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Thoughts as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist and the War in Gaza

In high school, my friends often asked me about the Buddhist take on social justice issues. 


“What do Buddhists think about abortion?” “How about gay rights?” “Do Buddhists eat meat?” “Are you allowed to own a gun?” Sometimes I had an answer, but for other issues, I wasn’t sure. I knew I had my stance, but I didn’t know what I was “supposed” to believe. 


Some of my religious friends seemed so set on their opinions, and part of me envied their strong conviction even if I didn’t agree with it. As someone who wanted things spelled out in black-and-white terms, the ambiguity of Shin Buddhism felt frustrating. Just tell me — it’s never OK to kill, right? 


Even today, part of me still wants a clear path on what I should do and think as a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist follower. With issues of social justice, I want to be told that my religion validates my own beliefs. I’ve talked to some people in the Shin Buddhist community who also crave this clarity, and I’ve heard arguments that Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) leadership should take a stronger organizational stance on social issues to advocate for justice and change. The most recent issue being the war in Gaza. 


Reminded of Passage


I can’t begin to understand the anguish, fear, and horror that Palestinian and Israeli families are currently enduring. I struggle to find words that convey the heaviness of this collective suffering. Families have been torn apart, and heartbreaking killings continue with no end in sight. The ripples of trauma will be felt for generations. 


I feel so helpless absorbing news from the safety and privileges of my home, feeling like there’s nothing I can do to ease such pain. With Jodo Shinshu being such a key part of my identity and community, I find comfort in knowing that our religious organization stands firmly against evil. 


But … do we? As I struggle with how to wrap my mind around war conflicts, I’m reminded of a passage from one of the exhibits of the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, Washington. 


This beautiful museum focuses on the art, culture, and history of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. One of the permanent exhibitions includes a brief walkthrough of the history of various Asian American diasporas, with a section featuring Cambodian Americans. This part of the exhibit includes historical depictions of the Cambodian genocide. 


As disturbing as it is to be reminded of such a brutal part of history where millions of people were killed, I appreciate that the museum does not shy away from the truth. At the end of the description, it states: 


To simply finger a “brutal regime” however is to risk missing a valuable lesson from the Cambodian genocide. The initial aims of the Khmer Rouge were hardly evil — they did not set out to decimate the Cambodian people. Instead, Khmer Rouge leaders were swept away in an ideology. They were corrupted by power and abandoned common sense in an attempt to make a flawed belief system work. The lesson of the Cambodian genocide is not that the Pol Pot was evil; it is rather that — like good — evil lurks in the heart of every human being. Don’t view the exhibition here and wonder only, “How could they be capable of such evil?” Instead, as well, “How could I be capable of such evil?” and pledge to prevent it from happening again. 


To me, this feels very much aligned with Shin Buddhist thought. Shinran Shonin talks at length of the cruel realities of the world and the evils of human nature. Not only the evils of humans in general, but specifically our own capacity. Our suffering — this “burning house” — is fueled by our own human anger, ignorance, and greed. 


Shinran’s Interaction


In the “Tannisho,” Shinran has an interaction with Yuien-bo, one of his followers. He challenges Yuien-bo’s loyalty by telling him to kill a thousand people. 


Yuien-bo responds: “Though you instruct me thus, I’m afraid it is not in my power to kill even one person.” 


Shinran replies: “By this you should realize that if we could always act as wished, then when I told you to kill a thousand people in order to attain birth, you should have immediately done so. But since you lack the karmic cause inducing you to kill even a single person, you do not kill. It is not that you do not kill because your heart is good. In the same way, a person may wish not to harm anyone and yet end up killing a hundred or thousand people.” As shown in this passage, Shinran points out that Yuien-bo’s ability to refuse to kill anyone is a privilege of his circumstances rather than a testament to his morals. If Yuien-bo feared that his family would be hurt if he didn’t comply, then he may have acted differently. 


Shinran explains this further: “For those who make their living drawing nets or fishing in the seas and rivers, and those who sustain their lives hunting beasts or taking fowl in the field and mountains, and those who pass their lives conducting trade or cultivating field and paddies, it is all the same. If the karmic cause so prompts us, we will commit any kind of act.” 


When I think about the violence in Palestine and Israel, I find myself wondering, “What kind of people kill and rip others from their homes and families?” and “How could people drop bombs and make decisions that lead to tens of thousands of civilian deaths?” 


Surely, I could never do the same. However, Shinran reminds me that the more I tell myself that there is a moral disparity between myself and militant fighters, the more I conclude that they must be morally flawed for enabling such suffering. As I result, I am less likely to value their lives and extend compassion and understanding. 


Some people might not see this thought process as an issue. After committing such atrocities, are they even worthy of our compassion and understanding? I would argue that trying to understand and extend compassion does not mean we’re passive or complicit. We can form opinions and take action, while understanding that our perspectives stem from our own subjective causes and conditions. 

Causes and Conditions


I think Shinran helps us understand that someone's actions are not theirs alone, but rather a result of their causes and conditions. This includes situational circumstances, subjective perspectives, implicit biases, and fears that dictate one’s judgment. 


Instead of condemning individual actions and seeing groups of people as the problem, I believe that Shinran challenges us to look upstream at the karmic conditions that inform these choices. 


How do anger, ignorance, fear, and greed contribute to patterns of oppression, imperialism, colonialism, and war, and how do we stop our own evil nature from becoming corrupted by and contributing to these powers? 


It seems that Jodo Shinshu Buddhism doesn’t tell us what we should and shouldn’t do because navigating these decisions is something that we must go through ourselves with our individual karmic conditions. While I think it’s OK for leaders to express opinions and reflections about current events, I can see why BCA would struggle with the issue of taking a strong stance on behalf of everyone in the organization. As a collective of “foolish beings,” no one can speak for everyone. 


However, I want to be clear that not having a unified organizational position does not mean that we need to be passive. In our community, I believe it’s essential to create space to address heavy topics that are on our minds and discuss how they relate to Jodo Shinshu thought. 


PABT Discussions


At Palo Alto Buddhist Temple, we often have discussions after service where people can talk about what’s on their minds. The topics have included controversial issues. 


During the discussions, I don’t always agree with everyone and sometimes hearing a different perspective sets me even more firmly into my own thought process. However, as my outlook shifts and grows, I’m always grateful to have gained insight into what others are thinking and feeling. With skilled facilitation, some trust, and lots of practice, I feel that we’ve been able to express and receive our opinions and reflections with respect. 


Amidst violence and seemingly endless cycles of suffering, I’ve noticed that I feel less alone and helpless after these discussions. As I awaken to my own internal biases and capacity for evil, I also know that I am embraced by a community. A community of “foolish beings” whose collective wisdom and compassion is deeper than I’m able to grasp alone. I am eager to continue discussions with our sanghas about Palestine and Israel — exploring the depths of our wisdom and practicing compassion as we walk the Shin Buddhist path together toward a more peaceful world. 


As seemingly pessimistic (or perhaps, realistic) as Shinran was at the capacity of humans to overcome their greed, anger, and ignorance, he also talked about the infinite wisdom and compassion of Amida Buddha and the promise of universal liberation for all sentient beings. 


When we discuss and process the heavy realities of human evil and suffering, I know that we, like Shinran, can create space that fits both critical self-reflection and hope as we strive for a future with more compassion and peace.

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