During my recent travels, I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at statues of the Buddha. Doing so, I found myself marveling at the parallels between the physical characteristics of those depictions and the moral and ethical ideas that underpin his teachings. The kindness in the eyes, the relaxed posture that radiates with grace and dignity, the faint smile signaling deep calmness. But I also couldn’t help consider what it is that sets Buddhist philosophy apart from other religious or spiritual doctrines.
To me, and especially in times like these, the concept of unconditional compassion is one that really stands out. A touching example are the Tibetan Buddhist monks who, after decades of suffering violence, humiliation, and punishment at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party still approach their tormentors with boundless compassion. Consider for instance this conversation with the monk Lopon-la, as recounted by the Dalai Lama:
He told me the Chinese forced him to denounce his religion. They tortured him many times in prison. I asked him whether he was ever afraid. Lopon-la then told me: “Yes there was one thing I was afraid of. I was afraid I might lose compassion for the Chinese.”
I find it both intellectually intriguing as well as psychologically nourishing to ponder what, for example, the Middle East would look like if its Jewish, Arab, and Christian residents would be able to confront each other with a similar attitude. How much easier would it be to find a solution to any dispute, really, if we all approached each other with genuine, heart-felt, and unconditional compassion? The emphasis, of course, being on the attribute unconditional: Naturally, it’s easy to be empathetic towards the innocent victims of external circumstances. It’s much harder though to do the same vis-a-vis active perpetrators of violence and hatred. But if the Tibetan Buddhists manage, after all these years, not to despise the Chinese? If they strive not for revenge, but for reconciliation? Even more so, if that single monk can still feel compassion for the individual jailers and torturers who’ve hurt and humiliated him personally, then, I think, there is still hope.
Now, you might object that at this point both the Israeli government and the Hamas terrorists are as far away from the attitude of Lopon-la and his fellow Buddhists as one anyone can be. Therefore, you might consider my little thought experiment moot. An exercise is wishful thinking. A pointless journey to fairy-tale country. But besides the warm and fuzzy feeling of at least imagining a more peaceful future, there’s something else that this line of mental inquiry can teach us, the seemingly helpless bystanders: It shows that we’re not as powerless as we might have thought we were.
Because the thing is: It doesn’t help, really, for outsiders like us to spend our time trying to make sense of who is to blame for this particular incarnation of the cycle of violence. Or to tally up which side has caused more harm over the centuries. Or to use such sentiments-masquerading-as-facts to form an opinion about who’s morally right or wrong. What matters is the suffering of those caught up in the conflict, the unconditional compassion we should be feeling in the face of that suffering, and, consequentially, what each of us, everywhere, can do in order to help alleviate that suffering.
You don’t need to have a grand, unifying theory of how to solve the Middle East conflict for that. Or even an opinion about who’s right or wrong here. And still, you can acknowledge that there are things you can do, right now, wherever you are, that will either increase or decrease human suffering: Donating to the World Food Program, for example, will, in some shape or form, reduce suffering. Supporting local Jewish organizations will help to counteract an upsurge of antisemitic violence. Simply having a thoughtful conversation with a friend or family member who’s psychologically unsettled by the state of affairs, listening to them with compassion and empathy, will benefit at least that one person. On the other hand, what will be impact of engaging in yet another social media flame war? Of contributing to the maelstrom of online hate speech and misinformation? Of tearing down flags, damaging property, or actively hurting people through words or violent acts?
Another powerful idea, one that’s not exclusive to Buddhism, is the emphasis on the presence. More precisely, the importance of the present moment, the one that’s happening right now. Because, the argument goes, the present moment is the only one in which we have the freedom to act. The past has already happened. The future is uncertain and yet to come. But right here, right now, we have the power to do something. And we have the choice what to do. Even if we made countless bad choices in the past, each and every new present moment gives us another chance to do better. To act with kindness and compassion. With the intention to alleviate suffering. Or, at least, to do our best not to increase it.