This past winter, I took a week of silent retreat, on which I had tacked on an extra week away from social media to deepen my practice. Upon my return to the digital world and logging onto Instagram, my Stories were peppered with images of a young girl, with its persistence acting as a warning that I was about to take in something highly disturbing. The image in question was that of Hind Rajab, a 6-year-old turned martyr whose murdered body, I learned, had been found twelve days after she spent hours on the phone with the Palestine Red Crescent Society, in which she told the dispatcher, “I’m so scared, please come. Come take me. Please, will you come?” Rajab’s name and image would quickly spread from social media to banners across the world, becoming a thunderous call for spiritual urgency.

From the moment that the young Buddha looked over the cloistered walls of his compound and viewed a funeral procession, he felt an urgency to understand suffering, to know completely the cycles of life and death, and to turn away from the delusion that had previously defined his existence. Delusion, one of the three root poisons that cloud the mind and lead to obstacles (also referred to as ignorance or aversion), comes in many forms and is broadly defined as that which stands in opposition to clear seeing or insight (Pali: vipassanā) or knowledge (Pali: abhiññā). Perhaps most importantly, not knowing a thing does not equal delusion. It is only when we are presented with a fact and actively choose not to accept its truth that we are in delusion. This is why I look at Hind Rajab and the countless other images of suffering that cross my screen—to look away would be delusion.

Still, viewing the suffering in Gaza takes a toll on my spirit. I’m left with the question of how we can learn to look at suffering and make sense of the internal churning that these images of human pain and sorrow evoke within us. We are told not to look away from the suffering, but we are not taught or guided in how to bear witness. Turning to the Buddha’s teachings, attending to suffering can provide us with resiliency to skillfully respond with a tenderness of our hearts that guides us toward action rather than succumbing to numbness. One only need look toward history to find context to how brutal and deeply unsettling images can evoke swift and skillful responses

Earlier this year, the conversation surrounding the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell drew comparisons to the 1963 self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc in political protest against the oppression of Buddhists in South Vietnam, set against the disruptions of the Vietnam War. The burning image of Quang Duc is one of the defining moments of 20th-century photojournalism and antiwar demonstrations. Quang Duc led a procession of fellow monks into the center of Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City), and there, he sat on the concrete, assumed the lotus position, was doused with gasoline by two fellow monks, and lit a match. Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old Air Force member, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., in protest of the U.S. government’s aiding and abetting of “what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers.” In the film documentation of the ritualized protest, before lighting the match, Bushnell states, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” burning as he yells, “Free Palestine!” In choosing this ritual act of self-immolation, Bushnell and Thich Quang Duc both continue in the tradition of a brutal form of public protest, bringing attention to the suffering of others by taking suffering upon themselves. 

Turning to the Buddha’s teachings, attending to suffering can provide us with resiliency to skillfully respond with a tenderness of our hearts that guides us toward action rather than succumbing to numbness.

The photograph of Quang Duc’s self-immolation, published in June of 1963, was upsetting to the Western world. In Incendiary Acts and Apocryphal Avant-Gardes: Thich Quang Duc, Self-Immolation and Buddhist Spiritual Vanguardism, James M. Harding writes that “Indeed, Kennedy is ‘reported to have been so appalled’ by the photo of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation that ‘he bolted from the room’ when a copy of the image was placed on his desk.” President Kennedy was reported to have said about the photograph, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Documentation of Quang Duc’s self-immolation was intentional. The evening before the self-immolation, photographer Malcolm Browne, who had built a relationship with various Vietnamese Buddhist communities, received a phone call informing him, “Mr. Browne, I strongly advise you to come. I expect something very important will happen, but I cannot tell you what.” Browne was the only Western correspondent to show up that morning. His presence and ability to spread the image of Quang Duc to the wider world was integral to the impact of the act. In fact, it has been said that seeing the image on President Kennedy’s desk of Quang Duc’s burning body made him order a complete review of his administration’s Vietnam policy.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to be moved as deeply today. Repeatedly seeing long-distance devastation up close through our screens on such a large scale has desensitized us to images of suffering. Although Aaron Bushnell made an intentional effort to document his political protest, the media quickly dismissed the self-immolation as mental illness rather than looking at the reasons he was brought to have such an extreme response. The still image of Bushnell’s burning body, no matter how terrible and horrifying to observe, remains, to a certain degree, safe and at a distance. So how do we hold the appropriate level of emotional response without becoming overwhelmed by our emotions?

Part of the remedy to this is to cultivate clear seeing, to use the viscerality of these violent images to evoke and arouse the heart quality of bodhicitta. Arousing bodhicitta involves holding the truths of birth, suffering, and death, and practicing with the heart quality of compassion (Pali: karuna) to feel the pain and distress of others as though it were our own. Karuna especially is said to be the natural state of the heart in response to witnessing another person’s pain. When both clear seeing and karuna are employed, one can distinguish and activate the habits and influences in the mind that are skillful and lead to love and awareness rather than those that are unskillful and lead to delusion or reinforce a false sense of separation. 

A Practice: Embodying Karuna During Crisis

When scrolling our social media feeds, watching the news, or reading from a news publication, we can call on our own wise hearts to slow down to take in the suffering of the world. In order to cultivate this stillness necessary to be with upsetting images, consider the following steps: 

1. Pause. Sit with the discomfort of viewing the human body in pain.
2. Notice what emotions arise, allowing space for whatever may arise to arise, without shame or judgment.
3. Investigate what information your emotion and body have to offer you about your values and what matters to you. 
4. Resist the trap of numbness. Instead, feel the urgency to respond. Let this urgency inform your actions.

This last step of wise urgency (Pali: samvega)—which calls you to act swiftly and immediately toward liberation—is the same urgency that the young Buddha felt when he first looked over the wall and saw the suffering of the world. Samvega, when viewed with clear seeing, allows us to experience our interdependence and hold global pain without falling into the trap of numbness. As Nyanaponika Thera writes in his commentary on the four sublime states, or the four brahma-viharas (of which compassion is one), “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.”

In holding these two states—compassion and wise urgency—we resist the common desensitization and debasement of human suffering and move toward an empathetic response that focuses on how we act in relation to one another. This provides us with resiliency, ensuring that we can take action. Compassion’s greatest power is that it provides strength, allowing skillful actions to arise. 

“It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world.”

When you watch images of bodies on fire, let yourself be aware of the body in and of itself and connect with your body’s innate, guiding wisdom. Feel the quivering of the heart, which calls you to a compassionate response. Keep looking, keep documenting, stay in the here and now and remain clear-eyed and urgent as an act of compassion for all living beings.