Don't Go There
As a Jew and a Briton, HENRY SHUKMAN had avoided all things German. As a Buddhist, he knew he had to say yes when his teacher asked him to teach at a zendo in the Black Forest. This is his journey.
I first reached Sonnenhof, I thought I had stepped into a Tang Dynasty
landscape painting. High up an implausibly steep valley side, a large
old building perched like a dragon’s lair, wrapped in several stories of
dark wooden balconies. Part chalet, part ancient temple, it felt like
at any moment the whole structure might drop off the hillside and swoop
down into the ravine.
at the same time—enhancing the Tang effect—the building had an
extraordinarily settled feel, as if its very fabric had welded with the
earth on which it stood. As soon as I arrived and was shown to my
second-floor room, commanding a precipitous view down the valley, I felt
inexplicably at home, as if some part of me belonged here. There was
the calm tidiness of the simple room, with its table and small bed and
bare wood shelves stocked with a handful of books on Zen. There was that
view, and a welcoming bowl of fruit and bottle of mineral water—but
there was something else too, indefinable yet palpable: a sense of
familiarity, as if I already knew this place, and it knew me.
put it down to the dharma. Sonnenhof, a center for Zen and
contemplation in the Black Forest of Germany, was founded by my own
teacher, Joan Rieck Roshi. Obviously, I had a karmic connection to it.
In some ways the center itself has evolved over some twenty-two years to
be an expression of her teaching, which is the teaching of Yasutani
Roshi and Yamada Roshi that I have also received. This building has
developed as a receptacle and conveyor of that teaching: small wonder
that it should feel so familiar, so welcoming, and so much like home.
Yet dharma was not the whole answer. There was more.
am a British Jew. Throughout my childhood I absorbed, explicitly and
subliminally, so much anti-German sentiment that by the time I reached
adulthood, curious though I was about other European countries, I had no
interest in Germany. I’d taken one compulsory overnight visit to the
country as a child, while touring with a school choir, and a two-hour
trip into Freiburg from France as a youth, where the drive down a
tree-lined autobahn reminded me chillingly of a highway I’d once seen in
a Nazi propaganda film. Soon after, I made a silent promise not to
visit Germany again. It was too hard. My father’s extended family had
all come from Poland and Ukraine. They were erased from history during
the Second World War. The past was too awful, the sins too great. The
history was simply too painful. It was easier to have nothing to do with
stuck to my promise. In my mid-twenties I even gave up a well-funded
Ph.D. on Homer when it became clear I was going to have to learn German
to read all that country’s great classical scholarship. I developed my
own private embargo not just against Germany but all things Ger- man.
And somehow, I never really questioned the rightness of this attitude.
It seemed inherently, inviolably right, and I found plenty of
encouragement among my Jewish and English friends.
was brought up on the Second World War. It was the great mythology on
which we were reared in England. In my case, it was a dual history: on
the one side, the heroic British commandos giving sadistic Gestapo
agents what for with their Tommy guns; and on the other, the Holocaust,
the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pale bodies bulldozed into
the black Polish mud or incinerated into its low skies. Among them,
somewhere, were the unnumbered members of my father’s family. But we
didn’t talk about them.
when I asked my father why we had lost no family in the war, he
shrugged and said, “What are you talking about, boychick? My mum, my
dad, they both had scores of relatives in Poland.”
He’d never mentioned them before. All I could think to say was: “What happened to them?”
Which only elicited another shrug. “What do you think? You never heard of Hitler?”
was shocked. And I picked up the sense that the whole subject was more
or less like Germany itself: Don’t go there. Nor did our losses end with
those distant relatives. Not content with slaughtering all the lost
uncles, aunts, and cousins, the Germans had also landed a V-2 rocket
right on the roof of my grandfather’s tailoring workshop in Soho,
central London, after which he was never again able to own his own
workshop. To hate Germany may have been a prejudice, but it was a fine
one, even a laudable one. It was right to cauterize the immense wound
Germany had caused, to cut it away, to exclude it from our world. Our
world would continue to turn. It just wouldn’t have Germany in it.
it did have Germany in it. It does. The Holocaust happened, and here we
are now, nearly seventy years on, and Germany is still in our world.
here I was now, on German soil. Somehow, in spite of all my best
resolutions, I was not just in Germany but in Schwarzwald, Germany’s
heartland. And not just that, but about to help lead a Zen retreat for
nearly fifty German students. How had this happened? What was I doing
strongest convictions are apt to melt in the course of Zen training.
That may be in large part what the training is for. But my conviction
that Germany had forever forsaken its right to a place in my world had
apparently not melted. Or had it? Here I was, after all.
my teacher asked me to join her in leading this retreat, I
unhesitatingly said yes. If possible, I always tried to do what she
asked. She is an extraordinarily modest and clear teacher. In spite of
having guided hundreds of students along the Zen path, she is all but
unknown, except to her students. To know her you have to find her. Your
karma has to bring you to her. Naturally, if I could, I did what she
said. Germany? Wherever. What did it matter? This was about the dharma,
something entirely transnational. And anyway, I had surely grown up by
now, matured in my attitude toward history. Wasn’t all human history a
chronicle of tyranny, cruelty, and trauma? Sitting zazen was one way of
facing and releasing trauma.
in the months, then weeks, then days before the retreat, it became
clear the upcoming visit to Germany was not so simple a matter after
all. I started to feel afraid. I was scared of the feelings mostly: the
unquenchable sorrow associated with such a vast horror, and the terror,
and the rage, and other feelings I couldn’t even name.
that was just me. How would the retreat participants react to having a
Jew in their midst? They might prefer not to have to reflect on their
national history with the Jews. They might resent my presence. I hardly
expected to meet rabid anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial—these were Zen
students, after all—but I was apprehensive anyway. What were Germans
like? I simply hadn’t known Germans. Most of all, though, I wondered if I
was, merely by going there, betraying my own people.
an assimilated, non-practicing half-Jew, I had ambivalent feelings
about “my own people.” Categorized as Jewish by non-Jews, yet excluded
from the tribe by Orthodox Jews, maybe I had clung to my boycott of
Germany as one issue on which we could all agree. Perhaps hatred of
Germany, however understandable, was also a way for an assimilated Jew
to maintain a sense of belonging to the Jewish collective. But the
feelings around the question were all the more disturbing—all the more
murky, indistinct, and confused—for being collective. Were they really
my own feelings or Jews’ in general, which I had absorbed by osmosis? It
was hard to separate.
now that I was in Germany, I was loving it. Not only did the center
feel like an old Zen temple from the Golden Age of Zen, it had hosted so
many retreats over the decades that the very bones of the building
seemed to support our practice. In dreams and in zazen, I met a local
earth entity, a dragon, called forth by our practice to help us in our
surrender to Kanzeon and the dharma.
mundanely, I was loving the food: potatoes, soups, rye bread, and
applesauce. It was like Jewish food. Actually, much of it was Jewish
food. I was loving the people too—not just their shared commitment to
the Zen way, their deep friendliness, their emotional honesty and
readiness to surrender self-protective versions of themselves. More than
that, the men had rich, resonant voices and voluminous presences that
reminded me of my father’s Jewish friends when I was a kid. The quality
of their deportment, of their bodies, the sound of their voices, the
sadness that was in their laughter— it all seemed Jewish. And the women
laughed and wept just like Jewish women, their faces creasing up as if
their mirth was soaked in sadness, and their sadness steeped in mirth.
was beginning to sense just how much Jewish culture is actually German,
or vice versa. Even Yiddish is German, after all. Seven or eight
hundred years of living in Germany left the two cultures inextricably
entwined. If we were sworn enemies, were we also somehow siblings? It
began to seem to me that a friendship, an intimate relationship, had
been ruined, destroyed perhaps forever, by a frenzy of madness, a
ruthless orgy of industrialized murder. Was it possible that today, now,
what mattered more than the millions of murders was the broken
relationship and its healing?
felt such affinity with the land too. Those deep old valleys of Central
Europe had been a Jewish homeland for so long. I sensed an emptiness
here, an absence in the bare, grassy slopes, and began to wonder if the
land itself missed the Jews, if in some way it was happy to have a Jew
here once more, treading its paths.
I did tread them. A network of footpaths threads through the Black
Forest, and it was possible to go hiking for an hour or two in several
different directions and meet with a few cows or goats, and now and then
another hiker. There were pine woods and deciduous trees, and
precipitous slopes with little burnished-roofed villages glinting at the
bottom. There were farmsteads with large pitched roofs and tremendous
stores of firewood neatly stacked. It was somehow like a cross between
the Lake District of northern England and the forested hills of Poland,
where many of my forebears had lived.
my first talk was approaching, I began to feel uneasy again. Would I be
betraying myself and all Jews if I said nothing? But what would I say?
In short, I didn’t know whether to bring up the Holocaust, and my
Jewishness, or not. I had been planning to talk about Ganto and Seppo,
two great masters of the Tang period, and just stick to Zen. But if I
didn’t address the matter at all, it might intensify and grow, and come
to overshadow the whole sesshin. More than anything, I realized, I was
experiencing a great well of sadness. I decided I had to talk about it,
about how it felt to be Jewish in Germany and about what had happened to
the relationship of these two peoples.
bin ein halb-Jude,” I began with trepidation, but hoping that somehow,
as often happens with things we dread, this could turn out to be a
powerful and healing experience for everyone.
cat was out of the bag and there was no going back. I found myself
giving up all sense of control, letting the talk go where it wanted.
became clear, then and through the rest of the retreat, was that
whatever horrific trauma was inflicted on the Jewish people by Hitler,
Germans today are also still traumatized by their country’s killing
orgy. What Germany had done to “us Jews” had wounded Germany too.
Monstrous cruelty inflicts a cruelty on the perpetrators as well as the
victims. It was as if the country were still shocked by the madness that
had seized it two generations ago. They too needed healing.
I saw that, something remarkable began to happen. For the rest of the
retreat people came and wept with me, with relief and gratitude. The
source of suffering might be different for each of us, but we could
still meet in the commonality of our suffering itself. It was precisely
there that healing could be found. What a burden they had been carrying,
an unexpungible guilt, a permanent stamp of shame they felt wherever
they went in the world. When abroad, Germans often feel that just to
admit they are German is an act of penance. There was no escape from it.
The sins of the fathers had been visited upon the sons and daughters.
was part of what I learned during the sesshin. But this wasn’t just
about the rights and wrongs of collective forgiving or forgetting. It
was also about someone—me—who thought he knew how to forgive and
discovered he did not. I still felt, fundamentally, that forgiveness was
mine to give or withhold. By holding on to my prejudice against
Germany, however historically justifiable it might be, I had been trying
to control something—the horror, the scale of the devastation, the
overwhelming human tragedy. But as hardness melted in the dharma of the
sesshin, it became clear that forgiveness was a larger force than any
one of us, and that as long as I believed myself to be the bestower or
withholder of it, I could not truly forgive anything at all. I didn’t
know until now that when we forgive, we are also forgiven. So if we are
convinced we don’t need forgiving—only those other people do—then we
forgiveness is not ours; it works through us. It involves a more
radical kind of letting go. It’s like the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we let go
of our begrudging, our hating, our judging, and hold nothing back; if we
surrender our conviction that we have the true handle on a situation,
and it’s us who see things right; if instead we surrender to the vast
field of not-knowing; if we really allow ourselves not to know what’s
going on, or what is best, then a deeper love can flow. We discover that
a small version of ourselves had still been in command, still believing
it “knew” the true situation and could “assess” where and how much
forgiveness to dispose and how much to refrain from bestowing.
This means that even if I decide, Okay, I forgive them, I have still somehow missed the point. I haven’t said, True forgiveness is a force greater than I am.
I must give up my attachment to being right—even if I am right! Until I
accept that, as Master Setcho said, “Under the shadowless tree all
people are in one boat,” I won’t know the healing tide of real
forgiveness. None of us is immune to violent urges, after all, none
innocent of the poison of anger. No matter how the Holocaust may surpass
all other human horrors, every one of us surely comes from a lineage
that includes perpetrators of cruelty and violence. But the moment we
surrender our judgmental mind and forgive just as we recognize our need
to be forgiven, we plunge into Kan-zeon’s vast ocean of forgiveness and
our fundamental innocence is miraculously restored to us.
are not separate from one another. “Not two” is the basic teaching of
Bodhidharma and the generations of Zen masters. By bringing Jew and
German together, Joan Rieck Roshi had once again demonstrated the
perfect functioning of the Tao. A healing was needed, and without
planning or forethought, she had let it happen. That’s why I’m grateful
to have broken my vow and gone to Germany last summer.
Henry Shukman is a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. His latest novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times editors’ choice.
ILLUSTRATION: Kim Scafuro