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The Koan of Gaza: Not Turning Away


Being divided by opposites
is the disease of the mind.
Not perceiving the heart of things,
ease and joy disappear.

From the “Hsin Hsin Ming” (Engraving Trust in the Heart), translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roshi Joan Halifax

It’s difficult these days to go very long without addressing one of the most significant conflicts of our time: Palestine and Israel, and the cauldron of Gaza.

But there are many reasons to not engage with this topic. Those of us who are neither Jewish nor Muslim may feel it’s not our place to speak out on this. The region has a deeply tangled history that is challenging to understand. In the language of systems theory, it’s a wicked problem, one that’s difficult to solve because of its complex and interconnected nature. We witness the intense polarization around this issue and hesitate to add more fuel to the fire.

And yet the fire burns and it’s impossible to not see it everywhere and be touched by it—from street protests, to politicians receiving calls to pressure for a ceasefire, to university presidents being fired for their responses to unanswerable questions. What’s going on in Gaza is a flashpoint for so much right now. Even in writing this column I feel some sense of dread over what may come back to me from you, the reader.

But far beyond any personal confusion or discomfort we may feel is the fact that since 7 October, at least 18,000 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip and more than 50,000 have been wounded, according to Gaza’s Hamas-run Ministry of Health and the Hamas government media office. The Israel Defense Forces reports that at least 1,200 people in Israel have been killed and 6,900 wounded by Hamas and other militants. The United Nations has declared a humanitarian crisis in Gaza: “More than 1.5 million Gazans are displaced, 18 hospitals have shut down, and hundreds of thousands are living in fear and under continuing Israeli bombardment.” (United Nations)

We hear accusations that silence is complicity—and it is. Terrible things have happened in history when the public turns away and refuses to engage with atrocities. But how are we to respond when both sides in a conflict have been the victims of oppression and terror throughout the centuries? How can we even begin to understand who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is indigenous to a land and who is colonizing it?

As Buddhist teacher Thanisarra insightfully observes in a 2016 article, this is a “peace koan.” Koans are Zen riddles with no logical answer, and the more we try to find an answer from a logical place the more tangled up we become. In this case, Thanisarra suggests that the koan is: “What is a wise response to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” (Thanissara)

My intention with this article is not to analyze or dissect the situation in Gaza, and between Palestine and Israel. There are people far better equipped to do so, including from a Buddhist perspective. I encourage you to read “Dependently Ceasing in the Middle East,” by Israeli psychologist Dr. Itamar Bashan, part of the article by Thanisarra mentioned above.

My invitation to you here is to notice the mind with which you engage with this issue. Begin by noticing, without judgement as best as you can, your habitual patterns when the topic of Palestine and Israel comes up. Do you want to avoid any conversation about it altogether? Is it too painful and complicated to try to understand? Do you quickly move to a position that sets up sides and places the blame on one side or the other? Do you feel a surge of righteousness arise inside when you’re talking about this?


However you relate to this issue, I am trying to nudge you into a place of seeing that you are making a choice about your mode of engagement (or lack of it), and that other choices are possible which may better support more peaceful and just outcomes, both in yourself and in the world. I recognize that what I’m suggesting is more appropriately addressed to those of us who are not Jewish or Muslim, who have the luxury of not engaging with this koan. For those who are in the crossfire of this conflict because of their identity, the present time is full of shock and trauma.

Taking my lead from the “Hsin Hsin Ming,” I seek to heal the “disease of the mind” that takes the form of a for-or-against mindset. One skill we can each develop is having a facility in “perspective taking,” being able to move with relatively little attachment from our own point of view to the perspective of someone else who experiences a situation in a very different way from us. This is, I believe, a form of peacemaking, and one that is increasingly important in a world where we have a great deal of contact with people who are different from us. A good example of this capacity to move back and forth between views is found in this recent article “Who’s a ‘Colonizer’? How an Old Word Became a New Weapon,” by The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen. Cohen deftly paints a picture of two camps and arrives at the end of the article without privileging one narrative over the other, a remarkable feat.

I believe what’s needed right now is a critical mass of hope. The mainstream media mostly tells us stories of extreme division and violence, and this is especially true with Gaza, Israel, and Palestine. What we often don’t hear about are the countless individuals and groups that are dedicated to healing generational trauma and injustices, and building bridges across differences. Take time to learn about these groups and support them with your donations, if you can, and sign up for their email lists to learn more about their work. Share what they are doing with others. Here are a few organizations doing good work: 

• The Parents Circle — Families Forum 

• Combatants for Peace

• Women Wage Peace 

To be clear, I wholeheartedly support the call for a ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the devastation of Palestinian lives. I also firmly believe in the right of all Israelis to live in safety. I understand some of the complexities of the situation and the horrific atrocities that Hamas carried out in October, and I am clear that there is no place for violence and anti-Semitism. Jews and Muslims, and all people of the region, deserve to be safe and to live free of oppressive apartheid conditions and the threat of terrorism.

The way to get there is not easy, I know. But the only pathway to lasting peace is to work toward holding a perspective that is radically inclusive and non-divisive, the kind of non-opposing mind that the “Hsin Hsin Ming” points toward. I want to end with this excerpt from Dr. Bashan’s article that I mentioned above, “Dependently Ceasing in the Middle East:”

It is each and everyone’s responsibility to take care of the situation. What is needed in this conflict, and maybe in every conflict, is a mutual emphatic acknowledgement of the narrative, suffering, fears and humaneness of the other, seeing clearly the mutual dependent arising and ceasing of both sides. Not only that we can’t allow ourselves to leave it to the politicians, we also can’t allow ourselves to hide behind perceptions like acceptance, equanimity, gentle speech, ‘the way it is’, etc. Understood with wisdom, these words are not to be grasped at or taken as a justification for non action. Yes, we have to act skillfully, with the Right Intention, with Loving-kindness and Compassion, with a pure heart, not with hatred and violence. But we have to take a stand in view of oppression and injustice. We have to speak up and engage. Otherwise, all this practice of the Buddha Dhamma is futile.


May all beings be free from harm.

See more

Humanitarian crisis in Gaza could get far worse, warns UN relief chief (United Nations)
A Buddhist Response To The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Thanissara)
Who’s a ‘Colonizer’? How an Old Word Became a New Weapon (The New York Times)
The Parents Circle — Families Forum 
Combatants for Peace
Women Wage Peace 

Related features from BDG

Fostering Peace through the Won Buddhist Contemplative Practice of Diary Writing
Buddhistdoor View: Finding the Peacemakers in a New, Terrible War
Five Things I’ve Learned About Compassionate Action
Buddhistdoor View: Palestine and Israel
The Practice of Nonviolence

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