The Fundamental Koan in a Concentration Camp

Ursula Baatz

"Right now whatever you do will not do -- what do you do?" This was the motto for a weekend of zazen (July 1-2, 1995) in the concentration camp at Mauthausen. It was a wonderful, bright summer morning when we started off from Vienna. Only a few of us had ever been there, one of the worst concentration camps in the SS ranking. It was located in a provincial town two hours by train from Vienna. We were fourteen Austrians, most living in Vienna, one coming from Germany, and we had decided to dare spend a weekend in zazen there. Some who had at first wanted to participate, ended up remaining behind in Vienna, afraid of the collective memories stored there. Almost all of us know each other, although we practiced in various traditions, including Zen, Theravada, Yoga, and Christianity. We practiced as a group of friends together, and since most of us were familiar with Soto Zen, we sat facing the barren wooden wall of the barrack. The structure for the weekend was inspired by the mutual and equal encounter and inquiry of the FAS Society.

Looking back, I'm amazed that permission was granted from the authorities, since we were not acting in any official capacity. Although the Rabbi of Vienna is not in charge of Mauthausen, I had asked him first, and a path though the bureaucracy emerged. All of us had to be screened by the state security police, but finally we were allowed to sit zazen in one of the prisoners' barracks, and to stay overnight in the compound.

"Right now whatever you do will not do -- what do you do?" This koan of Hisamatsu and the FAS Society was the koan for all of us during those two days. When we arrived, we first had a special guided tour through the camp, as most of us did not know about the humiliating routines of the concentration camp, nor about the social-economic connections of the SS. Auschwitz was a concentration camp to extinguish Jewish prisoners; Mauthausen served the same purpose for political prisoners. We became even more silent after the tour.

Then we started to sit. The area is now a museum, so lots of tourists came, looked into the room where we sat, sometimes took photographs or videos, but remained silent -- a poster on the door told them of our activities and confronted them with our koan. On the wall inside, a translation of a key passage from the "Gate of Sweet Nectar" was pinned, although after some discussion, we decided not to recite it. In the evening we walked in silence, first through the quarry nearby, where the prisoners had to work and where many died of exhaustion or random killing by SS guards. We walked about four kilometers to the next village, built where a sub-camp had been. Nothing remained of the sub-camp, except the building that housed the furnace. Many flowers had been placed on the furnace, and the walls of the room were plastered with faded photographs of people who were killed there. It was Saturday evening, and when we returned to concentration camp, we walked by garden parties in the neighborhood. When we climbed up the precipitous steps of the quarry, a huge summer moon hung over this place of horror, and crickets sang, as if nothing had ever happened. Before we went to sleep, we shared what we experienced.

We slept in the former quarters of the SS, now an office. We sat early the next morning until noon, and ended with recitations, including, "I have called you to liberate the people in prison and darkness..." fromIsaiah 42, and "The Four Great Vows." Prostrating on the dusty wooden floor, we bowed in front of a large group photograph of people who had inhabited this barrack, dressed in the characteristic striped jackets and trousers. After lunch, our tour guide joined us for our final sharing of experiences. It was surprising how important accurate information is in such an emotionally charged place, to make clear what the everyday life had really been like.

For all of us it was a remarkable event, and it seems to still be with us.

August 17, 1996