29 October 2011

Gemmon in Krakow

Never plan to see a friend you haven't seen for almost two years for the first time at 10pm if you want to get any sleep.

When I got back from visiting Luke, Gemmon was in the hotel. We started talking that night and stopped long enough to get a few hours of sleep before setting off first thing in the morning in search of Amon Goth's house, the infamous concentration camp commandant of the Płaszów camp on the outskirts of Krakow.

I'd forgotten that Gemmon had decided to become a Buddhist, in part, because of the Holocaust. About 40 years old now, Gemmon and her generation grew up in Germany with their faces shoved squarely into their country's culpability for the atrocities committed by their elders during Hitler's reign of terror and it's hard to imagine anyone more fearless and obsessed with owning the full weight of that responsibility than Gemmon. She knew so much more about precisely what happened than I did. To this point, I've learned only what I had to about the Holocaust, what came towards me at school and in popular entertainment but Gemmon told me she first began reading the accounts of Germans who lived through the period because she wanted to know "how in any possible way they could have survived this without feeling failed as a human." Then she began to read as many of the survivors' written accounts as she could as well as the diaries of people who were killed in the camps. "I kept asking myself: could I?  Would I?  Finally, this was the reason I got into practice."

Gemmon hadn't changed much in the year and a half since I saw her last. She no longer has the shaved head of a Buddhist priest, although she remains one, she says, "for now." After things didn't work out at the Zen Center, Gemmon went back to work as a hospice nurse, this time in Zurich. I asked if she missed the zendo, missed Los Angeles. She teared up. "I sometimes miss the Pacific and I sometimes miss Roshi but never the Pine House." (where Roshi lived and the workplace personnel conversations took place.) And Gemmon added that she didn't think she'd have a teacher like Roshi or live in a community like that again but that didn't mean she was no longer a Buddhist priest. "For me, my robes are alive."  While Gemmon had clearly processed her feelings of loss - much of into gratitude - still, after almost two years, Gemmon's hurt seemed fresher than I expected.

I cannot continue to feel this way for two more years. Perhaps it was just that, in catching up, my more recent parallel tale of job woe stirred up her old feelings...or maybe it's that, while I only lost a job, Gemmon lost a job, a home, a teacher, a way of life, and a country.

We'd come to the Auschwitz retreat for slightly different reasons. I'd decided to come to leave behind my tiny ego bruises, to plunge fully and completely back into this effort, and to begin my approach to Judaism. Gemmon's reasons, the questions she was asking, were much more complex. "I don't think it's difficult to have compassion for the victims, but the perpetrators? Is it possible to have compassion for them? I've read their stories. I've heard them talk. They don't have nightmares. They compartmentalize what they did. They killed people - for them it was just another day at work -- then they went home to their children. How do you have compassion for that?"

Am I supposed to have compassion for that? What happens if I can't?

This is the really tough part of Buddhism, the dark side of "we are all connected, interrelated."

Gemmon said, "You are right that it is tough but I think it is actually even tougher to be attached to our hatred as we are suffering under it." She sent me a verse of the Dhammapada about this which is below.

 I guess that's what we are all here to face at Auschwitz and Birkenau. For a week.

The verses of the Dhammapada that Gemmon sent 
Never here by enmity
are those with enmity allayed,
they are allayed by amity,
this is the timeless Truth.

Hatred is, indeed, never appeased 
by hatred in this world. 
It is appeased only by loving-kindness. 
This is an ancient law.

For hate is never conquered by hate.
Hate is conquered by love.
This is an eternal law.

1:1 (1)
The mind is the basis for everything.
Everything is created by my mind, and is ruled by my mind.
When I speak or act with impure thoughts, suffering1 follows me
As the wheel of the cart follows the hoof of the ox.

1:2 (2)
The mind is the basis for everything.
Everything is created by my mind, and is ruled by my mind.
When I speak or act with a clear awareness, happiness stays with me.
Like my own shadow, it is unshakeable.

1:3 (3)
"I was wronged! I was hurt! I was defeated! I was robbed!"
If I cultivate such thought, I will not be free from hatred.

1:4 (4)
"I was wronged! I was hurt! I was defeated! I was robbed!"
If I turn away from such thoughts, I may find peace.

1:5 (5)
In this world, hatred has never been defeated by hatred.
Only love2 can overcome hatred.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

1:6 (6)
Everything will end.
When I understand this, all quarrels fade away.

1:7 (7)
As the wind topples a brittle tree
So will temptation3 topple me
If I am lazy, unrestrained, apathetic, seeking only endless pleasure.

1:8 (8)
The wind cannot uproot a mountain.
Temptation cannot uproot me
If I am alert, self-controlled, devout, unmoved by pleasure and pain.

1:9 (9)
The saffron robe4 is perfectly clean
But I am not ready to wear it
When I have not cleansed my spirit,
When I disregard truth and neglect to practice self-control.

1:10 (10)
When I have removed all defilements,
When I am filled with self-control and truthfulness,
Then I am truly worthy to wear the saffron robe.

1:11 (11)
When I see the truth as false,
When I believe illusion to be reality,
I am unable to find the truth.

1:12 (12)
I must see the essential reality as real,
And discard illusion.
Only then can I find the truth.

1:13 (13)
As heavy rain will penetrate a poorly-thatched roof,
So passion creeps into an unreflecting mind.

1:14 (14)
The rain will not penetrate a well-thatched roof.
Passion does not enter a tranquil and reflecting mind.

1:15 (15)
I grieve now, and I grieve in the future.
When I do wrong, I am doubly-grieved.
I mourn and suffer when I see the results of my actions.

1:16 (16)
I rejoice now, and I rejoice in the future.
When I am virtuous, I doubly-rejoice.
I smile and give thanks when I see the results of my actions.

1:17 (17)
I suffer now, and I suffer in the future.
When I do wrong, I suffer doubly.
It pains me to know that I have done wrong,
And it pains me even more to see the consequences.

1:18 (18)
I am happy now, and I am happy in the future.
When I am virtuous, I am doubly happy.
I am delighted to know I the good I have done,
And I am even more delighted to see the consequences.

1:19 (19)
Even if I can recite large portions of sacred texts,
If I do not put those into practice
Then I am like a shepherd counting someone else's sheep,
No closer to enlightenment5.

1:20 (20)
If I know just a little of the sacred texts,
But I put those teachings into practice,
Casting off desire, ill-will, and delusion,
Practicing wakefulness and meditation,
Free of attachments to anything, here or in the future,
Then I may become enlightened.

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