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Silhouette of Buddhism studies in Switzerland

Chinese Chan Buddhism blossoms discreetly

From Editors:
Former Swiss pediatrician, Hildi Thalmann, deeply felt the anguish of this transient life, and turned to Chan meditation. In 2004, after participating in Chan meditation guided by Master Sheng Yen, she took refuge in the Three Jewels under the Master; aspiring to disseminate Dharma Drum Lineage of Chan Buddhism as taught by Master Sheng Yen in her motherland. She then founded the Chan Bern Center for Meditation, promoting a four-year educational curriculum. Through translating Master Sheng Yen's literatures and giving lessons, Thalmann's top priority was to help more people obtain correct guidance in Chan practice.

According to official demographics, among the entire Swiss population, only 0.3% of them are Buddhists, and immigrants are the major promoters of the Dharma.

Other than the immigrants, Westerners have also played a role in spreading the Dharma. From the 60's to 80's, a group of Swiss went to Asia to learn Buddhism, such as the Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition of Thailand, and started teaching vipassana upon their return. Some Japanese Zen masters came to teach Chan, while other Swiss priests went to study in Japan and later developed their own teaching techniques. However, in this over-saturated religious environment of Switzerland, Chinese Chan and Chinese Buddhism are still relatively new to the locals, due to their late arrivals.

Learning the Dharma through Chan practice

Moreover, most Western followers came in touch with Buddhism through Chan practice. They were primarily interested in learning the techniques to knowing one's self and transforming negative habits and distorted views. Although learning the Dharma may not be their first intentions, but after reading or listening to some of the Doctrine, they soon realized that these concepts could not be found in other religions, and gradually developed an interest in learning the Dharma.

As for myself, I was a pediatrician and a Christian, specializing in the care of handicap children, witnessing too much sorrow along the way; during the period before my retirement, every time when a parent has to be told that their child may never walk or talk again, the enormous pressure would come crushing down on me. In 1990, after learning contemplation techniques under the guidance of a Christian priest, I started offering psychiatric support and treatment methods based on these techniques to parents, children, therapists and care-givers.

After years of practicing contemplation, I discovered that although Christianity also talks of "oneness", it lacks substantial explanation on the concept of "emptiness", so I drifted apart from my original faith and went to Germany to learn Japanese Zen. However, our guidance teacher focused mainly on coaching the correct postures; seldom talk about the doctrines of Buddhism, nor too much on the methods of Chan practice or the awareness of one's state of mind.

In 2004, after participating in Chan practice guided by Master Sheng Yen in Switzerland, I immediately knew that this was the lineage of transmission and the teacher that I wanted to follow. Master's comprehensive lessons on Chan practice, including the importance of relaxing, coaching on the methods and awareness to the different levels of our mental states, lessons on worshipping the Buddha, and teachings filled with humanistic care such as concepts of environmental protection etc. stunned me a lot. He made me realized that Chan practice is there to help us understand our own minds and bodies, like facing our vexations, and finding better ways to resolve our daily problems, so that we can free ourselves and be at peace. My Dharma name given by the Master is "Cháng-Shě", and it's importance to me is the constant reminder for me to know when to let go.

Founding the Chan Bern Center for Meditation

Not long after learning Japanese Zen, I organized practices for small groups; after following Master Sheng Yen, in 2008, he allowed me to teach Chan meditation, and driven by a sense of responsibility, I aspired to share his ideas with more people. So our groups rented a meditation room to practice Chan six times a week, and invited the dharma heir from the Master and other disciples to guide our seven-day Chan retreats. My Chan lessons are adjusted according to the students' comprehension, designed with themes such as "Chan & the mind", "Self & non-self", "Chan & emotions", "Chan & fear" etc., and merged with our Western culture and knowledge, so that Westerners are more willing to understand and accept the Dharma.

About four years ago, the Chan Bern Center for Meditation was officially established, and ever since, two symposia per year were organized, inviting everyone to join in Dharma discussions and participate in the activities. So far, we have about 30 regular members, while Chan practice can draw as much as 200 participants.

From translation work to cultivating Buddhist talents

My lessons included explaining Dharma concepts such as the Eight Noble Paths, Six Paramita etc., but at that time, the only German text I could refer to was the book "Faith in Mind", translated by Master Sheng Yen's Swiss dharma heir, Max Kälin. In order to practice Chan dharma, I translated the Master's book "The Six Paramitas: Perfections of the Bodhisattva Path" into German, and planned to continue selecting books for translation and publication.

My aspiration is for many more Chan practitioners to step up and shoulder the responsibilities of spreading the Dharma, and for that, I designed a four-year educational curriculum based on the Chan-Buddhism taught by Master Sheng Yen. Most participants were advanced Chan practitioners or Westerners with knowledge of the Chinese language seeking to do translation work. The first semester of the first year is spent studying the "Heart Sutra", understanding the "Agamas", and concepts of "madhyamika" and "consciousness only"; while the second semester, studying of "Faith in Mind" and the "Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra", inviting Max Kälin to join in our discussions on a few occasions. In the year to follow, we would also study the "Platform Sutra" by the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, ideologies of the Tian Tai and Hua Yen Schools etc., and recorded sayings of Chan Masters from the Linji and Caodong lineages, such as Huatou Chan by DaHui ZongGao or Mo Zhao (Silent Illumination) by Hongzhi, and finally returning to Master Sheng Yen's ideology of "pure land on earth".

"House of Religions" Project

In the 90's, a group of immigrants with different religious faiths settled down in Bern, so the local government started a project to build a "House of Religions" for them to hold their different religious ceremonies in one building. This cultural and religious institution was inaugurated in 2014, with eight religious faiths coexisting within; Hindu, Islamic, Alevis, Christian and Buddhist communities housed their sacred spaces here, while the Jewish, Sikh, and Bahá'í communities became partnering members of this association.

Religion is at the core of all cultures, so the dialogue between religions is vital to enhancing cultural exchange, yet this is not easy. For example, Buddhist disciples established the "Transcultural Buddhist Association" to mediate the relationships between different Buddhist lineages (e.g. Hinayana, Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Zen and Chan Buddhism); in the bi-monthly activities, each school gets their opportunity to organize activities in spreading the Dharma or guiding the Chan practices. Moreover, every lineage will also hold their quarterly one-day festive celebrations, like the Tibetan New Year, Vesak Day etc., while September sets a joint memorial day for the Hinayana, Tibetan and Chan Buddhists. In December, on the day Sakyamuni Buddha achieved Buddhahood, the Japanese Zen group and Chan-Buddhism group will sit down together in a one-day Chan group practice.

Recently, government delegates visited the Bern Buddhist groups, inquiring about the necessity to set up a Buddhist cemetery - probably in the form of a garden with a statue of Buddha in the center, for all who wish to be buried there to apply. This may be symbolical that after so many years, Buddhism is finally being accepted by the general Swiss public.

Text: Interview Hildi Thalmann from Dharma Drum Monthly (法鼓雜誌)
Texts edited by: Melody Lin (林何臻)
Translation: Chang, Cheng-yu (張振郁)
Editors: DDM Australian Editorial Team

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