A gun to the head is wordless teaching

March 21, 2014 at 12:15 am Leave a comment

It’s amazing how two things that have no obvious relationship to each other can be brought into an insightful and meaningful relationship. For example, today I understood about certain Zen practices by reading a story about life in Auschwitz.

The Auschwitz incident is from Primo Levi’s recollections from Auschwitz, Moments Of Reprieve. This collection has a chapter about a German criminal at Auschwitz named Eddy who he calls The Juggler. Levi explains how he had a piece of paper and a pencil stub hidden on him, and one day on work duty in a cellar, he sat down to try to write a letter home. This was forbidden – the paper, the pencil, the act of writing home, all of it. Engrossed in his writing Levi was unaware that Eddy, a sub Kapo (or foreman), was sitting there watching him write.

Here is how Levi describes it; ‘I hadn’t reckoned with Eddy’s noiseless step. I noticed him only when he was already watching me. Instinctively – or, rather, stupidly, – I opened my fingers. The pencil fell, but the sheet of paper descended slowly to the ground, swaying like a dead leaf. Eddy lunged to pick it up, then slammed me to the ground with a violent slap. But there: as I write the sentence today, and as I am typing the word “slap”. I realise that I am lying, or at least transmitting biased emotions and information to the reader. Eddy was not a brute; he did not mean to punish me or make me suffer.’

Now here is the bit that interests me in relation to Zen slaps and shouts:

‘A slap inflicted in the camp had a very different significance from what it might have here among us in today’s here and now. Precisely: it had a meaning: it was simply another way of expressing oneself. In that context it meant roughly “Watch out, you’ve really made a big mistake this time, you’re endangering your life, maybe without realising it, and you’re endangering mine as well. ” But between Eddy, a German thief and juggler, and me, a young inexperienced Italian , flustered and confused , such a speech would have been useless, not understood (if nothing else because of language problems) , out of tune, and much too roundabout.

For this very reason, punches and slaps passed among us as daily language, and we soon learned to distinguish  meaningful blows from the others inflicted out of savagery, to create pain and humiliation, and which often resulted in death. A slap like Eddy’s was akin to the friendly smack you give a dog, or the whack you administer to a donkey to convey or reinforce an order or prohibition. Nothing more in short than a nonverbal communication. ‘

It struck me that Eddy’s slap, like the punches and blows that Levi describes, are akin to the shouts and blows from a staff that I’ve read about as part of Zen training for monks in meditation.  In the meditation hall, where speech is a distraction, and where the monks are being taught not to rely on speech, I can see how shouts and blows would deliver a nonverbal message that would convey a lot of meaning to the monk on the receiving end.

I know these Zen blows are intended to rouse monks dozing off in meditation, or are meant to give a shock to the meditator, leading to ‘sudden’ enlightenment, but I can see that a master just wouldn’t want to verbally explain why a monk was screwing up, and so just smacks him with a stick to say ‘wake up’. And wake up means both stop falling asleep and also become enlightened.

It seems to me that Eddy’s slap and a master’s blow with a stick have a great similarity. The difference is that Levi’s silent lesson was one that saved him from possible death, allowing him to survive Auschwitz, while a monk’s lesson is one that enhances his life, especially his spiritual life.

When people sit down to meditate, they often get up after a short time complaining about pain in their legs. Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama, author of that wonderful book, Opening The Hand Of Thought, had a remedy for that. He said just imagine that there was someone standing behind you with a gun aimed at your head, and if you were to get up he would fire. He said this kept people sitting for much longer! This really has nothing to do with Primo Levi but I always liked this idea and so I have added it here for my pleasure.

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