Auschwitz II — Zen Peacemakers' retreat, June 2010, from Jiko

I did not go to Auschwitz to find out what happened there, nor to understand the worst that the human mind can do. Nor did I go in sympathy with the suffering of the Jews and others killed and tortured there.

remains of human furnace at Auschwitz

The only reason to go was to discover to what my own heart and mind could open from staying with such a dire, unbearable, and unfathomable event. I asked how the potential or actuality of what produced Auschwitz, is present and manifesting in my life? Can this experience help me learn and connect with my own humanness, help me in choosing love/identity as the only motivation for action in my life?

We are taught in many religions that there is a “peace that surpasseth all understanding,” the stillness at the center of the storm, the great wisdom in which the small discomforts that can absorb our days and our energies are as nothing in the grand functioning of the cosmos, in the mightiness of God, or the cosmic void. What we experience is never personal — only our self-protective responses make it seem so.

For the first three days at Auschwitz I was uncomfortable at hearing, seeing all the horror, viewing reconstructed, imagined lives of Jewish communities before the holocaust, and imagining the dislocation and cruelty of their precipitous deaths without dignity, the removal of their freedoms in the grossest of ways. I tried to imagine the mind that could be unmoved while doing such terrible actions. I was wondering if my being relatively unperturbed in the midst of all this came out of such a mind, unable to connect, distant and cold. Or was it acceptance of the human condition?

My thoughts considered that I have studied old age, sickness and death intimately and deeply over quite a few years. We will all die, and death does not look too bad — my own near death experiences have felt like release and enfolding rather than fearful deprivations. Many of us die prematurely. Many of us suffer sickness and pain. Many of us, our lives and our passionate, loving dedication of sustained effort, are abused and misused. We lose hope, we lose our loved ones, our children, our countries, homes, possessions, and our families. Degree of these sufferings is different, and Auschwitz must surely be at a far extreme.

I have worked deeply with all these issues in my own life. Am I folding my hands reverently and say “Ah, so! The human condition!” from a place of wisdom and acceptance? Such deeds have been perpetrated in the American slave trade, the murder of women in the Inquisition, at Hiroshima, Rwanda, the annihilation of Aborigines in Australia, in New Zealand, to mention just a few, and they continue now. The wave of horror passes and we pick up our aliveness again. If we are spiritually deep, apparently, we never lose connection with peace and love.

Yet, at Auschwitz this thinking felt grossly disconnected…. Then a Bodhisattva came to my aid.

One of my ego trips is a fury of self-protective thoughts at being defined as incapable by those who control opportunities and resources for my work. I hate to be told, from what seems to me a mean and biased perspective, that I am this, I think this, this is all I can do, this is what I need, my intention is unworthy etc, by those who judge me from no experience, and with no respect or question in their minds and hearts. An example of this happened the second night in Auschwitz. It seemed but a miniscule version of the kind of discrimination encountered by those who died at Auschwitz. I recognized it as a readily accessible mindset to those who believe they have suffered in just this way themselves, my own dismissive, analytical, and critical mind being foremost in offense.

I struggled with my petty emotional pain in this situation. I wanted to escape also my irritation from high humidity heat, sunburn, painful swelling of my knees and ankles, frighteningly ugly accumulation of water under every wrinkle in my face from sun poison, consistently being unable to hear instructions, lack of fresh water, no tea or coffee, tasteless food, fierce attacks from mosquitoes and midges, the inadequacy of the sliver of soap provided to clean my daily sweaty clothes, constant leaks on the bathroom floor, etc., etc. I was annoyed by my wish to avoid these minor matters in such a setting of truly profound suffering.

On the third afternoon I chose to attend to the Jewish service at Birkenau, my first delighted encounter with a Hasidic liturgical offering. How I loved the light, warmth, clarity, storytelling, and flowing melodiousness, even at the sites of the gas chambers and furnaces for humans at Birkenau! Processing back along the railway track to the entrance gate of Birkenau we sang together a sweet song, the first words of which seemed to be, “How could anyone ever tell you, you are anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you, you are less than whole?”

Suddenly the cry emerged, a cry from my own sufferings. Scenes of discrimination, physical and mental abuse, and misunderstandings from many points in my life appeared vividly and in quick succession. And as I cried out in at my own pain, the agony of those who died and were tortured at the camp, of Christ, of the human condition, were caught in the all-encompassing sound that ripped through complacency, denial, and intellectualization to reach beyond the cosmos. The connection at last was happening.

Only then tenderly and joyfully, it seemed, could I tend the suffering of all I encountered, myself not excluded.

And I realized that the only person who could tell me that I was less than beautiful, less than whole, was myself. There was no one I could blame whatever the circumstances. I/we/it fundamentally can never be violated.

Was this a glimpse of the triumph of the human spirit, the transcendence of death by love, joy and peace unending? Was this what the spirits of Auschwitz were telling us? Go forth and love one another!

In the ponds formed from ash of so many murdered humans, jewel green frogs and radiant blue mayflies mate. Where every blade of grass prisoners then had eaten, there are wild flowers now among wild grasses and bright leafed birch trees.

Auschwitz poppy

The suffering, the peace, the love are just one thing with gratitude unending.

Naomi Shihab Nye wrote it: Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

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From Vision to Buddhist Social Action

“How do we go from vision to action?”

This question was asked at the recent Symposium on Buddhist Social Action at Zen Peacemakers. Here is a brief  account of what I found helpful in going from vision to action after completing my Zen Peacemaker seminary training for ministry. From spring 2009 through spring 2010 I co-lead with Kanji Ruhl the first 14 months of establishing Appalachian Zen House in Bald Eagle Valley in central rural Pennsylvania. This, the first of Zen Peacemakers’ Zen Houses is now led by Kelle Kirsten and Bob Flatley.

Our mission was to serve, as an integral part of our Zen practice, the under-served people, beings, and natural environment in this depleted rural valley.

Bald Eagle Valley in Pennsylvania

The valley was Kanji’s childhood home, but I had never visited Pennsylvania before. Nor did I know well any other current secular community after being a monastic in a Zen Monastery for 8 of the 10 years prior.

So my first task was to immerse myself in experiencing the life here. Meanwhile I was finding out the needs of the people. And I was finding out who could be attracted to serve in “enhancing the community’s ability for inclusive, non-sectarian, responsive and sustainable activity in harmony with the natural environment.”

I was very fortunate to form relationships within three main groups of people that participated in our endeavors –

  1. the local protestant Christian communities, a dominant social aspect of the valley,
  2. liberal community- and environmentally-minded folk, and
  3. impoverished local people who were not overtly part of the above groups.

Connections were also forming over the 14 months with teachers and students at Penn State University, as well as with other Buddhist groups, and I expect that these too are continuing to grow.

1.    Joining the local protestant Christian communities. An essential first step for my own connection with the local people, life, and area was for me to rent a cheap apartment and live alone in a small village. In this way I was dependent on my new neighbors for information and social interaction. Despite my foreign accent and their awareness that I was a strange “Buddhist,” these tightly-knit Christian communities were warmly welcoming and very generous. They included me in many social and community events. “I am sure I have met you before!” they said often.

I attended Baptist church on Sundays, shared communion with the local Methodist church, attended Quaker meetings, and joined church workdays in the community. Through this I experienced the great importance of the many small churches of the valley in each shaping a highly supportive and energized social community encompassing all age groups.

Accompanying the togetherness in some settings and on rare occasions was a strongly spoken condemnation of other groups (I felt little of this directed towards myself), and seemly unquestioned acceptance of guidelines for conducting life. (Both these are characteristic ways our social organizations define themselves, our own being unlikely to be exempt.) Examples of such church guidelines that challenged my understanding were — men as the only acceptable church leaders, a belief in the virtue of technological progress at the expense of wild nature, and particular actions and beliefs being evil.

These settings strongly evoked early Christian training that I had vigorously rejected from age twelve. So that I could rest with an open heart-mind in Christian church language, I taught myself rapidly to translate Christian terminology into my “Buddhist” experience. This was a richly healing process that opened me to an inclusive potential of Christianity that I had not known. (How my translations relate to the experiences of my current Christian friends is a continuing exploration.)

Within the year there were several outcomes from these activities— I was invited to present Buddhism and meditation in several adult Christian Sunday schools and to answer their challenging questions; we formed liaisons with church groups helpful to the missions of both groups, such as volunteering to serve government-funded lunches over the summer and teach gardening to children in a trailer park; at our urging to improve fresh food supply to the impoverished in the area, two churches planted several acres of new vegetable gardens for this purpose. I found also that, in university gatherings on religion and climate change, I was able to speak about Buddhist views on interdependence with the natural world in a way that sparked considerable recognition, warmth, and interest from Christians.

2.    A second group of people and their friends with whom I was fortunate to connect was a long-term intentional community devoted to mindful use of the land. Their creativity, and their passion for and knowledge of the earth, was deep and extraordinary — as was their generosity and community spirit.

growing fresh local food

It became clear that these people had major resources for meeting an urgent need of the wider valley for fresh locally grown food, as well as the skills to develop sustainable income-providing ventures. In the surrounding area was evident, as elsewhere, high rates of obesity, inadequate nutrition, and the accompanying miseries of ill health at all ages. It was a “food desert.” The nearest food shop to for example this particular community, was a 25 minutes drive, and was a gas station. Fresh produce was not readily available in the valley while food costs were exorbitant at distant supermarkets. (The prototype 4’ x 8’ raised bed vegetable garden I constructed reduced the weekly cost to feed just myself by up to $30 and supplied surplus to share with neighbors.)

Establishing a basis in the valley for creating an inexpensive, fresh, nutritious and secure local food supply — along with the knowledge to grow and process it for income — appeared to be an immediate and promising direction for me to help meet our Zen House’s mission of serving the impoverished in collaboration with these skilled new friends.

My Buddhist zendo offerings (of meditation throughout the week, Dharma talks, private interview, group council circle, liturgy, zazenkai, and pastoral care (with appreciation to Kanji Ruhl for guidance in the latter)) were pivotal in my creating trust on which to develop our action together, even though  my new friends’ own strong spiritual practices meant that Zen was not their primary scheduled commitment. Shared experience was built also on many potluck dinners with animated discussion around the table, excursions into the forest parks, my presentation of seminars and workshops, gardening together, and with a few sweat lodges and swims in the lily pond.

Meanwhile I listened carefully to their dreams and passions as well as their perceived frustrations that prevented their fruition. I continually opened the vision of interactive supportive community to include not only like-minded neighbors but the whole of the valley. I acted to open the blockages, and rouse mutual support to get underway their activities  as well as those relevant to the Zen House. “I am not good at organizing!” “I don’t know how to promote it!” “I am not sure of the details of what we actually can do!” “We need a web page, and a blog! And some posters!” “I haven’t the time to put it together!” So we did it!… Together.

trailer at the community farm stand painted by local artists

Among several aspects of community building that we worked on and actualized, one that holds considerable potential is a community-farm stand where anyone can sell locally-made, locally-grown, or recycled items. Teen entrepreneurs are welcomed. Anything that sells well presents potential for generation of income for people to grow or process more next year. (And there are several beautiful products already available.) Seasonal family fun and celebrations, educational workshops, and demonstrations center on the farm stand. This is the gathering place (somewhat akin to the spirit of Zen Peacemakers’ Montague Farm Café) where enjoyment of each others company can be nurtured, joyful community created, and we learn from the participating local people their skills and aspirations so we can work together to develop them.

making salve from calendula flowers

I organized building of  demonstration raised bed gardens on the farm-stand site. Raised bed gardens were built and donated to those in need. A workshop was held to build a chicken tractor (movable enclosure where chickens’ feeding turns over and fertilizes areas for planting.) Surplus food is donated to the nearest soup kitchens, food pantries and shelters. Community garden space and casual garden work is offered to locals.

Initially it could be hard work to persuade busy people to take up such activities in service to the community, but when I heard them say afterward “That was the best fun we have had in ages. Let’s do it again!” I knew I was meeting my objective. The magic of joyful community service was creating the desire for more.

A related aspect was my working was to develop the design of an existing summer camp for children (based on gardening and cooking) into a camp we ran for teenagers.

at our summer youth camp — connecting with the earth

This included both mindful and practical experiences of wilderness, mindful eating (if carrots, tomatoes, corn and celery are the only vegetables they will eat, that is where to start), study of their own consuming, and many other fun and creative experiential activities in nature. Awareness for all of us in these areas is integral to deepening our relationship with ourselves, food, community and the earth. I developed mindfulness hiking in the beautiful State Parks around, and ran several consumer mindfulness workshops in Walmart and supermarkets. I would like to have taken these workshops also to strip mines and trash dumps too.

3. Learning from local impoverished people was an ongoing activity.

I talked with people in drop-in centers, on buses, in local shops, during long waits at the free health clinic (tick bites were rampant last year), during night visits to Walmart for the purpose of such interactions, and on the supermarket checkout line. I listened to children at our summer camp, and those in our grief circle with family members who had died. I had particularly poignant conversations while walking regularly in the village graveyard.

After being bitten by a dog I had a series of visits with a toothless young couple living with their four dogs in a collapsing trailer to check that none of us had rabies. When our local fresh food scheme was in place, I offered this as a reason to take more well-off friends door knocking in trailer parks, into pubs, shops, and gas stations, to meet the residents, learn about their enjoyments and needs, and offer our activities. Volunteering to serve government-funded lunches to children in a trailer park with Christian friends extend these connections.

In summary, my moving from vision to action involved –

  • establishing ongoing zendo activities,
  • living among and being dependent on the people I wished to serve,
  • connecting in as many ways and levels as I could imagine with the people and the land,
  • listening deeply to the aspirations, gifts, and struggles of each person,
  • constantly offering the Zen Peacemaker vision of community inclusion and mutual caring,
  • responding with all appropriate training, experience and skills of myself and willing others to take community action in line with our mission,
  • being sure about my overall aim, while shaping actions from the changing ingredients and awareness immediately before me,
  • a great pleasure in the experience of action creating a desire for more.

As we would say in the self-depreciating culture in which I grew up, “Pretty obvious really!” … And yet a wonderful journey … like no other!

It was with sadness that I left Pennsylvania after 14 months because of red-tape around my not being a US citizen. My own story in this work though is just beginning. Appalachian Zen House’s too!

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Beyond — Zen Peacemaker retreat at Auschwitz June 2 to June 12, 2010

The setting is beautiful, walking to Birkenau in the early morning. The sun is already bright and very hot. In the flat narrow fields striped with different greens, heads of grain grow and glisten, stirring in the sweet earth-scented breeze along with blue cornflowers and red poppies. Hay has been scythed and is being tossed by the pitchforks of bare-chested farmers, or swept into loose beehive shaped stacks. Morning doves call, and cuckoos repeat — just like the wooden bird popping out of its little carved clock house over the antipodean dinner table of my 1940s childhood.

Icy shivers chill my spine and freeze my stride even before my mind registers the watchtowers and barbed wire enclosures – the endless ordered ranks of barracks and chimneys that appear over the fields. Too vast, too determined, they speak of an intent that is intolerable in its horror – the calculated efficiency of terrorizing, torturing, humiliating, degrading, murdering and annihilating 1.1 million children, women, and men of many kinds, nations, and faiths. Along with them were destroyed the humanity of the SS guards – the humanity that is the one quality giving value to our human life.

Yet, over a few short days, Birkenhau was to become a place of such tender love, joy, and affirmation of spirit that it was incredibly hard to leave.

It seemed at first that I felt only shallowly my own and others’ pain here, and yet I cried out in agony of spirit — with, and as, both victim and perpetrator. From that cry was released a love for each particular person encountered here, now, and for those from the past. For a brief moment I glimpsed how deep is our oneness in this glorious endeavor of apparent embodiment we call life, with all its capacity for joy, and its suffering from separation. This retreat at Auschwitz with Zen Peacemakers offered profound affirmation that when we continue to listen to ourselves and others with an open mind and heart, death and pain of body and spirit, however terrible, can never offer a final answer. And this truth exists even while such horrendous events seem beyond the realm of forgiveness and far beyond any possibility of consolation.

So what is the difference between the two screams – one for revenge for inflicted suffering, for self-protection above all others’ needs, and the other a cry of release into love? Was the message we were finding here the same as that received by the hundreds of Israeli solders and the teenagers touring Auschwitz at the same time?

We sat in a circle in the heat of the sun in high humidity and over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (over 33 degrees centigrade) between the railway lines, connecting all over Europe, which brought the victims to this place of systematic, cold-blooded, efficient murder. Here they unloaded after days of enclosure without food, water, or sanitation, the dead and dying contained with them. From this graveled spot where we sat 75% were separated off and deceived to undress without protest in the birch grove to go to their immediate death in the nearby gas chambers. Often 2000 were murdered at a time, so crammed together it was impossible to separate the corpses. Their bodies were dragged out by prisoners and burned en-mass, their ashes scattered in ponds. Mothers, babies and children went together, men separately. Those not immediately murdered never saw their loved ones again, and were housed in the louse-infested barracks. Through repeating epidemics of disease, they died, were murdered, or were worked, tortured, and starved to death. Very few escaped or were liberated after the five years of the camp’s operation from 1940 to 1945.

We meditated in silence settling our minds and allowing ourselves to be empty and present as best we could. Then we spoke names of the dead, eight people reading different lists at one time. So incredibly many names! Sometimes the same last name was repeated over and over from members of a family murdered together. Each reader offered their list of names tenderly at an altar on the ground within a ring of candles. Then silence again as we sat. Stillness settled. Surprising peace softly released within us. Gentle breezes caressed our faces and necks. As we held the suffering of the victims, it was as if their spirits offered us comfort with this so welcome coolness in the blazing heat.

Then in the distance dogs barked, a train rattled past, and behind us heavy footsteps crunched the gravel. Waves of fear. The breeze grew and buffeted us. Yes, open, grieve, rest in love, but then take action, it seemed to say. Strong work of love is calling.

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Community Ambrosia at Montague Farm’s Free Family Café!

A young man with his seven-week-new baby daughter wrapped snugly against his chest is making salad at the dining room table. With three other guys. Work is focused, conversation easy.

At the sink Maryl plunges with a sweet smile into quickly dissolving a huge mound of cooking dishes. Then Gary and she (they are celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary this weekend) happily process box after box of garden and donated herbs and vegetables to make 20 quarts of oh-so-fresh gazpacho. Totally awesome!

I have collected this week’s raw ingredients and dishes that have been so joyfully and generously donated to our Montague Farm Zen House Free Family Cafe. (Included this time is a huge box of peaches, unbelievably juicy and sweet, and richly, intensely and beautifully colored.) I have dreamed up a great menu (…DESSERT – Local Farm Fresh Peaches on Maple Cream Pie in a Walnut Crust…) and sent it for printing. And I realize once again that I have bitten off more than I can possibly make for 70 hungry guests in the time available.

And amazingly, once again, fabulous people just turn up from out of the blue — and ease and joy flow out of the kitchen along with all the food, fresh, ready and delicious to eat, right on time. So many willing hands and smiling faces contribute to this family community offering in our rural valley. Such loving angels stay to clean up so that no trace is left that it ever happened. (Except the delight.)

And it happens every week! It takes no-effort, and happens in no-time! A miracle, no less.

Do come join us! The open heart and hands of community in action — you. Just for you!

(Food preparation every Friday afternoon and Saturday early in Montague Farm kitchen.)

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Montague Farm Café at Turner’s Falls Block Party

(One of the) Best Afternoon(s) of My Life.

A small watermelon falls on path of the Montague Farm Zen House and bursts open to reveal black seeds in glistening intensely yellow flesh. Higgledy-piggledy, we are loading the little red truck with paper plates, chairs, chopping board, cymbals and bells, coolers filled with jars of coffee and pesto pasta, and box after box of vegetables all carefully bagged or wrapped in bundles courtesy of a generous organic farmer.

Through the rear view mirror, miraculously, the stuff is not flying off as we drive from Montague to the summer block party at neighboring Turner’s Falls.  Our weekly meal, which typically occurs on our own farm, is taking a field trip.

Our people jauntily play an assortment of instruments to lead the party’s opening parade, as we assemble our offerings in the shade of a tree on the cordoned off main road and begin shouting over the hubbub “Free food! What would you like? Come and eat!”

That was at 1:30 pm. Somewhere along the way someone hands us a godsend bottle of cold water saying “Don’t get dehydrated!” Then suddenly it is 6:00 pm and we are loading the little truck with empty boxes and trash to head precariously back to Montague Farm where a large Symposium gathering sits talking about social action through microphones.

What happened in between is a blur of action. Faces… closed, curious, doubting, toothless, on bicycles, in wheel chairs, ulcerated, bejeweled, speaking not-English, babies and children.

“Would you like some pesto pasta or some rice and beans, cold coffee or tea? Have a slice of watermelon or some juice! Here is a piece of panettone cake!”

“Would you take home some of these vegetables to cook? Who do you know who would like some? Take it for them! Feel this beautiful squash in your hand – it’s yours! It’s free!”

“People give it to us — we give it to you. Join us noon to 3 o’clock every Saturday for free fun and food at Montague Farm. Come and serve, come and eat! See you there!”

“Thank you very much! You are so welcome!”

Yes it really is free! It is the best food on the block (I made it!) and it is totally free! Bring your friends to lunch! We will serve you all! Somehow the paper plates, the plastic forks, the food and cups just last the time. While scores of children create masks and puppets beside us, maybe two hundred people have enjoyed the food.

It’s a rush, a blast! It just feels so good to give it all away. Feels like we could give the clothes off our backs, our fingers and toes if it helped. To watch the doubting faces slowly relax and savor the taste, begin to return our smiles, then start to laugh because they make us so happy.

“This just… turns the world upside down!” said someone, iced coffee in hand. “I… I just don’t know what to think!”

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