Seek a deeper understanding of the fundamental and enduring questions that have been raised by thoughtful human beings in the rich traditions of the East.
An Israeli Journal
Over breakfast on the lawn, Yasmin, the elder daughter, tells of how she was nearly hit by a Katyusha in Nahariya the previous night. She was staying in a friend's house. The rocket landed at the end of the street. "It was so loud it made the sky shake," she says. She is going back to the town today for the free ice-skating being offered to the residents as compensation for the shelling.
"We poor Katyusha-hit northerners," mutters Rachel, ironically. "Portrayed as heroes of the nation by the press." A holiday for her, she explains, is simply to live normally at home. A holiday from fighting, from funerals, from people throwing themselves onto newly filled graves, from distraught parents. When there is war on, everyone has someone close to them involved.
I can stand this unreality no longer. Before beginning my lecture I stammer out my feelings about the war. About how each thump means the destruction of a village, the obliteration by shrapnel of people who brush their teeth each morning, who eat grapes and sip tea, who play with their children. Each dull thud is physically sickening. How can we politely discuss theories of consciousness with this carnage going on around us?
People respond with quiet conviction and passion. Apart from Marsha, they do not wish to discuss the situation for fear of it degrading into a political dispute. We spend most of our lives endlessly talking about these problems, they say. We have come to this retreat to find some moments of sanity, to learn some skills that might help us cope more effectively. We don't want to talk about it not because it's unimportant but because it's too important, says Benni Sharon, the cognitive scientist. A former army colonel recalls how angry he used to get when returning home from duty in the Sinai to find people having fun. He slowly realized that people's ordinary lives must continue and be celebrated in all their trivial detail. In this country, war is a way of life.
These declarations have allowed us to acknowledge a deeper purpose to the course. They have united us. I speak of the empowering factors of consciousness: faith, enthusiasm, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom. The ubiquitous term "practice" means to strengthen these qualities in equal measure. In the discussion that follows people talk openly and sincerely about their experiences and difficulties in meditation.
In the evening, at Stephen's request, I lead a Tibetan guided meditation on compassion and love (tonglen). As we breathe in we inhale the suffering of the world in the form of smoke. It dissolves the ego-centeredness visualized at the heart as a black egg. As we breathe out we exhale, in the form of white light, the wish for all beings to be well. Gradually we extend the scope of our awareness from our families to the soldiers on the front, to the Hezbollah guerrillas. Outside we hear the rattle of helicopters and the concerted howling of jackals.
Afterward some say the meditation made them feel powerless and frustrated; others recognize that feeling compassion alone is inadequate; some argue that we should concentrate not on people's suffering but on their joy. I feel like an intruder into something I do not understand. This is confirmed by a tall, agitated man who speaks to me after the others are gone. He resented being subjected to "an artificial process that made an abstraction out of what was an immediate and personal concern." This sort of exercise "might be appropriate for those removed from this kind of situation, but not for those within it." I tell him how confused I am. How a few days ago I was in the tranquil English countryside and suddenly I find myself in a war zone. "This is not a war zone!" he declares with bemused indignation. "We are at least two kilometers outside the range of rocket fire."
The Buddha described the dharma as "going against the stream." As long as one swims with the current of a river, one remains unaware of it. But if one chooses to turn against it, suddenly it is revealed as a powerful, discomforting force. The "stream" refers to the accumulated habits of conditioning. The practice of dharma means to turn around midstream, to observe mindfully and intelligently the forces of conditioning instead of impulsively reacting to their promptings.
A woman from Jerusalem describes how, during the meditation sessions, each time she hears a shell explode in the distance her reaction is to run to a telephone, to set in train a series of impulsive inquiries rather than simply remain with the sound and the complex of painful feelings around it.
The cycle of conditioning is interrupted above all through being mindful of feelings. Especially when the feeling is one of pain, it requires singular strength of mind to accept and recognize that pain. For our tendency is to push it away by reaching for a well-lubricated strategy of reaction. To stop and remain still means neither to suppress nor to express one's aversion to pain. It means to notice one's psychological behavior at its inception rather than when it has overwhelmed one and it is too late. It means to create within oneself the ground of equanimity, from whence to choose freely a more sane course of action.
Around four o'clock Stephen announces with joy and relief that the Americans have interceded and that a cease fire will come into effect at six P.M. As we walk home through the parched fields, we notice that the thuds and rumbles have stopped.
"It doesn't sound like a cease fire," says Rachel over dinner by candle light in the garden. If anything, the shelling is resuming with greater intensity and at closer range. It goes on all night, the explosions urgent and insistent. Around midnight I am awoken by the roar of helicopter blades. Impelled by unimaginable fears, I rush outside to glimpse a sinister, low-flying machine thundering northward.
If, as much of traditional Buddhism suggests, all human experience is rooted in ignorance, then how can one explain the emergence of the wish to be free from ignorance? This, more than anything else, confirms the idea that the underlying nature of consciousness is one of radiancy and knowing. No matter how tenacious and pervasive they may appear, ignorance, craving, and grasping are nonetheless adventitious afflictions—like mud that soils the purity of water or rock that conceals its seams of gold.
The concept of Buddha-nature gives hope that even in the darkest moments of consciousness, a lightning-flash of understanding and tenderness may break in. The practice of mindfulness and equanimity opens one to the possibility of such irruptions.
The course ends at lunchtime. After hurried, impassioned farewells the participants depart. The village of Clil is returned to its normal routines.
I observe the Sabbath with the Fulders: sleeping late, not answering the telephone, mixing tahini for lunch. The shelling dies down toward midday, then stops.
Stephen tells me of his wife's displeasure at the presence of a small Buddha image that had been placed on a table in the lecture room. She had asked that it be removed immediately. Any suggestion of worship of graven images is intolerable for her since it breaks the first law of Judaism.
As we walk in the hills just before dusk, Stephen recounts the story of Clil's resistance to war. Some years ago the residents of the village decided to launch a peace movement that would begin with a well-publicized march. For months they threw themselves into the organization and fund-raising required to make the event a success. The march took place; it was even featured in The New York Times. When it was over, they asked themselves what they had achieved. Their resources were depleted. Their fields had been taken over by weeds. Their children had been neglected. They agreed to abandon the peace movement and concentrate instead on peacefulness in attending to the tasks of daily life.
Upon returning home to London the next morning I learned that Israel had declared a cease fire shortly before I left Clil on Saturday night. It was estimated that during the seven days of bombardment the Israeli army had delivered $60 million worth of shells, wire-guided missiles, and bombs. Around three hundred thousand people, mostly villagers from South Lebanon, had been made homeless.
One hopes that the recently signed peace accord between Israel and the PLO will finally bring to an end the long history of violence that has beset the Middle East. Hezbollah, however, have yet to show any sign of reversing their hostile stance toward Israel.
Stephen Batchelor is a Contributing Editor to Tricycle. His next book, The Awakening of the West: The Story of Buddhism and European Culture, will be published in 1994.
Image: Destruction of homes in Jericho, Zoom/Gamma liaison