My Buddhism in everyday life and at work: way – practice – study

My Buddhism in everyday life and at work:

way – practice – study


Lecture Spiritual Care Z13 3020 Part 2

Akademie für Palliativmedizin of the Malteser-Krankenhauses Bonn

on 11/5/2020

 Monika Winkelmann, Bonn


  1. My Buddhism


I have always wanted to write a book with this title, but it was not meant to be (yet). Why? Because I am not a scholar in Buddhism. It would also not be bad to be able to read Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan or for Zen Buddhism Chinese or Japanese. In the meantime, we know that – as  to be expected – translation errors were made which then not infrequently were mistranslated another time (from English into German for example, we have talked about this based on “mindfulness” or “compassion”). So, if I have so little profound knowledge and cannot read the source texts myself, then – I think – it is more honest to speak of my very own, subjective approach to the religion, what Buddhism is for me. In addition, I find it boring when I virtually recite what you can read on Wikipedia. Honestly: Who is interested to go further and deeper, is served with the Internet and/or the meditation center in the district/city you inhabit or with a relevant book. For the entire spiritual path applies what one of my teachers always said – and he got it from his teacher, who became famous with the book and project “Big Mind – Big Heart”: “Always follow your heart.” Which, by the way, is harder done than said. I have increasingly followed my heart, which eventually led me to two lay ordinations in one Zen lineage each, in the USA, which I never thought I would even aspire to. English has thus become my second mother tongue, in which I read, write, recite, or communicate daily. Which is also because I often wanted to study at home because of my then young daughter, and so I listened to or watched those on videotapes or cassettes/CDs that attracted me and whose contributions were either in English or translated into English: His Holiness Dalai Lama, Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, Ven. Pema Chödrön, Jack Kornfield, Roshi Joan Halifax – to name a few of many. I have also attended retreats of several days with three of them, which was an incredible blessing (Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joan Halifax).


  1. In everyday life


My current teacher, Roshi Norman Fischer, in choosing the name “Everyday Zen” for “his” Sangha (= community), to which I belong, says that everything is everyday life. And with that, that everyday life is sacred. Which is also a very Jewish thought that has always been close to me. Fischer is Jewish and founded the first Jewish meditation center, Makor-Or, with his best friend Rabbi Lew, who unfortunately passed away a couple of years ago. Zen, like Buddhism in general, offers us a practice, ways and techniques of meditation that may/should bring mind and body together, so that even in our everyday actions we are One, or aware that we are at odds with ourselves. It is easy to see, I find, that inner peace, readiness to understand, accuracy, the sense of being truly alive, increase when we are present: When cleaning, talking on the phone, eating, etc.


  1. At work


It already starts with choosing or not choosing a profession: Can I live with contributing significantly to the exploitation of XY if I work here? Where do I shop, who do I support? How am I as a colleague, can I have a more open heart towards the “difficult” fellow human being? Do I stay (only) for money, or what values come first? How do I spend my free time, so that my efforts for a meaningful life etc. have a place? When I suffer – how do I deal with my suffering? When another suffers…? Can I value myself, stand up for myself/others/the planet? Are there other, creative solutions to adversity that I do not yet see? What does Buddhism have to say about economics, lifestyle, education? About work per se? It says more than we think. Over the years and decades, I have tried to turn away from – to put it bluntly – capitalistic thinking and acting (“More, bigger, faster and thinking of myself/my club/my country first”). Can I also empathize with employers, wealthy people? From Bernie Glassman I also learned this: To practice making fewer distinctions, as I knew from Christianity (the kingdom of heaven is open above all to the poor), but also to become aware of prejudices against the powerful, seemingly (very) wealthy. Currently, it seems to me that a lot is changing, also in Buddhism. Through more knowledge about systemic violence, climate catastrophes, predatory capitalism (I use only buzzwords here), women’s oppression and patriarchal structures and abuse of power even in Buddhism, much is on the test bench, and new books and articles were and are written, which have an enlightening effect.


  1. My path to Buddhism – in Buddhism – to Zen Buddhism


All paths, as you can see above, look completely different and may do so. The highly educated and experienced Norman Fischer (he has been a priest for 50 years and  the other day he said that might have left its imprints) is sometimes said to be too eclectic (he picks out what seems valuable to him). Bernie Glassman, my Zen Peacemaker teacher, is said not to be a Zen teacher anymore because he had taken off his robe (he has received a full ordination in two Zen lineages, so you can at least assume he has something to say) because he felt robes expressed separateness. Zen first appealed to me from a philosophical point of view, even though I didn’t understand anything (that is, 40 years ago or more). Then I was interested in Tibetan Buddhism, also because I wanted to support it and the preservation of Tibet’s religious treasures, and because I find the Dalai Lama from that time until today clever, humorous, wise, and I like his tolerance and the way he always talked about the Chinese (= the “oppressors”). Both the Tibetan and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh were refugees, like my mother. As my mother’s firstborn, I too wandered for decades, rootless. I like the willingness of many Buddhists to make a living with little, the willingness to share, even knowledge and wisdom, without asking for anything in return. I like the effort for non-violence and the high demand to purify one’s own mind, to become an adult and the great effort not to force this on anyone.

The practice of Zen, apart from Zen in arts, has appealed to me in the person and authenticity of Roshi Bernie Glassman and many Zen Peacemakers. Who no longer wanted to “just” sit in the temple (which is important), but to see the temple of the street, the memorial cemeteries, the refugee homes, the hospitals, the countless inner prisons and dependencies, and to examine and change or transcend one’s own resonance with them.


  1. My Teachers


Repeatedly I have written that my daughter was and is my great Zen teacher. She has pushed me to my limits in every way and taught me to go beyond them. She taught me unconditional love, until today I experience from her an immediate resonance on whether I am still in this “awakened” field, with her, or whether my expectations, know-it-all-ness and impatience, my longing for closeness on the outside have the upper hand again. Auschwitz as a place and metaphor is definitely my teacher. And many books I read, which came into my hands and my heart at the right time. In Bonn I “sat” in Haus Siddharta, in the Paramita Center for years or project by project, as we say. In the Waldhaus at Laacher See, for more than twenty years, with my own offers. But isn’t everyone we meet sincerely our teacher, and vice versa? Are not also the difficult and perhaps most difficult fellow human beings, often after years of (inner) agonizing confrontation, in the end our guideposts, not because we chose them (or did we?), but because we experienced our limits and our power and strength and were forced to grow or… In Zen, as in Tibetan Buddhism, a woman or man usually has personal teachers, which can be a great opportunity that can lead to deep inner happiness on both sides, but has also brought devastating dependencies and abuse. Since I was abused as a small child by my father, by my mother, who looked the other way and later exploited my good nature in many ways, and the exploitation continued as long as I lived at home, I was probably predisposed to repeat bitter experiences of dependence and exploitation of my trust on my Zen path. Not that I alone take responsibility for this, but I deeper understand the dynamic and my compliance and own disposability to a finally toxic relationship. What we like all former victimized are willing and able to make of it is our challenge. Many report painful experiences at work or in private, which also have to do with unhealthy, to downright sickening dependencies. I am very glad that the cloak of toxic silence is gradually lifting, and victims are beginning to realize their healing opportunities, wherever they may be, accompanied by experienced friends/professionals who help release the entanglement. Of course, we should and may discover and celebrate our inner mastery and build on it. Nevertheless, I have decided – or has my “soul”/Dharma decided? – once again to trust an “outer” master, and already after a short time I experience a lot of warmth of heart, impulses to deeper self-confidence and greater independence together with voluntary dependance, a rise in life serving energy.

Since I am building and serving a Sangha myself, I find it useful for everyone that I have a place where I may ask questions and allow to be questioned by a mentor.


  1. Bernie Glassman Roshi: “Zen Peacemakers” or “Socially Engaged Buddhism”


Behind every great man is a strong woman. This is also true for Zen Master Bernie Glassman. His second wife Sandra Jishu Holmes co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order with her husband and several other early Zen teachers. Among these founding mothers is Joan Halifax, a Zen master with her own well-known interdisciplinary center and monastery in New Mexico, who, as a studied anthropologist, has contributed her knowledge of “council”: a spiritually embedded meditation of communication that she had learned from indigenous people. Since then, I have not been in a single witnessing retreat, pilgrimage, or street retreat where at least one “council” was not conducted daily, or, in case of sesshins, at the end. Thus, from the point of view of some traditional Buddhists, a taboo has been broken: The “noble silence” (in contrast to the “poisonous silence” that especially we older Germans knew all too well from our families) was broken, was allowed, and even should be broken in a formal, ritualized way.


In the council, people listen and speak “from the heart”. From my point of view and experience, at least ONE possibility was created for students to get to know each other and learn from each other, but also there was space to speak out, to put questions and thus help a possible abuse of power to be countered preventively or confrontationally. Members of all religious traditions or agnostics, who were willing to the basics of the ZPM (Zenpeacemaker) and had practiced according to them, can receive this lay ordination or, after further years of training, take on the role as Dharma-holder or succeed Bernie as clergy. The Three Tenets are: 1. not knowing, 2. bearing witness, 3. loving action that comes from not knowing and witnessing. Socially engaged Buddhism has always existed where Buddhists settled and will always exist. Because the development of the ‘good heart’ (Norman Fischer speaks rather of “remembering” our good heart) naturally leads to the growing desire to help. Yet we can see great differences in how and where emphasis was placed on practice, what was encouraged and allowed, or what may not have been allowed or possible at all. This point is so important to discuss that it would be worth a book of its own. But since this is mainly about my experience, I would like to say that as a political person and social activist, the point of view of the (Zen) Peacemakers is very close to mine. The title of Pema Chödrön’s book “Go to the Places You Fear” is an essential slogan that Tibetan students practice as part of a comprehensive mind training (lojong), and at the same time it is exactly what we ZPM also practice and have practiced. It begins, after all, by perceiving those “underserved places,” as Glassman calls them. After that, the practice continues: Are we able to keep our heart open or open it in those places where it breaks? Because our instinctive reaction to pain is to turn away, even from our own aching body parts or emotional pain. Buddhist psychology is counter-intuitive here, as it so often is, but has since become intuitive with me, including through much therapy and training. No, we turn towards the pain, knowing that the “demons” become smaller, even melt, or become allies, if we sincerely nourish them in love. So today I can “smell” the streets and neighborhoods of a place that should remain in the shadows without problems. Just as I have become much more clairvoyant (or am I remembering again?) in the encounter from person to person or from person to fellow creatures, to the earth, to the elements, to myself, which does not complicate my life, as so many assume. No, the repressed, the spasmodically unhealthy, hidden, inverted, the lying weighs us down much more, as it also makes us much more unhappy. This may be disputed, and I do not mean it as absolutely as I present it here. Suppression is necessary in terms of survival, and in many situations is a sign of good work-life balance. However, I simply believe in the medicine of truth. So, for me committed social Buddhism means to carry the spirit of unity in diversity, of mutual connectedness, of ever-present love to the places where genocides have happened or are about to happen. And in ourselves to the places where we ourselves feel outcast and abandoned, starved and powerless, and have become mean, inconsiderate, and thirsty for revenge and perhaps have acted out our misery.


  1. Inter-religious interests, education, experiences, utopias


Thich Nhat Hanh, but also other religious Buddhist teachers, have always pointed out how important it is to be and perhaps remain rooted in our own tradition in which we grew up. Through him I learned a great respect for foreign religions, but also from Bernie Glassman and his friends. At Auschwitz, I sat in council with Native Americans (Lakota), with a leader from Rwanda, with clergy from the Sufi tradition, from Catholicism and Protestantism, with Rabbis, Buddhist nuns and monks, believers of many kinds and seekers and non-believing mourners and humanists. Every day, “God’s” services were offered, freely chosen so that I trained myself, in time, in religious expressions, and lost my shyness. With a Catholic priest from Krakow I experienced a wonderful service that I will never forget. With the director of the “Center for Dialogue and Prayer” near Birkenau, Father Manfred Deselaers and Sister Mary from Ireland, where our large group always lived for five or six days, we walked through the large cemetery and experienced it like The Way of the Cross. Our respective Rabbis (I have served in Auschwitz during six retreats, so there have been a variety of Rabbis besides the one in charge) brought in very different accents: The Kaddish, in the version of Rabbi Don Singer and Peter Levitt, was prayed in the languages of those who were present (this could take time, with ten or more languages). With Rabbi Ohad Ezrahi from Israel, for example, we sang predominantly and celebrated Shabbat the Friday, the end of the retreat-week, in an utterly inspiring and sensitive way, often together with Ohad’s wife Dawn. Rabbi Mordechai Liebling wept aloud in places of remembrance, whose horror communicated itself to us to the core; I remember lying next to him, on the ground in November, and weeping aloud with him. I felt encouraged to give voice to the hold back lamentation, even screams. Back in Krakow, he invited me to a conversation, told me about his family, and I shared about mine, the Grandpartens in Poland, whom I remembered as still Nazi-friendly. So much love, so much forgiveness flowing naturally… But also, to hear the “Our Father” in some languages and songs that participants brought, to sing, to be silent… all this trained me, prepared me to be on the road, alone or with other peacemakers and to respond spontaneously to the circumstances with a ceremony: for example at a military cemetery in Bad Bodendorf, the memorial of the deported so-called “handicapped” babies and children. “Handicapped” babies and children on the grounds of the state Psychiatric Clinic in Bonn, in front of and in refugee homes, in homes for homeless people in Bonn (Haus Sebastian and Prelate Schleich House), on the streets in Bonn and Paris during a retreat, or simply sitting in front of the old town hall close to symbols of the “burned books” of hated writers and bearing witness. To join a silent march with a kippa with “brothers and sisters from the Christian-Jewish Society for Cooperation”, to polish “Stolpersteine” (stumbling stones), to sit and meditate at gravesites of Sinti and Roma in the Beuel cemetery, to pray, to lead silent meditations, to write. Now and then, as a matter of course, to talk on the phone with my Muslim friends or to meet them and to “know” by now what is most important to them: Their family. To inquire about them. To be “family” to them, who understand or speak German quite well by now. To feel, to discover, to strengthen, to cultivate what is common in the religions, to respect differences, while elsewhere again people are recovering from the attack on their house of worship, mourning, afraid: That is certainly one of my deepest concerns.


  1. Practice


Meditate as much and as often as you can (we call it formal sitting practice). Because you can meditate anytime and anywhere as you  you can’t go wrong with that if you feel good about it (which doesn’t mean it always creates good feelings). However, I think an instruction in the sitting practice is necessary, but you can find it on the internet. I find the one of the current director of Benediktushof, Dr. Alexander Poraj, particularly clear and informative. In Zen they say: Sitting itself is enlightenment, awakening. But practice is also everything: see above, but not only. We are constantly seduced, from outside and inside, to indulge in various distractions that we often do not recognize as such. We like to lie to ourselves, I must admit, which is one of the reasons why I consider an honest practice group and a mentor with integrity indispensable.


  1. Study


Is everything, see above. But also: “Sacred” texts and interpretations, books of sages, lectures, sermons, there is no “enough”. Unless I am distracting myself. Then what I said above comes into effect: the practice of meditation/contemplation. Learning to take Shabbat days from our Jewish friends, celebrating with them. Taking worship services seriously again. In September/October, I was exhausted by all the celebrations in Judaism, but also intrigued and energized. The Zoom offerings made it possible, and I began to get a picture of the annual cycle of actively religious Jews. I learned a lot about forgiveness this year. Generally, and in relation to my own life. About how there is still much non-forgiveness. I love book study groups, whether led by myself or as a participant. With Roshi Norman we have studied several books in our sangha in one year, currently it is the Lotus Sutra, the foundational work of Mahayana Buddhism, which includes Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. I have been able to make these books, classical and modern, my own in a completely different way than if I had read them only for myself.


  1. Philosophy or Religion?


To your taste, I would say. I find it beneficial that Buddhist teachings (mindfulness!) have found their way into many areas of society through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and Yogic Wisdom. I appreciate Yoga and Qigong very much. However, I do not particularly appreciate it when the ethical Buddhist or Hindu guidelines are not even mentioned in the process. And often the fear of my fellow friends of any religious-devotional expression of life gets on my nerves. Sometimes I think, we in Germany are still so branded after the ghastly abuse by “our” dictator and his seduction, that everything in this direction – like prostrations in front of the Buddha statue, which I do daily and at least several times, recitations, prayers in the broadest sense –  is regarded suspiciously. Skeptical is good, but not suspicious please. So, in our own country there is still much to do. Buddhism is not yet a natural part of ecumenism, where are – referring to Bonn – the Old Catholics, where is the Greek-Orthodox Father Socrates, whom I know from before (or has he died in the meantime?), where is the Rabbi in community projects? We also have a free Church and a vivid Bahai-Community… In my view, Christian values can also be lived in a completely non-religious and thus highly religious way. Personally, I have the greatest problems with the continuous breaking of the first commandment, while the alleged European values are self-indulgently invoked and trampled underfoot when it comes to rescue from sea emergence. And not to forget wars.


  1. Meditation or Contemplation: is it for me?


See above. Buddhist pedagogy is non-violent at its core. Also, and especially towards children. One simply knows about cause and effect. Violence will create counter-violence, hate can only be encountered with love. Search, try out. Investigate. Ask questions. Be creative. My relatives and friends tell/show me if I am on a path of love or deception. From time to time, I can be viewed at Via Integralis, which can be found in Bonn at the Catholic Family Education Center and elsewhere in the form of contemplation courses. Both give me great pleasure, as do the Friday evenings or lectures in one of the two synagogues, Bonn or Cologne.




12. Book Recommendations

Ajan Brahm
Open the door to your heart
How does the bear help you be happy?
Bernie Glassman
Bearing Witness
Dalai Lama, Eugen Drewermann
The Way of the Heart – Nonviolence and Dialogue between Religions
Eve Myonen Marko
Householder Koans
Joan Halifax
Life in Dying
Jon Kabbat-Zinn
Health through meditation
Norman Fischer
Taking Your Place -The Buddhist Path to Real Adulthood
Opening to You – Zen-inspired Translations of the Psalms
The World could be Otherwise
Experience – Thinking. Writing. Language & Religion
Pema Chödrön
Go to the Places you fear
Steven Levine
Becoming Kuan Yin – The Evolution of Compassion
Thich Nhat Hanh
Steps of Mindfulnes
Tsültrim Allione
Feeding the Demons
Wendy Garling
The Woman who Raised the Buddha – The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati
Willigis Jäger
Go the Inner Way
Hrsg. Claude Whitmayer
Work as a Path – Buddhist Reflections

My contact details:

Monika Winkelmann
Writer. Certified teacher of creative writing, Poetry therapist, Meditation teacher.
Spiritual accompaniment.
Eduard-Otto-Str. 4
53129 Bonn
Tel. 0228/443939
Mobile 0163/2695423


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My Buddhism in everyday life and at work: way – practice – study

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