One “fold” on the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path toward enlightenment is Right View. “Right view” is the skill of dissolving interpretations in favor of drawing closer to the reality of the world. Immanuel Kant wrote that we can never perceive the world ding an sich—in and of itself—and our experience is always filtered through interpretation. The skill of “right view” teaches that there are degrees of interpretation. We can train ourselves to be less imprisoned by our perceptions, so we interact less with our own mental images of the world and more with the actual living, breathing potential before us.
“And what is right view? Knowledge with regard to stress, knowledge with regard to the origination of stress, knowledge with regard to the cessation of stress, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the cessation of stress: This is called right view.”— DN 22
Interfaith engagement can provide a course in right view. When operating off stereotypes and generalizations, when we recycle our ideas from past experience and project them upon the other, we are not likely to achieve greater relations and reciprocity. Done skillfully, interfaith engagement provides therapeutic, corrective relational experiences—essentially cognitive behavioral therapy—that disconfirm negative stereotypes or convictions that we are under threat by the other. By examining and adjusting unconscious attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions we harbor about others, we can change the root of our behaviors. Therefore, the basic crux of behavioral change lies in readjusting our hermeneutical approach—the interpretations and attitudes that frame our experience of the world. Theravada scholar Wapola Rahula called this “seeing a thing in its true nature, without name and label” (What the Buddha Taught, page 49). By cultivating self-awareness about the filters and projections that shape our sense of the world and each other, people can learn to behave differently together. Dialogue is a process of humanization, of correcting bad information and reducing fears by showing people what is actually going on, which is often less threatening or dramatic than what might or could happen, according to our imagination and past experiences.
Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, teaches this philosophy of “making distinctions” between interpretation and fact. He teaches that the root of conflict comes from people living in constant reaction to the past—their traumas reverberating forward in a linear sequence of action-reaction-reaction-reaction, etc., ad infinitum.
Sami teaches that “liberation lies in the distinction between interpretation and fact.” He learned this from his teacher Miki Walleczek, by whom he was taught to make distinctions between past, present, and future. Sami realized he made decisions based on the past, not based on where he wanted to go in the future. Miki taught that the past lives for us in the present, but it only lives as a conversation. In our retelling of our stories and identities, we become attached and connected to the past, and we base everything on it. But the past is nothing but a story. Miki taught a philosophy of making distinctions between what is valuable and preservable about the past—e.g., tradition, education and culture—while weaning out the destructive aspects and selectively preserving the aspects of the past that are life-giving. Above all, Miki taught self-awareness of the creative human gift for lush interpretation, and in that way becoming less imprisoned by it.
Miki would say, “distinguishing alone has the power of transformation.” That means for individuals to be fully aware of what is happening within them. To distinguish what is happening inside oneself in any moment and to cultivate a realization of inner reactions. In the awareness of the distinction you can ask, what can I do? This is not an act of self-control or suppression, but distinguishing and gaining access to how anger arises. Sami thinks all people can develop the muscle for resilience and personal awareness. He has seen it. “What we are about,” he says, “is creating awareness, helping people to become aware of who and what they are.”
Through Holy Land Trust, Sami and his colleagues teach “nonlinear” methods of confronting the world, i.e., ways to think outside the normal habits of your life and typical way of thinking, to help people relate more comfortably to what they think is impossible. These methods are based on the process of looking into ourselves and asking, what inside you makes some things impossible? Who are you blaming for your problems? Upon which principles am I resting this assumption? How do I limit my own field of vision and relationship with the world according to my interpretation of the past?
Often, our life experience is driven by how we perceive and interpret the past that we’ve experienced, and how we continue to interact with this constructed past. We confuse feelings and interpretations with facts. We generalize single experiences into rules. We don’t take responsibility.
Palestinians may say, “My experience with Israelis is bad.” That is an opinion. “Israelis bombed Gaza.” That sounds factual, but let’s investigate. The generalization of ‘Israelis’ is not factual—certain member of the Israeli air force bombed certain segments of Gaza. When I generalize, I make a decision that every member of a huge group is all bad, which makes my world more hopeless.
“We believe in nonviolence,” Sami told me, “and we think it is the only means possible to bring change and to end conflict.” I imagine that sometimes people try so hard to be nonviolent that they are not free. I asked Sami whether there is a danger in “nonviolent” communities of no true expression. What do you do with anger? Do people grit their teeth just to “keep it positive”? How can people alleviate their natural rage and sorrow?
Sami told me about his morning meditation, a reflection that encourages a holistic embrace of human nature—including the reality of inner violence. Sami said, “Yes, we have inner violence. We all do. It is part of nature. Nonviolence is not about suppressing, controlling, denying and undermining it, but about facing and acknowledging violence, and seeing how we work with it. It is about asking how can we channel this power?” Nonviolent Communication, a method refined by Marshall Rosenberg that Sami teaches at Holy Land Trust, is a means of creating a mechanism for people to express and understand their needs. Human violence can be addressed and interrogated during dialogue. Sami said, “Our power is in our wound. We cannot deny the wound. We must embrace it.” [see endnote]
Optimally, interfaith engagement serves to teach people through experience, friendship, and resilient conversations that the religious other will not, by default, always harm, threaten, or hate them. Dialogue’s lessons of “right view” about the other can revolutionize a personal sense of security, as well as recalibrate the sources of insecurity. The role of the media, politics, and collective identitarian discourse is revealed to be a resonant source of insecurity. Real and resilient encounter with the other helps increase a subjective impression of security. You see that the other is just a human who is not going to hurt you; you see that you are safe with them. The dialogue process does not actually reduce danger but it does appear to reduce and dispel danger. When the subjective perception of your security is altered, you develop greater acquaintance with the reality of situation. Dialogue seems to reduce danger but it really just helps people see things more accurately: that you are not in danger from the other, who is a human who wants largely the same things you do.
Endnote: The staff of Holy Land Trust spent years trying to free people from the past. But they realized that the past is sometimes not very easily put in its place. The past is sometimes more traumatic than we realize: you cannot just let it go even if you want to. For some, the past becomes an identity. The HLT staff started looking into healing and realized that healing is crucial to freedom. To pursue this goal they have developed several programs, such as Healing Hatred and Friends Across Borders (which brings groups of Germand, Jews, and Palestinians together to Auschwitz).
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.