Zen at Auschwitz

Alan Morinis, the contemporary Mussar teacher, has recently posted a very honest and vulnerable discussion of his anger at the Zen Peacemaker annual retreats at Auschwitz here:


I posted the following in response to Alan’s request for feedback:

First I would like to commend Alan on his honesty in exploring this issue. I admire Alan very much for his willingness to be vulnerable and open in his mussar work, despite his role as leader in the community.

I practice both in the mussar and the Zen communities, and am involved more generally in both Jewish and Buddhist practice.
I would like to say first off that I think this anger is not a wise or appropriate response, and needs to be examined and abandoned. Since Alan has asked for help I will offer a few thoughts to that end.

1) Alan questions “what good” the Peacemakers offering their meditation to the dead will do. In Buddhism meditation is very much akin in value to davenning or Torah learning, and just as a Jew might feel that reciting tehillim or learning mishnayos or saying kaddish will in some way benefit the dead, or make their memory a blessing for the living, Zen Buddhists feel the same way about meditating there. A Buddhist might ask the same question about a religious Jew learning mishnayos for their dead Buddhist father- “what good will that do? Reciting some ancient laws? if only he would meditate for him….” That would show as much interfaith insensitivity as Alan’s response to the idea of meditation at Aushwitz does.

2) Alan frames the retreat as merely providing “certain feelings” for the retreatants. Again, a Buddhist could view Torah study or davenning the same way: “Instead of doing something useful like feeding the poor or questioning the nature of the emotions, why is that Jew getting high learning gemarra, just for the sake of selfish intellectual pleasures that go nowhere? Davenning is just self-hypnotism for the sake of reassurance and feeling good. What a waste of time.” I think that Alan views the retreatants activities as only producing “certain feelings” because he does not share their religious views. That is not fair.

3) I would suggest looking over reports from the March of the Living, where I would guess you will find testimonies of people having many emotional, spiritual, etc. experiences which could also be interpreted as nothing but a form of self-indulgent “tourism” if one read them with a hermeneutic of suspicion, as Alan reads the Peacemakers.

4) I was quite surprised by Alan’s criticism of Roshi Bernie Glassman’s advice re: visualizing someone you are angry at wearing a clown’s nose. The fact that Alan didn’t appear to understand what Roshi was saying, or see any possible value in it, is a good example of the mind-clouding effects of anger. “Resh Lakish said, ‘Wisdom departs from one who gets angry’ prophecy departs from a prophet who gets angry’ (Pesachim 66b).

Roshi was saying that when you picture someone with a clown’s nose it disrupts the momentum of your hypnotism by anger, and suddenly makes your own seriousness and anger seem silly, and you realize that we are all clowns- all fools, silly children carried away by delusion and our yetzer ha-ra. The point is to be compassionate and forgiving of other’s foibles and imperfection. To me this is reminiscent of something R’ Nachman might say. It cuts through our own seriousness and self-importance, and also provides space and disruption inside the serious cloud of our anger. I have tried it since reading Alan’s piece, and it works.
Most interesting here though is the fact that Alan writes: “This reflects nothing of the wisdom of mussar at all”.
Nu, and why should it? Roshi is a Zen teacher. It does reflect Buddhist perspectives on the folly of the ego-mind. Alan, do Buddhists not have a right to be Buddhists then?

5) I think it needs to be understood that for Buddhists the meditative confrontation with mortality and suffering is a fundamental aspect of their practice. Buddhists have long went to cemeteries to meditate (have been doing this for 2500 years) and still do. The fact is that cemetery meditations are a fundamental Buddhist practice. We may disagree with this practice, but it seems delusional to be angry about it. It is a well intended part of Buddhist religious beliefs! Why do people who have adopted Buddhism and practice in line with it with good intentions deserve anger, even if one disagrees with their practice? As one person above wrote, they are not harming anyone. The opinions of the dead are unknown to us.
I can honestly say that if I was horribly killed, and a memorium was put up, and people came to meditate there and reflect on suffering, injustice, and death, and went away better people, I would be very happy about it- or at least I would want myself to be. Has Alan imagined himself as one of the dead? This might seems a strange suggestion, but I suggest it to anyone who thinks this practice is an offense to the dead.

6) Although it is a bit beyond limits of time and space here, I think that the rest of Alan’s piece makes a halakhicly and hashkafically false case for the admissability of anger and unfavorable judgement, especially towards a fellow Jew. This is so even if the Peacemakers are clearly in the wrong in some way, which I do not think is the case. I would just say that anyone interested in this should consult the halachic work “The Right and The Good” by R’ Daniel Z. Feldman, the chapters on judging favorably, grudges, hatred and love, and “Haser Ka’as Milevecha (Remove Anger From Your Heart)” by R’ Avraham Tubolsky.

I will limit my remarks to the above and the following summary: I feel that this is a great mussar opportunity for Alan. The opportunity is to put himself more radically into the place and perspective of the other, and understand how from a Zen Buddhist perspective this retreat is justifiable. I am not saying Alan will come to agree with the retreat, but rather to understand it’s function for the participants from their perspective, and to at least feel that itmaybe justifiable,maybe good, and therefore anger is not appropriate.

I would also suggest that even if Alan cannot get to this point and feels the retreat is objectively wrong and he somehow thinks he knows this for certain, and think he is therefore justified in judging everyone involved negatively and being angry with them and even perhaps hating them in his heart, has v’shalom; I would like to point out that believing someone else is grossly mistaken and objecting to their activities does not require anger. It is also possible to have compassion. This is the meaning of the clown’s nose. Even if we think that the Peacemakers are grossly mistaken who are we to judge them and be angry as if they were intentional wrongdoers, selfish, craven and evil? At worst they are imperfect human beings trying to live a spiritual life and benefit themselves and others but doing so in a confused way.
Not only is anger not a justified response from this perspective, it effectively closes off the possibility of communication between us and them.

Thank you for raising this issue Alan. I hope my thoughts have been helpful, and I hope you’ll post a response to all of us at some point.

Read more:http://yasharmussar.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=general&action=display&thread=1&page=2#ixzz1IZi3nm2t

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s