This is the first in a series of articles about the various communities and locations that we visit in part of our investigations into intentional communities and alternative ways living.
Each article will follow a similar outline, as shown in the table of contents below, in order to highlight key areas of interest.
- Size of the community
- Sources of income, business and employment model
- What inspired us?
- What would we like to incorporate into Azania?
- Closing thoughts
In October 2017, we spent two weeks as volunteers at Felsentor, a Zen meditation retreat in Switzerland run by a community of practitioners. We supported them in the running and upkeep of the house, café, garden and temple while we received food and lodging as well as instruction in Zen practice and philosophy.
Felsentor (literally “Rock Gate” or “Rock Arch”) is the name of a natural rock outcropping on the Rigi mountain near Lusern, Switserland. It forms an arch which you can walk through as you follow one of the various hiking trails on the mountain.
In the 1860s, a hotel was built at Felsentor and it served as a health resort (in German Kurort).
In 1897 American Author Mark Twain settled for about 10 weeks in the nearby village of Weggis.
“I believe that this place [Weggis] is the loveliest in the world, and the most satisfactory. The scenery is beyond comparison beautiful… Sunday in heaven is noisy compared to this quietness,” - Mark Twain
Later he and a friend would climb the Rigi, during which they passed Felsentor.
“We passed through a prodigious natural gateway called the Felsentor, formed by two enormous upright rocks, with a third lying across the top. There was a very attractive little hotel close by, but our energies were not conquered yet, so we went on”
More recently, the hotel at Felsentor (and surrounding fields) was bought by a Zen monk and a beautiful temple (called a Zendo) was built in the traditional Japanese architectural style.
Felsentor is now a Zen retreat center where regular seminars are held.
Since then, a community of Zen practitioners and volunteers live in the old hotel (where seminar guests also stay) and keep the place running.
The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something. – Koun Yamada
The community at Felsentor practice Japanese Zen Buddhism, more specifically the Sōtō school.
Lao Tzu’s words “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know”, are said to apply to Zen, and yet many Zen practitioners have written texts about what Zen is.
This contradiction is simply one of many in a philosophy that appears to relish, even seek out, conflicting juxtapositions, as embodied in the Zen Koans.
When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.
“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”
At these words Banzan became enlightened.
Koans are like riddles, designed to trip you up, to get you out of rational and discriminatory thinking and into a state of satori, which can be translated as “enlightenment”, “realisation” or “awakening”.
Allan Watts, who helped explain and popularise Buddhism in the West, said that you can “get” a koan in a way similar to how you “get” a joke. Jokes are not required or even expected to be rational. The humour that arises from a joke is often due to an initial buildup of tension, which is then suddenly released when the punchline happens. There’s a kind of “aha” moment and if you don’t get it, and need it explained to you, the joke (or koan) loses much of its effect.
Rationality alone cannot bring about direct experience of the Buddhist notion of “not-self” or the realisation that the self is illusory. Therefore in Zen, practice and direct experience instead of scholarship or intellectual reasoning is emphasized.
The seemingly illogical Koans are simply an attempt to point the way.
Form is emptiness, emptiness is form - From the Heart Sutra
A core practice of Zen Buddhism is the seated meditation called Zazen. This is generally done in front of a blank wall with the eyes open. Your hands are together with the thumbs lightly touching one another. You can use your breath, or the sensation between your thumbs, as an anchor to bring yourself back into awareness of the present moment whenever you find yourself being carried away by your thoughts.
Simple, and yet challenging.
At Felsentor we did one hour of Zazen in the morning, together with 20 minutes Kin Hin, which is a walking meditation, and then half an hour Zazen in the evening with another 10 minutes Kin Hin.
Once a month they have Zazenkai during which practitioners from elsewhere join in for a whole day of meditation.
It is because of its emptiness that the cup is useful - Lao Tzu
Size of the community
There are about 10-15 people forming the community, with some of them living at Felsentor permanently (for several years), while others stay there some days per week or month. Volunteers may stay for a minimum of a week and up to several months if space is available.
The days are strictly organised and have a monasterial character. Each day starts at 6:15 am to the sound of a large wooden gong, called a Han, being struck in a rhythmic pattern that starts of slowly and then gradually speeds up until eventually the last hits are in quick succession. It came to me as the audible equivalent of a sea-shell, or a vortex, which starts of with a long arc and then with each successive turn becomes smaller and quicker until you’re quickly pulled into the center.
Listen to the Han being struck at Felsentor
There are three of these so-called “rolldowns”, lasting 15 minutes in total, and after the third you’re expected to already be in the Zendo sitting on your meditation cushion and ready to start Zazen.
After meditation, the residents and volunteers meet to discuss the work for the day (called Samu) while retreat guests start breakfast.
In Zen, work is considered an opportunity to practice meditation and equanimity. There is an optimal way of doing every kind of work, and each type of work is done with the same sort of productive intention and acceptance. There is no complaining or procrastination, doing what you do in the now is most important. I have never before cleaned a toilet with so much attention.
When thinking about doing work in a state of full awareness and concentration, Westerners might conceive of slow and deliberate action. However, for the Japanese working within a state of Zen doesn’t mean being slow, unless perhaps you’re a beginner at the task at hand. Instead, it simply means doing what you’re doing with your full attention, which could be done very quickly if you’ve mastered the action.
Most of the activities during the day are done in silence, to heighten awareness of the task at hand.
After a few days, you become very aware of your inner mental processes. They may seem to conform to some kind of repeating or self-similar pattern and appear arise of their own, almost like automated software programs that control the mind.
In software engineering, such programs are funnily enough called daemons.
Daemons are programmed to run in the background, and to perform useful tasks and calculations at certain time periods. However, if you’ve ever had your computer lock up, become very hot or unbearably slow, you’ve witnessed the effect of daemons running amuck and using up all the system resources.
With the mind it’s not much different. Anxious, neurotic and self-conscious thoughts take up mental energy and divert attention from the task at hand.
Initial awareness of these daemons can be quite intense and challenging. As you however learn to deprive them of their energy by not clinging to the thought (and concomitant emotion) and simply letting it fade away, you free up a lot of mental energy.
For both us, each night at Felsentor was characterized by vivid dreams.
Most of the day is filled with work of various kinds. Preparation of food, cleaning the house, working in the garden, mending fences, getting firewood, and so forth.
There are also certain special religious tasks like cleaning and preparing the various altars.
The day ends in meditation again.
Sources of income, business and employment model
Felsentor is a charitable foundation that finances itself through donations and courses that take place around the year. These course are mostly related to Zen, but also including related practices like Qi Gong or Yoga.
The foundation owns nearby pasture which is rented out to local farmers.
There is also a little office shop where home-made products like teas and creams are sold and a sweet little garden café mostly serving to passing-by hikers.
The facilities consist of the seminar house itself (the old hotel), the Zendo (temple), garden café, animal shelter, gardens, meditation pathways and pasture.
In the seminar house is a library with an interesting collection of books, including ones on the various forms of Bhuddism (e.g. Zen, Tibetan Bhuddism, Mahayana), and also on contemplative Christianity (Meister Eckhardt, St. Francis of Assisi) and even works that attempt a synthesis of the two.
The animal shelter is run by a Franciscan Nun, who also happens to practice Zen. An enormous pig, named Anton, calls the shelter his home. He is allowed to wander the grounds and was once found on the other side of the mountain.
Additionally there are chickens, geese, goats, three smaller black pigs and four dogs.
The diet at Felsentor is vegan, except for the occasional egg from the chickens, and none of the animals are kept for their meat.
What inspired us?
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? - Matthew 7:16, King James Bible
In our view, the fruits of Zen practice may be seen in the calm and gentle nature of the people living at Felsentor. Interactions were defined by mutual respect, generosity, inner calm and appreciation.
This environment appears very conducive to personal and spiritual growth, since your own ego constantly gets mirrored back to you, as you observe the community’s behaviour.
Samu taught us a new way of approaching work that we normally resisted with inner peace. On top of that, every person of the community rotated through roughly the same tasks as far as it made sense, so that everybody needs to clean the toilet or wash dishes or separate the trash from time to time.
The food was tasty, plentiful and vegan heaven. Almost everything comes freshly from their own organic gardens and is prepared with love. In contrast to certain stereotypes, everyone was fit and able to do even hard physical work.
The shop and course fees of Felsentor are partly based on Dana. Dana is the spiritual practice of cultivating generosity. Practically this meant that there was no cashier at the cafe, no fixed course fee and for certain products there was no price at all. Dana means you give from your heart without expecting anything in return. When you receive something, you pay what you think the value of what you receive is, depending on your personal situation, and no one checks up on you. Try it out, its effects go deep.
Living creatures get influenced through dānam Enemies lose hostility through dānam A stranger may become a loved one through dānam Vices are killed by dānam
— Hindu Proverb about Dana
What would we like to incorporate into Azania?
Zen is a beautiful binding philosophy for a community which can accommodate people from diverse religious backgrounds and can be practised non-dogmatically. We believe that starting a day together with other people in meditation is a great way to foster peaceful cooperation, empathy and a good work ethic.
The practice of Zen is the glue that binds together the community at Felsentor and which upholds the framework within which interactions take place.
From what we can tell, this creates a significant difference to other forms of communal living that are not centered around a (relatively strict) religious or spiritual practice.
Have you ever had someone cleaning your house? If so, have you realised how you (just so slightly) paid less attention as to whether you make the house dirty or not? If everyone in the community has to do each task from time to time, everyone will have an appreciation for each other’s work, and each task can benefit from the viewpoint and ideas of different people. This also contributes to an overall sense of humility and lessens feelings of natural superiority of certain people based on their so called “important work” and other types of work falsely deemed less important.
We left Felsentor rejuvenated and inspired. Since leaving, we have kept up a regular Zazen meditation routine and have incorporated various little practices and ideas into our daily lives.
We’re grateful to the community that upholds this beautiful place, that we were able to visit and for the transformative effect it has had on us.