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Finding Peace in Purgatory: A Zen Perspective On The Holocaust

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It sounds like the set-up for a politically incorrect joke: Did you hear the one about the journalist who began tracing the Buddha's footsteps in Poland?

Of course, the Buddha never stepped foot anywhere near Europe so what was I doing, on assignment for National Geographic Magazine tracking the migration of Buddhism, in Oswiecim, a small unremarkable industrial city that straddles the Sola River in the southwest corner of Poland?

It might make more sense knowing the German name by which Oswiecim is better recognized: Auschwitz. If the connection to Buddhism is still not clear, consider the first of the four pillars (the Four Noble Truths) upon which the Buddha built a system of belief: that first and foremost the human condition is rife with suffering. Then where better - or worse, in this case - to stare suffering in the face, to confront what horrific pain one man can inflict upon another, of a magnitude that numbs the heart and tilts the brain? And, in the illogical logic of Zen, where better to come to terms with such suffering, and perhaps turn that anguish - and all the other emotions the Holocaust evokes - into compassionate wisdom? For a half Polish Jewish journalist who lost family in the Holocaust, it would be a tougher lesson.

I had joined the Peacemaker Institute's Bearing Witness Retreat, a five-day session held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps, now a memorial museum, as a way to gain a deeper understanding of suffering and one's own reaction to it.

I think of this experience now, as I do each year at this time, because in a couple of weeks the Institute conducts its annual retreat. Recently I got an email from the leader, Grover Gauntt, letting me know there are still some last-minute openings for this year's 12th annual session Nov. 5-10.

We walked the grounds, sat in barracks, sat on the tracks, and had evening discussions in order to try to synthesize the intense emotions that inevitably arise. My worst nightmare was that just seeing the wooden watch towers, the barbed wire fences and the sadly iconic brick gateway through which trainloads of doomed prisoners passed would cause me unbearable suffering. I feared sitting cross-legged on those infamous tracks, silently meditating in the Soto Zen tradition in bitter cold winds slapping my face under a monotonic gray sky.

The nightmare was realized. And then some.

But another "truth" slapped me harder in the face: the truth of my own Polish heritage. It's a fact of my life I rarely acknowledge. Being even half Polish was not something one boasted about when I was growing up in America. For most of my youth I thought "dumb Pollack" was one word. I could tell Polish jokes with the best of them.

This truth hit hardest in a large room the Nazis, with their endearing penchant for the ironic, called the Sauna, where prisoners were disinfected and then often slaughtered en masse. Now the concrete floor is covered with highly reflective tinted plastic. Several exhibits display salvaged pictures: sepia tones of families whose prominent noses and high cheek bones reminded me of my own relatives. We gathered in a semicircle on the glass floor and sat facing a wall of such photos. We were then each handed a different page with the lists of names and were asked to simultaneously read from our list.

"Israelevitch, Abraham. Israels, Salomon. Issakowitsch, Alexandre...." I naturally fell into a familiar Hebraic rhythm of incantation. One name overlapping the next, one voice harmonizing with another, the echoes of all the names bouncing off the walls, a chorus of death.

A bell rang and we sat in silence but the names still echoed in my ears. In the Soto tradition, you sit with eyes open but staring downward. My stare landed on a reflected photo of a pretty fair-haired woman in her 20s, clutching her two children. In her 20s, my mother Lillian was also a blonde beauty with a strong nose and distinctive cheekbones, a Meryl Streep look-alike from the film of William Styron's Sophie's Choice (in fact, my grandmother's name was Sophie). Suddenly it dawned on me that we bear witness not only to those who died here but also to those who never got to live, the unborn children of the murdered and those children's children. History may have lost undiscovered medical cures, unwritten novels and unscored symphonies, but I lost love and wisdom that would have been passed down from their generation to mine, and on to my daughter and her children.

Rather than get angry or go numb, this time, however, I felt an inexplicable release from it all. In the meditation practice, I had reached a state of mindfulness in which I was able to separate "me" from me. By staying focused on this moment, I could separate two experiences: what happened here back then and what was happening here now. By simply "bearing witness," without layering it with my feelings, my opinion, my reaction, my judgment, I saw that the Holocaust "just happened." No blame. No sadness. No anger or hatred. No guilt at no anger or hatred.

That evening I shared with others my liberation from so many hellish thoughts and feelings. One woman agreed and said she felt more alive here than anywhere else. How could that be, surrounded by images of death? I pressed her but all she said was, "I don't know." Was this a cop-out or was she practicing what Buddhists call the "don't-know mind" - that there are things we can never understand, that make sense only when we stop trying to make sense of them? I don't know about the don't-know mind. I do know that it was a difficult lesson - for a Jew, for a Pole, for a journalist who thinks he needs answers - and I honestly have not mastered it.

For now, though, I assuage my suffering with the Buddha's own words: "Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone. You are the one who gets burned."

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Perry Garfinkel is the author of Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All, a national bestseller now published in paperback by Three Rivers Press.

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