The Gaza Koan: Do not turn away

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on


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

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

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

But there are many reasons not to discuss this topic. Those of us who are neither Jewish nor Muslim may feel that it is not our place to speak out on this subject. The region has a deeply complex and difficult to understand history. In the language of systems theory, this is a wicked problem, difficult to solve due to its complex and interconnected nature. We witness the intense polarization around this issue and are hesitant to add further fuel to the fire.

And yet the fire burns and it's impossible not to see it everywhere and be touched by it – from street protests to politicians receiving pressure calls for a ceasefire, to 'to university presidents fired for their responses to unanswered questions. What's happening in Gaza is a hot spot for so many things right now. Even as I write this column, I feel a certain sense of dread about what might come back to me from you, the reader.

But beyond any confusion or personal discomfort we may feel, there is the fact that since October 7, at least 18 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip and more than 000 have been injured, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health and Hamas. government media office. The Israeli military reports that at least 50 people have been killed and 000 injured in Israel by Hamas and other militants. The United Nations has declared a humanitarian crisis in Gaza: “More than 1 million Gazans are displaced, 200 hospitals have closed, and hundreds of thousands live in fear and under continued Israeli bombardment. " (The United Nations)

We hear accusations that silence is complicity – and indeed it is. Terrible things have happened in history when the public turns away and refuses to engage in atrocities. But how do we respond when both sides of a conflict have been victims of oppression and terror over 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 professor Thanisarra insightfully observes in a 2016 article, it is a “koan of peace.” Koans are Zen riddles with no logical answer, and the more we try to find an answer from a logical place, the more tangled we get. In this case, Thanisarra suggests that the koan be: "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 much better equipped to do this, including from a Buddhist perspective. I encourage you to read “Dependently Ceasing in the Middle East,” by Israeli psychologist Dr. Itamar Bashan, part of Thanisarra’s article mentioned above.

My invitation here is to notice the spirit with which you approach this question. Start by noticing, without judgment, as best you can, your usual patterns when the subject of Palestine and Israel comes up. Do you want to completely avoid any conversation about this? Is it too painful and complicated to try to understand? Do you quickly adopt a position that establishes camps and places the blame on one side or the other? Do you feel a surge of righteousness arise within you when you talk about this?

Taken from

Whatever your relationship to this question, I'm trying to push you to understand that you are making a choice about your mode of engagement (or lack thereof), and that other choices are possible that might better support a more peaceful and just. results, both in yourself and in the world. I recognize that what I am suggesting is more appropriately addressed to those of us who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, who have the luxury of not engaging with this koan. For those caught in the crossfire because of their identity, the current time is full of shock and trauma.

Inspired by “Hsin Hsin Ming”, I seek to cure the “illness of the mind” which takes the form of a state of mind for or against. One skill we can each develop is having the ability to "step back", to be able to move with relatively little attachment from our own perspective to that of someone else who is experiencing a situation in a very different way from ours. It is, I believe, a form of peacemaking, and one that is becoming more and more important in a world where we have a lot of contact with people who are different from us. A good example of this ability to move back and forth between viewpoints can be found in this recent article “Who is a “colonizer”? How an old word became a new weapon", by The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen. Cohen skillfully 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 we need right now is a critical mass of hope. The mainstream media primarily tells us stories of extreme division and violence, and this is particularly true in Gaza, Israel and Palestine. What we often don't hear about are the countless individuals and groups dedicated to healing generational trauma and injustice and building bridges across differences. Take the time to learn about these groups and support them with your donations, if you can, and sign up for their mailing lists to learn more about their work. Share what they do with others. Here are some organizations doing good work:

• The Parents’ Circle — Family Forum

• Fighters for peace

• Women for 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 security. I understand some of the complexities of the situation and the horrific atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in October, and I am convinced that there is no place for violence and anti-Semitism. Jews and Muslims, as well as all people in the region, deserve to be safe and free from the oppressive conditions of apartheid and the threat of terrorism.

The path to get there is not easy, I know that. But the only path to lasting peace is to strive for a radically inclusive and non-confrontational perspective, the kind of non-adversarial spirit that “Hsin Hsin Ming” points to. I would like to end with this excerpt from Dr. Bashan’s article that I mentioned above, “Dependently Ceasing in the Middle East”:

It is everyone's responsibility to take care of the situation. What is necessary in this conflict, and perhaps in any conflict, is a mutual and emphatic recognition of each other's narrative, suffering, fears and humanity, seeing clearly the mutual dependence that arises and ceases on both sides. Not only can we not afford to leave it to politicians, but we also cannot afford to hide behind perceptions such as acceptance, serenity, smooth talking, "the way things are." they are”, etc. Understood wisely, these words should not be seized upon or taken as a justification for inaction. Yes, we must act with skill, with the right intention, with kindness and compassion, with a pure heart, and not with hatred and violence. But we must take a stand in the face of oppression and injustice. We need to speak out and engage. Otherwise, all this practice of the Buddha Dhamma is in vain.


May all beings be safe from evil.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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