Cultivating Compassion In the Midst of a Broken Society

8This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War where Israel fought for its ability and right to exist as a nation. On the other side from al-Nakba, (the Day of Catastrophe marking the Palestinian experience of a devastating loss of their homelands in 1948), leading onto the occupation (of the West Bank and Gaza) on June 5th, 1967 as the result of Israel’s war of independence. In the context of growing up within this fulcrum, around which rotates endless outpourings of angst, outrage, violence, heartache and grief, here is a deeply thoughtful personal response from Dharma practitioner Aviv Tatarsky. What is important in Aviv’s contemplation is that it is timely for many of us as we struggle to find an appropriate and compassionate response in a world increasingly beset by divisiveness.

An Opportunity to Join Interfaith Peace Builders
For those who are moved by the suffering and injustice endured by Palestinians, and would like to explore opportunities to support peace in this region, Buddhist practitioner and activist, Sally Bowden-Shaible from the U.S.A, and who runs the Living Well Centre of Southern Maine, is inviting participants to join her on the annual Olive Harvest Delegation, Oct 28 – Nov 10th, organized by the Interfaith Peace Builders.

From Aviv
aviv in jerusalemGetting off the bus from Jerusalem on my regular visits to the Sangha House in Tel Aviv, I pass by the colony of homeless people that sprang up in the last few years in the park opposite the bus terminal. Once, coming by car via a different route, I passed massive police special units as they were preparing to forcefully evict families from their homes where a real estate mogul plans to build a new high-rise. And on another occasion, when I was less than a 100 meters away from the Sangha House, I saw police humiliating an asylum seeker from Africa.

In Jerusalem, where I live, it’s just the same: During the weekly meditation group which meets in the city center, we heard a large crowd outside shouting, “Death to the Arabs!” On a meditative stroll around my neighborhood I can see in the distance the separation barrier choking the Palestinian village Al-Walaja. On the way to an introductory meditation course that I teach, I pass memorial plaques where Palestinian terror attacks inflicted numerous deaths during the second Intifada a decade ago.

We who walk the Way of Dharma also walk the streets of our cities. And on the way to the Dharma Center we encounter in the street the wounds of our society. How is this walk to be walked?

Does the heart, shaken from what it saw at the shantytown of the homeless, continue to reverberate during meditation, or is it subdued by the goodness and sweetness of the Sangha House?

Can I suggest to my sangha brothers and sister that we go and protest the cruel eviction initiated by the real estate mogul – or is this topic off limits?

How can one stay (meditate!) inside the room while outside the window people are out to actualize the cry “Death to the Arabs”?

And what is this duality of either street or practice? Can’t one practice in the street?

For me these various questions boil down to one central question: What is the meaning of cultivating compassion amidst a broken society? For there is a paradox about which the Dharma community remains silent. On the one hand, cultivating compassion brings us closer to others; on the other hand, cultivating compassion creates a gap between we who walk the Way and the general society, which espouses very different values. Sangha and society are moving in two different directions, so the gap widens. In Dharma circles we usually like to focus on connection and intimacy and their transformative power. However, distance also has power, and by not speaking about this gap we let it acquire greater force and impact.

It’s a very practical question: What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society that suffers from multiple social ills? What takes place in a Dharma community rooted in a society where racism, economic disparities, alienation, and destruction of the environment prevail?

This question should be asked by every sangha in every country. In Israel it has an especially painful aspect: How does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence respond to the violent Israeli-Palestinian conflict amid which it lives? And since Israel is the stronger party in this conflict, how does our sangha, which cultivates compassion, freedom and nonviolence, respond to the continuing oppression, killing and systematic violation of the Palestinians’ most basic human rights? Violations that being part of Israeli society we take part in.

Although the lines above are no more than a statement of obvious facts, quite a few Israeli practitioners may not find them easy reading. Some may flinch at them, some might read no farther. That is part of the point I am trying to make. Teachings on compassion focusing on the beauty of the open heart inspire us. We may continue to think about them, speak about them with friends and let them guide us in daily life. But teachings on compassion that seek to enter a more threatening territory – for example, social injustice – and bring us face to face with the limits of our compassion, may give rise to all kinds of resistance even though they are no less important and beneficial. This tendency – which don’t usually address – limits the ability of the Dharma community to take an open approach to social issues and to fulfil its role in making the world a better place.

No “Should’s”

Compassion does not operate in a vacuum. We all have our unique life circumstances. Our choices about how politically aware to be and whether or not to be socially engaged depend on those circumstances – from our Karma. So there’s no sense in saying “you should”, “you must” be more engaged. This text’s intention is not to criticize or tell Sangha members what the right choice is for them. On the other hand, our choices regarding political awareness and whether to be socially engaged also give birth to Karma. Accordingly, as with any other choice, it is vital that we also examine the choice of how much (if at all) to be socially engaged, too, in the light of basic Dharma questions: To what extent is it driven by greed, aversion or delusion? How does it manifest clinging, how does it manifest freedom? To what extent does it contribute to minimizing Dukkha or to strengthening it?

A community, a Sangha, possesses greater flexibility and more possibilities than the individual practitioner. A community has more resources – both material and of spirit. In a community the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A community is made up of a variety of individuals: busy people and those with time on their hands, young and old, with different skills, courageous and cautious, wealthy and struggling financially, those with a passion for action and those who do not get so fired-up… Even if the Karma of many in the Dharma community is not that of activism, many others possess the Karma of world healers. The sangha has the ability to take action.

In short, community – Dharma community – has power. And with power comes responsibility. We should, then, ask ourselves how the Israeli Dharma community puts its power to use. Just as we would like the rich to use their wealth for the benefit of many and not only for their own good, so we would appreciate it if the sangha were to make use of its spiritual wealth for the benefit of all society and not feel content only with its own growth and development. As stated above, this text is not about how engaged individual practitioners “need” to be. My purpose is to look into the question of the engagement of the sangha as community. To what extent do we as a sangha allow our Dharma to serve the world? And what does it mean if that flow is blocked?

What’s Happening?

The Israeli Dharma Community is more than 20 years old. In these two-plus decades, practitioners have devised various methods to bring the fruits of their practice to the field of social action. The first projects were “Sfat Keshev” (language of listening) in the education system and the project of teaching meditation in prisons. Thirteen years ago the peace work of Middle Way was born. More recent projects are Engaged Dharma Israel which focuses mainly on Israeli-Palestinian solidarity, a circle of practitioners who are school teachers and One on One, in which cancer patients are taught how to meditate. There are surely other initiatives of which I am less aware, and of course there are the numerous sangha members who volunteer, donate to or take action in the fields of education, therapy, activism etc.

These different initiatives receive important support from the Dharma Community. So one can definitely say that our sangha includes many people who do care and who devote their skills and energies for the good of society. And as Israeli Dharma matures there is a process of finding more ways to realize our concern for all beings: the future will likely see the emergence of additional socially engaged initiatives.

In order to enhance this process, let us note what has yet to happen. All the initiatives mentioned above operate separately from their initiators’ sanghas. Teaching meditation in prisons is not part of Dharma Friends’ official activities, and the One on One project is run by a new association and not by the Tovana Foundation. The reason is largely because the Israeli sanghas still regard their mission narrowly: to run retreats, practice days, courses, etc. Add to that the fact that most of these initiatives involve a small number of sangha members: 10-20 facilitators in the prisons (of course counting over the years the number is bigger), a similar number of volunteers with cancer patients, a small group of school teachers. These are very modest numbers in comparison to the many hundreds of active practitioners and the many thousands of Israelis that participate in retreats.

Another noteworthy characteristic is that most of these initiatives work by bringing the practice of mindfulness and heartfulness – either in its classic form as in the prisons project or in adapted form as in “Sfat Keshev” – to new audiences and groups. These are important and beautiful projects. They are also splendid acts of giving. But as long as mindfulness and giving remain its main characteristic, Dharma-inspired social action will be limited. For Dharma – and certainly activism – is more than mindfulness and open-heartedness. Nor does it boil down to giving. We have yet to realize the full potential of Dharma-inspired social action.

Upon examination, we may recognize a deeper meaning in the fact that most of the Dharma-inspired initiatives in Israel try to bring Dharma forms and goodness to new territories: mindfulness for cancer patients, qualities of listening, and acceptance in the education system. This is wonderful and important . But is the only way to bring about social change to offer to more people and organizations the opportunity to adopt something of the Dharma? To become a little like us?

What about social issues where this approach is less possible (because the people being aimed at are not interested, or because the needs are such that cultivation of heart and mind does not offer the most relevant response, or because along with giving there is also a need for protest and resistance)? What about social injustice that swallows the goodness we may bring to it and that engaging with entails entering a territory of disharmony? As written above, there is a gap between Dharma Community and general society. Is the only way to bridge this gap to “colonize” parts of the “non-dharmic” space and infuse them with what makes us feel comfortable?

As a result of the widespread attitude described above, people who hear that Engaged Dharma Israel (EDI) is involved with Palestinian villages usually imagine Israelis and Palestinians meditating together. Actually, we in EDI have never done that. EDI’s action does, however, include expressing and manifesting kind Dharma action in other forms: creating trust and connection between Israelis and Palestinians, selling Palestinian agricultural produce, assisting Palestinians who are treated in Israeli hospitals. But unlike the other Dharma initiatives mentioned above, EDI’s action can sometimes involve confrontation: defending Palestinian lands from takeover by Israel, joining Palestinian farmers in danger of settler or soldier violence, challenging collective punishment by the Israeli army. Essentially, engaging with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means being willing to come face to face with suffering and difficulties for which we have no clear answer, no clear fix: Hatred, violence, a narrow perspective (by both Jews and Palestinians), poverty, helplessness, inappropriate medical treatment, dispossession, humiliations, unjustifiable arrests (these are the lot mainly of Palestinians). Awareness and heartfulness are much needed when entering this territory. But they certainly do not change the great abuse one meets there and they are not enough in order to alleviate the distress we learn of.

Engaging with all this is no simple challenge, and indeed EDI does generate resistance from some sangha practitioners. Teachers and experienced practitioners, most of whom sympathize with and support us personally, are hesitant when it comes to official backing by the Dharma community for our activities. One of EDI’s main purposes is to raise social awareness in the Dharma community and to make it easier for practitioners to join visits and joint action in Palestinian villages. Many in the sangha have done so – but the great majority did not persist. My impression after several years in EDI is that for many in the sangha – including those that initially were enthusiastic and wished to join – the invitation for engagement which EDI enables is perceived as an uncomfortable challenge.

If Compassion Flows Naturally, What Blocks Its Movement?

I will invoke two metaphors to underline the question of why the Dharma community is only partially socially engaged.

I leave home, and as I reach the street a small child falls near me and starts crying. Without thinking twice, I bend down, pick him up and comfort him. The next day I leave home and again the child falls next to me. I comfort him again. The next day it happens for the third time, and I try to figure out why. Suddenly I notice a small hole in the sidewalk which causes the child to stumble and fall. I phone the municipal call center and report the problem.

Weeks pass, the hole isn’t fixed, and I start spotting more and more problems on the neighborhood’s sidewalks and roads. They were there all along, but somehow I ignored them in the past. In order to get to the root of the problem, I meet with someone from the community center. At first he is reluctant to talk, but after I persuade him and show that I care about the issue, he tells me that the road contractor is bribing someone on the city council. Remembering the child falling and crying I decide to recruit friends, write petitions, go to the media and demand that the corruption be exposed and set right.

The story can be further developed, but let’s stop here. In essence, social action is as natural as the spontaneous reaction to comfort a child who was hurt. Basically, social action is the simple wish to increase the good in the world. But in our complex world it sometimes happens that a hug and a kiss are not enough – more complicated action is needed. In our complex world it sometimes happens that in order to increase goodness one needs to challenge those whose actions create suffering.

Probably all of us would have bent down to the child who fell, but only a few of us would embark on a struggle against corruption in the municipality. Yet, if children are to stop falling because of holes in the sidewalk, the corruption has to be eliminated. This raises the question of what makes us forget the spontaneous wish to do good? At what stage of the chain of actions described above does reaching out to help cease to be a spontaneous response? When does it become too difficult for us to allow compassion to continue its natural flow?

The second metaphor brings the question back to the Dharma community. Practice cultivates goodness in our lives and fills the heart’s reservoirs of compassion. And just like any other system of Yin and Yang, if compassion around us is lacking, the compassion within should flow forth naturally on its own. The greater the reservoirs of compassion, the more easily it should flow forth and the more effortlessly it should overcome the obstacles – some of which are very justifiable – that are liable to obstruct its flow.

So we need to ask: What stops the natural flow of compassion? What makes the Dharma community limit its action to heal the world?

Conditioned to Grasp at What is Pleasurable

There is no one answer to this question. Many of the answers I have heard (for example, “activism is not Dharma,” or “spreading the Dharma is what will bring about true social change”) are simply wrong understanding. I wish to offer one answer to which it is important to be attentive, even if it is not the only answer.

As I wrote above, the choice to walk the Dharma way is a choice to walk in a direction different than most of society. The practitioner cultivates values and qualities that are different – even contradictory – to those that prevail in the general society. This creates a widening gap between the practicing community and the society of which it is part.

Among other things, the sangha creates for itself a space of kindness, pleasantness, safety, generosity… But when we muster the courage to contend with social injustices and agonies, we enter a territory that suffers from unkindness, roughness, insecurity and ego-centeredness…

Turning our attention to social ills, going out to take action on social issues, means that the Dharma community leaves the special space it has created and step out to the scarred battlefield of the general society. There the pleasantness we have managed to create for ourselves will be frequently challenged. There our kindness may be not be met in kind. We may encounter different forms of aggression (even violence). And perhaps this aggression will cause us to react and act in unwholesome ways.

Actually, the Dharma itself points out how difficult it is for us to cross the gap we have created between the sangha’s space of well-being into the conflicted territory that waits outside. As pleasurable experiences attract us and unpleasant experiences give rise to aversion, the good spaces we create through Dharma practice give rise to craving while the Dukha of social trouble is unpleasant and gives rise to aversion. Therefore, along with qualities such as caring, generosity, freedom and courage, Dharma practice also gives rise to a strong conditioning that pulls us in the opposite direction: clinging to the pleasantness we know how to cultivate through practice and being unwilling to agitate the mind and heart through a close encounter with social injustice.

Can it be that spiritual practice, for all the good it brings, deters us from acting for social change? That’s how I see it. Sometimes the rationale might be vague. For example, “We [an established Dharma group] will not support your activity because that might confuse people,” or “We will not support your activity because it might turn off prospective newcomers,” or “We will not support your activity because it will create conflict within the Sangha.” All these are expressions of the pattern of thought that wishes to remain in the protected space that the Sangha succeeded in creating, is worried about losing what has been created, and does not want to pay the price for entering less wholesome places even though they need our presence.

And there is also the direct and clear challenge: What will happen to us – the Dharma community – if we go to a Palestinian village and involve ourselves in the pain and conflict which are part of its daily routine?

The Compassion Paradox

“OK,” you may think, “but what’s the problem? Some people are activists, some are not. There are groups that act for social change and some that don’t. Teaching and practicing the Dharma is important enough, why does the Dharma community in Israel have to do more for society’s well-being?” (The truth is it doesn’t have to.)

As always in the Dharma, the best answer is one that does not preach morality but instead examines reality and discerns Dukha. We have conducted exactly this sort of examination in the previous paragraphs. Society’s pains are not something distant that we need to actively seek in order to come in touch with. No, the homeless people in the park, the chanting of “Death to the Arabs,” friends who have been sexually harassed – all these are part of our daily lives. Just like the metaphorical child who fell on the sidewalk, we encounter them when we leave the house.

And our innate goodness, our Buddha nature, responds spontaneously to offer comfort and support, to defend and get involved… Certainly this is what happens as we become freer of the conditionings of the self through the cultivation of compassion. Actually, activism comes much more naturaly than it seems to us. Actually what is not spontaneous, what does not happen of its own accord, what requires effort is to abstain from lending a hand.

The natural flow of compassion does not stop of its own. We stop it: Out of fear, confusion, prejudice, because it’s too challenging, because we have other commitments, because we don’t know how to proceed…

And when we obstruct natural movement, and more so the heart’s natural movement, we are in conflict with things as they are. This conflict is pure Dukha. We are not at ease with things as they are, with the spontaneous wish to help, with the pain of others which we can feel, and also with our responsibility for the injustice, which we also feel. This “not-at-ease”ness continues to churn inside us, generating a Karma of disharmony.

The chain of cause and effect intensifies and complicates this conflict. Our hearts become rougher, we blame those who are suffering (so we can feel less responsible), we increase in our imagination the risk involved in reaching out so we can justify our inaction. And as happens with Paticca samuppada, this continues and worsens.

Abstaining from social action gives rise to the “compassion paradox”: the stronger the force of compassion inside us, the more effort we need to invest to stay inactive and the gap between who we are and who we allow ourselves to be widens. We go and increase Dukha.

What Can We Do?

There are many possible ways to gently push forward the process already taking place in the Israeli Dharma community. For example, we can make sure that every sangha newsletter, every email that Dharma teachers send about upcoming activities contain information concerning social action. It can be one of the numerous beautiful texts of socially engaged Buddhism to be found on the internet. It can be an announcement of a coming activity of one of the social-action projects that Dharma practitioners are involved in. It can also be information about an event of a “standard” social-change movement, even if its members are not part of the sangha. This simple gesture may be a small challenge to the mailing list’s owner, but it broadens the recipients’ perspective a little, it provides important support to the action written about and it is a direct expression of the fact that there really is no difference, that social action can indeed be right Dharma action.

Going deeper, change may happen if the Dharma community pays more attention to the delusion and ignorance that cloud the mind, and speak about them more: Of the three poisons we usually speak of greed and aversion but less so of delusion. We tend to frame the second noble truth in terms of craving and point less to ignorance as the cause for suffering.

It seems to me that, in contrast to the general society, greed and aversion are not the main obstacles preventing the Dharma community from engaging in social action. We will not justify injustice because it serves our greediness and we will not accept wrongdoing because we feel animosity or we fear those it is directed against. On the contrary, the sangha has developed a fine sensitivity to these issues, and when we recognize a motivation of greed or aversion we know we have to pause and do things differently.

It seems to me that for the Dharma community it is ignorance and delusion that pose an obstacle: we don’t feel enough that it’s our business. That is ignorance in its raw form. In Dharma jargon, we can say that at the root of lack of engagement is ignorance that creates a sense of separateness.

There are other expression of ignorance we should pay attention to: a tendency to ignore social issues, a hope that social pain can be avoided, a delusion that social ills are not our responsibility, a despair that change is not possible, the habits we have acquired in terms of what is Dharma and where it ends. And there is also plain ignorance of not being skilled enough about activism, or our political understanding being less developed than our inner and interpersonal understanding.

So let’s talk more about ignorance, and perhaps through that enable compassion to flow more naturally so that we can take a more active part in healing the world.

avivAviv has been a practitioner of meditation and Asian movement Arts for the last 20 years. He works as a researcher at the “Ir-Amim” organization and is a long-time activist for solidarity between Israelis and Palestinians. Aviv is a member of Tovana Insight Meditation and Engaged Dharma Israel.