Politics Magazine

Modern Koans – What About Syria?

By Andrew Furst @a_furst
Buddhist BlingModern Koans is an ongoing series that recognizes that good questions are often more important then their answers.

The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man. ― G.K. Chesterton


What About Syria?

This is a re-post of  an article I published in the beginning of the Syrian civil war.  I thought it was worth a revisit to see how things have evolved?

Whether it happens in the matter of a year, or over the course of an entire lifetime, everything falls apart.  I saw this image of the tragic transformation in Homs Syria on Twitter and it said in pictures something that is a crucial life lesson for all of us.  Nina Killham responded best.


The illusion of time makes it appear as though this isn’t happening in our own neighborhood.  But the truth is, it is happening everywhere, one life at a time, to people in our families and our neighborhoods .  We can be blind to the fragility of it all.

It is commonplace to be disinterested in the plight of others, even those who suffer deeply.  What is the cause of this. Are we desensitized? Are we powerless? Are we overwhelmed? With what?

We all bear burdens. Sometimes they’re heavy and difficult.  These things absorb the energy it might require to take on the worlds problems. We certainly cannot help others until we help ourselves. To do so, we must seek out and take the medicine.  We must set our sites on what is most urgent,  the source of our personal suffering. If we can conquer this, perhaps we can muster the energy to help others.

The Buddha points to our mindlessness as the cause of suffering. We senselessly repeat the activities that produce dissatisfaction and expect it to somehow get better. The practice of mindfulness is a way to extract ourselves from the cycle of ignorance we drift in. If we’re successful, we would notice that our neighborhood is decaying.  Maybe at a slower pace than in Syria, but none the less.

How Does Mindlessness Cause Suffering?

Our mindlessness bears the mark of our personal delusions.

One of my delusions has been politics. As a liberal leaning person, I’ve viewed the suffering of the world through the lens of an anti-conservative agenda.  In my lifetime I saw war and oppressive foreign policy as the domain of the Republican Party.  Had I been born 10 or 20 years earlier, I would have discovered the roots of hawkishness in the administrations of FDR, Truman and Kennedy. Imagine my surprise as drone warfare and the violation of our civil rights by the NSA have proliferated under the Obama administration.  Delusions are easily shattered when we subject them to scrutiny.

The power of political delusion has shaped the American dialog around the tragedy in Syria.  It’s been framed as a partisan struggle for reelection.  Republicans and democrats second guessing every move of the other.  Both parties simultaneously declaring each action as success and abject failure.  The rhetoric  makes it appear hopeless and even camouflages the good work being done by NGOs, diplomats, the military, and, yes, even politicians.

When we take in these images of the civil ware in Syria we feel a sense of injustice. But our reaction is often filtered through our particular delusion.  We cry out indignantly about “them” – our ideological nemesis.  But scrutiny shows that words and actions motivated by biases are typically irrelevant to the problem at hand.  Whether the Democrats are wrong or not matters little to the homeless Syrian child in a Turkish refugee camp.

I’m not Pollyannishly looking to solve Syria’s problems.  Solutions need to begin from within, Syria doesn’t appear to be ready.   But let this image remind you that each breath is sacred.  Each moment can be enjoyed or can be mindlessly frittered away. Even worse, it can be shattered by war.


When we speak or act to benefit others, we should speak wisely and act with skillful means.  These are the tools of the Bodhisattva.  When we attain the wisdom and compassion of an awakened being, we’ll have the power to act to reduce suffering.  In the mean time, we should open our eyes to our suffering.  With our minds firmly focused on the causes and conditions that lead to such suffering, we might achieve the clarity to see how we contribute to the cycle.

When we hold in our minds the image of Syrian children in a refugee camp, our partisan rhetoric looses its meaning. We should be inspired to close our mouths and open our minds.  If we were able to free ourselves from the delusional partisan mind, we’d become more capable of aiding those who are suffering.  We’d get out of the way of goodness.

How has your opinion and response towards the Syrian civil  war evolved over the last year? 

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