August 11, 2014

Do We Really "Have No Choice"?

An Israeli Buddhist argues that if we truly yearned for peace, we would respect human dignity.Stephen Fulder

I wrote this as large numbers of civilians were being killed and injured and made homeless in Gaza, and Hamas rockets were being fired toward Israel. But most of the text was actually written before, in August 2006, during the war between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The tragedy is that much of the text of this article is the same because nothing has changed. War follows war, with only temporary respite in between. Each frenzy of violence paves the way for the next. During the Lebanon War, I was in the line of fire in the ecological village of Clil in the North of Israel. The days were punctuated by loud blasts of Katyusha rockets, which had been landing intermittently, randomly, suddenly, anywhere—and I had given up seeking cover. At the same time, Israeli artillery was thudding continuously, day and night. Then as now, I feel the blasts in my being, feeling the violence and terrible tragedy and suffering that they bring. I feel a huge sadness and compassion for suffering that knows no boundaries and does not take sides. Back then, as now, there is a strong consensus in Israel—95 percent of the population—that we Israelis are right, that we have no choice, that we must “defend” ourselves. I am awed at the consensus that somehow makes it possible to inflict so much harm on our neighbors.

One view would hold that genuine self-defense is possible, a last resort use of violence to defend oneself when all other options have been used up. But ethics demands we use the minimum of force necessary to disable the attacker and no more. The Buddhist tradition, for example, does not forbid self-defense, and has developed alongside techniques of martial arts that protect the attacked without hurting the attacker. Clearly this is not an imperative in the huge death and destruction in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza today.

Cases of genuine self-defense are actually extremely rare, and in virtually all cases of conflict there are wise and heartful solutions that are not seen and not taken. We have no choice generally means We don’t have the wisdom to act differently. Most wars, including this one, depend on fear, insecurity, anger, or revenge. These are individual and national emotions, often stoked up by media and political leaders. The emotions create a national blindness in which neighbors become demonized and labelled as “the enemy.” Then it becomes impossible to really communicate with the “Other” and sort out any problems together. Fear and insecurity are dangerous: it is human nature to want to destroy the object or source of anxiety and fear, which are uncomfortable emotions. Most wars are fought in the name of peace, but in reality, they are actually fought in the pursuit of comfort. Instead of dealing with the fears or their root causes, they attempt to destroy their external source. If we clearly see these emotions that sweep through the social atmosphere, then we can take responsibility for them, take care of them, and not allow them to lead to needless death.

Not identifying with these emotions and not believing in the views that arise from them, everything looks different. The so-called terrorist becomes a Palestinian boy who has suffered dearly and needs to be heard. The so-called Zionist aggressor becomes an Israeli family man whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust. The Israeli soldier and the Hamas militant can both be seen as young, patriotic men, resentful and suffering while giving and receiving violence. If we are unable to do this, we have severely limited our vision and our freedom to act sanely. If we will not put ourselves in the others’ shoes, listen to them, understand their fear, anger, and pain that drives them to fight, and know what we ourselves can do to help each other resolve conflict, how can we say there is no other choice?

There is a choice to see things differently: to see “us” and “them” as a habit of mind and not a reality; to see how much we are connected, not separate. Pain and joy, love of life, and fear of death know no boundaries of us and them. We can all wake up to realize that our happiness depends on the happiness of our neighbors and vice versa, and our real safety is in togetherness, not intractable conflict.

Israelis think this war started when Hamas fired rockets into Israel. But clearly this was not the beginning—the chain of violence extends back generations. Violence comes in chains. Each act of violence breeds another act of violence, creating the conditions, especially the emotional climate, for the next one. Each act of violence makes it harder to initiate acts of peace. And each act of violence conditions the collective consciousness to feel that peace is impossible and that violence is the only option left.

But it doesn’t take much insight to see this process happening and unroll it in another direction. It is possible to create chains of peacemaking, to turn acts of aggression into acts of healing, to look for windows of opportunity for communication, dialogue, and understanding of the Other. When this is not done, it can hardly be said that there is no choice. There is. To break the chain. To take another road. Nonviolence does not mean doing nothing. It means an energetic attempt to create another climate. This requires strength and steadiness, qualities that are shown by genuine peacemakers. Mahatma Ghandi said, “Nonviolence is the weapon of the strong.” We can always make this choice.

Which raises more questions. What are the real intentions behind the war and what is the real vision for the future? Do we really and deeply yearn for peace or do we just say so? If we longed for peace, our actions would be peaceful, and war would not arise. We all would begin a process of dialogue, healing, and support with the same resources and determination with which we wage war.

It would be simply impossible for an Israel intent on peace to take land and water from West Bank Palestinians, settle all over their territory and build a concrete barrier on their land between their villages, or lay siege to the whole population of Gaza. Palestinians with a willingness to let go of past hurts would utterly discourage the madness of suicide bombers and rockets. Neither side would have any incentive to bomb anyone. If we truly yearned for peace, we would respect human dignity. And we would have it.

Stephen Fulder is the founder and senior teacher of the major dharma organization in Israel, the Israel Insight Society (Tovana), and has worked extensively on dharma inspired peace-making programs.

Michael Caroe Anderson/Flickr

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
lshaw's picture

This, from a journalist acquaintance:
"Prayers for families of journalists James Foley and Austin Tice. Foley was beheaded by ISIS. Austin is missing in Syria."

Tharpa Pema's picture

Do We Really "Have No Choice"? Sounds like an appropriate headline for Ferguson, MO, too.

John Haspel's picture

This article brings to mind some core teachings of the Buddha. Clinging to views arising from ignorance is the cause of all human conflict. Clinging to views of self and idealistic views gives rise to greed, hatred and delusion. What brings true change is for those with understanding to recognize the inevitability of differences in views and strive for acceptance of those views. This allows for compassion and wisdom to arise.

In the Ratana Sutta the Buddha and his attending monks were asked to come to Vesali, a town devastated by flood, famine and disease. They first attended to the basic physical needs of the town and then taught the Dhamma in a way that was relevant and accessible to the people and their situation.

Refusing to engage in concepts or esoterica, as always, the Buddha taught the Three Refuges. Instilling an understanding of taking refuge in the Three Jewels of The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha provided a clear direction for lasting healing to occur.

Certainly “Buddhism” cannot be imposed on any nation or groups holding tight to a central view. The teachings of the Buddha entering the mind of an individual can eventually transform the hatred of a nation to tolerance, compassion and understanding one mind at a time.

The difficulty comes from seeing the problem of individual ignorance from the view of nationalism. This leads to focusing on the differences that cause conflicts in the first place. Wisdom informs that if there is conflict it is a conflict of views.

An enlightened mind understands that individual ignorance gives rise to national ignorance. Due to Dependent Co-Arising ignorant views must give birth to clinging to views.

I agree with Mr. Fulder that the only answer to greed, hatred and delusional thinking is in reaching individuals and developing wisdom within individuals of the results of their own ignorant views.

Despite horrific suffering, individuals don’t change their views. Individuals believe their views are their only hope for safety and happiness. This is essence of ignorance and delusion.

I don’t know if ignorance will ever cease in the human mind. Impermanence allows for such an occurrence. The Buddha taught Four Noble Truths: Suffering arises from clinging born of ignorance and that the path leading to cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path, which begins with Right View.

Right View initiates with the understanding of the cause of suffering. It is a simple understanding but very difficult for individuals to understand that the cause of all suffering is their own ignorant views, and not project the cause of their suffering onto others and other nations.

John Haspel

Dominic Gomez's picture

“Buddhism cannot be imposed" but its philosophy can be sourced in dialogues with individuals. The important thing is to keep the Law alive and moving forward into the future.

mfwilsonelm's picture

Thank you for these thoughts. We all must be peacemakers if we expect peace from others. Each day my heart aches for what is happening in this world-in Gaza, in Ferguson, in Boston,in Newtown. I do believe peace is possible. Let us take these words to heart, let it begin with me.

conroy.r's picture

It would be easy to blame religious sectarianism, but we are seeing the same process as happened when hordes of heavily armed Europeans exterminated the people of North America and expropriated their land – and they certainly weren't religious zealots, just genocidal land-grabbers.

The fact that Israel is pursuing a vast and apparently unlimited programme of settlement into the Palestinian territories suggests that this has little to do with religion and more to do with the business of creating Lebensraum. It's hard to refrain from bulldozing someone's home and farm and taking them for yourself if you know that you can do this with impunity – opportunity makes the thief, as the Italians say.

Dominic Gomez's picture

By historic religious sectarianism I mean the apparent schisms between different factions of Monotheism. Buddhism bypasses this glitch with its teaching of non-dualism. Dualism naturally sets up an "us and them" mentality that conveniently gives rise to the issues you describe.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The historical root of the problem is religious sectarianism, compounded by political decisions dating from 1947. Buddhism deals with the root.