Reacting and responding
It was in November, almost two months ago, when my Reflections in a time of war were published on the SBN website. At the time I was processing my experience of the collective trauma we went through in Israel in the wake of the Hamas massacre on October 7. It was an unimaginable and unspeakable atrocity of vicious cruelty by one human to another, a monumental event said to be without precedent in the recorded history of humankind, a manifestation of the evil of which we humans are apparently capable. It has to be acknowledged. Such conduct is inhumane by any standard, it crosses all lines, ought not be tolerated no matter what the cause, and its terrorist perpetrators must be held accountable for their malicious deeds. It is a tragedy to be remembered so that nothing like it ever happens again. Some things lie beyond the pale and are simply unacceptable.
The reflections I wrote then were shared at the beginning of January in the SBN newsletter, and comments from those who read it then ascribed to me hateful views that are not mine, as if a deep racist bias against the Palestinian people abounds between the lines and I support genocide and ethnic cleansing. Seriously? How could anyone read such prejudice into what I write? I believe in the human dignity of all and the equal value of each single life. If there's anything I take from the Jewish bible, it is that we are all created in the same image. I wish well for all, regardless of race, nationality, religion, etc. I decry and condemn all forms of brutal violence.
A friend suggested the comments came from people who care, but I reacted, taking them to heart, feeling somewhat silenced and wary to respond in case that too be misconstrued into some vile state of mind. I needed time to embrace the hurt, let it be for what it was, and see the heaviness in the heart unravel, fade and dissolve. Only then did I gain an equanimity and a clarity to respond without digressing into apologetics.
Life is in constant flux, and in times of war it is especially intense and uncertain. Circumstances have changed since the end of November, before the week of a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with the return of almost half the Israeli hostages. Since then, Israel's military retaliation in self-defense has resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. Multiple voices here have been calling for an immediate ceasefire and the return of the more than 130 hostages still captive, but they go unheeded for more reasons than one. I, together with many like-minded friends, fail to understand how people can believe in the use of force as a resolution of conflict; for sure it has not brought home any more hostages. But the internal divisions in our vulnerable democracy between extremists and liberals, and between those now supporting and opposing military force, seem to be going from bad to worse with no light at the end of the tunnel. There are moments when it all seems hopeless. Each day is a struggle to find equanimity amidst the suffering all around and the not-knowing of what will be.
I appreciate that we live here in relative privilege and comfort, and that our miseries, our trials and tribulations are incomparable to the devastating hardships of basic survival inflicted upon the people in Gaza. My heart goes out to them. Thousands upon thousands of innocents have been killed and injured; almost the entire population has been displaced and are now living under insufferable conditions. The International Court of Justice in the Hague is addressing the situation from the perspective of international law, and I do not wish to engage in a political debate on a platform that seeks the spirit of the dharma. In any case it would be a largely empty debate, since my views on the deep causes of the ongoing war in Gaza, the Israel-Palestine conflict as a whole and the nature of its resolution are in all likelihood no different in essence from yours.
Having said that, I'd like to offer some more thoughts in response to the comments. They are inspired by a talk Stephen Batchelor gave our local sangha in the middle of November. The insights – on the importance of sangha, on views and opinions, and on the middle way - are still pertinent.
Living under conditions of war is chaotic and stressful, and the sangha is a place of refuge. When things are bad, we need the support of like-minded friends. For several years now, the secular Buddhist community has been my main sangha. I would hope it to be a safe space where we can all speak freely from the heart, and trust that our words are heard without being judged.
In times like this, said Stephen, sangha has an important role as ‘a body of people who share deep common concerns about these issues. …That means talking. It means really allowing ourselves to be totally frank and honest, trying to inform ourselves as best we possibly can in this arena of so much disinformation from all sides.’
Views and opinions
What we see from here you do not see from there, and vice versa. Here, from my perspective, we seem to be caught in a quagmire of hurtful ignorance at many different levels. I have my views on what should or should not be done and the changes needed on both sides to repair and heal the harm of poisoned minds, and to make room for a civilized solution to the conflict that will better the world. But I speak for myself, and I bear in mind the Buddha Gotama's teachings on views and opinions, who is critical of and renounces them altogether in some texts. I beware of generalizations - not all Palestinians and Muslims are radical Islamists who support terror, and not all Israelis are ultra-right fundamentalists who support oppression. And I refrain from bold statements that end with an exclamation mark; instead, I choose to question.
But, as Stephen pointed out, ‘right view’ is also a component of the eightfold path. So, what does right view mean? In one place the Buddha says that right view is to be able to judge between what is skillful and what is unskillful. ‘That's samma ditthi,’ said Stephen, ‘it's ethical. It has to do with the training of what we might call our inner moral compass, and that's the skill that we seek to cultivate on the path.’
In another text the Buddha says right view is a view in which we are no longer caught up in the dualism or binary distinction between ‘is and is not’. Right view transcends such binary thinking, said Stephen. The problem is not the views or the opinions themselves but our firm attachment to them. Right view is not a dogmatic opinion about what's true or false. Rather it encourages us to become ‘increasingly suspicious and wary of binary oppositions: good versus evil, right versus wrong, and how that so easily concretizes into irreconcilable conflicts between people.’
A Middle Way
Tolerance is a middle way that avoids the dangers of binary thinking. It calls for a non-reactive, open and friendly mind to listen to others even if we don't agree with them. Through dialogue, said Stephen, we may be able to release ourselves from the hold of our own views, appreciate better where others are coming from, and find openings of new understanding. I myself persist in believing that talking between moderates can break the cycles of animosity and violence in our world that only breed more of the same.
There is no knowing how the politics of the conflict here will unfold; we might end up living under a dark regime, a police state, of which there are already signs. Some of my friends are considering leaving home, the culture and way of life, the climate and natural environment, and going into exile. Others feel they lack resources to live comfortably elsewhere and don't have a choice. I wonder what it might mean to stay and live a middle way here in such case. I suppose it would be a balance between retreating into an island unto oneself, disengaging socially for the sake of one's own sanity and basic wellbeing, while cultivating small acts of friendliness to others as best I can, continuing to bear witness to the dark times, and seeking rays of light rather than sinking into the bog of confusion, melancholy, depression and despair.
It is said that crisis is an opportunity for growth, but who knows what will be? We all should be concerned. The forces at play in the conflict here have repercussions worldwide. It might be seen as a war against the poisons of ignorance and hatred which take many forms in other settings too. It is a challenge to those who seek the light of wisdom and compassion. I can only hope for the better, that we find a way to get out of the deadlock through talking and listening with the common goal of building long lasting peace, here and elsewhere. Will the new year bring a change for the better or for the worse? Who knows?