Some time has elapsed since I wrote this article on Homs, Syria; but the question “What can we do?” seems just as relevant to what’s going on today — which at the time of writing (January 4 2016) includes the rise of ISIS, the flood of desperate refugees, the floods in the north of England, the crazy political discourse, and one mass shooting a day on average in the US. Amongst other things.
This sign held by a child trying to reach the world was the first thing I saw about the slaughter taking place in Homs, Syria, a few days ago. Then a newspaper today had the headline: “Syrian siege of Homs is genocidal, say trapped residents.”
“We are seriously dying here. It is really war,” Waleed Farah told the Guardian, speaking via satellite phone. He said: “It isn’t war between two armies. It’s between the army and civilians. You hear the rockets and explosions. You feel you are at the front. The situation for civilians is pitiful.”
What, if anything, are we supposed to do, as individuals in a country far away?
This question comes up again and again and again. Daily. With your help, I looked at this subject at the time of the Japanese earthquake. We decided there is never nothing we can do.
This time I wanted to examine how hard it is not to look away when we hear news like this. How tempting it is to turn away, or even close our heart, thinking “It is too awful, it is too far away, it is not part of my life, and what can I do anyway?”
But this suffering is part of my life. It is part of my suffering world. It is appearing in my world. I turn away at my peril.
I often come across links to footage I’d really rather not see, such as starving humans and skinned cats. Where does my squeamishness come from though – does it come from compassion or is there something else at play? After all, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas never shy away from following Buddha’s advice to know suffering (the first noble truth). How can we know something without looking at it? Can we? How am I going to go about removing myself and others from hellish situations if I can’t or won’t look at them? What do you think? (I’m not advocating we all start watching horror movies, perhaps there is a balance to be had here; but I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.)
One thing I do know, I cannot conveniently box away all seemingly irrelevant or unworkable suffering without increasing my own dullness or carelessness.
Back to the case in point, what did I try and do to help today? Here is a quick summary of my meditation. This is not the only way to do it, of course, it is just the way I did it today (and I always like to begin and end with bliss and emptiness!) Meditation is very creative, and you can do whatever works best for you.
- I invited all the holy beings into my heart and mixed my mind with theirs like water blending with water, experiencing bliss. I knew I wanted to start from a peaceful, blessed place, or I would have nothing to bring to others, and I definitely wouldn’t want to focus on their gruesome pain.
- With my mind of bliss I dissolved me, them, and our whole world into its ultimate nature, emptiness. There is no inherently existent world, “out there”. There are not even any inherently existent suffering beings in Homs. (See this article for why this is not escapism but holds the solution.)
- I meditated on how I’m deeply connected to all living beings in my world, including those in Homs – we are all waves rising from the same ocean, each wave containing elements of all the others, entirely dependent related.
- In that context, from my heart, I invited the residents of Homs inside. I exchanged self with others.
- Then I thought about what they are experiencing right now. Beheaded people lie in the street, there are no ambulances to take away the dead, and people are cowering in their houses waiting for bombs to drop on them. And “the problem is that no one can get out”, as one resident put it. I usually prefer to start with an individual, for example I imagined what it must have been like to be this mother before, during and after the militiamen broke in: “The shabbiha (Assad’s militiamen) broke into three houses overnight and slaughtered a family of five — the father, wife and their three children…” And where are they now?
- I developed a wish for them to be safe and free.
- I did some taking and giving and imagined that they were safe and free, now and always.
- I prayed to all the holy beings to bring this about swiftly. It is impossible to overestimate the power of completely pure minds. We can act as a conduit for blessings to flow from holy to ordinary beings, transforming them. There are no inherently existent suffering beings – we would all be doomed if there were, and there really would be no point in thinking about their suffering.
- I brought everyone in all six realms into my heart to stay with all the enlightened beings, in bliss and emptiness. I stayed here as long as possible.
That much I owe them at least. If I was in their position, I would want to know that the world was at least looking at me, that the world cared. If we are in a position to do anything practical, then we do it, just as it suggests in the Bodhisattva downfall:
Not going to the assistance of those in need.
We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians, or sign a petition. I just donated to Avaaz here. And mainly, unless we have a direct line to the Syrian government, we can develop compassion and we can pray, knowing that these actions do make a difference.
One more point: although it is tempting to become angry at those who are attacking them, we can remember that the deluded and karmic causes of suffering go much deeper — the wheel of sharp weapons swirls round and round, perpetrators and victims continuously changing places. Michael said it this way in this article about his murdered brother-in-law:
“This next song is for Maynor, my brother in law. May we have compassion for those who killed him because it is quite clear that they could not have done such a thing if they were not themselves suffering and confused.”
Over to you: What are you doing about all these massive-scale tragedies? I look forward to your comments.
Thank you so much for this. I found myself feeling quite overwhelmed by the news today. So much suffering everywhere, and then I developed an angry mind when someone posted a video of a precious being as it was brutally murdered. The disturbed mind stayed with me even as I arrived at our local Kadampa Center for an after-work Refuge Retreat session. Because of a mix-up in the schedule, I arrived after the session began. Not wanting to disturb the others, I started my own session at a small shrine in another room. I did many prostrations, crying as I went for refuge. Then I sat and let the sadness wash over me from all the cruelty and suffering in this human realm, and reminded myself that as bad as it is, it is nothing compared with the suffering of the lower realms. I used this to develop renunciation, and meditated on that for a while before returning my mind to the Three Jewels, my only true source of refuge. Your contemplations give me another way to look at the sufferings and for that I thank you.
what a kind heart you have
Beautiful meditation. I’m curious to know why it’s enough to just pray and meditate for suffering beings in Syria but not enough for the Dorje shugden ban? Would you also set up demonstrations for Syria or engage in other outer methods to solve this outer problem?
If there was something I could do practically to help, yes, I would try.
Hi Luna, I’m not convinced of the wisdom or compassion of your suggestion “We can call upon our own government, wherever we are, to step in on behalf of the civilians”. The problem is that “our” governments, wherever they are (e.g. USA, UK, Russia, Iran, Saudi, Israel) have a poor track-record of caring for civilians in wars they step in to. In Iraq they US wouldn’t even record the body-count of the number of civilians killed — they cared so little. In other recent interventions such as Libya it is not clear that the situation of civilians has improved.
Greater strides have been made in the last few days now that military intervention is on the back-burner and diplomacy has come to the fore. Diplomacy doesn’t really count as stepping in, but it is the activity that our governments should focus on.
In my humble opinion, and I hope this doesn’t come across as too political but the trouble in Syria is that the poor civilians are caught in the crossfire between groups led by quite evil (for want of a better word) minds. On the one hand the Syrian government has engaged in slaughter and awful actions, but if you read further than the mainstream media, you find that the rebels are mostly Al-Qaeda led groups who are also guilty of the same (or worse) crimes. It just teaches me again and again that we need wisdom as well as compassion or we can be fooled by propaganda and led to call for action that will lead to even more untold sufferings.
Political leaders know that generally people are compassionate and will want to do something to end the suffering of children like those pictured and it’s possible they will play on that in order to get want they want from us. Buddha taught us that we need to know where suffering is coming from in order to cause its cessation. I think sometimes we forget this and just assume that we’re being told the truth – but who’s truth is it and what is their agenda? It does make me wonder why all of a sudden, the UK and US leaders are arming the Al-Qaeda. It makes me wonder even more why more people aren’t curious about it too – although to be fair, mainstream media has reported (suspiciously) very little about it. I’ve been reading more independent news sources and they tell a much different story of the situation, which I found quite shocking.
Don’t get me wrong, we need to do something about the suffering in Syria – but it’s not as black and white as it first appears to be; as most things in samsara. If we blunder in with crazy compassion then we can make the situation worse.
We should try and have compassion for all sides in this situation as they are all motivated by delusion. We also need to use wisdom to see that it’s not a simple case of good guys vs bad guys. They all need a LOT of prayers, because their delusions are strong.
Get along to Prayers for World Peace at your local centre and also dedicate for world leaders to have wisdom and compassion. The power of prayer really works!
Hi Chogma, US news sources cover the sale of weapons to the group’s you’ve mentioned. Whether you see it depends upon where you look. However, if you live in a Dharma Center and have been explicitly discouraged from TV or other ‘meaningless’ activities, it would be easier to miss. For your reference, the topic was hot as far back as the widely-publicized (US) 1985 Iran contra affair. The current US presidential debates have discussed the current situation in detail, if you know how to listen for it. Particularly the second Democratic debate, which happened days after the Paris attacks. One of the candidates was previously the head US diplomat, so her perspective is very well informed.
Yes, practical means plus prayer, while remembering in samsara there are no perfect solutions.
Here is something we can do as individuals, about Homs, as you requested:
Pingback: Asia’s Syria Shame | The Diplomat
I wanted to share a very simple prayer that I feel speaks to the heart of us all. So to all those out there wherever they may be and whatever they are experiencing:
May you be held in the arms of compassion. May your pain and sorrow be eased. May you be at peace.
Thank you once again for such an inspiring and heart warming article and wonderful meditation. When watching television we all know, if we are honest with ourselves … it’s only too easy to turn away when difficult things appear on our screens, or when we listen to the radio … if we’re … if I’m not careful … as you quite rightly put it Luna … we turn away at our peril …. Then a horrid habit developes …it’s only to easy for us to simply turn away and go and make a cup of tea. Compassion arises for all those trapped in the prison of samsara …wherever they are, whether they are suffering physically or mentally both are very hard. Thank you for all your inspiring articles … keep up the good work!!!
Just followed your meditation and other ideas. Thank you : )
I also tried a rather quirky idea I came across. It is to phone people in Syria and give them support. Tell them we’re thinking of them – any kind words that are appropriate. It was a little tricky given that I don’t speak Arabic. In one conversation we managed to understand “Hello” “Arabic” “English” “Goodnight”…but hey, we giggled a lot and I sent her a lot of love….. The only numbers I could find were hotel numbers.
Here’s a link if anyone feels like doing the same…
Syrian Hotels – Syria (Homs Online)
Information and Photos about Hotels at Syria, Telefons, Phones, Address and mail…
It is pretty touching to see how many compassionate people there are around here. And thank you for your generous comments.
Hey Luna, What a great article – you write beautifully. Reading it made me think deeply about suffering and how best to involve it in my spiritual path. Keep up the good work! Thanks 🙂
Wow! What a beautiful, compassionate meditation, with great ideas of how we can help during the meditation break. Thanks for being such a good example and sharing your experiences!!
My prayers have been answered.
I have have been seeking the answer to compassion for a long time.
The meditation is so beautiful and clear. Bring the Buddhas into my presence and heart and remember emptiness, all sentient beings abide merely, with this wisdom i can hold them even closer to my heart, to me, as we are one in the space of emptiness. Then i can take and give and really be making powerful healing actions with the help and blessings of enlightened beings. All suffering will end. I love it!
Thank you as always Luna.
Brill article and meditation, thanks.
I’ll try the steps suggested later. Expressed clearly and simply as always 🙂
Wow. This is a really beautiful, practical and heartfelt article. What a joy to read and share. Thank you.
Thank you for posting this, particularly at this juncture.
My own Buddhist practice fuels my activism Frankly, given who i am, if it didn’t i’d abandon it. I am by nature disinclined to turn away from the hard stuff… it’s part of my own experience and, as such, i’ve always understood it to be part of the spectrum. But then sometimes I have difficulty turning my face toward the good stuff, without looking for the club, so there’s the rub.
That said, my social conscience is informed by the kinds of hard facts we are forced to face in these situations, and that then drives my choices at work, my purchasing decisions, my voting behavior, and the charities i support.
And this is all fueled by my social conscience, which is largely defined by what i’m willing to look at, without turning away.
I’ll pray, but mostly for me this stuff fuels a fire that forces action.
Thanks again for posting.
Hi Luna, Thanks for the article and the example of meditation in action. Yes this is something to think deeply about – what we can do for those suffering far away. The mental actions you describe will help on several levels, not least in the sense that they will keep the sufferings of others in our minds and encourage us to naturally seek out ways to help them, like donations.
It’s interesting the idea that we need to familiarise ourselves with horror and suffering. There is a saying ‘If you look into the void, the void also looks into you’. I take that to mean that if we spend time becoming familiar with serial killings, methods of torture or other such matters it will have a changing effect on us as people. Maybe for the worse… But I think with a mind of strong compassion and wisdom we CAN look into the void and whatever we see will strengthen our compassion and wisdom.
Thanks again x
This poignant writing moves me deeply. It speaks to our interconnectedness with all in our “suffering world.” You bring this home to our hearts in a most moving and powerful manner. I am moved, not only by this persecution, but by all the genocidal actions inflicted by humans upon all other living beings. If the animals in slaughterhouses, dairy farms, circuses, etc. could hold up signs like this, they would also implore us to help. This prayer is beautiful and brings us into the service of others. And I include the perpetrators. May all who are compelled to inflict harm awaken to their Buddha nature soon and avoid causing further (future) sufferings. And…I am donating money.
Malerie, Thank you for post. It too had the most message that moved me deeply. Again may the precious bodhichitta grow. From your own post, it feels like it has taken root in your heart. I rejoice. May it grow where it has not yet grown.
Jan-Very kind of you. A mere reflection of you, I am sure. Much love.
Hi Luna, A beautiful prayer and a meaningful way to help these shattered people. It’s easy to despair. Thank you for showing a bodhisattva’s example and connecting them with the holy beings who will not ignore their plight. May bodhisattvas arise through out the ten directions and become the peace makers in East and in the West. May the precious bodhicitta grow where it has not yet grown and may all barabric lands be pacified.
Wow, encouraging, thanks Luna. I will come back to that meditation and try to apply such solutions more. It’s easy to feel despairing at horror situations in the world for humans and animals and, for me anyway, to kind of think ‘oh yeah, I’m meant to be praying and doing something spiritual about it’ while the ‘spiritual’ idea actually appears in my mind as a bit vague and airy-fairy and ineffectual. I think that if we actually frequently practice solutions such as the one you have outlined, then they will feel less and less vague and more like actual solutions, and of course then despair and certain kinds of reactive depression will lessen. Nectar, thank you. x
Taking liberties with the quote, but the only way for evil and suffering to exist in this world is for us to close our eyes and our hearts to it. I know we can wonder does the money really get anywhere that will help, and maybe we never can really know, but isn’t it really our intentions that are the most important and truly the only thing that will ever bring about change? (But it wouldn’t hurt to add 5 bucks or something to that wish!)