“The Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius and Zen Center Regensburg

The Zen Center Regensburg has a profound and important historic connection with Emperor Marcus Aurelius. This factoid has been a particular excitement for me since we founded this Zen Center in 2016. Some of the members of our Zen Center family roll their eyes and laugh when some new arrival gets assaulted with my map-presentation (see below) and point-by-point presentation worthy of the best sales seminar. The excitement over this possibility of an ancient historic connection with a personage long dead feels somewhat unseemly, being as I’m trained strongly in the tradition of “just-now mind”. But as someone who has also grown up with a love for history and the history of ideas and religions, the possibility of the author of The Meditations having some connection to this precious spot of our Zen Center is something way, way too tantalising to just “put all down”. It actually gives me goosebumps. It should really give you goosebumps, too.

First, some background on finding this spot:

The Zen Center Regensburg was formally opened in March 2016, with hundreds of guests attending from around the world. Because I clearly had no previous links to Regensburg, a common question from people around the Opening Ceremony — especially those who had seen me rooted so strongly in Korea for so long — was “Why here? Why choose Regensburg for this?” You get this question quite often (still do). And it was not always easy to answer the “why” with very convincing evidence.

Sure, Regensburg is regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Germany. It is a real medieval treasure. It is a UNESCO-listed town, and is consistently listed as one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Germany. But that dimension, if anything, was something that would turn off someone who wanted to found a quiet little community of meditation practitioners. Tourism’s mindless consumption is something which always feels wasteful and vain. On paper, a tourist site is not something that feels attractive in the least. When I first began the escape from Korea, I had strongly considered basing something in Amsterdam. But after visiting and “trying out” a lived experience there, it just got tiring seeing the waves of tourists, especially the weekend hordes cattle-car’d in from the English hinterlands, drunk on arrival, spilling all over the streets and puking openly. I hated the need to step gingerly over pools of vomit a-Monday morning, and thought this would not be great for inviting people for retreats. (Though I absolutely adore the city, and would live there in a heartbeat, were it not for the day-job.)

I don’t know why, but after several years of “hiding” out in Munich following the escape from the scarring experience of fame and notoriety in Korea, in about 2007, when it came time to make a stable community, there was just this extraordinary magnetic pull to Regensburg. I cannot explain it any better than to reference this “pull” I felt drawing me here.

A small group grew up from once-per-week visits here to lead a Tuesday-night sitting session. I would arrive from Munich in the afternoon, lead a sitting session, and then catch the night train back to Munich to my little apartment. Despite several years of needing to be away to attend the 90-day Kyol Che’s in Korea, the stalwart group never faltered. They kept on the practice whether I was there or not.

With rents in Munich fast depleting the small nut of savings I had brought from Korea to seed a base in Germany, I began looking in earnest only in about 2014, maybe 2015, for something more stable than the one-room apartment where I had been “active” in Munich. With Kerstin and Gabe, we checked out a number of sites that they would find online and through their contacts. Nothing really every clicked.

Then, in the Summer of 2015, Gabe and Kerstin presented a list of two or three more sites to check out. One of the sites was a former office space located right smack in the very heart of the heart of the historic Regensburg Altstadt (Old Town). The building was a faceless, industrial-gray on the outside. It definitely stood out in this little neighbourhood, where so many of the buildings date back hundreds of years.

And what felt somewhat foreboding was that Georg Ratzinger, the brother of ex-Pope Benedict, lived directly under the windows of the room which would possibly become our Dharma Room. Not a great sign! The Ratzinger brothers were arch-conservatives, strict Bavarians who had literally taken it as a mission to stem the decline of Catholicism in Europe through a strong reassertion of traditional (Bavarian) Catholic teachings against the rapid secularisation of today. Joseph Ratzinger was a name very familiar to me since high school days: He was the iron-fisted right-hand man to arch-conservative Pope John Paul II, under whom he was the all-powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which “was founded to defend the church from heresy; today, it is the body responsible for promulgating and defending Catholic doctrine. Formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.” One could almost say that his work as the head of the Inquisition office was the last instrumental act to drive me finally away from an active role in a Catholic faith which I actually loved a great deal: Since I had been long sympathetic with the struggles of landless farmers in El Salvador and Nicaragua to gain dignity and human rights against the powerful landowning aristocratic families who routinely oppressed them, I was highly sensitised to the fact that it was historically the backing of the institutionalised Catholic Church in Latin America which allowed the ruling landowning elites and their military dictatorships to trample on the rights of the poor underclass. While at Yale, I was involved in two social justice movements: the anti-apartheid movement, and CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). This was during the age of Reagan, and the FBI was later revealed to have “cased” meetings of student committees on the campuses of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, and Wisconsin-Madison during this time. All of our membership were informed, by our attorneys, that there were definitely FBI files on all of us who had signed petitions during our direct-action events.

In the midst of all of this, the Polish pope was condemning the “liberation theology“ movements in Latin America, we are priests identified with the peasant poor, represented their hurts and fought for social justice on their behalf. The priests, mostly Jesuits (who I had hoped to join), we’re finger wag by the pope, and excoriated in writings by Cardinal Ratzinger. So, he was a figure long known to me, sort of an intellectual nemesis at least on this issue, which proved an institutional church not on the side of the peasant poor.

So here we go: I’m going to start up a Zen Center directly under the window of the brother of the former head of the Roman Inquisition, across what amounts to a wide alleyway — wide enough for only one car to pass — cobblestones street that echos one’s footsteps long after a person has walked passed the building, especially in the pre-dawn hours. There is no way these arch-conservative people aren’t going to hear our chanting, at five in the morning and after dinner. Kerstin (born and raised here) had always warned me, “Sunim, we must be careful in Regensburg. It seems like a city. But really, it is a little village. Everyone comes to know everything about everyone else.” She also told me, “Sunim, several retired priests and nuns live on this little street. Your strange clothing will get noticed very soon, coming and going! They are very conservative, old-style Bavarian mind. Can you sometimes maybe wear jeans so you seem ‘normal”

It seemed utterly crazy to situate a Zen Center close enough to the still-living ex-pope’s brother that you could literally hear the sound of his fork scraping on his plate when he ate! But I was drawn to this spot. I really did not know why – – I just had to have this piece of real estate, I thought!

Eventually, soon after establishing the Zen Center, as for anyone who inhabits this city, you come face-to-face with the fact that this charming medieval town was once a northernmost outpost of the Roman empire in the time of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

As I learned more things about Marcus Aurelius and his base here, I uncovered historical documents which made my hairs stand on end.

First, who was Marcus Aurelius?

He was “the philosopher emperor” who was involved heavily with the Germanic wars, spending up to eight years in what is now Bavaria and neighbouring regions, stretching into modern-day Croatia and Serbia (where he died). Most known of all, Emperor Marcus Aurelius was a devoted student of the Ancient Greek philosophy called Stoicism, a practice compared quite often to the practice (or at least the conceptual outlook) of Zen: “According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly”. (Wikipedia) Stoicism is a teaching so very much like Zen that it is sometimes given the shorthand descriptive “Greek Zen”.

Marcus Aurelius is known throughout history as the author of the text, The Meditations.

So what is the connection between the Roman emperor author of The Meditations and the Zen Center Regensburg? Well, for one, Marcus practiced “in” Zen Center Regensburg.

Really. No joke.

In fact, Emperor Marcus Aurelius strove to maintain his “original mind“ before we ever had a retreat here. According to historical documents, he literally commanded troops on the very same spot where our Dharma Room is currently located. Exactly on that spot. (And I have not determined exactly if he visited the spot. I hope to one day correspond with a scholar who can confirm if Marcus — during his campaigns against the Germans, when he was engaged in battles in this very vicinity — ever visited or commanded from this headquarters building which lies directly under our Dharma Room. But it just stands to reason that he must have: If he commanded in this area, and he was engaged in significant battles during the eight-year period that he was here, it stands very much to reason that he would have had some physical connection with the army base where his largest contingent of soldiers and commanding officers were garrisoned and trained. It just stands to reason.)

But let’s look at some maps:

  1. The extent of the Roman Empire in 117 C.E., under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The northern border extends to Ratisbona (today’s Regensburg). Marcus Aurelius stations a garrison at a fort that he constructs there, naming it “Castra Regina”:

2. The Roman Empire’s base, Castra Regina, sits on the edge of three confluences: the Danube, the Regens, and the Naab Rivers — facing off against the Germanic tribes, the “Bavarii”:

3. This is an aerial view of how Castra Regina would have appeared during Marcus’s campaigns here — the very years when he was composing The Meditations:

4. Another aerial view of Castra Regina. Note the large central command building (the Praetorium). This was the headquarters for the base, and thus the command center for Marcus Aurelius’s campaign against the Germanic tribes. Marcus Aurelius’s orders were issued through this building — whether in person or through epistolary decree is not certain. But Marcus was active in these regions of present-day Germany during the campaigns, and is known to have written much of his Meditations while active here in this area.

Here is an enhanced version of the Garrison – – with the headquarters building, the Praetorium, indicated in the yellow circle.

5. The outline of the “Castra Regina” garrison on top of a photo of today’s Regensburg Altstadt (“Old Town”).

6. The outline of the Castra Regina foundations overlayed on top of a map of today’s streets in the Regensburg Altstadt (“Old Town”). Notice the location of the Praetorium and the Legat buildings — the two headquarter buildings for Marcus Aurelius. The HQ buildings are located at the corner of today’s Weißbräuhausgasse and Luzen Gasse, directly in the center of the diagram:

6. The Zen Center Regensburg is located at Weißbräuhausgasse 2. (The red block, below.) The Zen Center Regensburg’s entire architectural footprint lies within the footprint of the Legat and the Praetorium buildings (yellow outline). The ZCR kitchen lies primarily in the Legat building’s architectural footprint; the Dharma Room — where we do Zen meditation — lies entirely within the footprint of the Praetorium — the headquarters building for Emperor Marcus Aurelius himself.

6. The remains of the “Porta Praetoria” today — the Danube-facing main entrance to Castra Regina:

So, when people sometimes ask me why I “chose” this spot to teach Zen, it is only half-jokingly that I reply something like, “I did not choose this spot for Zen. This spot chose us.”

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