I arrived in Switzerland this morning. I will spend some days with Franziska Schneider, who leads Zen-Zentrum Im Grunen Ring in St. Gallen. We’ll do retreat together and finally, on Sunday, a ceremony recognizing Franziska as a teacher and lineage holder.
Here in Switzerland retreat centers are fully booked, as are movie theaters and concert halls. My part of the US feels very different. The airport in Boston was half empty on a Sunday night, but I still enjoyed watching the people, especially since only Emirates and British Airlines seemed to be flying out of our termina,l with many Muslim passengers.
I have a fond recollection of paying $150 each way to fly between Paris and New York City one summer in 1982 on Pakistan Airlines. I’d sat next to a very elegant, elderly Pakistani man who was bemused by a single young woman flying to Paris on her own. The airline offered both Western and Pakistani cuisines and he suggested I take the latter, unless I was very attached to ham. I assured him that was not the case.
Many people have pet peeves when they fly; I have one, and that is when I approach my seat on the plane and find that my fellow passenger has loaded his/her blankets, pillows, bags, and sandwiches on my seat. This happens even when I board early. I stand at the aisle, the line behind me coming to a halt, while my fellow passenger starts taking back all his/her blankets, pillows, bags, etc., with a grimace of frustration, as though somehow all this is my fault. That didn’t happen last night, if only because the flight was about 25% full.
The weather changed dramatically the weekend before I left. We had warm, humid days for most of September, but that ended with a big storm on Friday, and when the storm was over the air cleared and temperatures dropped. I popped my head out the front door that night before turning off all the light, and knew that fall had come. There was no mist. Gone the moths circling around the outside bulb, gone the mosquitoes and gnats, no sounds of mating from the river below, just dark, eternal trees. The hummingbirds are already gone and when I return home next week I’ll take down their feeders, wash them, and put them in the basement for next summer. That will also be the time to clean up the yard.
Back home, we live nature’s cycles. I lived another cycle earlier today. Franziska picked me up from the Zurich airport and took me to Lassalle- Haus, the beautiful Jesuit-Zen retreat center in Bad Schonbrunn, and there we had lunch with Niklaus Brantschen, a Jesuit and Zen master who led the House for many years.
I met Niklaus back in 1994 when I joined him and his partner, Sr. Pia Gyger, who then headed the order of nuns of Ste. Katharina-Werk, as well as Bernie for a street retreat on the streets of Zurich. Switzerland was being flooded by immigrants from Russia and East Europe and we met many of them on the streets. Since then, of course, Switzerland has given safe haven to many refugees from Syria, the Balkans, and Africa. We slept on park benches and walked around at all hours of the night.
Bernie in particular wanted to visit the Letten, a large park right in the middle of Zurich where the authorities permitted drugs of all kinds to be bought and sold. We later wrote about it in the book Bearing Witness. Meantime, however, the authorities had come under a lot of pressure and closed up the Letten, so the addicts and dealers were back on the Zurich streets to do their business.
Niklaus and Pia continued to do street retreats in Zurich, and we talked about that over lunch today. One of the many gifts Bernie gave me was an appreciation and respect for genuine interfaith practice, where you plunge into the traditions, vocabulary, and practices of other religions. It was a very common thing at Greyston to have, in addition to Zen meditation, Sunday mass, Shabbat services, and Sufi Zikr. He’d send folks to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City to meet with the Rector of the Cathedral and his close friend, the Very Rev. James Morton.
But I never quite appreciated that work till the first time I arrived at Lassalle-Haus in 1994, met Pia and Niklaus, and attended their annual interreligious dialogues. We participated in mass, they participated in Buddhist liturgy. Six years later we all met in Jerusalem to do a study of interfaith koans. The breadth of these practices at times takes my breath away. How did I ever acquire so much merit as to receive all these gifts?
So today Franziska, Niklaus and I had lunch, then sat on the terrace with coffee, and finally went into a small zendo and sat together for a short while. Bernie is no longer here, Sr. Pia is no longer here.
He walked us to the car, taking my arm. I said: “Niklaus, I am the least nostalgic, sentimental person I know, but when I’m in Lasalle-Haus I get nostalgic.”
He squeezed my arm. When we parted I said to him: “Zu Zamen halten,” which is what we used to say together back then at the end of each meeting: We go on.
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