...reflections from a Compassionate Listener

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Israel and Palestine, from a Buddhist Perspective

By Guest Blogger, Catherine Keene

"However innumerable sentient beings are, I vow to save them."

So begins the first line of the Bodhisattva Vow, a sacred prayer that Mahayana Buddhists recite when they make the commitment to postpone their own path to Nirvana so that they might stay behind on this earth and help free others from suffering. The purpose of the vow is to reassign one's own good deeds to the rest of humanity and to promise to return to this life again and again in order to offer assistance until all beings have reached enlightenment. For Mahayana Buddhists, this is the ultimate show of solidarity and compassion.

I took this vow three years ago out of my love for humanity and compulsion to help others, but I had no way of knowing then just how much this vow would affect my everyday life until I began traveling to Israel and Palestine. In a land trapped in the creation of enemies and violence and polarization, the concept of not resting until *all beings* have been saved is a bit unfamiliar, to say the least. Most people feel compassion for those who are suffering and want justice, but only when it's for the side that they determine is most deserving. If you call their attention to pain felt by the "others," they either refuse to accept that such pain exists, or they minimize it, as though it were inconsequential. Unfortunately, it seems that few people even attempt to "hold the whole" when it comes to the Holy Land.

I often joke that practicing Compassionate Listening makes you become strangely unpopular, and this is never as true as when it comes to discussing this conflict. Many of my Israeli and Jewish and Christian friends have simply told me that I must be lying when I've tried to talk to them about the settler violence in Hebron or the military actions taken in Gaza. I've been accused of being brainwashed and flat out anti-Semitic. Similarly, when I've tried to talk to some of my Palestinian and Muslim friends about why Israel needs to exist and why violence is immoral and hurts everyone, I've been called anti-Muslim and been told to "go back to America, because you'll never understand." No one is hated as much as the one who refuses to choose a side.

So what is a Buddhist to do? How do we tell people from both sides that we want to help them, but only when it doesn't involve forsaking anyone else? If we end the occupation of the West Bank and knock down the Separation Wall and end the blockade around Gaza, the status of human rights in the Middle East will be considerably better, but our work will still not be done until the Israelis are also safe. And if we stop the rocket attacks on Sderot and make it possible for Israelis to travel anywhere in the world and obliterate anti-Semitism once and for all, it will be a glorious day, but it won't be true progress until violence and racism against the Palestinians also end. No solution will be complete until it treats everyone on both sides as equals and protects them all from suffering.

This conflict is so intense and disturbing that I sometimes find myself at a loss for how to help or even what to think about the situation. It can become very easy to blame individual politicians or one particular subgroup - be them the settlers or Hamas - for all the violence and atrocities. But no matter how inhumane the situation becomes, my Buddhist practice reminds me that it does no good to take sides. The ones with the worst inner pain - who then act out in violence against others - are the ones with whom we will spend the most time, as they will continue to be reborn again and again. So we must remember that there is no separation or difference between us and them. We are just as responsible for their actions as we are our own. And the more we try to isolate ourselves and judge one another for our differences, the longer we're all going to be stuck here together.

In summary, I am reminded of a brief but wise koan that I call upon anytime I wish to regain inner balance and deepen my Compassionate Listening practice:

A group of monks once asked their Zen master how it was that he was always able to feel compassion for other people. His response: "What *other* people?"

Cathy Keene is the Administrative Director of the Compassionate Listening Project. She will be co-leading our next training delegation in Israel and Palestine, in late March, 2011

(Please feel free to post a comment. You won't see it immediately, as we have to confirm it, but we deeply appreciate your contributions.)

Bookmark and Share


Yael Petretti said...

Dear Cathy,
You have the most incredible knack of distilling the essence of this conflict here in Israel/Palestine. Thank you for this beautiful posting and for enriching us with your Buddhist perspective.

RC said...

It is my understanding that when one takes the Bodhisattva Vow, one commits to not ending one's own investment in the cycle of rebirth until all sentient beings have also achieved enlightenment. Practicing "compassion for all sentient beings" is the means by which this end can be achieved. No small matter to eschew aggression, yes. Buddhists vow to do this; so do Quakers. The Ten Commandments tells Jews (and Christians, for that matter, and by extrapolation, Muslims) DO NOT KILL.

Having possession of a moral compass is one thing. Heeding it, following its ever-quivering needle, is another.

Hollie said...

Dear Cathy,

I think my earlier comment did not get uploaded. I just wanted to thank you for your choices. I thank you for your effort to hold unity in the face of such projected division. May you be successful in enlightening every being you encounter.

Marvin Finkelstein said...

This reminds me of when I was in the process of moving back to my apartment at the end of a sub lease to a prominent landlord-tenant lawyer.

I had to practically get his law license revoked, was almost arrested during a confrontation with him at a cafe after just having cataract surgery, and the Rabbi of a congregation I now seldom attend; though at the time I atteded it; was the mediator.

I have found that an "impartial mediator" is non existent or can only asymptotically exist i.e. 49.999999 % one side and 50.00001 the other.

As it turned out, the cafe went out of business, the lawyer no longer attends that synagogue and since that time I have found a much better place to attend services.

When I got my apartment back, the first thing that confronted me was a beach ball the exact color of the balloon shown in the ruins of Gaza City after the summer, 2014 conflict.

For the next two years, up until rather recently, I received some of his mail. I, against the advice of the Rabbi who told me to just put it in the mail box with "no longer at this address"; I spent oftentimes a voluminous amount of money to mail to him his mail items.

When I encountered him in my neighborhood, maybe a year and a half ago, he apologized and thanked me for forwarding his mail and realized how much I wanted the apartment back.

The unpacking is making a snail's pace look like a bullet train, this is both due to lack of energy, money issues and many other things.

The on the surface political hypotheses of the Mid East Crisis do not even come close to what is actually happening in Shamayim. The creation of what is deemed an "artificial people" politically most likely has more beneath the surface in the spiritual realm.

Before we solve these dilemas, it will be like what the BiG Book of
Alcoholic Anoymous says about alcoholism. Only a spiritual solution is the answer.