What have I learned from four female zen masters? Part 4

Some of the things I’m very interested in are our efforts as a collective and as individuals to balance the masculine and the feminine power in our world and in us. This made me think recently about how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to meet and work together with four female zen masters: Małgosia Braunek (Poland), Barbara Wegmüller (Switzerland), Catherine Pagès (France) and Eve Marko (U.S.).

In this post and the next three ones I’m going to share what I’ve learned from these four extraordinary women. Actually, I’m still trying to embrace these lessons and adapt them to my own life. I intend to share my very personal reflections and memories about these four modern, spiritual women.


Photo made by © Peter Cunningham


I met Eve Roshi (roshi means old master and is a title for a Zen teacher) for the first time in 2010 during the Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat. In the last day of the retreat she invited me to a staff meeting dedicated to make plans for the next one. At that time I was a young woman and a „young” zen practitioner, speaking English with a big effort, feeling the most comfortable when hiding somewhere in the back of a group. And all of a sudden I’m sitting there, among all these spiritual teachers and I’m even asked to share my thoughts! I was so stressed and so curious at the same time… It was a strong empowerment of a powerful woman to a young woman, whom she hardly knew at that time. And this is one of Roshi Eve’s gifts: she can really see people, appreciate them and in that way – empower them.

I saw that constantly, six years later, when my husband and I accompanied her and her husband, Bernie Glassman, during his recovery after a stroke. For every person who was expected in the house she would make a special introduction: how they met, how long ago and adding an appreciative description of this person’s unique qualities, advantages and achievements. It felt like she just introduced another member of her own family. And there was no distinction in respect and validation between a woman who helped take care of the house and a famous spiritual teacher.


Photo made by © Peter Cunningham


I can’t count how many times a day we heard from her: „Thank you”. For small things, for bigger things, for things we wouldn’t even expect it mattered and every afternoon when we were leaving the house. But it mattered to her. Similarly she treated all therapists, doctors, people from services that took care of the house, of the dog, neighbors, people from her sangha and all the visitors. Her „thank you” and all it meant has become a huge teaching for me. And this is something I’d like to also teach my son.

We accompanied and bore witness to her and her husband in a very vulnerable and difficult time of their lives. During those six months I can’t remember any situation when she would create some tension, complain or give us even a small remark that we had done something wrong or differently from what she had expected or when we had simply forgotten something. Which, I’m sure, we did several times. Her attitude was like: „Oo, that’s interesting. They did it this way”.

Even when I had a crazy phase of experimenting with baking and almost every day I’d show up in her house with a new cake, she didn’t say a word to discourage me. Not to mention that Bernie was a diabetic and she had made efforts to eat more healthily…


Photo made by © Clemens Breitschaft


Eve Roshi is known as a person who has the quality of seeing the situation clearly and sharply. Over the years I’ve witnessed that many times during the Auschwitz Retreat. She was the one who could notice what was unrecognized and neglected „in the room” and express it publicly. I admired her courage to speak about difficult things during big retreats, staff meetings as well as during consultations with doctors or in private conversations. It wasn’t always easy to hear but was always necessary to start a healing process and to clear the tension between people.

When I got to know her more I realized that she uses her brightness to serve people better, to protect them and to deepen her compassion and understanding. And to me this is her deepest teaching: a never-ending exploration of what it means to be a human being and then act accordingly. She chooses to focus on people’s gifts and pains instead of their mistakes and weaknesses. She talks and writes about daily life in a way we can all relate to, instead of uttering sophisticated spiritual nuances. I’ve never noticed that she expects a special treatment as a zen master. She seems just an ordinary woman.

But she is anything than an ordinary woman. And still she is so close to all of us.

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