Posted inDharma, Henry's Messages

Don’t Go There: Part 2 of 3

May 23, 2015

It began to seem to me that a friendship, an intimate relationship, had been ruined, destroyed perhaps forever, by a frenzy of madness, a ruthless orgy of industrialized murder. Was it possible that today, now, what mattered more than the millions of murders was the broken relationship and its healing?

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Click to read Don’t Go There, Part 1.

The strongest convictions are apt to melt in the course of Zen training. That may be in large part what the training is for. But my conviction that Germany had forever forsaken its right to a place in my world had apparently not melted. Or had it? Here I was, after all.

When my teacher asked me to join her in leading this retreat, I unhesitatingly said yes. If possible, I always tried to do what she asked. She is an extraordinarily modest and clear teacher. In spite of having guided hundreds of students along the Zen path, she is all but unknown, except to her students. To know her you have to find her. Your karma has to bring you to her. Naturally, if I could, I did what she said. Germany? Wherever. What did it matter? This was about the dharma, something entirely transnational. And anyway, I had surely grown up by now, matured in my attitude toward history. Wasn’t all human history a chronicle of tyranny, cruelty, and trauma? Sitting zazen was one way of facing and releasing trauma.

Yet in the months, then weeks, then days before the retreat, it became clear the upcoming visit to Germany was not so simple a matter after all. I started to feel afraid. I was scared of the feelings mostly: the unquenchable sorrow associated with such a vast horror, and the terror, and the rage, and other feelings I couldn’t even name.

And that was just me. How would the retreat participants react to having a Jew in their midst? They might prefer not to have to reflect on their national history with the Jews. They might resent my presence. I hardly expected to meet rabid anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial—these were Zen students, after all—but I was apprehensive anyway. What were Germans like? I simply hadn’t known Germans. Most of all, though, I wondered if I was, merely by going there, betraying my own people.

As an assimilated, non-practicing half-Jew, I had ambivalent feelings about “my own people.” Categorized as Jewish by non-Jews, yet excluded from the tribe by Orthodox Jews, maybe I had clung to my boycott of Germany as one issue on which we could all agree. Perhaps hatred of Germany, however understandable, was also a way for an assimilated Jew to maintain a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective. But the feelings around the question were all the more disturbing—all the more murky, indistinct, and confused—for being collective. Were they really my own feelings or Jews’ in general, which I had absorbed by osmosis? It was hard to separate.

But now that I was in Germany, I was loving it. Not only did the center feel like an old Zen temple from the Golden Age of Zen, it had hosted so many retreats over the decades that the very bones of the building seemed to support our practice. In dreams and in zazen, I met a local earth entity, a dragon, called forth by our practice to help us in our surrender to Kanzeon and the dharma.

More mundanely, I was loving the food: potatoes, soups, rye bread, and applesauce. It was like Jewish food. Actually, much of it was Jewish food. I was loving the people too—not just their shared commitment to the Zen way, their deep friendliness, their emotional honesty and readiness to surrender self-protective versions of themselves. More than that, the men had rich, resonant voices and voluminous presences that reminded me of my father’s Jewish friends when I was a kid. The quality of their deportment, of their bodies, the sound of their voices, the sadness that was in their laughter— it all seemed Jewish. And the women laughed and wept just like Jewish women, their faces creasing up as if their mirth was soaked in sadness, and their sadness steeped in mirth.

I was beginning to sense just how much Jewish culture is actually German, or vice versa. Even Yiddish is German, after all. Seven or eight hundred years of living in Germany left the two cultures inextricably entwined. If we were sworn enemies, were we also somehow siblings?

It began to seem to me that a friendship, an intimate relationship, had been ruined, destroyed perhaps forever, by a frenzy of madness, a ruthless orgy of industrialized murder. Was it possible that today, now, what mattered more than the millions of murders was the broken relationship and its healing?

I felt such affinity with the land too. Those deep old valleys of Central Europe had been a Jewish homeland for so long. I sensed an emptiness here, an absence in the bare, grassy slopes, and began to wonder if the land itself missed the Jews, if in some way it was happy to have a Jew here once more, treading its paths.

And I did tread them. A network of footpaths threads through the Black Forest, and it was possible to go hiking for an hour or two in several different directions and meet with a few cows or goats, and now and then another hiker. There were pine woods and deciduous trees, and precipitous slopes with little burnished-roofed villages glinting at the bottom. There were farmsteads with large pitched roofs and tremendous stores of firewood neatly stacked. It was somehow like a cross between the Lake District of northern England and the forested hills of Poland, where many of my forebears had lived.

Click to read Don’t Go There, Part 3.

 

Don’t Go There was written by Henry Shukman and originally published in Shambhala Sun, November 2012.

Image Credit: Art of Healing, by Hartwig HKD, CC By ND 2.0, from Flickr.com
Featured Image Credit: Focus of Attention, by Hartwig HKD, CC By ND 2.0, from Flickr.com

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