The following is a presentation I gave to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of New Bern, on Sunday, February 21, 2011:
I am a Unitarian Universalist and I TRY to be a Buddhist…. It doesn’t always work, but I DO try! This past fall I spent three months in Jerusalem, Israel. I rented an apartment… it turned out to be in the same neighborhood as the Israeli Prime Minister… and I spent most of my days just walking the streets of the walled city and interacting with the assortment of people I met.
And I met an unbelievable assortment of people! Jerusalem is a TRUE melting pot!
I met Jews, Muslims and Christians.
I met first generation Israelis who spoke less Hebrew than I do… and I know maybe 6 or 7 words!
And I met Israelis who had been soldiers in their war of Independence.
I met Muslims whose families had lived in Jerusalem for the past 800 to 1400 years and had seen Crusaders come and go.
I met both Muslim and Jewish men who would not place change in my hand for fear of touching me, a woman!
And I met one very devote Muslim man with a positively RADIANT soul who would not STOP touching me! (Apparently once they decide you are “touchable”, they are VERY touchy-feely!)
I witnessed a Christian priest in the Church of the Holy Supulchre STRIKE a friend of mine for taking a picture in the wrong place! My friend was an Asian American computer geek… he HAD to take the picture… really he did! He couldn’t help himself!
And I talked to another Christian Priest who gently asked me if I was a Christian. I told him that I was not… that I was a Unitarian Universalist! He smiled and said… “Well, then you live by the PRINCIPLES of Jesus, don’t you?” (Wasn’t that beautiful?)
I watched religious Jews celebrating the two holiest days on the Jewish calendar…Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… with passion and joy at the Wailing Wall in the Jewish Quarter. I understood their joy at being safe to celebrate THERE, one of the Holiest places in their tradition.
I climbed to the top of the Noble Sanctuary… the Temple Mount in the Judeo Christian tradition. There I experienced a bucolic scene of peace and tranquility in an otherwise busy, crazy city. A few days later there were riots on the very ground where I had walked.
I was there for the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan… when Muslims from around the globe converge in Jerusalem to celebrate at the Dome of the Rock and Al Asqa mosque… the Third Holiest place in THEIR tradition… It was an amazing mass of humanity! When the Muslim pilgrims leave at the end of prayers… it is like the flood gates have been opened! You do NOT want to try to go against the crowd!
I traveled to Hebron, in the West Bank… a very hotly contested area! … and I drank tea with Palestinian refugees who had been confined behind cruel fences in very poor living conditions for many years.
I was invited into the Hebron home of a Palestinian family who must maintain a constant guard in their own home to keep it from being attacked or confiscated by militant Jewish settlers. And I was shown a burnt-out room in their house which they say was set on fire by militant settlers. I was shown other damage as well.
Multiple times a day I listened to the eerily melodic Muslim call to prayer… in poorly timed surround sound… from the many mosques that punctuate the landscape of Jerusalem.
As a tourist of European descent, I passed easily through internal checkpoints at various spots along the highways, but I witnessed for myself and was otherwise made aware, that innocent men and women of Palestinian descent are almost ALWAYS stopped at the same check points.
I couchsurfed to Haifa in Northern Israel. (Has anyone ever heard of couchsurfing.org? It this amazing internet service that hooks up travelers with people who like to MEET travelers and live in the area that they want to travel to… it is the coolest thing!). I spent three days as an honored house guest of an ordinary Jewish couple leading ordinary secular Jewish lives. We talked about a LOT of things in my three days there!
I peacefully ate, drank, shopped and got a hair cut on Ben Yehuda Street… a well known Jerusalem shopping street, which (unfortunately) has been the scene of multiple suicide bombings. Dozens of innocent bystanders have been murdered on that street… I saw shrapnel still embedded in walls of the shops there!
I celebrated an American-style Thanksgiving in Jerusalem with a group of 30 or so Messianic Jews… you want to meet a Jesus-freak… find yourself a Messianic Jew! Oy VEY! I learned that being a Messianic Jew in Israel can get you in trouble with the Israeli government!
I spent a half day with a group of Christian pilgrims from Nigeria who were a HOOT! I was the only woman…and the only rosy complexion on the whole bus! Apparently, Nigerians have a really hard time getting anywhere on time!
I met a Catholic Pilgrim from Portugal who had a hauntingly beautiful soul. He was kind enough to listen to me LONG enough to let me realize I was carrying a very large “chip” on my shoulder against Christians. I am making every effort to lighten my load!
I daily mingled with group after group of Christian pilgrims retracing the footsteps of Jesus on the Via Delorosa… the route that tradition says Jesus traveled on his journey from condemnation at the hands of Pontius Pilate to crucifixion to resurrection. Actually ANY walk along the Via Delorosa is going to involve Christian pilgrims… they are hard to avoid!
I joined Jewish women of every description in prayer at the Western Wall…. And I wept with them.
So…. What do all of these diverse people have in common? What have I gotten out of my experiences?
My belief is that each and every person I met in the Holy Land is doing the best they can. They may be at polar opposites as far as faith and politics are concerned… Each sees the “Truth” (with a capital “T”) based on their own personal bias, their own personal “map” of the world.… but they all are doing the BEST they can. That is MY belief. Rather than judging each of them based on MY view of the world… I try to have compassion for them from THEIR point of view.
If I were a Palestinian herded into poor living conditions, locked behind walls and kept in by gates with my freedom of movement severely restricted based solely on WHAT I was, rather than WHO I am… would I be angry enough to be a suicide bomber? Perhaps.
If I were an Israeli soldier who has seen friends or family murdered by suicide bombers, who has experienced the fear of sitting down for coffee at Israel’s equivalent of “Starbucks” and not knowing if THIS might be my day to die. Would I be willing to build a wall to keep my sworn enemy away from me and my family? Perhaps.
If I were a Palestinian whose family has lived on that land for CENTURIES, would I be angry to watch a newly immigrated Russian, with dubious claim to Jewish heritage, be given more rights to MY land than I have? Perhaps.
If I were an Israeli Jew who survived the Holocaust in Europe and then FOUGHT for the right to have my own country governed by Jews, where Jews would be SAFE to live as Jews… would I feel that this land is now MINE? Perhaps.
Who is right? Who is wrong? Who is good? Who is bad? What do we believe in this world of 24 hour news channels that rarely give an unbiased picture of anything… never mind anything as complicated as the conflicts in the middle east?
Well… myself, as a Unitarian Universalist and a Buddhist… I reject the dualism of the question. NO one is right! NO one is wrong! And at the same time we are ALL right, and ALL wrong. Each one of us sees the “TRUTH” in the light of our own prejudices. Each one of us is JUST trying to do the best that we can, given our limited understanding of the circumstances around us.
We EACH have a “truth” that is unique to US. And I have compassion for the people in Israel / Palestine who see only THIER truth and cannot see any other. I believe that they are doing the best that they can!
Yes, there is suffering in the Middle East and in Israel, but as a Buddhist I don’t see suffering as inherently WRONG… the first Noble truth is that EVERYONE suffers. Is that okay with me? It is neither okay, nor not okay. It just IS. If we all had perfect lives, where would the growth be?
I personally try to help alleviate PAIN whenever I can… but no matter how hard any of us try, there will always be pain. As a person who has felt pain and suffered in my life, I have learned that suffering can help bring about spiritual growth. And while experiencing PAIN is something that cannot be entirely avoided, suffering is up to the individual. Suffering is a choice.
For me, the most powerful tool I have for peace is a warm and sincere smile… and a willingness to engage a person in conversation and LISTEN to what they have to say and to SHOW them that they and their point of view are valuable to me. I listen and I smile a LOT!
I believe that as I become a more peaceful, centered, compassionate person I change the world! Not only does the world SEEM like a nicer place to me (we get back what we send out), but I am no longer the CAUSE of more suffering. As I send out compassion, the world responds with a collective sigh of relief! This is MY belief.
And I pray for the Peace of Jerusalem!
May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be at peace! May it be so!