Sitting in concentration camps


You may have noticed that a lot of so called “zen masters” are fans of “Engaged Buddhism”. This is a Buddhism that gets involved in political topics and moral dilemmas of society. One example was given by a teacher named Glassman. He built up a bakery where homeless people and ex cons found work and self confidently learned to make profit. Glassman’s “Peacemaker Order” did a lot of other good things. One of Glassman’s rather strange ideas was to do sit-ins in former German concentration camps. Glassman’s disciple Anshin Thomas copied his teacher’s idea of street retreats and living with the homeless. So what is wrong here?

In Zen tradition we find stories of masters who mixed with the homeless. The point was of course that a common person would not detect them by the eye, one had to watch the homeless closely or get them involved in a zen dialogue to find out. Still others tried to blend in wearing their robes, Menzan Zuiho wrote an illustrated booklet about the life of one exemplary zen beggar named Tosui. In another story a guy wants to become the disciple of a certain homeless teacher. “You can’t do it”, the teacher says, “you’d have to do what I do.” – “Of course I will”, answers our guy, and the teacher browses a load of garbage to retrieve a gnawed away and dirty riceball and eats it. Disgusted, our guy turns away. “See, I told you: You can’t follow me.” The reason those stories are given is to teach us non-attachment. They are not meant to show us how to copy a certain lifestyle. They go far to shatter the mindframe of the disciple.

Sitting in former concentration camps does not go thus far (only sitting in current concentration camps would do so). Neither does living with the homeless for a week or so, when you have the chance that they are provided with in modern cities, to find shelter, clothes and food in all the organisations that care for them. Recently I saw a German documentation on TV, an experiment with a couple of people that were well-fed and had good jobs. They became homeless people in Berlin for a short time and found different ways to deal with it (some of them gave up early). One entrepreneur created a clever way to beg for money that provided him with so much money that he usually could sleep in a hotel room. A young physician, married with children, said this experience helped him to understand the unfortunate in society. He was later visited by an older guy whom he had met in one of the homeless shelters (well, a house with beds, meals etc. run by Christians). This older guy was allowed to stay overnight at the doctor’s house.  He seemed much too educated, well-versed and dressed to me. Anyway, he  stole the doctor’s watch and other things and left early in the morning; he had also mixed with the homeless, probably just to find fools like the physician. That is why wrong views are weighing more heavily in Buddhism (as part of delusion, a main root of suffering) than the lack of empathy.

Actions like becoming homeless without naturally being so or sitting in concentration camps that are museums nowadays have the touch of marketing stunts. Those stunts will be quoted often to characterize the teachers who did so. It is no wonder that the zen guy most famous for it is a Jew by origin. This “zen-act” was actually more a proof that he has not gotten rid of his family’s roots and education (but beware, this is what becoming homeless means).  At least he could have been conscious of the danger of being perceived that way. And living from the remains or donations of others is in itself what monks are supposed to do anyway, although the homeless in our documentation complained that (contrary to monks) they were not really acknowledged, not “seen”. There we have it again. It is just the robe that changes people’s attention in a certain cultural field (where the robe makes sense).

Of course zen history knows a lot of masters who gave advice to emperors. Muso Soseki was one of the most famous. It is not uncommon for zen monasteries to get involved even in martial activity, as the history of the Shaolin Temple shows. Modern zen adepts on the other hand should neither be living copy machines of the past nor the parrots of political parties or grassroot movements. When you make an individual decision to participate in a social activity, you may ask yourself if it is to stand out or to “get lost”, to blend in. And when you answer to current questions of moral like assisted dying or stem cell and embryonic research, you should not fall in the categories of manmade ethics and law but ask yourself what insight into the human condition has taught you.

A decade ago the German Buddhist Union in a press declaration made by engaged Buddhists refused to support such research that was ironically started in almost all developed Buddhist Asian countries at the same time, with one aim for sure, to alleviate the physical suffering of living beings. It was, by the way, not even possible to turn the one hundred thousand Buddhists in Germany into organ donators because some of them believe they might have a consciousness after being braindead. Clinging to life is a form of attachment that Buddhist practice should qualify, i.e. provide the understanding that a suffering human life in terms of Buddhism is one that can suffer from its (developed and active) mind and consciousness. No embryo and no braindead person can obviously do so. It is not for Buddhists to stop research in the area of physical suffering of those beings with an active mind and consciousness. Often the politically active and “engaged” Buddhists do a lot of damage to the potential of Buddhist ethics. And they seem to be worse in the Western world than in Asia.  The fear of Germans particularly stems from their attachment to the past, a phase of euthanasia in their ancestor’s history. Here they do not differ much from the attachments of the Glassmans and Thomasses.

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