Buddhism, faith leaders, and the Syrian crisis

Hi, everyone,

I was just watching a CSPAN panel on the Syrian civil war. The crisis is dire — 900 thousand people (including 500,000 children) have been forced to leave their homes since December 1st…and that doesn’t even count all the people who have already been displaced and the hundreds of thousands dead. The refugee crisis has already shook the political system throughout the West and now there is a serious risk of a military conflict between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

Anyway, I was struck by a comment by the leader of the Syrian American Medical Association, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, in which he called out civic leaders for their apathy in the the face of this conflict. He included faith leaders here. I was struck by it, because it does seem like Buddhist leaders have been virtually silent on the issue, even from ones who are proponents of engaged Buddhism. At least that’s been my experience here in America.

I do remember one time several months ago going to an insight meditation get-together, which always ends with people being given the opportunity to write the names of people in need of merit on postcards— the teacher then reads the names at the end and we all offer metta. Anyway, this one time someone mentioned friends who are under bombardment in Syria. It shook my own apathy, and it seemed sad that there was nothing anyone was doing to help other than thoughts and prayers.

Here is a clip of the doctor speaking about this and here is the full video of the panel.

So I guess the questions I am submitting here is this: What obligation, if any, do Buddhist leaders have to speak out on this issue?

I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this topic.


Well, it’s a complex issue at the heart of which is good ol’ human greed, hate and delusion… which will never, ever be cured as long as Samsara exists will it? :laughing:

Ajahn Brahm once quoted a British prime minister on this issue. Paraphrasing from memory… “Sir, there is no problem in the Middle East. A problem is something that has a solution. Since there is no solution, there is no problem in the Middle East!”

One feels compassion, but one must also be a realist… whatever is, is and peace can’t exactly be forced on the warring parties can it? When our media reports one side of the issue to us, the other side gets demonized automatically as ‘those bad guys’, and vice versa. We forget that there are fathers, sons, wives and daughters who are suffering on the other side too. In the end, all there is, is Suffering… mostly of the common man, for the greater glory and wealth of the powerful. Its an old, old story… but the masses never seem to get it. :pray:

The Buddha said

“Bhikkhus, do not engage in the various kinds of pointless talk, that is, talk about kings, thieves, and ministers of state; talk about armies, dangers, and wars; talk about food, drink, garments, and beds; talk about garlands and scents; talk about relations, vehicles, villages, towns, cities, and countries; talk about women and talk about heroes; street talk and talk by the well; talk about those departed in days gone by; rambling chitchat; speculation about the world and about the sea; talk about becoming this or that. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this talk is unbeneficial, irrelevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and does not lead to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

“When you talk, bhikkhus, you should talk about: ‘This is suffering’; you should talk about: ‘This is the origin of suffering’; you should talk about: ‘This is the cessation of suffering’; you should talk about: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. ’ For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this talk is beneficial, relevant to the fundamentals of the holy life, and leads to revulsion, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbāna.

“Therefore, bhikkhus, an exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is suffering.’… An exertion should be made to understand: ‘This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.’”

And for an example of how even the Buddha could not stop people from harming each other in a crescendo of Mutually Assured Destruction, see the story of the Sakyan republic.


Disclosure: I’m a practicing physician, a decorated veteran, having seen over 20 years of active service with my nation’s armed forces, retired and now working in the Middle East…


One way to reflect on this is through contemplating the role of the media into shaping public opinion.

Worldly truths are not interest-free. Most media outlets take the form of a business of which the success of the model is dependent on the number of viewers. The act of viewing is an act paying attention to content. What is worthy of paying attention to in a system that is limited by time and energy and seeks its own continuity would be what breaks away from the norm.

To give an example, why you don’t hear about car accidents in the news even though it causes many deaths? because it is part of the normal state of affairs unless there is sharp hike in the number of car accidents, or certain accidents happened in what we perceive as an unusual way.

Similarly, the media dedicates too much coverage at the beginning of a conflict. After a while, when the status quo becomes stable and no cause for mental excitement (hence less viewers/attention) the media would dedicate time to something more exciting worthy of the viewer time. They might return to covering an old conflict when something exciting happens, such as the latest confrontation between Turkey, the Syrian army and Russia of which when it came to your attention, possibly gave rise to a sense of guilt associated with the perception of apathy.


Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting off the cushion, and figuring out ways to get involved; to be engaged. I’m in Thailand now, and will be meeting with some groups on Monday concerned with mitigating the destruction and violence in Burma from ethnic cleansing campaigns. Solutions? Every problem has a solution, but the solutions are difficult, and transact over long periods of time. These days, economic sanctions and public awareness campaigns seem to have some effect, such as the recent disclosure of the Tatmadaw being a large shareholder in the largest beer distributor in Myanmar. A recent proposed merger with an American craft brewer drew a lot of negative publicity, and focused attention on how international trade funds these ethnic genocides in Burma these days.

I have no special skills, and may have little to offer to this effort with respect to the violence in Shan State, but I am willing to throw my hat into the ring and try to be of service. We all can do this; the Dhamma gives us the tools, the perspective and inspiration to be of service to others.

There are plenty of Buddhist leaders speaking about issues in Syria, and other parts of the world dealing with violence, poverty, and food insecurity. Some offer prayers, which might be a way for themselves to feel better. Conversely, many of our Forest teachers here speak and act effectively and powerfully on these important issues; many have strong histories of advocacy and action. And there are those actively doing something about these issues: www.buddhistglobalrelief.org

I’m not sure that Buddhist leaders have an "obligation"to speak out or to do anything, really. I feel that the ability to learn and understand this Dhamma gives us the the perspective and inspiration to undertake whatever advocacy or action we ourselves feel comfortable offering. Each of us can do something, and we just need to meditate on what that might be.


Agreed very very much, as a Burmese.

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"I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
― General Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier

Flash forward to 2019>>>>>

“People said to me, ‘Why are you staying in Syria,’” Trump said Tuesday. “Because I kept the oil, which frankly we should have done in Iraq,” he added, to cheers and applause from the audience.

Putin’s chef’s company wins oil rights in Syria

The Russian companies Mercury and Velada, which the Syrian government has authorized to develop three oil and gas fields in the country, are linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Concord company, claims the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
In March 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin told NBC News in an interview that Prigozhin could have “interests in Syria’s fuel and energy sector”. “But we are not supporting him in any way, we are not getting involved, we are not helping him – this is all his personal initiative,” the politician said. He also refuted claims that Prigozhin had been doing Putin’s “dirty work” in the US. The Russian government denies any cooperation with the mercenaries in Syria.

Can’t have a war without weapons>>>>

So it is, Ānanda, that feeling is a cause of craving. Craving is a cause of seeking. Seeking is a cause of gaining material possessions. Gaining material possessions is a cause of assessing. Assessing is a cause of desire and lust. Desire and lust is a cause of attachment. Attachment is a cause of possessiveness. Possessiveness is a cause of stinginess. Stinginess is a cause of safeguarding. Owing to safeguarding, many bad, unskillful things come to be: taking up the rod and the sword, quarrels, arguments, and fights, accusations, divisive speech, and lies.


When the Buddha saw old age, sickness and death in the street he didn’t stop to help, rather it motivated him to seek and find the path to awakening. The experience of suffering is a valuable recognition which is the foundation of the noble truths, and should be consolidated as such by contemplating that the basic character of this life is suffering. In the Buddha’s course of action there is also a message about the supremacy of the mind which bears reflecting on.

“Without having built the lower story of a gabled building, I will put up the upper story,’ that would be an impossibility”—SN 56.44

Each of the noble truths has a duty, and that of suffering is that it should be known and comprehended.—SN 56.11


Well, maybe we can interpret the story as above. Alternatively, his not stopping to help could be construed as ultimately trying to find a better way to help. A Buddha who doesn’t stop to help doesn’t heed the summons of Brahmā Sahāmpati.

In fact, one could argue that he stopped so much for others that he stopped his life, stopped his worldly activities, stopped all manner of activity, ultimately on account of old age, sickness, death.

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This is how I interpreted what paul1 was saying. Prince Siddharta didn’t stop to assist with the ‘symptom’ of suffering, but went on the find the ‘cause’ and then the way out of all suffering, for all beings.:pray: :slightly_smiling_face: :dharmawheel:


Thanks everyone, for your responses. FWIW, I agree with @UpasakaMichael that ppl don’t really have an obligation to speak about such issues. However, I do find it interesting the way that certain issues get more attention than others. For example, I’m finding it increasingly hard to avoid hearing Buddhist leaders pontificate about climate change, and sometimes gun control and immigrant detention centers (at least here in America), while issues like this are pretty much ignored. Perhaps if I were Muslim, I’d have a different experience. Etc. Etc.

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There is another way to think about this…

  1. there is no shortage of suffering - it’s everywhere you look! And if you break down the suffering due to big issues (Syrian crisis), it’s actually just lots of individuals suffering (each in their own way) together.

  2. Issues that are pushed by the media, spread suffering (as a result of the empathy of those at a distance). So this is a different kind of suffering from that of direct experience.

  3. Buddhist teachers tend to speak to the issues that affect their communities, so that includes individual direct experience, and also that stirred up by social commentary. Eg I wasn’t in the bushfires, but the media images and continual stories, stirred up an empathetic suffering. Hence, during that time, there were many teachings about related issues. If there is a mass shooting, same thing etc etc…

Personally I’ve come to a position of appreciating the Buddhas wisdom, and depth of understanding of what suffering is. We have no lack of types of suffering to choose from, and we each do so according to our own causes and conditions; be it macro or micro, personal or global. Same goes for the type of interventions we choose to engage in.

With Metta and Karuna :sunflower: :revolving_hearts: :pray: