For many years we’ve heard the same slogan called out again and again, a cry for reconciliation between Israel and Palestine: “Peace in the Middle East!” In October, this call will be heard once again, but this time it will not be shouted out or scrawled on posters. It will be cried out another way: by the silent presence of peace walkers.
Led by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, the Israeli peace walk organizer Dr. Stephen Fulder, and the Palestinian peace negotiator Professor Sami Al-Kilani, the silent walk around New York’s Central Park will echo a decade of similar walks in Israel and Palestine. In fact, the New York walk will occur simultaneously with one along the Green Line, the border between Israel and Palestine. Without flags, placards, or posters of any kind, the silent walkers hope to embody a spirit of calmness, confidence, and mindful empathy, acknowledging the suffering that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has caused and hoping for genuine peace in the future.
Although part of the New York Peace Walk’s purpose is to serve as an example of how Palestinians and Israelis can live together in harmony together in the same city, the walk is open to people of all faiths, including Buddhists. But what part exactly can Buddhism play in a dialogue between Abrahamic faiths? What can a Buddhist practitioner offer to expressions of peace? Emma Varvaloucas of Tricycle spoke with Jack Kornfield, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and founding teacher of Spirit Rock Center, in Woodacre, California, to discuss his own participation as a leader in the peace walk. Kornfield and his colleagues draw inspiration from Buddhism’s longstanding tradition of peace work, which dates from the Buddha’s own (unsuccessful) attempts to stop war between two ancient Indian kingdoms.
Why did you decide to get involved in the New York Peace Walk? In Zen they say there are only two things: you sit, and you sweep the garden. And so my sense of dharma practice, which informs and inspires my life, is to sit and quiet my mind, open my heart, and then get up and sweep the garden of the world.
There are half a million Muslims, two million Jews, and so many others who all live together in harmony in New York. We want to show the world that this is possible. Not with big signs and banners and protesting against something, but to demonstrate that we as human beings can live together in a harmonious way. Because of the great suffering that’s happened in the Middle East, at this time it feels very important to tend to this garden.
The Peace Walk has a special focus on Islam and Judaism. What do you think that Buddhism’s commitment to nonviolence can bring to this dialogue between these Abrahamic religions? The powerful practices of inner transformation. Buddhism offers more than an ideal vision of mercy or compassion. It offers systematic inner trainings of lovingkindness, of compassion, and of forgiveness that practitioners can use to open and transform their hearts and to learn how to enter situations of conflict and difficulty with a loving perspective.
These trainings are paired with the communal tradition of nonviolence that offers ways to solve conflicts based on compassion and understanding and deep listening to one another, giving us a better response than war.
You’ve been talking about the necessity of inner change. On the New York Peace Walk website it says, “Peace requires a change of heart.” What is that change and how can we implement it? A change of heart requires a great deal of courage and a great deal of compassion. The courage is to not avert our gaze, but instead to turn to the various sufferings in our own life or in the world around us and see them with the concern and compassionate eyes of the Buddha.
Then we must realize that we can respond wisely from the heart rather than react out of fear and anger and confusion. With our practice, we can turn our gaze and our heart toward the very dilemmas of our time and enter as activists who cool and soothe the situation.
What about the role of forgiveness—and the difficulty of forgiveness—in the face of suffering? Forgiveness is absolutely critical. Without forgiveness, the Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants, the Bosnians and Serbs and Croats, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Palestinians and the Israelis, can say, “Your people did that to my people 50 years ago or 100 years ago or 500 years ago, and we will not stand for it,” and continue the cycle of retribution and suffering. Forgiveness is the radical act that says: It stops with me.
But forgiveness does not mean that we forgive and forget. It means that we see the suffering that everyone has participated in and realize that rather than meeting the suffering and aggression with more suffering and aggression, it works better to look deeper, to see our common humanity, and to acknowledge that we have been caught in a cycle of hurt and delusion. True forgiveness does not deny the suffering of the past but has a tremendous dignity and courage and power of love in it that says we will, and can, start again.
When I was in Israel and Palestine, I went to a beautiful gathering of the Sulkita, which had sponsored groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth to meet together over several years to get to know one another. At this particular gathering they had brought their parents together for the first time. Many of the Palestinian parents and families who had come in for this gathering had not been in Israel ever, or for many years. And in the circle that I was in, there was so much love and connection between the teenagers and the Palestinian parents who were sitting next to me. One of the mothers turned to me with tears in her eyes after she met the other parents and children in the circle and said, “Oh, I forgot they had mothers. I’ve only seen Israeli soldiers for the last 25 years.” And you could feel her heart soften, as well as the hearts of everyone in that circle.
The New York Peace Walk was held on Sunday, October 7, 2012.
This interview is featured in the new e-book Tricycle Teachings: Forgiveness—alongside essays from Robert Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mark Epstein, and more—available for free download to Supporting and Sustaining Members here.
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