A couple of days into all this chicken stuff, all hell broke loose in Israel. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse to a hell hole, threatening to engulf the region and the world.
When I got back to London from Spain, my dad’s kind new neighbors were asking me what a Buddhist would do to solve this problem if I could? Much ink is being spilled on this conflict from every perspective, and I have nothing to add in terms of how to fix this in any geopolitical way.* But I have naturally been wondering if and how any of us can make Dharma relevant to something as terrible and terrifying as being trapped on either side of that seemingly endless conflict? I would love to hear from you in the comments. It doesn’t really help anything to sit around feeling helpless, outraged, and depressed. And if we don’t have constructive ways of thinking about this situation and can’t handle it, at some point we will most likely simply stop paying attention to the poor people caught up in it; and how does that help them?
(What follows, as always, is just my personal take.)
There is a lot I could have said to these neighbors as an individual practitioner, including a story about chickens; but I started by explaining outer and inner problems and how there is a correspondingly big difference between solving this problem with politics and solving it with Dharma. I am not wading into politics – it is too hard to unravel the millions of outer causes and conditions that have gotten the world into this situation, particularly when our self-cherishing makes it impossible to see eye to eye, and in any case I have very little political power. As Venerable Geshe Kelsang prayed on the occasion of 9/11, I am praying for the various people who are in power to have wisdom and compassion.
A simple dream
I am very reluctant to take sides in this conflict, even as my emotions and sense of outrage change every time I see the latest human cruelty on either side. As I believe the Pope said the other day:
I urge believers to take only one side in this conflict, that of peace.
As Buddha said, living beings are not our enemies; only our delusions are our enemies. Living beings have Buddha nature and are kind and good at heart, and we owe them everything. This is not a platitude; it is a profound truth, and one that transcends religion and politics. But it is a truth that needs to be deeply experienced, starting with us (me). Not living in accordance with it means that hatred and anger can never end. Is that a world any of us really wants to live in? I don’t think so. Do I wish this view could be taught in schools? Yes.
For starters, we are all the same in all the ways that actually matter, we have far more in common than not. We’re all equal in at least ten ways.
A nation is defined as a group of people with a common language, a common past and common dreams. By this definition, any parent will tell you that all the world’s babies are children of a single nation. They have a common language, a common past, common dreams. They speak the same, get angry and cry at the same things, laugh the same way. When my three children were young, I marveled at how they communicated effortlessly with other babies, no matter the language of the lullabies their parents sang them at night. The whole of this nation of infants — Jewish, Arab, Palestinian, Israeli — wants just one thing: to grow up to a good life. It’s a simple dream. ~ From this article.
We ALL want to be happy and free. No one likes to suffer. Why is my suffering or happiness more important than yours? Answer: It isn’t, not on any reasonable scale. I read a moving article by an Israeli major who has been called up to war: “I’m Going to War for Israel. Palestinians Are Not My Enemy.”
He says he doesn’t know if he’ll ever come home. This means something coming from him:
Palestinians aren’t the enemy. The millions of Palestinians who live right here next to us, between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan, are not our enemy. Just like the majority of Israelis want to live a calm, peaceful and dignified life, so do Palestinians.
Like chickens, we human beings are also not our delusions – but how badly these inner enemies harm us day and night at their leisure, creating seemingly endless, intractable confusion and suffering. Human beings can be even more cruel than animals.
One journalist wisely said:
All infliction of human suffering is wrong, and we should all be willing and able to object to and resist it whenever we see it, no matter who imposes it or who endures it.
We are all children
Teenagers have been abducted from Israel, their families in an agony of unknowing. Gaza is half the size of New York and home to some 2.2 million people, almost half of whom are children, a growing number being shattered to pieces as we speak. As the soldier said: “There’s nothing in the world that can justify the murder of hundreds of innocent people.” While innocence is obvious and extra poignant in children, and usually we find it therefore easier to love and care for children, we are all “childish ones”, according to Buddha. We are all unbearably sweet at heart, as every mother will tell you. We are all immature and innocent insofar as we are controlled by our delusions and know not what we do. Each living being, young or old, is therefore also an object of concern and compassion. Morality and politics don’t always go together, sadly.
If we owe a moral responsibility to Israeli children, then we owe the same moral responsibility to Palestinian children. Their lives have equal weight. If you care about human life only in Israel or only in Gaza, then you don’t actually care about human life.” ~ Nicolas Kristof
As I prepare this for publication, a procession of little ghouls and ghosts are ringing our doorbell constantly — the Lord of Death looked scary on the outside but then gave us a melting smile “Happy Halloween!!!” Kids are simply adorable.
No inner peace = no outer peace
With the deluded minds of aversion and self-righteousness, it is always the other person who has to change. What happens if WE change instead? How can we change in a way that solves this problem and every problem? I think that all of Buddha’s teachings address this – but they need to be practiced if they are to work. The basic premise of Buddhism is:
Without inner peace in the minds of living beings, there can be no outer peace. ~ Introduction to Buddhism
The Israeli soldier also said this:
The strongest army cannot protect the country the way peace does … At the end, after all of the dead Israelis and Palestinians are buried, after we have finished washing away the rivers of blood, the people who share a home in this land will have to understand that there is no other choice but to follow the path of peace. That is where true victory lies.
Peace needs to be more than a signature on a piece of paper backed up by more weapons. Peace has to be something we work on inside ourselves. Yes, inner peace might seem to take longer than political solutions, and we can do those too (outer solutions for outer problems); but it is the only thing that actually works for more than a few months or years, if at all. Deluded or unpeaceful minds will always produce a suffering world.
For one thing, evaluating our behavior in terms of physical results alone is short-sighted and deceptive. We have to take karma into account. The actual results of our actions depends on our motivation or intentions – if these come from wisdom and compassion they will lead to positive results, but if they are deluded or negative the results will inevitably be suffering. Buddha explained how murder and killing motivated by delusion are negative not due to some abstract moral code but because they always lead to pain for ourselves too, such as a short life, being murdered, a lot of sickness. The wheel keeps turning. Peck someone, be pecked back. Blow someone up, be blown back up in turn.
Moreover, we can destroy people’s bodies but this does not destroy their delusions nor our shared karma. If we harm them, we will be harmed by them further down the road in another scenario, in this or future lives.
I really appreciated what Gen-la Kunsang said in the Summer Festival this year, that if we want to know whether or not one or our actions is good or bad, we can imagine what would happen if everyone was doing it?!
Precious human life
Sooner or later conflict affects us all – according to Buddha, we have spent most of our previous lives in conflict, in the lower realms, and peace is rare in samsara. Talk about 6 degrees of separation – a friend of a friend is actually one of the people who has been abducted. It wasn’t long ago that a friend of another friend was shot dead in a mass shooting at a Denver tattoo parlor. Sooner or later, if I stick around samsara, it won’t be a friend of a friend, but simply a friend. And then me.
There are states of conflict in samsara where it is just not possible to start practicing Dharma – for example, in the hell realms or the chicken coop. We can only stay calm in those realms if we haven’t taken uncontrolled rebirth there – an exception to prove this rule being Buddha Shakyamuni in a previous life as a hell being, who managed to develop compassion for the other hell beings’ headaches and as a result died and got out of there straightaway. One conclusion is that we need to make the most of our precious human life – understanding that we are not special right now, just very, very lucky. And we can see from this terrifying conflict how quickly luck runs out. Now is the only time to tame our own minds. As Atisha said:
Since you cannot tame the minds of others until you have tamed your own, begin by taming your own mind.
Hold the door open
Prayer is vital – “our main job is to pray”, as Venerable Geshe-la has said.
Nowadays, we can see in this world so many problems, people experiencing difficulties. And some people ask me, “Geshe-la what should we Buddhists do to help these problems?” And I replied, “We cannot be involved in this political problem or it just becomes worse… Our way to solve these problems is that we pray for everybody to become friends, to be harmonious, to have good relationships, and to pacify their extreme view, their wrong view, their selfish intention and so forth…. We pray equally for people in every area to pacify their negative attitude, their negative intention, and to experience correct view, correct intention, and to follow a correct spiritual path…. Through receiving blessings, our prayer will be fulfilled. ~ Ven Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
I have talked a lot about prayer on this site and prayer can be really radical – we can envisage everyone in a state of happiness and freedom, bliss and emptiness, and hold the space. We can “hold the door open for them”, as M. put it in Malaga. There are no inherently existent living beings, which means that there are no inherently suffering living beings either. Suffering, painful as it is, is mistaken appearance or hallucination – and as such it can be overcome with wisdom. Buddha means “Awakened One”, anyone who has woken up from the dream-like sufferings of samsara. Anyone who has used wisdom to remove the obstructions to liberation (the delusions) and obstructions to enlightenment (the most subtle mistaken appearances) experiences a pure world full of pure beings, the reflection of a pure mind. We don’t have to remain stuck in the suffering dream-like dimension of samsara. Enlightenment is a trick of the mind away.
Enlightened yet or not, we need to use names or conventional reality to communicate with others where they are at and guide them to this experience of increasing inner peace and freedom. We have to enter their dreams. This takes time and patience because we are talking about a lot of delusions and mistaken karmic appearances to wade through for each and every living being. However, Buddhas are committed to that process. Besides, what is time? It is also mistaken appearance.
It is really hard to help or even to maintain the desire to help if everything is inherently limited, impure, and suffering. But nothing is as chunky or real as it appears – forms are emptiness in disguise, as Venerable Geshe-la says in Tantric Grounds and Paths. Tantric Bodhisattvas imagine that they are already enlightened – their compassion and wisdom, bliss and emptiness, pervading and healing all living beings. This is not fantasy but reality. And I think this vision is essential for us to be able to keep going until samsara empties out.
Talking of those ants, they are working incredibly hard today and every day to defend and flourish a tiny, tiny, tiny corner of the world. Bodhisattvas likewise need to work hard to help those around them, but they also need to keep the perspective that samsara is vast and living beings are countless, because that’s the truth. Therefore, only enlightenment will really do.
Within that profoundly hopeful perspective, Tantric Bodhisattvas “practically” help others with moral discipline and giving and a lot of patience. That may or may not appear as diplomacy, political wrangling, and so on.
Taking and giving
We can get used to and prepare for this perspective in Sutra with the so-called “magical practice of taking and giving”, taking on the suffering both of individuals AND all living beings. I am going to quote here from Jan J (hope you don’t mind!)
There is so much suffering appearing in the world currently. It’s so overwhelming that many of my friends and family have stopped watching the news and don’t want to discuss the things that are causing such pain. This is because, without Dharma, people don’t really know how to help. Of course there are important conventional actions such as voting, signing petitions, volunteering, protesting; but increasingly it can feel like the only tool we have is a bucket, as the Tsunami approaches.
Dharma practitioners are so blessed with the understanding that all suffering can be transformed into the path. It is the fuel that can power us to enlightenment, when we will be able to benefit all living beings without exception. Knowing this we can engage in the giving of fearlessness. We don’t have to ignore or turn away from the pain of other living beings; instead we can open our hearts and let the compassion flood in. This compassion is the cause of our becoming a Bodhisattva, a protector of the world.
It is true that at first we do not have the power directly to take on others’ suffering, but through repeatedly meditating on the conviction that we have taken on their suffering we will gradually develop the actual power to do so.
Meditation on taking is the quick path to enlightenment, and is similar to the Tantric practice of bringing the result into the path, in which through strongly imagining that we are already a Buddha we gradually become a Buddha. The fact is that if we cannot even imagine attaining enlightenment we will never be able to attain it! ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
I’ve been thinking about this lately too, how the importance of an individual’s suffering and happiness is in no way flattened or diminished by our spreading our focus to all living beings. I think we need to find our way into all living beings through individual living beings, indeed starting with ourselves – feeling in our heart how desperately we each desire to be free and happy. And then we spread out that authentic love and compassion. Like a Bodhisattva ant, we can work on behalf of individuals and a specific community while maintaining the supreme good heart of bodhichitta that takes in everyone.
My role model is Venerable Geshe-la. He totally transcended this world, inhabited a parallel universe full of enlightened beings, yet remained utterly attentive to every living being he came across in our ordinary world. This includes animals, which might explain why he took in so many strays. It strikes me that we are all strays. Or migrators.
These two levels of practice need to be reflected in our daily spiritual practice – to pull off either of them we need to be mentally prepared through our own daily practice. It is a helpful idea to choose a time for study, contemplation, and meditation, if we can, and stick to it religiously. Open a daily portal to sanity. Study how? you may ask. A good place to start is with either of these free ebooks How to Transform Your Life and Modern Buddhism.
Kadampas on the ground
I want to finish by inviting you to give your responses on this, so please scroll below to the comments box. More importantly, we need to find ways to get these ideas out there into the mainstream. And especially I want to share something from a friend called Daniel Koren:
Hello from Israel! My name is Daniel, and I’ve been teaching Dharma in Tel Aviv for the past three years. In light of the latest horrible events, we started offering meditation sessions and Dharma talks every day on Zoom and many people are attending. They’re benefitting immensely from it. We created a WhatsApp group, sharing links to the daily sessions, just days ago and it already has 400 participants. These sessions brings back sanity, people are telling me they were finally able to breathe again … I’d like to reach out to our international Sangha and kindly ask you to please keep us in your hearts.”
*I did sign this petition. With a strong prayer that all fighting cease. I also wrote to my two state senators.
Through our efforts and prayers, may all suffering quickly cease. May everyone be happy and our world be peaceful.