Jewish Journal


December 4, 2003

Does Buddhist Hold Mideast Peace Key?


While news of the Geneva accords hit the headlines, a group of Palestinians and Israelis were trying to make a different kind of peace -- with the help of Buddhists in southern France.

Thich Nhat Hanh -- Vietnamese Zen master, poet and Nobel Peace Prize nominee -- has been inviting groups of Palestinians and Israelis to his practice center, Plum Village, in an effort to show them that Buddhist meditation can lead to inner peace as well as nonviolence between nations. The trips are largely underwritten by an American Jewish businessman.

Nhat Hanh preaches nothing less than personal transformation as the road to peace.

"I have lived through two wars in Vietnam, and I know what a war is. There is fear, anger, despair and if you don't know how to manage these feelings, you will not survive," he told his audience of 300, including 30 Israelis and Palestinians.

For businessman Amin Bara of Nablus, the palpable peace at Plum Village was an inspiration. "You walk at night, and no one asks you where you are going. You sleep peacefully with no trouble. I feel I love life more. I feel a change in my body and my spirit to be stronger in my work for peace."

Anael Harpaz of Rosh Pina came home with a broken heart after listening to the stories told by Palestinians, especially the sister of a suicide bomber, who revealed the difficult and tragic circumstances leading to the act.

"We fell into each other's arms afterward. There's no denying the love we felt for one another," Harpaz said of the young sister of the suicide bomber. "It's very sad for me what's happening to the Palestinians and to our soldiers. We're all victims."

Harpaz appreciated what Nhat Hanh is trying to do, saying, "He comes from a place of much suffering, and he chose the nonviolent way, and he's trying to teach us this. I'm sure it looks like complete nonsense to people who are not on a spiritual path. But I know how much peace being on a spiritual path and returning to my breath has brought to me."

The Israelis and Palestinians, fresh from the tension of the Middle East, practiced eating, walking and working mindfully -- following their breath and keeping their minds focused among the 150 monks and nuns -- before meeting together at the end of the week for "deep-listening" sessions.

Eastern meditation has been gaining in popularity in Israel, especially since post-army trips to India and the East have become de rigueur. A few Palestinians are beginning to show an interest, and a Palestinian-Jewish sangha, or meditation group, made up mostly of those who have been to Plum Village, meets one day a month. The style -- slow, meditative, gentle -- contrasts sharply with the vociferous, combative style of the local population, and many see it as a needed breath of fresh air.

As with many peace gatherings, Nhat Hanh, in a sense, was preaching to the converted. Nearly all the participants had been involved in peace efforts and dialogue before. What might have been new to some was his stance that only when we achieve peace within -- and with our loved ones -- can we hope for peace between nations. Thus, he began several of his talks with advice for making marriages more harmonious.

Because of trouble with visas and permits, the West Bank Palestinians arrived at Plum Village late. They were thrown right into the dialogue without having had a chance to "practice" beforehand. Two Palestinians were turned back at a Jordan bridge.

Issa Souf of the West Bank village of Hares, formerly a physical trainer, came in a wheelchair with his brother and nephew. He had been shot, he said, by an Israeli soldier as he was attempting to get his family back into the house and away from tear gas. Souf said he believed his stay at Plum Village confirmed for him that he is on the right path -- the path of nonviolence.

"I really, really, really feel -- and I tell my Palestinian friends all the time -- that it's not a solution if we kill half the Jewish people, and it's not a solution if they kill three-quarters of the Palestinians," Souf said. "Both peoples have to oppose the policies that throw us into this situation."

However, Souf, as well as other Palestinians, believed that Nhat Hanh lacked sufficient information about the Mideast conflict.

When both sides met together, speakers were exhorted to use "loving speech," without blame or condemnation. Listeners were told to listen deeply, following their breath, and to be aware of their reactions without responding verbally. The idea was for each side to open its heart to the other side and to be able to acknowledge that the other side suffered, too. From this, Nhat Hanh said, compassion would flow.

After septuagenarian Kochava Ron told of her family losing five members to the conflict over 70 years, the group did a bit of walking meditation around the large hall, and Bara, the Arab businessman, walked with his arm around Ron.

But many participants were not able to take Nhat Hanh's advice to speak gently, personally and from the heart.

Some of the Israelis made speeches about peace, and several of the Palestinians spoke passionately and angrily about the "Nazi" occupation, Sharon's "fascist" government and the "apartheid" separation wall being built by Israel. But personal meetings between sessions were friendly.

While the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs present were more familiar with Nhat Hanh's teachings -- he led two weekend retreats in Israel seven years ago, and groups of meditators throughout Israel follow his teachings -- it was the West Bank Palestinians' first encounter with Buddhist practice. "They don't know where they've landed," said one of the Israelis.

Dorit Shippin, the organizer of the Israeli delegation, was not disappointed, saying she got a lot of strength from the week.

"I didn't expect loving speech from the Palestinians," she said. "They weren't there long enough. But [he] planted seeds. You never know how or when they will sprout."

Ruth Mason is a writer from Los Angeles now living in Israel.

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