribed. Despite many advances made in contemporary conflict analysis and resolution, the dominance of Western epistemology has generally undervalued and at times confined the understanding and thoughts of Buddhist monks. As the first and only participatory action research (PAR) conducted with socially engaged Theravāda Buddhist monks in post-genocide Cambodia, rather than on or about them, this research explored the underpinning of Buddhist espistemology and how Buddhist monks think about their attempt to cultivate morality and a culture of peace, happiness, and social harmony. Acknowledging the ongoing connection and contention between structure and individual agency, Boutros-Ghali’s (1992) An Agenda for Peace singularly focused on structural change through free markets, the rule of law, and democratic institutions. This predominantly Western peacebuilding paradigm provided a liberal epistemology with a specific ontology and methodological approach to peace distinct from Buddhism. Under the guise of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), liberal peacebuilding in Cambodia was generally unable to consolidate peace or advance morality, a sense of interconnectedness, confidence, and well-being among most Cambodian people. Recognizing the limitations of contemporary conflict analysis and resolution as mostly framed by Western epistemology, I was inspired by the inclusiveness and emphasis on self-transformation being practiced by BEC monks through their peace education programs. The subjective, reflective practice, and empowering nature of participatory action research (PAR) paired with the Buddhist monks’ way of life, encouraged me to rely on a more collaborative and mindful form of inquiry to inform my doctoral studies. As is the case in all research, this PAR study was interested in knowing whether the knowledge co-generated with socially engaged Theravāda Buddhist monks was valid and trustworthy. But because Buddhist monks are opposed to absolutism, judging and comparing, and tend to retreat to the middle path as embodied in the practice of the noble eightfold path and equanimity found in the four sublime states (compassion, loving-kindness, sympathetic joy and equanimity), two approaches were used to address how rigor was defined and what validity criteria best distinguished between a good and poor research study. The traditional approach used five validity criteria: process, democratic, dialogic, catalytic, and outcome conceptualized by Herr and Anderson (2015, p. 67), which were linked with the five research goals. In the unconventional approach, a series of semi-formal presentation of the most salient research findings was done with Ven. Hak Sienghia at the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University in Battambamg, Cambodia. The live video recordings of these semi-formal presentations not only expanded participation to more than one thousand additional participants in BEC’s peace edication programs, but added an ideal venue to share the co-generated knowledge with a broader audience in addressing the relevancy of the research and its findings. It was during these semi-formal presentations where Ven. Hak Sienghai took ownership of the study as conveyed in his presentations, and the actual and virtual feedback from participants was uniformly positive which seemed to validate the research process and findings. Guided by three bodies of literature (socially engaged Buddhism, peace education, and participatory action research), this empirical study both informed and reflected on the research questions by generally following a spiral of action research cycles consisting of four major phases: develop a plan of action to improve what is already happening in BEC’s peace work, act to implement the plan, observe what is taking place during BEC’s peace education programs, and reflect on how BEC monks are cultivating morality and a culture of peace, happiness and social harmony in post-genocide Cambodia. While the research identified many strengths, limitations, and areas for further inqury, the commonality in these findings was that the generation of knowledge has no end. That is to say, knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete and no culturally constructed knowledge is absolute. And similar to this PAR experience, BEC monks did not view the co-generation of knowledge as something fixed or permanent but rather a continuous process of transforming one’s mind or self. From a Buddhist epistemological perspective, clinging to prior knowledge can often cause cognitive fallicies which obstruct or confine understanding and thoughts about how to analyze and reconcile human suffering and social conflict. Because of my Western constructed knowledge and psychological typology, I had a tendency to priviledge judging, comparing, and binary thinking to frame my understanding and thoughts about reality. A noticeable epistemological feature in my Western Catholic upbringing was to absolutize and project fixed, permanent and unchanging charateristics upon reality. There is a natural tendency to look for past events that confirm our understanding and thoughts of the world, which are often easy to find and treated as absolute truth. The danger in these primarily exclusive views of reality or eagerness for absolute truth, emerges when by clinging to conceptual thoughts and understanding one reacts negatively to opposing views. As a result, anger, fear and even hatred may develop in one’s mind, causing human suffering and social conflict to manifest. It was mindfulness and the unifying influence found in the Buddhist notions of interconnectedness and middle path embodied in BEC’s peace education programs that seemed to trandscend the social condition of greed, hatred and delusion in society and have a self-transforming effect on participants. One of the gaps in contemporary conflict analysis and resolution literature is a limited awareness of how Buddhist monks understand, think and reconcile human suffering and social conflict. Because the primary purpose of this inquiry was to understand how BEC monks think about their peace education programs and attempt to cultivate morality and a culture of peace, happiness and social harmony in post-genocide Cambodia, the study uncovered socially engaged Buddhist monks at BEC and the epistemological foundations of their peace education programs. The relevancy of this research allowed me to examine Buddhist contributions to the post-liberal peacebuilding enterprise. Particularly noteworthy was how Buddhist epistemology can complement Western conflict analysis and resolution approaches to peacebuilding. Through this research experience with volunteer Theravāda Buddhist monks at Buddhism for Education of Cambodia, I learned how one of the more profound challenges facing the Western post-liberal peacebuilding enterprise is the underdevelopment of peacebuilding epistemological foundations. Western approaches to peacebuilding generally lack the capacity to interconnect with organic peacebuilding endeavors as experienced in post-genocide Cambodia. There is a proclivity to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it, which is to invite extreme and mistaken cnclusions. For Buddhist monks, it is interconnectedness and the middle path that guides the goal of reason and critical thinking. This is where a broader understanding of the epistemological foundation of BEC peace education programs could encourage flexibility in constructing new analytical frameworks with the potential to expand understanding and practical application for global peacebuilding endeavors that goes beyond the structure-agency dichotomy in social science. For BEC monks and their core affiliates, it is the transcending nature of the Buddhist middle path or noble eightfold path and equanimity embodied in their peace education programs that allows self or individual agency to go beyond the divisiveness of individualism, separatism and exclusionism found in many 21st century societies. It is the balanced and mental calmness, along with insight (vipassanā) meditation found in BEC’s peace education praxis that goes against all extremes and absolutes, allowing one to acknowledge the Buddhist notion of interconnectedness and elevate the structure-agency discourse to a more complementary and unifying intellectual discussion.