West Bank Zen

West Bank Zen
by Anita N. Feng

How does one practice Zen in a war zone?

The third Patriarch, Seng-ts’an, said in his verse “Relying on Mind” in The Roaring Stream:

The Supreme Way is not difficult;
it just precludes picking and choosing.
Without yearning or loathing, 
the Way is perfectly apparent,
while even a hairbreadth difference
separates heaven and earth.

In August of 2004, I traveled to the settlements of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, regions of intense conflict and suffering. I undertook this journey in order to complete some research for a book that I had been working on, and as inevitably occurs, I received much more than I bargained for. I received ample opportunity to research the front lines of the human heart and mind—and to practice, as my teacher, the late Zen Master Seung Sahn always advised, only go straight, don’t know.

I traveled with right-wing religious Jews. As much as my political karma was weighted to the left-wing, I found that time spent in the intense life-and-death moments of a war zone rendered me wingless. Stepping beyond news headlines, bypassing various road maps to peace and partitions of ideology, I would tour the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a single imperative—to ask, who am I/what is this/who are you? 

What follows are a few intimate encounters with this great question.

1. No Way Out

One day during our tour there was a moment when I looked out at the Judean Hills and felt keenly its incongruous, startling beauty. 

As it happened, our bullet-proof bus was stranded at the side of the road outside the Arab city of Nablus, a hotbed of terrorist activity, I was told. I stepped off our broken-down bus and there, in the hot August air, shimmered hill after ancient hill. Milky limestone, honey-dried slopes, and beyond, the golden brocade folds of the Judean desert descending down to the Dead Sea. The air on my face, as intimate as raw silk. A landscape as beautiful as it was spacious, shocking in its long-suffering magnificence. Here and there, dotting the hilltops and valleys or cradled halfway down a ravine, a Jewish settlement, an Arab village, the tilled rows of grapes or olive trees in between. 

I should explain the irony of our situation on that particular afternoon. Every precaution had been taken. We had been traveling with an armed guard, in a state-of-the-art bullet-proof bus. Bullet-proof from any direction except from above, this exception being necessary due to the excessive weight it would have added to the already very heavy bus. The weight was probably the cause of our mishap. As we were climbing the steep back roads that criss-crossed through the Judean hills, the engine overheated, and a radiator hose blew. So, in effect, our precautions were our downfall. A clear manifestation of karma: you make, you get.

Like sitting ducks, one of my companions had said. Stay in the bus, several others advised each other nervously. The comfortable air conditioning, of course, had been turned off. The bullet-proof window glass did not open for obvious reasons. Some of the women used their Israeli maps as fans. Several cell phones signaled cheerful tunes and were answered with anxiety. Whispered questions echoed each other in alarmed variations on the theme of what if. The tour guide advised that it would be no more than a few minutes. 

There, in the context of that landscape that had struggled for thousands of years to maintain composure, our tour group, also, was struggling to maintain its composure. And interestingly enough, among our little group, the main concern voiced at that moment was not about Arabs and Jews, not about terrorists or the IDF (Israel Defense Force). Rather, the number one topic of debate was about when we would get a chance to go to the bathroom. One of our group complained, even shouting in the aisle with affront, “Why weren’t these buses outfitted with a toilet in the back?” Another one shouted back, “Why don’t you just sit still and keep quiet?” The children bounced in their seats. An elderly woman groaned quietly and closed her eyes. Another yelled, “Why aren’t there any more water bottles in the cooler? Didn’t anyone refill the cooler this morning?”

All of these questions, a moot point. A few of us stepped outside. 

Was it safe? Most likely it was not entirely safe outside, but neither was it safe inside, contained in the insular and oppressively stagnant air of our own suffering, the bus now a mini-country all its own, replete with skirmishes and policy-makers vying for control. How difficult it is for us humans to accept just the first and most obvious noble truth: life is suffering. 

In the tension of that moment of vulnerability, the passengers targeted the objects nearest at hand—each other. People were ashamed to be sitting in the same bus with that maligner or this noise-maker. The tour guide was assailed with threats and verbal attacks. Why was it taking so long? Nearly an hour had passed.

A mini-country in a broken-down bus. A miniature state of Israel, a broken-hearted people. A perfect mirror of the human condition since beginningless time. 

As I stood at the edge of the road it felt like the epicenter of the world, focal point of human suffering, and I was overwhelmed with love. 

Scraggy hills alternated with scarred ravines. Dried scrub and brush. Demarcation zones outlined in wire, checkpoints, and guards. Everywhere, hard limestone jutted out under thin layers of red soil like the bones of a violated world. The hillsides at my feet looked like bone matter crushed and mixed with flesh, sinew and blood. 

Standing there and squinting at the view, I asked our tour guide Moshe, who had also escaped the bus, about the contrast between the red tint in the earth and the pock-marked glittering white limestone. He explained that it was the effect of the limestone eroding, oxidizing with minerals at the surface, turning to a red loam that they called terra rosa. It was in this earth that they grew the vines and trees, he said. Olives and grapes and various other kinds of fruit thrived in that environment. 

I picked up one of those pockmarked rocks, glittering in its hardness as I turned it in my hand, its crevices filled with a fine red soil. Everything about Israel was intense and impossible and beautiful, including the rock in my hand. 

This was something that news articles and photographs could not possibly convey—the aching, breath-taking beauty of the space that surrounded us and the hard limestone nested in my hand. All this in a country the size of an eyelash on the face of the earth. 

I was reminded of Suzuki Roshi’s comment in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony.” 

I remembered reading once that the word, Israel, means “one who struggles for God.” I also remembered that the word Jihad means struggle too, also in the name of God. But before language, before thinking and definitions and justifications, there in the distance, I saw a cluster of red-roofed homes perched on one hill, a Jewish settlement. On another hill, built along the side, an Arab village. At a distance between them, farmed land. Snaking up and down throughout the region, a road, a wall, another road, another wall. 

2. What Do You See? What Do You Hear?

A few days later, as we pulled into the old city of Hebron, I watched a Hasidic boy on a bicycle, sidelocks flying. From the doorway of an abandoned shop littered with rubble, a small Arab child in a smock peered out at us. A few yards away from the child, an IDF soldier stood in full military gear, weapon open and ready. In front of them, a clean-cut young man leaned out of a UN vehicle to take a picture of us. We took a picture of him. We were all very close to one another, aware, watching each other. Yet very, very separate. 

At every corner and on various roof tops, Israeli soldiers stood fully armed in bullet-proof vests, helmets, automatic weapons poised. One Arab man decided to walk right through our midst rather than skirt around us. As he passed through our group, his stiffened shoulders brushed past mine. I looked into his eyes, and he looked into mine—the expression in his eyes, like sharpened steel and stone. I felt his hatred pass clear through me. A meeting and passing so intimate that fear had nothing to do with it. Only pain, and a deep grief bleeding from every part of my body as I walked on—who am I/what is this/who are you? 

This is what we learn as Zen students—to sit there and face it, whatever it may be, not to dodge aside, rationalize, ignore, or follow the many illusory mind-roads that we think might save us from the moment. 

But we all have karma. As Zen students, we get to know our karma, our habits of mind pretty well. A bit of truth that I’ve come to recognize as a Zen student of over forty years, is that without question, we human beings will be challenged in those areas of our greatest vulnerability. One of those areas, for me, has always been sound. Loud noises hurt me more than puncture wounds. Music tears into every sensory path of my body. All I need to hear from my children are a few words—less their literal meaning, more their cadence and pitch—to know the status of their hearts. 

In the old city of Hebron, amidst that wary silence of a war zone at pause, I would meet a music that unhinged me more than any experience we had encountered thus far. We walked across the deserted market street to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, the revered site of Abraham’s burial, also believed to be the burial site for Sarah, Jacob and Leah, Isaac and Rebecca. We filed into the portion of the sanctuary that was allotted to the Jews, passing through two different security checks. Pockets and handbags were emptied and refilled twice. Dank, musty overtones like the breath of ghosts, bounced back and forth in the interior passageways. The amplification of our shoes on stone, the mumblings of prayer echoed from in front, behind, and at either side. 

As we moved from room to room, a group of young observant Jews filed into the main hall and sat down at the benches to listen to their rabbi’s lecture. They were a group of Slavic Georgian Jews, newly observant, but they were also young men and women who teased one another and didn’t pay attention to their rabbi as he paced back and forth in front of them, gesticulating, his arms orchestrating the air in front of him to emphasize his unheeded points. 

Unheeded, that is, until the muezzin began to broadcast his amplified, undulating invitation to Friday Muslim prayer over the loudspeaker. 

The rabbi’s words disappeared, drowned out. For a moment, he and his young group looked at one another. What to do? 

The rabbi began to sing. With great, sweeping gestures he urged his group to sing along with him: “Sing loudly, sing as loud as you can!” The young people galvanized their attention to their rabbi’s powerful voice. They were the fresh ones, the lively untried brigade of the faithful and they showed off untapped reservoirs of Zionist religious song. In that stony, locked sound chamber, the sound was blinding.

Then the muezzin’s call from the rooftop started all over again. The long, wavering, arrhythmic notes waved like banners above us. The rabbi marshaled out his tune again and began to pound his podium in rhythm to an even more strident 2/4 beat. The young people pounded at their tables and benches. When they came to the last verse, they started over from the beginning.

And so did the muezzin. And then another song, and then another long, amplified call to prayer.

Moshe, who had led tours there for many years, was excited, provoked. “They never take that long to call the Muslims to prayer; they’re trying to outdo us. But we won’t be blotted out!” He and several of our tour group joined in the shouting of that song. They clapped and stamped their feet. Faces turned red with the effort. Voices grew hoarse and brittle.

Their song was a melody that I knew. But I stood behind the group, with my hand braced on a cold stone pillar, hoping that my shaking would be stilled. An incredible din, a holy war of song. 

I couldn’t bear it any longer and left the sanctuary, following the staircase outside where I could be by myself. Just beyond the walls, in a clearing in the middle of this war zone, I felt my heart beating from one moment to the next. I heard the bright sunlight, the ineffable shadow cast by the Tomb’s immense 2,000 year-old wall, my own breath and its ever-so-momentary centering point. 

3. Where are you going?

Near the end of our tour, at the middle point of an instant of time, I met a bride who saved the whole world from suffering. 

Our tour group had been bussed to Jaffa, the 6,000 year-old port city just to the south of Tel Aviv. There, we began our walking tour at an ancient stone stairway leading down to the sea. Moshe, the tour guide, said that, these days, it was a popular site for the wedding photographs of brides. On any given day, he explained, there would be brides descending the stairs, each surrounded by their own entourage of photographers. 

Sure enough, ahead of us were two brides with just enough distance between them so as not to interfere in each other’s photo shoot. With new brides seemingly everywhere, we made an effort to keep out of their way. But as I was stepping past one of them, I was distracted, looking wonderingly at this beautiful woman descending in an impossibly white and glowing gown. I took a step, not looking where. Too late, I recalled Zen Master Seung Sahn’s sage and simple advise—
“Where are you going? Watch your step!” The narrow curved step eluded me, and I lost my footing. I would have fallen hard—I might have banged myself up all the way down to the sea and ended my life there if it were not for the sudden, strong hand of the bride that reached out and grabbed me. 

In an instant, she corrected my balance, and I tried to stabilize her. After all, she was in her wedding clothes and could have been pulled along with me. It was a risk she had taken without thinking, before thinking. At that point, the whole world smiled—the photographers, the tourists, the bride, the sunlight, the stone steps, and the Mediterranean Sea. Steeped in the flushed intimacy of that moment, I thanked her profusely. I took her picture, nearly stumbling again as I backed up to frame her face in the viewfinder. Her boldly lined face smiled. Against a background of ancient and modern walls, her dark, strong shoulders glowed in her sleeveless shimmering white dress. She never said a word, and it was unclear if my English or my two mumbled words of thanks in Hebrew, todah raba, were understood. We parted ways. The moment passed.

Back in the bus, I overhead two excited conversations start up, one in front of me and one behind. It seemed that the little drama of my being saved by a bride provoked some discussion, which revolved around the one topic of who she was. Was she an Arab or a Jew? Dressed in a wedding gown, it was hard to tell. A woman behind me said, “Nowadays, with all kinds of Jews coming to Israel, from Ethiopia, from India, Russia, and the Middle East, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference.” Another woman said, her eyes narrowed and sharp, “ganze mishpochah,” which means “from the other side of the family” in Yiddish, a disparaging remark which meant, in this case, Arab. In front of me, one man was saying to another, “Couldn’t have been an Arab. If her husband saw her dressed like that he would have cut off her head before he’d let her go out in public in a sleeveless dress.”

A woman across the aisle tapped me on the shoulder and said, smiling, “You’re a lucky girl, you could have been badly hurt, or worse.” 

I sat in the bus listening, still resonating with the precious quality of being alive—that instant of the bride grabbing hold of my hand, an instant of complete recognition and intimacy. Our little tour, a manifestation of the dwelling place of all Buddhas, and the “six realms of existence.” I had traveled to a far region of the world to encounter a reflection of my own heart. Whether sitting on a cushion with my legs folded up like a pretzel, or traipsing across a war zone, the question and the imperative course of action remained. 

So long as there is one wall, one ideology, one death, one outrage, there are ten thousand—and suffering is perpetuated forever. But the very hopelessness of the situation in the Middle East gave me a fresh insight, an unexpected hope. There is recourse, result, and world peace in every aspect of what we do, not dependent on life or death, wholly available to us right now, in this moment.

In the words of a great Israeli author, Haim Sabato, taken from the title of a poem in his book, Aleppo Tales: “Before the plague, the flower of healing has already bloomed.”

And in the words of my teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn:

In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you.
If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get?
Is not all of this of great importance?
Hurry up! Hurry!
Blue sky and green sea are the Buddha’s original face.
The sound of the waterfall and the bird’s song are the great sutras.
Where are you going? 
Watch your step. 
Water flows down to the sea. 
Clouds float up to the heavens.
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Anita Feng’s writing awards include a NEA grant, Illinois and Washington grants, and the Pablo Neruda Prize for poetry. Her publications include the cross-genre novel Sid (Wisdom Publications) and two books of poetry, Internal Strategies (University of Akron Press) and Sadie & Mendel, winner of the Backwaters Press Prize. She currently serves as the guiding teacher at the Blue Heron Zen Community in Seattle.