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‘I Can’t Look Away’ From the Suffering in Gaza

MVBT MA Describes Thoughts on Student Protests, Activism 


Editor’s note: Rev. Devon Matsumoto, a Minister’s Assistant at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple who received Tokudo certification in December 2023 from the Hongwanji-ha in Kyoto, is Senior Program Coordinator at the Asian Law Caucus’s Community Safety Program. 


 

I have been struggling to write an article for some time now about the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. 


Sometimes I wonder, “What can I do? I am just one person.” Sometimes I wonder, “What can I say?” Words alone feel inadequate. 


I have honestly been scared of getting in trouble for sharing my thoughts and feelings, and, because of that, have had a difficult time processing everything going on. 


However, the recent uprisings across college campuses around the world and the student activism showing up in high schools and middle schools around the United States have been a source of inspiration for me. 


I wish I was as brave as them and can only hope I live up to their example. These students are selflessly putting their safety and futures on the line to call for an end to the genocide and for a liberated Palestine. How can I not show my support for them and the people of Gaza, even in this small way?

 

We often condemn these young activists and organizers, but I think we have a lot to learn from them. Right now, I believe that it is very important that we hear them out and listen to what they are asking of us. People may tell them not to rock the boat, but I will let you know they aren’t the ones who are rocking it. They merely pointed to the waves crashing down on us. 


As difficult and as heartbreaking as it is, they are asking us not to look away. As of now, over 34,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli regime, and over 15,000 of those killed are children. They are asking us not to look away as Israel has dropped more than 25,000 tons of bombs on Gaza, which is more than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They are asking us not to look away as the Palestinians in the West Bank are evicted from their homes. They are asking us not to look away as Palestinians are starved by Israel’s humanitarian blockade. They are asking us not to look away.  


As these young people face repression at the hands of the police, school administration, and even our communities, I cannot help but think of the last line of “Sanbutsuge” from the ”Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life.”


In this gatha, Bodhisattva Dharmakara states vows to become a Buddha and save all beings who are suffering in the world of delusion. Bodhisattva Dharmakara, in speaking to the Buddha Lokeśvararāja, declares that “even if I should be subjected to all kinds of suffering and torment, continuing my practice undeterred, I would endure it and never have any regrets.” 


I see Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s words in the unrelenting struggle that these students have embarked upon. I see Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s words in the Palestinian people fighting for their humanity. And I see Bodhisattva Dharmakara’s words in my own reflection as I try to make sense of the Buddha’s teachings and how they relate to this world of samsara.

 

One of the most important things I have learned from these students is that the struggle for liberation will not be perfect, nor does it ask for perfection. 


Rather, like the Nembutsu teachings, the movement teaches me to deeply reflect upon my imperfections, learn, and then grow from them. It teaches me to complicate the narratives and seek out the root causes of suffering and injustice. It teaches me that only through doubt, which is to question the reality we see around us, can I fully commit myself to the struggle for liberation. 


As I sit in the privilege and comfort of my own home, I have been thinking a lot of Dr. Ayesha Khan's words, “Is peace a lie?” 


What I think Dr. Khan is saying is not that there is no such thing as peace, but is instead asking us to deeply reflect and question if true peace exists today. Does peace exist for the millions who starve around the world when we have enough food to feed everyone? Does peace exist for the millions who die from a lack of adequate health care when a few countries and companies hoard the resources? Does peace exist for the millions who have become climate refugees or are poisoned by their environments due to climate change exacerbated by global corporations? Does peace exist for the millions living under a 76-year apartheid system as their humanity is denied? 


When Dr. Khan is asking us, “If peace is a lie,” she is asking us, “What does peace mean to me.” When I ask for peace, am I seeking true peace or am I seeking to be comfortable as my house burns around me? 


And so I ask myself, contemplating on Shinran Shonin’s writing, “we, an ocean of beings in an evil age of five defilements” — “What is peace?”; “What is violence?”; and “Who decides which side is violent and which is peaceful?” 


Shinran Shonin finishes this line by saying “should entrust ourselves to the Tathagata’s words of truth.” How can we envision a world of peace through the guidance of the Buddha? When the River of Fire looks like genocide and the River of Water like apartheid, what does peace look like? As the waves of the rivers crash on me, what violence am I capable of? What other questions should I be asking myself? I do not know these answers, but I should not let it turn me away from seeking them out.


It is easier for me to look away. It is easier for me not to see what’s happening because it pains me to see how cruel and hateful we human beings can be. I wanted to look away, too, hoping reason and kindness would prevail. But over seven months have gone by and I cannot look away anymore.


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