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Zen Master Dogen and the Crisis in Syria

It’s been a very interesting few days of developments in the crisis in Syria. The Syrian government agreed to a Russian proposal to hand over its chemical weapons and sign the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons treaty, which currently has 189 signatures on it. President Obama and his administration continue to press the case for military intervention, even as the diplomatic front has opened up. And recent polls suggesting a clear majority of Americans still oppose military action have been followed up by anti-war demonstrations all over the U.S., including here in the Twin Cities.

Reporting on the civil war in Syria tends to divide the conflict into two groups: the government-led military against an armed opposition composed of a mixture of grassroots Syrian groups and foreign “insurgents” from various terrorist organizations in the region. This fairly tidy, simplistic picture has actually been one of the reasons why so many Americans oppose military intervention. While plenty of folks truly reject warfare and military policing as a way to deal with international conflicts, others are driven more by a desire to avoid supporting either side, feeling that the choice between supporting the Assad government or a group of “terrorists” or “Islamic extremists” isn’t a choice they want to make.

Lost in all of this is the fact that the resistance movement started as a non-violent one, became violent in part because of U.S. arming of the rebel groups, and that non-violent efforts continue in Syria alongside the armed conflicts. When I wrote last week that Americans have a “crisis of the imagination,” this is a part of that. Odds are, if you polled the populace here, very few would even consider that non-violent resistance exists in Syria, or that it was the driving force early on in the conflict. This is the case, even though they were probably exposed to some news reports of the movement back in 2011. There are a variety of reasons for this, including Anti-Islamic sentiment and stereotyping, mainstream media coverage fixated on violence, and a general lack of awareness of the history and prevalence of non-violent resistance worldwide.

What would have happened if the U.S. and other nations had found ways to support the non-violent resistance movement back in 2011 that didn’t involve weapons? What if the international powerhouses put all of energy into an all out public campaign supporting non-violent resistance, encouraging their populations to help finance, document, and send prayer and meditation energy to the Syrians on the ground?

Obviously, those are what ifs we can’t really answer. But what if there was a significant effort to support and augment the remaining non-violent resistance today? What if, instead of succumbing to our fears and/or cynical resignation that all hope is lost, we Americans, Britains, French, Canadians, and others opted to envision a more complicated reality on the ground in Syria, and put our energy and attention towards liberation of the fiercely peaceful?

Sarah van Gelder from YES Magazine offers the following:

A resurgence in Syria’s broad-based nonviolent movement for change that started in March 2011 is still a source of hope, according to Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.

The opposition’s turn from nonviolence to armed struggle resulted in higher civilian casualties, reduced defections from the Assad’s forces, and contributed to the rise of anti-democratic elements within the opposition, Zunes says.

He goes on to explain that nonviolent movements have a much better chance of building an inclusive democratic government.

Again and again, the world has seen armed conflicts topple one oppressive government, only to replace it with another. War sometimes bring major change quicker than non-violent resistance, but as fellow BPFer Maia Duerr points out, there’s a big difference between change and transformation. The Arab Spring of the past few years was driven by grassroots desire for transformation, but much of that desire has been overrun by military intervention, power plays, and continued suppression of non-violent efforts.

Frequently, when I write about Buddhists engaging in social issues, I’m confronted with folks appealing to non-attachment and the absolute teachings. It’s not only a sense that Buddhists shouldn’t “get involved” in such matters, but a strong argument that given the inherent lack of a fixed “thing” we can call “war,” or “race,” or “oppression,” that our actions are delusion intervening on delusion.  Given the endless number of unknowns around the outcome of something like the civil war in Syria, I tend to agree with these folks that anchoring whatever we do in the wide open field of the absolute is an intelligent step. That whatever we do, or not do, that we find ways to let go of the obsession with particular outcomes, even as we aim ourselves in the direction of particular outcomes. 

Some words from Zen Master Dogen’s Tenzo Kyokun are instructive here. Instructing the head cook of the monastery, he writes:

Having prepared the food, put everything where it belongs. Do not miss any detail. When the drum sounds or the bells are struck, follow the assembly for morning zazen and in the evening go to the Master’s quarters to receive teachings. When you return to the kitchen, count the number of monks present in the Monks’ Hall; try closing your eyes. Don’t forget about the senior monks and retired elders in their own quarters or those who are sick. Take into account any new arrivals in the entry hall or anyone who is on leave. Don’t forget anyone. If you have any questions consult the officers, the heads of the various halls, or the head monk.

When this is done, calculate just how much food to prepare: for each grain of rice needed, supply one grain. One portion can be divided into two halves, or into thirds or fourths. If two people tend to each want a half-serving, then count this as the quantity for a single full serving. You must know the difference that adding or subtracting one serving would make to the whole.

The general message of the Tenzo Kyokun can be boiled down to three points: pay close attention, do what the situation calls you to do, and then let it all go. As such, we might apply the teaching to the conflict in Syria by learning more about the situation, asking ourselves the question “What am I being called to do now?,” doing whatever that is, and then doing your best to let go of the outcome. This is a process that can, and probably should be repeated as conditions change. I’m currently choosing to write what I can about Syria, while also actively working to let go of desired outcomes for the writing, and for the peaceful resolution of the civil war.

There’s also this point from Dogen worth considering:

In preparing food, it is essential to be sincere and to respect each ingredient regardless of how coarse or fine it is. There is the example of the old woman who gained great merit through offering water in which she had rinsed rice to the Thus Come. And of King Asoka creating roots of wholesomeness through offering half a mango to a monastery as he lay dying. As a result of this he realized the deathless in his next life. Even the grandest offering to the Buddha, if insincere, is worth less than the smallest sincere offering in bringing about a connection with awakening. This is how human beings should conduct themselves.

Violence, bloodshed, and warfare are terribly cruddy foods in the minds of most of us. However, they are the current ingredients we’re working with. In addition, there is the non-violent resistance, and the myriad longings for peace, both within Syria and around the world. These, too, are also ingredients. While I, and many of you I would guess, lean towards the latter ingredients, that doesn’t diminish the former. How might we transform the power and energy currently manifesting into violence and bloodshed into something that feeds the people? It’s not a matter of merely mixing in more violence, or mixing violence and non-violence together and hoping to make a good soup out of it all.

The peace/war binary keeps getting presented to humanity in different forms. In some cases, we’re able to transform the presentation into peaceful living for awhile. In other cases, all we get is a surface level changing of the appearance of the binary. Which leaves suffering and oppression in the driver’s seat.

“Take into account any new arrivals in the entry hall or anyone who is on leave. Don’t forget anyone.” There seem to be a lot of “new arrivals” on the scene right now. Not people perhaps, but conditions. The Syrian government opting to give up its chemical weapons. The Russians brokering deals, instead of saber rattling. The subtle back peddling of the U.S. government. There are also folks “on leave.” The British parliament vote has led to less involvement from the UK government. The non-violent resistance has been on leave from the minds of the general public in many nations. I’m sure there’s more I am missing.

What is the “half of a mango” that each of us, or a collective of us, may offer to bring about wholeness now? To truly liberate, instead of creating a new disguise for the peace/war binary?

Whatever you do, or not do, find ways to let go of the obsession with particular outcomes, even as you aim yourself in the direction of particular outcomes. 

I choose to aim myself fully in the direction of non-violence, and non-violent outcomes. In Syria. Beyond Syria. What am I being called to do? Today, it’s writing this article. Tomorrow, I don’t know.

How about you?

*Top photo by the author. Near the Apostle Islands, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior.

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Comments (6)

  • Justin S Whitaker

    Thanks for noting the bad press that the Syrian people are getting in the ‘rebels’ vs Assad rhetoric, Nathan. This is something that has bothered me immensely as it seems to form a nasty alliance between Putin/Iran/Assad and pro-peace activists on the US political left. My best analysis is that we can think of 4 groups: Assad’s regime, the FSA-led coalition of rebels, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Kurds. Giving concrete numbers for any of these groups is difficult, and there is no definite stability within any of them, but the Kurds and FSA coalition should be seen as mostly ‘good guys’ fighting oppression for the sake of their homes and families. al-Nusra is a problem for everyone. And Assad is as ruthless a dictator as I think you can find.

    In any case, I do want to challenge a couple of your assertions (one yours and one you quoted).

    First, you say the movement “became violent in part because of U.S. arming of the rebel groups” – what!? What??? Every bit of evidence I have seen for this suggests that people were taking up arms in self defense, attacking military columns that were firing on protesters or bystanders. And I have seen no evidence that the arms they had then came from the U.S. Quite the contrary, they came from people’s private stashes and later from deserting members of the military and later were coming in from Qatar and Saudi Arabia mostly with the U.S. blocking the efforts until just recently.

    Second, you quote Sarah van Gelder of YES magazine who herself quotes Prof. Zunes claiming that, “The opposition’s turn from nonviolence to armed struggle … reduced defections from the Assad’s forces,” – which again doesn’t make sense when you look at the facts. The first opposition violence occurred in June 2011 BEFORE any notable defections occurred. The defections over the next two months lead to the formation of the FSA in late July, which continues to grow steadily to this day.*

    The country is essentially a failed state with two armies fighting one another and millions of civilians caught in the middle. The Kurdish area is relatively stable, but every week more al-Nusra fighters pour in (there are currently only between 6 and 15 thousand, which is small compared to the other groups but still a large and growing problem for everyone). One army, Assad’s is less supported in the country but has massive outside backing via Iran/Russia. The other army, the FSA, has had non-lethal aid from the US (again, until just a few days ago), and small arms smuggled in from donors elsewhere in the region.

    * the recent threat of US strikes set off another “wave of defections” from Assad’s military:

  • nathan


    I just don’t believe the narrative being spread that the U.S. is only now starting to arm rebel groups. Even the NYTimes reported otherwise last summer.

    This report is three months earlier than the Times article, pointing at both the U.S. and France, with additional financial support from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

    Hell, even Business Insider connected the dots between U.S. weapons sales, Saudi Arabia/Qatar, and the CIA.

    Whether the recent reports about arming the rebels are simply a change in policy to cut out the “middle man” or are bold faced lies, I think it’s pretty clear that the U.S. and France have been arming rebel groups for a long time now.

    Also, this whole “non-lethal aid” phrasing seems like a really convenient dodge. Unless they’ve been only offering food, and medical supplies, which you’d think they’d speak of publicly since humanitarian aid tends to go over well with the public. Of course, given that both our government and mainstream media have painted the civil was as a battle between “two evils,” they’ve basically made any support hard to swallow.

    As for your second point, I can’t find anything counter to what you said about army defections. It does seem like an odd statement, now that I look at it again. I’m not sure where Dr. Zunes is getting his info on that particular point. I was more interested in his overall message, which is offered in expanded detail in this article.

  • Justin S Whitaker

    Fair enough on the weapons point, Nathan. It would be fairer to say that the U.S. has supplied some weapons in the past indirectly, but to say that these U.S.-supplied weapons had a causal role in the violence is what I see as most problematic. There have long been armed anti-Assad groups in Syria, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. Pointing at the U.S. as having some role in the start of the violence seems like the kind of ‘connecting the dots’ that Glen Beck does. And please, please, please don’t use RT as a source, they are a state mouth-piece for Putin with no more credibility on this than, say, Xinhua has on China-Tibet relations.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    I think you have more faith in the U.S. government and mainstream media than I do Justin. RT may be a highly biased source, but so is the NYTimes, Washington Post, etc. One side is a state mouth piece/the other side is set of corporate elite mouth pieces. We’re always wading through elements of propaganda to find the truth in my opinion.

    Also, I never said the U.S. had a role in “the start” of violence in Syria. In both of my posts on Syria, I’ve pointed to our government aiding an escalation of violence. Whether we’ve played a major or minor role in that, it’s vital to call it out.

  • Murray Reiss

    Jim Douglass is a radical non-violent peace activist who, along with his wife Shelley, founded the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action to protest the Trident missile nuclear submarine base near Bangor, Washington. He used to describe the project of “understanding” the Trident missile like this:

    With Trident II missiles, the Trident nuclear submarine will be able to destroy 192 cities or areas at one time, each with a blast 38 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Trident, then, is 7,296 Hiroshimas. One Trident submarine can destroy any city on earth. A fleet of Tridents — and twenty are planned — can end life on this planet. So, to understand Trident, say the word “Hiroshima.” Reflect on its meaning for one second. Say and understand “Hiroshima” again. And again. And again. Do this 7,296 times. Assuming — a big assumption — you can understand Hiroshima in one second, you will need two hours to understand one Trident submarine. To understand the destructive power of the entire Trident fleet, would take you more than 40 hours, devoting one second to each Hiroshima embodied in the Trident fleet.

    In the same spirit, I would suggest that before writing anything about Syria, one say aloud the name of each and every one of the 2,000,000 Syrian refugees, contemplating for a second the wreckage of each life.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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