YOUTH IN FOCUS: My parents are fighting with my aunts and uncles over my late-grandparent’s land. I used to be really close with my cousins, but now I feel shy to talk with them. Even my parents are stressed out by the whole matter and are always talking about court cases and they seem angry all the time. Nobody really cared about the land before, but as it is near a proposed development the value has increased. I feel the happiness has gone from our home.  I don’t know what my question is, but I just feel like sharing this with someone.

Sad, Thimphu

In reality, ancestral land should be something that we cherish. It is a reminder of the hard work and struggles that our grandparents and great grandparents made. It should be a source of inspiration for us and our children. Unfortunately, rather than bringing a sense of dignity and joy into households and acting as a bonding agent for families, land has become a source of fighting and division. It is really sad that families are being torn apart over such matters.

As everyone involved in the dispute will be angrily pointing their fingers at others, merely requesting a compromise is unlikely to work. Obviously, the law can be used to solve the issue, but taking relatives to a court can have dire consequences and is likely to cause an irreparable schism in the family, which is obviously bad for everyone.

Of course, a court can be used to arbitrate between the parties and so help bring an amicable closure to land or money disputes. However, for the court to function in this way the plaintiff should not harbour thoughts of greed, revenge or punishment, but instead initiate a case purely with the aim of finding a solution that is fair and benefits everyone.

If the motivation for involving the court is tainted with anger and vengeance, then it might be wise to contemplate the words of the fifth century Buddhist scholar and monk Buddhaghosa:  “By doing this [getting revenge] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” In fact, it would be best if all concerned parties first give their consent before the court is involved. In this way, misunderstandings can be avoided.

In reality, people need to deeply reflect on the priorities of life. Of course, additional money from the sale of land will bring material benefits – a bigger car, more frequent trips to Bangkok, etc – but we need to consider whether these things are really the cause of contentment. Are they worth the loss of sisters, brothers and cousins?

Furthermore, by seeking material wealth in an ever changing world are we not merely building castles on shifting sand? In this respect, the acquisitions do not bring freedom and joy, but instead create fear and stress as we try to hold onto them. Furthermore, we should reflect that when we are old and dying in a hospital bed, will it really matter that we regularly visited the large shopping malls in Bangkok or owned several large cars?

From a Buddhist point of view, our aim in life is to awaken to reality and so permanently abandon suffering and its causes. Even without such lofty aspirations, we should at least consider the affects of our action and remember that karma – the results of our selfish or selfless action – is the only baggage that we will take on our final journey.

Even in the secular world, people naturally honour action that is noble and benefits others and denounce self-serving acts that cause harm. In this regard, we would do well to consider the words of the poet and writer Ralf Waldo Emerson: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.”

Basically, we need to reflect on the purpose of our lives. At the very least, we want to be free of suffering, and it is often said that the saddest state in life is not poverty, but loss of dignity.

Actually, we all possess natural dignity, but it is blocked by ignorance, greed and aggression. When we fight like hyenas over scraps, we perpetuate the obstacles that prevent our natural dignity from shinning through. Therefore, rather than achieving our goal to eliminate suffering, our fighting and squabbling actually leads to the opposite result – greater suffering.

I am in no way suggesting that your parents are to blame in the land dispute. Nor do I mean to imply that they are suffering with ignorance (though, in reality, all of us are), but am merely recommending that your parents and others in similar situations take a long hard look at what they are doing. Sometimes, when we get into an intense situation, we lose perspective. We become like a man who focuses on the muddy puddle at his feet while neglecting the stunning ocean that is before him.

Basically, if we want to raise our mental energy, we need to consider ways to allow our natural dignity to shine through. In this respect, we should ask ourselves whether fighting over land and gaining wealth at others’ expense will lead to this goal.  Are we perhaps clinging to the small puddle and missing the opportunity to experience the vast ocean?

Anyway, I have no intention to debate who is right and wrong in your family dispute, but merely hope to encourage introspection. Rather than blindly following the crowd in pursuit of money and status, it might be wise to instead seriously consider what brings genuine joy to our worldly lives – is it a new and bigger car and more overseas trips or is it a warm relationship with our family members and maintaining a sense of noble dignity? Basically, we need to ask ourselves whether the land that we are fighting for is contributing to the quality of our lives or denigrating it. I cannot answer this question for you. It is for each of us to discover it in our own way, but as a benchmark we could perhaps think whether our action is contributing to the uncovering of our natural dignity or covering it in more layers of dust.

Without further comment, I will conclude this reply with the words of the 8th century pandit Shantideva. I hope that they can inspire everyone to make wise decisions that bring benefits to others, to the planet and, as we are inseparable from the world around us, to ourselves:

“Whatever joy there is in this world, 

All comes from desiring others to be happy; 

Whatever suffering there is in this world, 

All comes from desiring myself to be happy.”


Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organising drug outreach programmes.

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