Nomon Tim shares his reflections on the horrifying situation in Gaza and Israel, sharing statements and remembrances from several Zen teachers and teachings on how the Mindulness Sutra (Satipatthana Sutta) could be helpful for becoming the peacemakers we all hope to be.
Tim's talk notes:
It's hard to stand the pain and suffering in the world that we learn about in our news media. Probably to fully open to it all before Buddhahood we'd got utterly crazy. So many people are in horrible situations and situations that will only get worse before they get better.
Of course I'm thinking about Palestine and Israel. And it feels risky to even talk about - there are incredibly strong views and fears and justifications all around. And our own government is using our tax dollars to support Israel in a particular way so we're all directly involved. I was at least a bit relieved to read today that President Biden has pledged $100M for humanitarian aid to Gaza. And that the Israeli government is not blocking
As I'm sure you read or heard or were brave enough to watch some of the utterly brutal and murderous attack by Hamas that triggered this latest conflagration. The horror of that can't be held in our hearts or minds. And the horror of losing loved ones captured as hostages. I don't know how you could compare one horror over the other there.
That human beings can get to a state of such total dehumanization of others is a truly frightening aspect of how the mind can become. And this is also a story as old as warfare: the other must be dehumanized in order to use violence as a tool.
The same dehumanization is needed to cut the power, and thus the drinking water, to a densely packed area of earth inhabited by 2.1 million people, tell half of them to leave even though they have nowhere to go, and then start bombing as if it will somehow solve the first round of horror by inflicting new horrors.
And of course all of this happening against a deep background born of so many deep factors. It's too easy to say "it's complicated" but that is of course utterly true.
It makes perfect sense that a people who'd been repressed and judged and accused and murdered for millennia need a safe homeland. And then the sincere dream of a safe homeland by one oppressed people leads to the stealing the homeland of an another. No way that ends well. Not to mention the deep backdrop of colonialism and imperialism that created the middle east as we know it now.
I'll never forget reading about how the borders that eventually became Iraq were drawn by a young British diplomat one day, here's a brief account of that moment in 1915:
One December morning in 1915, with World War I not yet 18 months old, a young diplomat stalked into the offices of the British prime minister in London, carrying with him a map and a bold plan for the future of the Middle East once the allies had defeated Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Standing before Britain’s top leaders, Sir Mark Sykes slashed his finger across his map of the region and, according to James Barr’s book “A Line in the Sand,” said, “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre [in then-Palestine, on the Mediterranean] to the ‘k’ in Kirkuk [in what would become Iraq].” Britain, he said, would retain control of the territory to the south of the line, while the French would have Greater Syria north of the line. That blunt proposal to divide the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence was the seed that would lead a few years later to the birth of the modern Middle East and with it decades of political turmoil, wars, sectarian bloodletting, socioeconomic disparities, and the interminable Arab-Israel conflict.
And much deeper older roots as well. Everywhere in the world. Including right here on these ancestral lands of the Lummi and Nooksack peoples. The church has a lovely little monument in front acknowledging this but it's not like anyone's proposing to give Bellingham to the Lummi nation. No easy answers.
My colleague Hozan Alan Senakue wrote a powerful statement about the conflict:
Watching a Nightmare in Israel & Gaza October 2023 In this world, hatred is never appeased by hatred. It is only appeased only by loving-kindness. This is an ancient law. —Dhammapada, 5 Watching a nightmare unfold in Israel and Gaza, words are insufficient to express the grief and anger felt there and felt here in our hearts. No words can bring back a life or heal a broken body. Words cannot free a hostage or release a million people from the destruction of their homes and forced evacuation. But, even if words are insufficient, our silence is also unacceptable. Silence is easily mistaken for inattention. So today, irrespective of terrible things done on both sides of the conflict, let the world say: Enough! We love you all, Israelis and Palestinians. We are all of one human family. Let us talk among ourselves and ask how we can help, even in small ways. In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama titled “Loving Your Enemies” which includes these thoughts: “…hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. . . The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. . . and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.” The Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians and the Israeli military’s bombing and invasion of Gaza can only deepen the decades of intergenerational trauma on both sides. With bitterness and hatred, however understandable, etched upon hearts and minds there are no victors. We may not yet see clearly what to do, but we cannot turn away from this suffering. May all beings be safe; may all beings be free. —Hozan Alan Senauke Berkeley Zen Center, Clear View Project Nonviolence International has created an extensive page of resources that include nonviolent action for peaceful resolution and justice, and background material on conflicts in Israel/Palestine. All of us need help like this to understand the crisis. https://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/palestine?utm_campaign=nv_for_gaza&utm_medium=email&utm_source=nonviolenceinternational
One of our other colleagues, Chozen Bays at Great Vow monastery in Oregon, had an experience of an earlier pivotal moment in Israel, and reminds us of the basic truth that peace really does start here: in this mind that can produce incredibly generous forgiving thoughts and utter rage, dehumanization, and violence both.
Working with long-time Zen students, we have talked about the endless circle of samsara. This is exactly the turning of the wheel of samsara. I was in Israel a week after the 6 Day War in 1967. The mood was ecstatic. Everywhere in Jerusalem were trucks of young people riding along and singing "Jerusalem of Gold" triumphantly. My (Jewish) husband took a helicopter tour of the lines of smashed and abandoned tanks left by the Arab coalition ( Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and Pakistan). Israel occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula and seemed invincible. The wheels of karma have been turning ever since, and now here we are. Anger and hatred and deaths breeding more anger, hatred and death. And anger is now spreading to the US and around the world, causing the deaths of more innocents. Maezumi Roshi used to say that if we really wanted to work for peace, we had to work to end the causes of war in the only place we can actually change --- in our own hearts and minds, and in our mistaken ideas of an individual self that must be defended, our own greed, anger and ignorance.
Another colleague, in Ireland, which has also known more than it's share of horribly violence an example of that forgiveness:
In 1987, an IRA bomb exploded during Enniskillen's Remembrance Day parade, injuring Wilson and fatally injuring his daughter Marie. In an emotional television interview with the BBC hours after, Wilson described his final conversation with his dying daughter, as they both lay buried in rubble. His words, ‘I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge’ were reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles. Wilson's calls for forgiveness and reconciliation came to be called the ‘Spirit of Enniskillen’. If we are on either side of any divide, we need to reach across with the hand of friendship. Without conditions. As Hozan has reminded us, it is only love and kindness that can heal.
And another shared a prayer. Sometimes that's all we really have left.
I would like to share the peace prayer which many of you know from Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche who worked tirelessly for peace. THE POWER OF PEACE: A TEACHING "It is my wish that the spiritual power of peace will touch very person on this earth, radiating from a deep peace within our own minds, across political and religious barriers, across the barriers of ego and self-righteousness. Our first task as peacemakers is to clear away our internal conflicts caused by ignorance, anger, grasping, jealousy, and pride. With the guidance of a spiritual teacher, this purification of our own minds can teach us the very essence of peacemaking. We should seek an inner peace so pure, so stable, that we cannot be moved to anger by those who live and profit by war, or to self-grasping and fear by those who confront us with contempt and hatred. Extraordinary patience is necessary to work toward world peace, and the source of that patience is inner peace. Such peace enables us to see clearly that war and suffering are outer reflections of the mind's poisons. The essential difference between peacemakers and those who wage war is that peacemakers have discipline and control over egotistical anger, grasping, jealousy, and pride, whereas warmakers, out of ignorance, cause these poisons to manifest in the world. If you truly understand this, you will never allow yourself to be defeated from within or without. In Tibetan Buddhism, the peacock is a symbol for the bodhisattva, the awakened warrior who works for the enlightenment of all beings. A peacock is said to eat poisonous plants, but to transform the poison into the gorgeous colors of its feathers. It does not poison itself. In the same way, we who advocate world peace must not poison ourselves with anger. Regard with equanimity the powerful, worldly men who control the war machines. Do your best to convince them of the necessity of peace, but be constantly aware of your state of mind. If you become angry, pull back. If you are able to act without anger, perhaps you will penetrate the terrible delusion that perpetrates war and its hellish suffering. From the clear space of your own inner peace, your compassion must expand to include all who are involved in war, both the soldiers—whose intention is to benefit but who instead cause suffering and death and thus are caught by the terrible karma of killing—and the civilians who are wounded, killed, or forced into exile as refugees. True compassion is aroused by suffering of every sort, by the suffering of every being; it is not tied to right or wrong, attachment or aversion. The work of peace is a spiritual path in itself, a means to develop the perfect qualities of mind and to test them against urgent necessity, extreme suffering, and death. Do not be afraid to give it your time, energy, and support.”
The mindfulness sutra that I've been bringing up here off and on encourages us to deeply study first the body and breathing - grounding us in fundamental ways - and then to unpack three more layers of consciousness that work together to create our reality.
The second layer is the way the mind powerfully, and often blindingly, leans one way or the other in every moment of experience. In mild to extreme way, the mind quickly leans away from things we find unpleasant or distasteful or wrong - we shut down quickly, we can't or won't (no difference) take it in. And the mind can quickly pull towards that we enjoy or desire or think is the right way which also distorts the mind. This is the second foundation of mindfulness usually translated as "feelings" which isn't quite the right word. Sometimes "feeling-tone" which is closer. The coloring by the mind of yes & no, like it & don't like it, pleasant & unpleasant. And the deep repercussions this unsteady leaning mind can have. Mindfulness of Feeling-Tone.
The third layer is to examine what arises in the mind as just that: stuff arising in the mind. Thoughts, feelings, ideas, images. None of it quite real in the way we take it to be. None of it quite right, or quite wrong. Emergences of the mind. Mindfulness of Mind. How easily we are tangled up in our busy minds. And how much freedom can arise when we can see a thought as a thought; an emotion as an emotion.
And the forth layer is all about the patterns of mind, habits of mind; the many ways of being the mind puts it all together as a result of the levels below. And how sometimes the mind puts everything together in a healthy and positive way and other times not - the mind assembles an inner hell realm.
The Buddha uses examples to talk about this. Maybe the mind is in the patterns of a cluster of experiences described by the five hindrances is one of the examples. The mind that can be so easily agitated by desire and aversion, dullness and restlessness, and doubt. These are powerful mind patterns that take hold and when they are strong we are subject to their power. We are run by desire, run by aversion and the horrors of the moment have so much aversion in them, or are we shut down by dullness or unable to focus for our restlessness and the kingpin of that particular mind pattern is doubt. Doubt that we are any good maybe. Maybe doubt that anyone else is trustworthy or worth listening to. Doubt that these practices actually make any real difference at all. Are we just sitting here navel gazing as the world burns down?
Or the Buddha points out mind patterns can emerge that are generous, joyful and inclusive. His example is a list of factors called the seven factors of awakening.
1) Mindfulness - balanced, open meeting of reality - what's actually present here, what's this? Mindfulness helps us out of our heads and into direct experience. With mindfulness we are more fully here and able to help.
2) Investigation - is curiosity present right now? Or no, the mind is pretty much locked down and I know exactly what's going on here? Beginner's mind is here.
3) Diligence - am I engaged or….nope! Come on bell ring, damn you, ring. Let's get out of here.
4) Joy - am I happy, energized and uplifted. This can be a quite brief state. Nice to notice and enjoy it when it arises. Other times no, not so joyful.
5) Ease - is the more grounded kind of happiness - the long peaceful exhalation of everything is just….fine…. Or not: remember about agitation?
6) Concentration - remember that doesn't mean doing a math problem it's when the mind feels balanced and stable, attention stops flitting all around but can be very wide open. Internally more quiet but not dull at all: engaged. I like to say "relaxed and alert".
7) Equanimity - a lot of overlap with concentration. Unruffled, resilient. Also doesn't mean dull and blanked out there's plenty of feeling and connection in equanimity, it's like a really sensitive balance beam in a science lab, a little speck of something lands on one tray and the scale shifts but it's a self-aware scale and it knows how to adjust again so it wouldn't be so great for weighing out reagents actually. Sorry that's a very science geeky explanation. Balanced and responsive would have been plenty of words.
Interestingly the Buddha doesn't give a lot of tools for strengthening these positive mind states or solving the negative ones in this text: his main advice is to be aware. To notice. And there is more power in knowing that I think we can quite understand. That is the mail tool here.
Is desire present now? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. Knowing this directly is a game changer. Are joy and ease present? Can I feel them, tune in be joy and ease as least for this moment?
So I don't know what should happen in Israel and Gaza now. Should the people who committed horrible acts on both sides be found and punished? Forgiven? How does any peace move forward. I don't know that.
But I do know that for our practice to be real it has to be more than just calming down, deeper understandings, and deeper change, and much humility about our blindness and limitation are need - but at the same time don't underestimate calming down - it is utterly essential. Here's a quote from the Black scholar and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem
Few skills are more essential than the ability to settle your body. If you can settle your body, you are more likely to be calm, alert, and fully present, no matter what is going on around you. A settled body enables you to harmonize and connect with other bodies around you, while encouraging those bodies to settle as well. Gather together a large group of unsettled bodies—or assemble a group of bodies and then unsettle them—and you get a mob or a riot. But bring a large group of settled bodies together and you have a potential movement—and a potential force for tremendous good in the world. A calm settled body is the foundation for health, for healing, for helping others, and for changing the world.