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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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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Bernie Q7: How Do You Train Students To Enter The Center Of Suffering?

Questions by Christa Spannbaur
Recorded at Rowe Conference Center by Ari Pliskin
Zen Master Bernie Glassman Biography

7) How do you train your students to be able to go right into the centre of the suffering of the world without loosing their spiritual trust in life and their inner balance?

Hotei has the right things in the bag.   You fill the bag with as many tools as you can.  Then you approach each situation, unbiased, unconditioned and totally open.  There are tools or upayas that will help us realize the three tenets.  For me, meditation was a great helping in getting to not-knowing.  I know many people who have reached not-knowing without meditation.  What has been more important is what I call ‘plunges.’  A plunge is to take you into a situation in which your rational mind has no way of dealing with it.  Normally, we don’t go there.  A common plunge that many of us go through is the death of a loved one.  Others are the Auscwitz retreats or street retreats. Planning the first Auscwitz retreat took 1.5 years.  The idea of the first day is to overwhelm people’s senses.  Bearing witness is to stay there-be in that situation, feel it.

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Audio podcast: A Jew in Germany, insights from Auschwitz

Sensei Beate Stolte and Natalie Goldberg recently attended a Zen retreat at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Natalie is Jewish and Stolte grew up in Germany; both share intimate stories and insights from their experience at the retreat. Discussion transpired about the human capacity for genocide, and the concepts of embracing fear and darkness, and creating meaning in one’s circumstances.  Listen to the podcast from Upaya Zen Center

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Dispatch from the Train to Auschwitz

“My choice to travel by train in Poland is intentional. It is part of my pilgrimage here. I am mindfully aware that this rail track from Warsaw to Krakow, on which i now ride in comfort and in a bright and sun-filled rail car, is like the very route so many traveled to their deaths a mere generation ago. I hold them all in my heart”

-Michael Melancon a few weeks ago leading up to the retreat read the entire article at Maia Duerr’s Jizo Chronicles

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Reflections on last week's Auschwitz Bearing Witness by Fleet Maull


155 Peacemakers sitting at the "selection site" on the railway platform at Birkenau (Auschwitz II)

Today we completed the fourth day of the Zen Peacemaker bearing witness retreat here at Auschwitz & Birkenau. This is my eighth retreat here, and I’ll be back in November to help guide another bearing witness retreat for Palistininian and Jewish youth from Israel as well as youth from other countries. In past years I have written and shared daily reports, more recently in the form of blogs, each day of the retreat. This year I have not been inspired to do so up until now. Perhaps I’m just too full, having co-lead our first Peacemaker Institute bearing witness retreat in Rwanda this past April. Perhaps it is the overwhelming size of this retreat. We are 155 strong this year, participants and staff, much, much larger than usual, with the exception of the very first Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat in 1996. At any rate, as we sat in one of the barracks at Birkenau this evening,barracks originally designed as stables for 50 horses that held four hundred death camp inmates, listening each other as we shared our experience, hearts and minds in council (a deep listening circle or talking stick circle), I suddenly realized that I need to share something of this retreat with all of you.

Roshi Bernie Glassman leading a Zen Buddhist service called Gate of Sweet Nectar (Feeding the Hungry Spirits) at Crematoria I, one of five cremation sites at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) where over 1.5 million perished.

We have followed the usual format, beginning with a deep plunge at Auschwitz I, where we watched incredibly graphic films recording the horrific truth of the Nazi genocide as the camps were liberated at the end of the war and then stepped out from the darkened theatre into the sunlit reality of the concentration camp. We toured the barracks and many exhibits with professional guides, splitting into five groups of 30. We gathered again as, 155 strong, inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz I, where we stood in silence, filling half the chamber shoulder to shoulder where 300 were gassed at on time. We proceeded to the infamous killing wall between Blocks 10 and 11. Block 11 was the SS punishment barracks where any form of resistance or misbehavior in the camps was punished to the extreme… torture, starvation, poisoning, and executions by gunfire at the killing wall. There we held our first interfaith service with Jewish, Christian and Buddhist services and the offering of candles by each participant.

The Killing Wall between Block 10 and Block 11, the infamous SS punishment barracks.

Then after our usual lunch of soup and bread we left for Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the massive 10 square mile death camp, where we spent that afternoon and where we would spend the rest of the retreat. I’m used to being here in November where we suffer through extreme cold, frigid windsand often snow or rain. This year instead it’s the scorching sun. Poland had recently suffered very heavy rains and massive flooding, but the sun returned with a vengeance this week. We’ve been sitting at the infamous selection site, where we spend time in silent meditation and prayer and read the names of the murdered, baking under a brutally hot sun, many of us verging on the edge of heat exhaustion. This afternoon, we finally took our afternoon session into one of the barracks where we were spared the direct scorching of the sun, but not the suffocating heat. It’s good to suffer here, I think; though I resist it enough. Of course we are only tasting a sliver of the suffering of those imprisoned here during the World War II Nazi holocaust.

Chanting the names of the death camp victims at the selection site on the railway platform at Birkenau.

But it was not all this, not the beautiful religious services of different faiths we held throughout the camp, not the powerful morning small group councils, or the evening programs that stirred me to write. No, it was our dear friend August who joined us tonight in the barracks for our evening vigil and large group council there.

August is a holocaust and camp survivor. He was a member of the Polish resistance arrested and sent to Auschwitz at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. On this day, April 10, 1942 he escaped along with nine others, in possibly the only successful escape attempt from Auschwitz. Twenty were captured and killed, but nine escaped and survived including August. August first joined the Peacemakers on this Auschwitz Bearing Witness retreat in 1998, and has joined us many times since. Wanting to give something back to this community, he raised the money to build the first hospice in this area with the support and co-sponsorship of the Peacemaker Community. The hospice has been operational for some time now, but will receive the final round of funding to complete all construction this Saturday. August will be 90 years old this year.

This evening with our very large group there in the barracks at Birkenau, August just sat and listened to the sharing, as one of our Polish staff quietly translated for him. After more than 90 minutes, August asked to speak, rising from his chair with help and then steadying himself to stand upright, with his single crutch. August is a large and still robust looking man for 89 years of age. He must have been a formidable presence in his younger days. August expressed deep appreciation for the Peacemakers, for the retreat and for all the heartfelt sharing he’d heard this evening. He said he was especially moved by one of Jewish participant recounting a tender moment of camaraderie and brotherhood with the German man he had been assigned as a roommate here. August spoke of the joy he feels whenever he has the chance to hug people from Germany, and the great hope that he has for healing, reconciliation a changing, evolving humanity. It’s hard to convey the impact of August’s words. This was not a naïve or trite expression of hope for peace and a better future, but rather the genuine inspiration and positive vision of a man who had lived through hell and seen his fellow humans at their beastly worst.

So this is what I wanted to share with all of you tonight, the inspired truth of this one old man, standing tall and shining so brightly amidst the ashes and dark horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous and most effective killing ground and death camp of the Nazi holocaust.

Celebrating life with a shabbat service and meal after five days of bearing witness to death and the horrors of genocide at Auschwitz

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