Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The trip to Poland: Shortish version

Czech beer is great (and cheap). Hungarian beer sucks.

Most of the trip was overscheduled - it was a multi-city tour - so really it was more about hanging out with the Zen sangha than actually visiting Europe. But that was fun, too. Among the Zen activities, we saw a transmission ceremony, where Mu Shim Sunim officially become Zen Master Dae Jin Sunim. ("Sunim," btw, means "monk" in Korean. I'll use it again.)

There's an obnoxious cross in Prague that basically says, "Judaism sucks; Christ rocks" in Hebrew. (The actual phrase is from Isaiah, beginning "Holy, Holy," so that making it about Christ appropriates the Jewish text in a terrible way.) The legend, as explained by our tour guide, was that a Jew was fined for laughing at the statue of Jesus on the Cross, so the city used his money to add the words in Hebrew. Clearly, the city understands it to be antisemitic, but it's also clear they haven't managed the necessary ju jitsu to remake the statue to be about antisemitism. It still functions as a taunt, and it would probably be best if they'd take down the Hebrew letters. Recently, we were told, someone tore some of it off and threw it into the river. It was, however, restored.

I'm not quite sure what to make of these figurines, so perhaps someone can explain it to me.

(If you look really carefully, there might be a reflection of me in the glass.) There were such Jews for sale in many places. That photo was from Prague, near the Old-New Synagogue, and the figures seem much kinder. In Krakow (we were nowhere near the Jewish Quarter), the noses were longer and peyos more significant. I have trouble taking them as anything but racist, except that they might be intended as Judaica for Jews to buy.

Auschwitz was sad, of course, but doing morning practice at the Warsaw Zen Center in the days before helped. (I usually have a terrible time getting up in the mornings. That's no different when getting woken up at 4:30 am while visiting Zen Centers, but I do like when I've started the day with practice.) Also, having so many sangha members around really helped. At Birkenau, we did a little meditiation and soft Kwan Seum Bosal chanting.

Kwan Seum Bosal is the Boddhisattva of compassion, with 1,000 eyes to see all the suffering of the world and 1,000 hands to help, who cries at the enormity of her vow to save all beings from suffering. We generally chant to Ji Jang Bosal to help the dead, but I often find myself drawn to Kwan Seum Bosal when someone has died, in order to comfort those who have to go on. So for me, it was appropriate, in this world where we've still only begun to digest the fact of the Holocaust, to chant Kwan Seum Bosal.

Afterwards, on the bus, there were Dharma talks. First, a Jewish Zen Master who lives as a sunim in Korea. It wasn't surprising, but I think it was notable when he spoke of the Jewish concern for Israel. It was the usual pattern of Jews that I always find interesting: where the Holocaust only seems to serve as a justification before a more elaborate and sound justification is offered as an empassioned afterthought. After suggesting that we could perhaps now better understand the common Jewish concern for Israel, he went on to say that Jews had moved to Poland because it was a democratic place where they expected good treatment. Though I wouldn't suggest Sunim held personally to any ideology, as Buddhism teaches against all -isms, this is like Herzl's response to the Dreyfus affair. So it wasn't the Holocaust that was ultimately important in justifying Zionism, but that the Holocaust happened even in the context of liberal, Western society.

Then a Polish teacher (with a title just below that of Zen Master), was very interesting. He echoed the guide from Auschwitz, who had talked of the liberation from the Nazis as a cruel joke that brought totalitarian communism.

Then this senior dharma teacher from England, living in Brno, spoke. His talk wasn't as personal. Mostly, he was very animated by the depth of the tragedy and a feeling that one must respond to it. But he brought his talk back to the Four Great Vows and I really teared up because the vows cut through all the traps of trying to speak about the Holocaust.
Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all. Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all. The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all. The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to attain it.
I think those may be the only words I've ever heard that manage to capture the magnitude of tragedy without trivializing, that also speak to the present without demanding to own the past, that correctly demand strong action without the fascist habit of action for action's sake.

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