But as hardness melted in the dharma of the sesshin, it became clear that forgiveness was a larger force than any one of us, and that as long as I believed myself to be the bestower or withholder of it, I could not truly forgive anything at all
As my first talk was approaching, I began to feel uneasy again. Would I be betraying myself and all Jews if I said nothing? But what would I say? In short, I didn’t know whether to bring up the Holocaust, and my Jewishness, or not. I had been planning to talk about Ganto and Seppo, two great masters of the Tang period, and just stick to Zen. But if I didn’t address the matter at all, it might intensify and grow, and come to overshadow the whole sesshin. More than anything, I realized, I was experiencing a great well of sadness. I decided I had to talk about it, about how it felt to be Jewish in Germany and about what had happened to the relationship of these two peoples.
“Ich bin ein halb-Jude,” I began with trepidation, but hoping that somehow, as often happens with things we dread, this could turn out to be a powerful and healing experience for everyone.
The cat was out of the bag and there was no going back. I found myself giving up all sense of control, letting the talk go where it wanted.
What became clear, then and through the rest of the retreat, was that whatever horrific trauma was inflicted on the Jewish people by Hitler, Germans today are also still traumatized by their country’s killing orgy. What Germany had done to “us Jews” had wounded Germany too. Monstrous cruelty inflicts a cruelty on the perpetrators as well as the victims. It was as if the country were still shocked by the madness that had seized it two generations ago. They too needed healing.
Once I saw that, something remarkable began to happen. For the rest of the retreat people came and wept with me, with relief and gratitude. The source of suffering might be different for each of us, but we could still meet in the commonality of our suffering itself. It was precisely there that healing could be found. What a burden they had been carrying, an unexpungible guilt, a permanent stamp of shame they felt wherever they went in the world. When abroad, Germans often feel that just to admit they are German is an act of penance. There was no escape from it. The sins of the fathers had been visited upon the sons and daughters.
That was part of what I learned during the sesshin. But this wasn’t just about the rights and wrongs of collective forgiving or forgetting. It was also about someone—me—who thought he knew how to forgive and discovered he did not. I still felt, fundamentally, that forgiveness was mine to give or withhold. By holding on to my prejudice against Germany, however historically justifiable it might be, I had been trying to control something—the horror, the scale of the devastation, the overwhelming human tragedy.
But as hardness melted in the dharma of the sesshin, it became clear that forgiveness was a larger force than any one of us, and that as long as I believed myself to be the bestower or withholder of it, I could not truly forgive anything at all.
I didn’t know until now that when we forgive, we are also forgiven. So if we are convinced we don’t need forgiving—only those other people do—then we can’t forgive.
Real forgiveness is not ours; it works through us. It involves a more radical kind of letting go. It’s like the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we let go of our begrudging, our hating, our judging, and hold nothing back; if we surrender our conviction that we have the true handle on a situation, and it’s us who see things right; if instead we surrender to the vast field of not-knowing; if we really allow ourselves not to know what’s going on, or what is best, then a deeper love can flow. We discover that a small version of ourselves had still been in command, still believing it “knew” the true situation and could “assess” where and how much forgiveness to dispose and how much to refrain from bestowing.
This means that even if I decide, Okay, I forgive them, I have still somehow missed the point. I haven’t said,
True forgiveness is a force greater than I am. I must give up my attachment to being right—even if I am right! Until I accept that, as Master Setcho said, “Under the shadowless tree all people are in one boat,” I won’t know the healing tide of real forgiveness.
None of us is immune to violent urges, after all, none innocent of the poison of anger. No matter how the Holocaust may surpass all other human horrors, every one of us surely comes from a lineage that includes perpetrators of cruelty and violence. But the moment we surrender our judgmental mind and forgive just as we recognize our need to be forgiven, we plunge into Kan-zeon’s vast ocean of forgiveness and our fundamental innocence is miraculously restored to us.
We are not separate from one another. “Not two” is the basic teaching of Bodhidharma and the generations of Zen masters. By bringing Jew and German together, Joan Rieck Roshi had once again demonstrated the perfect functioning of the Tao. A healing was needed, and without planning or forethought, she had let it happen. That’s why I’m grateful to have broken my vow and gone to Germany last summer.
Don’t Go There was written by Henry Shukman and originally published in Shambhala Sun, November 2012.