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Home » Articles, Practice

Practicing Zen in Iraq

By Sheila Provencher

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the MKZC Zen Journal, Volume 12, Number 1 Winter 2007

MKZCSheilaBetween Dec 2003 and Dec 2005, I lived in Baghdad, Iraq and worked with a pacifist human rights group called Christian Peacemaker Teams (  We lived in an apartment in an ordinary Iraqi neighborhood, moved about without guards or guns, and worked with local Iraqi peace and human rights groups to seek nonviolent solution to conflict.

What is it like to practice Zen in a war zone?  In some ways, not any different from “normal” practice, since practicing Zen means always living on the edge of life and death.  Zen invites me to die with every breath, letting go of that little self, the ego . . . . then to breathe in the ever-present abundant life that is all I will ever need.

In Iraq, death is very close.  I walk down the street and the thought comes, “I wonder if that parked car is a bomb?”  A distant BOOM rattles the windows in their panes, we run to the roof and watch the black smoke clawing toward the sky, watching the incineration of human beings only a mile or so away.  A mortar misses its target and lands on the roof, spraying concrete and shrapnel into the air.

Pain is very close.  Once I listened to a man who was detained and tortured by the new Iraqi security forces.  “They used electricity,” he says.  “It was so strong my body was lifted up and thrown down again.”  A woman who was imprisoned with her siblings by U.S. and Iraqi forces tells us her story for five agonizing hours: “they tossed my brother’s dead body into my lap.  I screamed and screamed and wondered when my turn would come.”  A young soldier tells me, “I can’t take this much longer.  My little boy calls me from home and says, ‘Mommy, are you all done killing the bad guys yet?’”

It can be dangerous to encounter others’ pain, because it’s tempting to shut it out, not feel it.  I’d especially like to shut out the pain — and therefore the humanity — of people with whom I disagree – the soldier in the tank, Donald Rumsfeld, suicide bombers.

But the experience of encountering another’s pain can also break through the illusion that we are separate beings.  One day during a religious festival in 2004, some people set off bombs that ripped through Shi’a shrines in both Baghdad and Kerbala.  I knew that some dear Iraqi friends, including a little girl named Houda whom I especially loved, were at the shrine in Kerbala.  I was trapped for awhile at the shrine in Baghdad and could not get to their house until the following day.  I practically ran to their home, and when I saw little Houda, surprised both myself and her by bursting into tears.

That is when I realized how much I loved her, that she was my own child.  And I realized that every child is my own child – every child is our own, every person our brother or sister, every sentient being, every animal, rock and tree, is part of us.  Literally, by blood, by breath.  We are each other and we are responsible for each other.  If we all woke up to this, wars would disappear because we simply could not hurt each other anymore.  Conflict would not disappear, but we’d figure out some other way to solve our problems.

To realize that we are all really Together can bring great freedom and joy – even in the middle of death and pain.  At times, it was the only way I have been able to stay in Iraq.  One day my group was planning to travel to the city of Kerbala, to interview an Iraqi man who had been tortured and sexually abused by U.S. soldiers.  I was terrified to go on the trip, because the road was very dangerous and we could be kidnapped or blown up.  But in a quiet space before the trip, I sat and breathed and touched a place in which I knew that it was a great gift to go hear this man’s story, and if my little self got blown up, it would not be the end of what is true and real.  It felt like a deep freedom, peace.

On that trip, we met Mr. Najib, one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in Iraq.  He wept when he told us how the soldiers had mocked him (“You’re going to Guantanamo!”), how they abused him, how he suffered a stroke and heart attack.  But then he told us how much he grew to love one young soldier who treated him with kindness and called him “Baba Najib (Father Najib).”

“That young soldier is my own son,” Mr. Najib said, with tears in his eyes.  Even after humiliating torture, what he remembered most from his imprisonment was his love for this young man.  Such a beautiful witness – and I would never have met him without first walking through the fear.

There is a price, after touching this deep peace, beauty, and freedom that comes when you see that we are all family.  It means feeling each others’ suffering.  Kannon weeps in the center of her peace, and Jesus’ resurrected body still bore the wounds of crucifixion.  Joy and Pain exist together.

It also means realizing, with great pain, that most of the time most of us are all still blind to our own Oneness.  I hear our president’s words about “terrorists and thugs,” listen to my Iraqi friends say, “I don’t like Sunni people – I don’t like Shiite people – I don’t like Palestinians,” and I run into my own attachment to my little ego self.

Last Fall I interviewed countless Iraqis who had been detained and tortured by the new Iraqi security forces, under the Iraqi government.  Sometimes I agonized, “Why aren’t I sitting in the Ministry of the Interior office and refusing to leave, with a sign saying ‘Stop Torturing People!’”  Answer – because I am afraid that I could be detained and tortured too.  Because I still feel a separation between “me” and “them.”  Every time I hear a bomb, contemplate a dangerous trip, or now, think about returning to Iraq, I feel attached like glue to my little self, my physical life.

But even that realization can lead back to unity.  We are all still a bit blind – so we are all together again — in humility and compassion.

In the end, even in the middle of internal or external wars, there is gratitude – for the gift of breath, the sangha that holds me, the sky, all people who are my Family, for abundant life.  I will close these reflections with an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote in 2004, only a couple of months after I first moved to Iraq.

February 2004

Five-year-old Hussain sits with his father, Emir, along Abu Nawas street across from the Tigris River.  From his house, the view across the street is one of nearly empty fish restaurants, blocking the sight of the river amid shores littered with plastic bags and heaps of garbage.

Hussain invariably runs to greet me with a smile and handshake, his little cheek tilted up for a kiss.  One day he surprised me with a crayon masterpiece, drawn on the back of an unfolded cigarette carton.

Hussain’s picture teems with life.  The Tigris flows a brilliant blue, and a row of pink flowers adorns its nearest shore.  A donkey munches on a tree bursting with orange blossoms, and a duck contemplates a date-palm tree heavy with fruit.  A rabbit sits smiling under a smiling sun, and two flocks of birds soar above the trees.  In the river, two fish and a giant duck swim through the ripples of blue, and what looks like a bumblebee (as large as the duck!) flies over it all.

The imagination of a child created a Tigris River as it once was, and could be again.  No broken glass, no dust, no guns or tanks or helicopters.  How could Hussain create this Garden out of the car fumes, dust, and empty buildings that he sees every day?

This morning, as I sat on the roof above Baghdad, a bumblebee landed on my shoulder.   Chickadees, sparrows and turtledoves flitted about and chatted to each other in the early stillness.  Across the street, I could see tall green rushes growing out of the Tigris riverbed.  I remember that the homeless family living in an abandoned building nearby recently adopted a rabbit, and I see a donkey pulling a cart through the street.

Maybe Hussain’s picture is not so imaginary.  Maybe we just have to notice the life that is already here in front of us, and draw it out, and nurture it.  How can we call forth the abundant life that already IS ­- in every river, every animal, every heart of every person ­- to overcome the darkness?

–Sheila Provencher began zazen practice in 1997.  She plans someday to start an “Unenlightenment Club” for people like her who are still on Mu after all this time.