From October 25-28, Dharma Drum Buddhist Association (DDMBA) sponsored and hosted a four-day youth peacebuilding retreat at the Dharma Drum Mountain Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. The retreat was organized by the Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW). Approximately 80 young leaders, who have a commitment to global peacebuilding and conflict resolution, or work in a related field, were invited to participate in the dialogue, which covered the root causes of regional and communal conflict.
The retreat participants represented 35 countries from around the world: Afghanistan, Angola, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Honduras, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Madagascar, Mexico, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Palestine, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Zambia. The young adults at the retreat, many of whom would attend the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit at the UN Headquarters in New York City, (October 29-November 1) were joined by spiritual mentors and healers who helped to set a framework for the retreat discussions.
The dialogues were conducted in world café style, which facilitated small group interaction and intergenerational discussions. By taking a comprehensive approach to peacebuilding, the retreat agenda addressed the impact of conflict on youth and conflict resolution from many themes:
- Understanding and practicing peace,
- Tapping inner resources for rebuilding and renewal,
- How to protect and treat the spiritual environment and
- How gender balance can bring us closer to peace.
There were also special programs; such as the nature walks led by Robert Chastin, a Cherokee leader whose wisdom of nature taught the youth how to have a deeper connection with their surroundings. There was also a fire ceremony led by His Holiness Swami Chitananda Saraswati that offered a symbolic meaning of renewal for the youth present. The retreat established a network of young people committed to developing community and individual partnerships around peacebuilding and from this emerged the creation of the Young Leaders Peace Council. Under the leadership of Dena Merriam, the Council’s first mission is to support a delegation of young peacebuilders in Sudan to convene young Sudanese in their effort to build the Sudan Youth Peacebuilding Dialogue (SYPD), the goal is to create a platform for young peace and development practitioners in Sudan to discuss challenges for youth and to address these issues in a spirit of collaboration. The Council has also committed to establishing a formal structure that would allow a support network to give rise to programs and partnerships led by the young leaders council members. The retreat participants who went on to Global Youth Leadership Summit at the United Nations brought with them the concerns expressed by their peers at the Retreat and the understanding of the role of peacebuilding in development.
The retreat began with a special address from Master Sheng Yen, spiritual teacher and founder of Dharma Drum Mountain. He welcomed the group to the Dharma Drum Retreat Center and hoped that their surroundings for the next couple of days would serve as the right atmosphere for their discussions on peace and preparation for the Global Youth Leadership Summit (GYLS). Master Sheng Yen then spoke about the GYLS and its main purpose in tackling Millennium Development Goal 1 – Poverty. He spoke specifically about the importance of cultivating Inner Peace and the connection it has to the world. He advised that in order to tackle poverty, we should start by keeping ourselves out of poverty by cultivating spiritual contentment with less greed. Meaning that by being less greedy and content in spirit with what we have, we can help contribute more effectively to the fight against poverty and prevent us from allowing greed to feed into conflict. Lastly, he advised the group to reflect on and recognize the causes of poverty. For example wars, conflicts, and natural disasters displace and separate families, harm and exploit natural resources, reverse development and ultimately throw people into poverty. Recognizing the causes of poverty will also help people to realize that providing material goods is not a long-term solution, because spiritual contentment is also essential in creating lasting peace.
The first session at the Peacebuilding Retreat was conducted on the topic of peace, how we understand and practice peace. Dena Merriam spoke first about the need for a transformation in individuals, meaning that people should be able to drop their identities (when they are the source of conflict), in order to view themselves and others simply as human beings. She also spoke of the need to have compassion and the ability to feel for one another, which can be achieved by building relationships.
Olara Otunnu began by pointing out that we are in a world of conflict and this is the first challenge to practicing or bringing peace. He suggested that the best way to bring about peace making is by preventing wars. He mentioned factors that give rise to conflict, such as imbalances between groups, which involve tensions between a center and periphery group; using diversity to prevent unity and the struggle for power, which encourages or enables groups to divide and conquer one another. Lastly, he cautioned the group to realize that there are often individuals or groups of individuals who wish to lead and cause conflict and so they should be aware of the power in individual action, engagement and/or responsibility. Mr. Otunnu then proposed a solution to dealing with conflict. He emphasized the importance of having a process, but also having a solid foundation based on values, especially when trying to maintain peace in the aftermath of conflict. When a conflict is instigated by values and beliefs, one cannot return to status quo, but must transform or eliminate the source of conflict in a society to prevent it from happening again. Leaders also need to be heartbroken and there must be the recognition of sins and the need for repentance. This can then be translated into “Truth Seeking” and “Reconciliation- Accountability”.
A highlight of the retreat was the viewing of the documentary film, Darwin’s Nightmare, about the introduction of the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria in Africa and its impact on the communities in Tanzania that rely on the lake for employment and food.
The film documentary Let’s Talk Peace was produced by CAMYOSFOP, conceived by Ngalim Eugine, Executive Director and Patience Elango, Press and Information Secretary of CAMYOSFOP, who also directed the production of the documentary. The 22-minute video documentary was shown during the Peace Retreat. Let’s Talk Peace demonstrated the catastrophic consequences of armed conflicts, with glaring examples from Rwanda, Sudan and other conflict affected areas in the world. Delegates participated in a discussion afterwards led by Jane Little, retreat mentor and a BBC reporter and Eugine Ngalim.
Professor Amir Al-Islam began by speaking about leadership and the importance of a retreat of young leaders engaging in peacebuilding. He spoke of the enormous task ahead and what is means to be a leader and how to lead strategically in order to meet goals, not because of personal satisfaction but because of the state of urgency in this time of crisis. He warned that it takes more than desire and commitment to an issue to become an effective leader and that the delegates should not squander this opportunity and do nothing, but take full advantage of the retreat to really focus on strategic leadership in peacebuilding. He also gave examples from his own life experiences in the United States growing up as an African American during the civil rights movement.
Ms. Leila Atshan also spoke from her personal and professional experience as a blind, Palestinian woman and a professional psychologist and group facilitator. She said that in order toheal others, you also have to work on healing yourself first and one way of doing this was through expressing one’s emotions. She urged all the delegates to think of a moment or experience in their lives that had changed them or guided them to the point where they are right now at the retreat. She challenged the delegates to think about and reveal what guides them, inspires them, gives them energy and passion to do what they do? This session was especially powerful because the personal stories shared by the mentors had opened the floor for delegates to do the same. They did so in large groups and then broke up into smaller groups where they listened and shared pivotal moments in their lives. This exchange enabled delegates to develop trust in one another and discover meaningful things in common.
Next steps and guidelines for peacbuilding
Suggestions and comments from the Youth:
- Support each other and stand with youth from conflict regions (i.e. Sudan Youth Peace Dialogue will include representative from conflict countries/ Young Leaders Peace Council)
- Engage more North American youth in peace building efforts because of the strength of the US in influencing international policy
- Engage decision makers at the political level, Young congressmen/women such as Senator Barak Obama
- Use the media to increase awareness about peace building efforts and use it as a tool for peace
- Become better informed about the political process and policy (i.e. Form a strong lobby group or coalition in the US and other countries)
- Explore ways to use the media for peace
- Create a media watch/ think tank/ peace forum
- Assemble a delegation to attend the UN General Assembly that can articulate and convey the peace-building message and goals to the UN member states.
- Be more professional, strategic and organized
- Find a way to support NGOs financially
- Be models of goodwill
- Select group who works on issues and creates database of information
- Progress from talking to action and advocacy
- More focus on the grassroots
- Start action plans in respective countries and share with the group in a few months
- Follow up with the network
DDMBA and GPIW wishes to thank the many individuals and organizations that contributed funds, expertise and energy to making possible the Young Leaders Peace Building Retreat, particularly:
- Kalliopeia Foundation
- New Visions Foundation
- Mr. Henri Zimand
- Dr. Jean Weibenga
We would like to extend our deepest gratitude to the mentors who led discussions and participated in the Retreat. We greatly appreciate the time you shared with us, especially theVenerable Master Sheng Yen, His Holiness Swami Chitananda Saraswati, Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee, Ms. Dena Merriam, Mr. Olara Otunnu, Ms. Judy Rogers, Prof. Amir Al-Islam, Ms.Leila Atshan, Mr. Robert Chastin, Mr. Narinder Kakar, and Ms. Jane Little.