If You Exist, I Exist

Three years ago today, Christmas Day 2017, our Zen Center Regensburg residential family received a box of chocolates and this card from Kerstin Zeise. A self-proclaimed “hometown girl of Regensburg”, she more than anyone helped me to establish this blessed oasis of silence located right smack in the heart of the Altstadt (Old Town) of this stunning jewel of medieval Bavarian culture. She was our Director, my right-hand woman, a shining force of optimism and total can-do, and really the force that made this all happen. She set up all of the administrative structure (if you know anything about German culture, that is life-or-death, the very oxygen of any organization) that we live off today.

She wrote,

Sunim, Patra, Niko, and Yonym,
Without you, this important place couldn’t exist. THANK YOU for your support, friendship, energy, love — without YOU, I couldn’t exist!
MERRY CHRISTMAS & A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Kerstin

A mere four months later, Kerstin was dead — not 53 years old. A passionate outdoorswoman and mother of two, she was a fit biker, climber, hiker, and skier. An aggressive cancer had metastasised from breast to, well, all over.

On a cold, snowy day, some friends gathered to lower a small wooden pot of this formerly muscular, vivacious soul’s ashes into a hole in the ground on a sloping hillside in a natural forest by a nondescript, half-mossy rock with no name. There was no headstone but the roots of a gnarled tree. She had requested that we all chant the Heart Sutra in Korean. The moktak reverberated through an empty stand of trees creaking in their stiff-backed swellings. As the last winding down of the moktak sounded through the forest, we held a few moments of silence. I had wanted to bow three times to the hole of her interment, but had worn the most formal robing, and the fabric was already causing me to trip as I walked. Seeming to know my thoughts, Niko stepped forward with his handful of dirt for the tiny hole of her hibernation, and bowed the three bows representing our Sangha’s gratitude, to the dumb hole in the ground. There were no words among these friends: only a freezing early-Spring wind among the naked trees.

And that was it.

“Without YOU, I couldn’t exist.”

Though I had received the card some months before her death — and none of us, not even her, had any idea that her cancer would turn so vicious, so suddenly, from something she believed she would recover from — the card had immediately been cleared out with other holiday things and placed in a box in a closest. A paper among many stacks of papers. In fact, I barely remembered having received it at all.

One year later, while cleaning out the closet, I came across the card again. I had forgotten about it — just one card among the many one receives around Christmas. Her handwriting was familiar as I flipped it over. Glancing down through the message, the words leapt out — fresh with pain, but also profound existential import, something unrealisable when we had first received it while she still lived and there was a sense of this healthy Bavarian outliving us all and the mountains:

“Without YOU, I couldn’t exist.”

Now, her ashes withered below a rock in a nameless, tree-creaking forest above a knoll near some farm by a bend in the river Naab, the “she” I knew and loved — it does not “exist.”

Then, if she doesn’t exist, do I? This illusion of reality I experience — what really is it to her, below that rock?

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