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.