"Inner Freedom is a Social Responsibility"

activist monks

~ There is no way to freedom, freedom is the way ~

~ "Serving our desires is the greatest slavery" ~ Christopher Titmuss

Most of the children in the Kibbutz where I grew up loved Purim the most, because of the opportunity to dress up and the permission to go wild all night long; or Chanukah, with the dripping of wax and the "best Menorah contest". But I always loved Passover the most, with its Seder (Service) night and the Haggada reading.

Of course the Kibbutz' Seder did not stretch as long as the Nile and was not as grave and solemn as perhaps God had meant it to be, but had a more of a socialistic approach, with an emphasis on spring, liberation and harvest. Nonetheless we too experienced, along with the rest of the Jewish people, the creeping hunger as the reading of the Haggada went on and on, we too gloated with joy with the Ten plagues, and we too wondered what the heck was Karpas.

My brother and I passed the time until the meal by nibbling on Matzos (Unleavened cakes) and the sweet Charoset, so by the time we got to the gastronomic climax of the evening – matzo-ball-soup most unkosher – we were utterly full and longed to sprawl somewhere far away from the crowdedness and the commotion and uproar of the children running around still carrying the daisies-and-wheat-wreaths.

Quite early in my childhood, I was already sensitive to the issue of liberty. I felt an inner rebellion against the wrongs done to the Israelites when Pharaoh "laid heavy bondage upon them". The Israelites, like good slaves with slave-mentality, do not rebel against their existential state as slaves, only against the elimination of certain rights. As a child, I could't understand it. I was a little 'book worm', and the numerous stories I read got mixed up in my head: Moses got mixed up with Spartacus, the great slave-liberator who failed, and the Egyptians got mixed with "The Last Days of Pompeii".

I instinctively identified with the weak, the defenseless, the helpless: the ancient Israelites, Anne Shirley of Green Gables, the blacks in the US of "To Kill a Mockingbird", the loosing side in football, the abandoned eyeless-teddy-bear I had found and adopted, the Arab villages that disappeared every evening when darkness fell, while the Jewish settlements around us were glittering with national electricity.

People's liberation, Mind's liberation
Both Moses and the Buddha sought to bring solace to the weak, the defenseless and the helpless. There are many and interesting equivalents between Moses' story, before he turned into a Rabi, and Siddhartha Gautama's story, before he turned into a Buddha. Both grew up as princes in a palace, bathing in abundance, comfort and pleasure, far away from the masses' suffering. Both left the palace for a brief peek at the "real world", a peek which was to be monumentally significant, that transformed their hearts, and altered forever both their lives and the course of history.

Siddhartha Gautama went out in his carriage for a drive in the city streets, and saw for the first time in his life the various faces of affliction: he met sickness, old age and death, as well as the possibility of salvation. Moses left the palace and saw the suffering of his brothers and sisters the Israelites, collapsing under the burden of the pressure and cruelty of their oppressors. Both Moses and the Buddha abandoned the palace overnight, leaving behind the comfortable, pleasurable and abundant life, and went out to seek answers.

For both of them Awakening was a dramatic experience, that included mystical and Para-psychological elements. Both communicated with God or with various gods on that occasion, both expressed a strong hesitation to go back to the people and teach, and both finally surrendered to the divine command, inner or outer, to be led by compassion for human suffering and the hope that there will be those who will listen, those with "light dust in their eyes." Thus came about the two biggest movements in history of breaking out from slavery to liberty – one is the liberation of a slaved nation; the other is the liberation of mind.

In Passover, the Holiday of Emancipation, a discussion of the spiritual meaning of liberation is called for: the liberation of the mind from the slavery of conditionings, binding beliefs, habits and addictions; to inquire into what binds us, who are the inner Pharaohs, the unconscious parts that control and manipulate us. To inquire also into inner freedom and how it expresses itself: perhaps inner freedom is the ability to be non-reactive, to meet every event and experience that life presents us with – with openness and ease, without clinging or aversion, without judgment or preference, as the words of the Zen Third Patriarch: "The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preference."

Perhaps inner freedom is the ability to live by our hearts' whisper, regardless of the limitations put on us by society; the ability to diverse from the norms and the mainstream, to live our lives "against the stream", as the Buddha put it. For me, inner freedom is fore and foremost the ability to put ourselves in the other's shoe, to see things through the eyes of the other, to be in a place where the dual separation of "I" vs. "the other", "we" vs. "them" – breaks down and dissolves.

Inner freedom does not depend on outer conditions. It is the quality of the mind to be unbound by changing conditions, forming and passing away. As Ven. Ajhan Suketu puts it, "The goal of the spiritual way is to fully understand that the main problem in life is not the circumstances ("I don't have enough money, I don't have a relationship, the relationship I have sucks, my mother didn't love me, Liberman is Foreign Minister… Sandhya), but the feeling in the reflective mind of being bound by it."

Let my people go?!
I cannot think of a worthier purpose in life than to free the mind. After all, the Dharma points and directs us towards an awakened life of inner freedom. I'd like to think that, "Every time someone moves towards freedom – God him/herself is there", as says Dr. Rachel Neomi Raman. However, in addition to the inner focus, I'd like to focus and bring light to another aspect of freedom, an aspect that is obvious and yet overlooked at in Israel of the 60-year-celebrations – the national freedom. The celebration of national freedom is a worthy celebration. As the descendents of the ancient Israelites, it seems that a noble sensitivity to the issues of slavery, liberty and freedom is burnt in our DNA. This sensitivity is perpetuated and kept alive every year with the imperative to remember: "It's incumbent with every Israelite, in every generation, to look upon himself as if he had actually gone forth from Egypt: as is said, and thou shalt declare unto thy son", etc.

It's beyond my comprehension how sensitivity towards one people's freedom (our own) does not translate itself into sensitivity towards a neighboring people's freedom, to the absurd extent of the Israelis playing the role of the ancient Pharaohs, by keeping another nation under occupation and foreign mandatory, as we were not long ago under the British and the Turks.

The common argument that pacifies our conscience and enables us to turn off the sensitivity and the guilt, and enables us to go to sleep, is the argument that the circumstances here are different and more complex and they justify our deeds; we are not like the Chinese in Tibet, the English in Ireland, the whites in South-Africa. I wonder if the ancient Egyptians did not have similar arguments.

"People will always justify their actions ", says Dale Carnegie in his book 'How to Make Friends and Influence People'. In fact, if we open the Book of Exodus, we find that that's exactly what Pharaoh does: he justifies the need to preserve the Israelites' status as slaves in Egypt. The nature of the justifications is not moral, but practical: "let us deal wisely with them, least they multiply, and it comes to pass, if it chance to be a war, they might also go over to our enemies, fight against us, and so get them up out of the land" (Book of Exodus, A). The current Israeli/Jewish justifications are also not moral, but stem from fear, mistrust, hate and desire for revenge, that are camouflaged as security issues.

The Israelites did not leave Egypt for the promised tribal/national land as a result of a delicate and elegant political negotiation, but "with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm", after a series of terror attacks of persons and property of Egyptian civilians, women and children. We too, a few thousand years later, pay with our own "slaying of the first-borns". Are our eyes blind and our ears deaf? Are we not, as Pharaoh, hardening our hearts to the suffering of our brothers and sisters? Will not the day come when a Palestinian Musa will rise to face us with the immortal decree: Let my people go?!

The Fruit of Our Practice as Social and Political Involvement
In the preface to the Hebrew translation of the classic book 'The Heart of Darkness', that deals with the white man's plunder in Africa, the translators write:
"In order to hurt another human being, says Joseph Conrad, you must convince yourself that he/she is different. That they do not suffer from hunger like you do, do not love their children like you do, do not dream like you do, are not afraid like you. It’s not the hatred that corrupts us, it's the indifference. If indifference takes over, then you are indeed in the heart of darkness."

"All that is needed for evil to succeed is that decent human beings do nothing", says Edmund Burk.

Spiritual-social-political-ecological involvement (what's called Engaged Buddhism) is to me essential. This involvement is absent in the current Buddhist discourse in the West, and to me this absence is screaming. Many of the practitioners feel that simply sitting on the cushion and doing the inner work is enough, and they don't feel a need to be involved. "Outer" activity is considered as being at the expense of "inner observation", and there's a widespread attitude that both activities are mutually exclusive.

To me, both fields of endeavors can and must be interwoven. The fruit of our practice must be expressed not only in a heightened sensitivity towards ourselves and our loved ones, but in a heightened sensitivity, caring and involvement in what takes place around us in the larger neighborhood – the world community. The Buddhist concept that all events and happenings influence one another and are influenced by one another through dependent arising – encourages us to take such activities. To me, the connection between inner and outer work is extremely important, and these days even crucial. The spiritual teacher and social activist Vimala Thakar says, "Inner freedom is a social responsibility", and "Our lives will be truly blessed only when the misery of one is genuinely felt to be the misery of all."

We may feel quite comfortable to address the inner and spiritual aspects of liberation, to look at the various ways that our mind is enslaved, or to inquire what freedom is. To bring the discussion from the "inner work" realm to the outer sphere, and especially the one called "political" – may be much more challenging. Perhaps even stirring up. The Dharma teacher and peace activist Christopher Titmuss, makes it clear: "Dharma teachings don’t offer a comfortable view, spiritual or global, but attend to where the hotbed of suffering arises, and address that." How can we, who are deeply committed to the Dharma and the path of liberation, translate this commitment from theory to practice, to actions that attend to the hotbed of suffering and address it?

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