I love collecting weird bits of cultural ephemera on my international trips. One of the oddest and most entertaining things I picked up this year is the DVD set of the German version of Hogan’s Heroes.
For those of you who weren’t raised on a steady diet of junk TV and don’t remember Hogan’s Heroes, it was an American television program that ran from 1965 until 1971 and was rerun countless times throughout the Seventies and Eighties and still turns up today. It concerned the exploits of the inmates in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp who engaged in espionage against the enemy, thus helping the Allies win the war. And it was a comedy.
I used to watch the show a lot as a kid. Which is weird when I think about it now. It wasn’t like most of the other shows I enjoyed. There were no robots or spaceships or dinosaurs. But re-watching it now, I see how very dark and twisted it was. Maybe that’s what I liked. It was also popular with the punk rock crowd I ran with. In fact, early recordings of the Zero Defex mock-German song Schweinhund Doggen opened with a short musical quotation from the Hogans’ Heroes theme song. It was the only situation comedy in which people regularly got killed, other than M*A*S*H, which came along later. And, unlike M*A*S*H where people died from wounds received in battle, in Hogan’s Heroes, the protagonists of the show often killed people, accompanied by a laugh track.
The fact that there is a German version of the show is astonishing. Because in the program the Germans are clearly the bad guys — although we do encounter a lot of Germans who are working in the resistance movement against the Nazis. But even the good Germans are played as broad stereotypes complete with lederhosen, sauerkraut and terrible accents. Plus plenty of references to Düsseldorf, since it is the funniest sounding city name in Germany.
Apparently the German dubbers had to eliminate a lot of the overt references to Nazi-ism that are verboten on German TV. When, for example, Colonel Klink raises his arm and says “Heil Hitler” in the original, the German version has him saying things like, “The corn flowers are growing this high.” Or that’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t seen that yet.
Anyway… the funniest part of just about any episode of Hogan’s Heroes was when the bumbling Sergeant Schultz would enter the barracks and witness Hogan and his men clearly plotting some new act of espionage or sabotage. Schultz never wanted to get in trouble. And I often got a sense that he sympathized with the Allied cause. So whenever he’d see something he’d shout, “I know nothing! I see nothing!”
My friend Annette in Munich taught me how to say this in German. It’s “Ich weiss nichts! Ich sehe nichts!”
As I was giving a talk in Salzburg, Austria last night it dawned on me that Ich weiss nichts — I know nothing— is kind of the essence of Buddhism. Sergeant Schultz was totally Zen!
Knowing nothing isn’t the absence of knowing something. It’s a different kind of knowing altogether.
Most of us know a whole lot about something. We know our age, our shoe size, our address, various facts about things we’re interested in like old TV comedies and such. When it comes to trying to know the meaning of life or know what God is or is not, we approach it like we’d approach knowing something. We try to slice the meaning of life out of life and examine it like it’s an object.
After you practice zazen for a while, it slowly begins to dawn on you that you actually don’t know anything. The facts in your head can be useful for navigating your way through the world. But nothing you think you know ever stays in one place. It’s always changing, always fluid.
But you also begin to appreciate that nothing underlies all of the something that you think you know. There is a nothingness at the center of everything. Every thought you have arises from nothingness. Every thing you encounter was once nothing and will someday return to nothing. Every thing is filled with nothingness. Even your own body and mind is more nothing than something.
Nothing is the place where we all meet each other. Our various opinions and beliefs and ideals and suchlike are all different. Yet when we encounter nothing, there is nothing we can disagree about. Nothing has no form or shape or color about which we could argue or debate. Nothing is what unites us.
In Zen practice we make our efforts to loosen our grasp on the various somethings we all cling to and plunge straight into nothing. When we meet each other in nothing we find that it is what holds all of our somethings — including ourselves — together. Nothing is what we are made of and what made us. Nothing is the one thing everyone has absolutely in common.
Between each thought of something is the thought of nothing. Dogen called this “the thought of non-thinking.” It is present in every moment, in every possibility.
But we can’t relate to nothing the way we relate to something. There is nothing in nothing to compare or contrast ourselves with.
What’s even weirder about nothing is that it is alive. Life seems to not only be a function of somethings like us or like animals and plants and even the Earth itself. Life seems to be a function of nothing at all. Maybe it’s the root of nothing.
Nothing isn’t blank. Nothing is also everything. There is no difference between nothing and something. There’s an old Zen story in which a teacher demonstrates how to grasp nothing by twisting his student’s nose. But as long as we insist on only relating to something, we’ll be out of balance. As long as we fail to acknowledge nothing, we’ll be mistaken about everything.
Sergeant Zen Master Schultz, I salute you!
October 18, 19, 20, 2016 Salzburg, Austria, 1-Day-Retreats and talks
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat
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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!
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I’ve got a new book out now! Stay up to date on my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page!
Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!
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