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About the Memorial Service for Charlotte Selver
by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

On October 26, 2003, two months after Charlotte Selver died, we held a memorial service for her at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, a place Charlotte loved very much. Many of us spent much time there studying with Charlotte, and it was wonderful to be generously hosted by people who were very dear to Charlotte. About 100 people came together – some from far away – to share in this momentous event. It had so many facets and it was a very important gathering for the people who were there as well as for many who couldn't be present. How can justice be done in writing about it? It is like being in a workshop with Charlotte, going through an experiment, and then sharing our experiences. It was always impossible to share everything we had just experienced and so we would pick something that seemed particularly important to us. Very often then, Charlotte's only response was: “This was your experience,” making very clear that at another time our experience might have been different and that other people's experience may be different but as valid as ours. What was my experience of the memorial service?
The possibly most important aspect of the memorial service is impossible to describe: We all came together because we lost our teacher and great friend, Charlotte. We carried within ourselves a great deal of emotions, ranging from grief to gratitude and beyond. We were mourning and we wanted to remember and honor Charlotte. I felt very emotional and I can only imagine that it was so for most of us whether we could be at Green Gulch or not. I also know that in many places around the world people came together or lit a candle, sat for a while, or just remembered Charlotte as we were gathered in the Green Dragon Temple at Green Gulch. We found a form to celebrate together but I know we all also had our very personal, invisible, and untold memorial service within.
The service began with the ringing of the large bell outside the temple, followed by an entry procession. The procession was lead by Norman Fischer, Wendy Johnson, and Fu Schroeder, who were officiating. A number Charlotte's closest friends were each carrying an object they connected closely with Charlotte: a stone, a stick, a flask, a photograph, a pine cone, and many more things. The first to enter the zendo was Norman carrying Charlotte's ashes. The ashes were placed on the altar followed by all the other objects we had carried with us. Thus the altar, which was decorated with flowers from the Green Gulch gardens, became a representation of Charlotte.
Now incense was offered and then Norman spoke. I remember his calm presence and his full voice more than his words to Charlotte but I recall very clearly how he set the tone for the memorial service: We lost a great friend and we have reason to be sad; we also have reason to be grateful for having had such an amazing teacher; and we have reason to laugh, much as Charlotte loved to laugh and was often very funny.”
In the ceremonial tradition of Zen, Fu Schroeder, head of practice at Green Gulch and a good friend of Charlotte, then proclaimed the resolution of Karma and gave Charlotte the Precepts of Wisdom and Compassion. As part of this ceremony, Charlotte was given a precept name by Wendy Johnson: Vessel of Life, Original Source – in Japanese, Kei Sho So Gen. (Incidentally, the word vessel came up two more times in reference to Charlotte by people who spoke later, not knowing that Charlotte was to be given this name.)
Wendy also spoke to Charlotte. Again, I do not recall Wendy's words well but I do remember the sadness in her voice, her gratefulness for having known Charlotte showing in her whole grounded presence, and her great love for Charlotte radiating from her heart. Wendy and Christina Lehnherr then read a few lines from the Sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke, in both English and German. Those lines – about breathing – hung as a beautiful calligraphy for many years on a wall in Charlotte's living room: Atem, du unsichtbares Gedicht!... Breath, you invisible poem!...
Now I was given time for an eulogy. I chose to let Charlotte speak about herself by sharing some stories about her early life, in her own words, which I'd collected over the years. As many of you know, Charlotte had a vast memory and she loved to tell stories about her life. This seemed a fitting way to evoke her spirit. My presentation was framed by more Rilke, this time from his Lay of Love and Death, a favorite of Charlotte's. I should add that Sascha Rimasch helped me out by reading from another poem that Charlotte loved very much: from the children's book Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch.
In Lee Klinger Lesser's eulogy, Lee shared with us in a very personal way how important it is for her to always remember the weight of Charlotte's teaching and not to take her offering lightly. On a morning run, while thinking about some amusing possibilities for the memorial service, she all of a sudden tripped and fell flat on her face. She said she knew it was Charlotte who knocked her off her feet. Upon getting up and catching her breath, Lee said she could feel Charlotte's fierce demand to take the work seriously and to recognize what it will take from all of us to keep the flame of the work alive.
By the way: Many thanks go to Lee for all she did to make this memorial service so beautiful.
After Lee's eulogy, Jill Harris had the sensitivity to offer us a bit of refreshment – suggesting that we all stand for a few moments and stretch as we need it. It was a very hot day and much time had already gone by.
Then Jill read a letter from Babette Wills, who had very much wanted to come to the memorial service. Babette wrote about her first meeting with Charlotte: It was in a studio in San Francisco's China Town, where she had gone with some friends to one of Charlotte's classes. When Babette first saw Charlotte, she had a look on her face that made her seek a far corner of the room. There she stayed for the rest of the class, trying to comprehend what was going on and wondering if all these people were perhaps a bit “coocoo.” When the class was over Charlotte walked over to Babette with a beautiful smile, both hands reaching out to her and asked: “Hello, what is your name?” – Babette came back to take the class the very next day, and has been doing so every since – for forty years. She wrote how much Sensory Awareness enriched her life and that she will be grateful to Charlotte until her very last breath. Babette also wrote that thanks to Charlotte she met Suzuki Roshi and learned about Zen, and how much that meant to her. Finally she voiced her gratitude to Peter Gracey, who took such wonderful care of Charlotte for the past six years.
More people shared their memories and spoke words of gratitude: Linda Ruth Cutts, abbess of Zen Center, Susan Henning, Seymour Carter, Pat Meyer, President of the Sensory Awareness Leaders Guild, Don Hanlon Johnson, Veronica Selver, and Anna and Len Shemin.
Anna and Len, in an act that is quite unusual for a Buddhist Temple, offered a toast to Charlotte. First, they pointed out how important it was for Charlotte that we hold a wine class so that the clinking sound will be clear and beautiful. And when the sound was indeed to Charlotte's liking, she would often respond with, “wunderbar!”. Now, lifting wine glasses, Anna and Len asked us all to join in to a lively “Prosit!” – and then follow up with a pleased, “wunderbar!”
Len also read a poem which you can find in this newsletter.
Veronica Selver shared with us her memories of “Tante” Charlotte and how she always enjoys being asked if she is related to her. Veronica is the daughter of Charlotte's first husband, Heinrich Selver.
Then it was time for “Life, Breath and Sound”: Judyth Weaver and Connie Smith Siegel guided us through a sequence of experiments to honor Charlotte and the practice that meant so much to her. This was a prelude to sharing by more people who wished to speak. Please forgive me for not mentioning everybody who spoke.
Some of them were: Alissa Goldring, a student for many decades (one of the many pictures Alissa took of Charlotte in the 50’s is in this newsletter); Phyllis Gilmore, reading a poem she wrote for Charlotte's 100th birthday (you can read it in this newsletter) and her husband Bernard. It was touching to hear Bernard speak, whom none of us knew. Having never met Charlotte, he was moved to speak because of Phyllis' love for her that had affected him too.
Ruth Denison, a student of Charlotte's since the late fifties and a Vipassana teacher, shared with us how she met Charlotte and engaged us in one of her favorite memories: Some of you may remember Charlotte's account of going to the circus as a child. A clown would rush into the empty arena and call out: “Are you all there?”, and the children would respond with a lively, “Yes”. Now Ruth Denison called out to us: “Are you all there?”.... I guess we weren't quite because it took a few attempts before our response became a lively “Yes”.
Virginia Veach was one of the last people to speak and reminded us how important it was for Charlotte that we engage in activities that help alleviate suffering and injustice in the world.
At this point almost three hours had gone by and it became clear that it was impossible to let everyone speak and read the many letters people had sent us from different parts of the world.
As a closure to the sharing Christiane Knorr (a great-niece of Elsa Gindler), Norbert Boehmer, and I, sang a German evening song that Charlotte was very fond of: “Der Mond ist aufgegangen” (the moon has risen). This seemed especially appropriate as it had already become dark outside (next time we'll rehearse a bit before we sing).
The end of the ceremony unfolded in quite unexpected ways and I like to think that Charlotte would have loved that. I should tell you that I missed this very last part of the ceremony and only heard – slightly varying – accounts of it (much as in the varying reports following an experiment with Charlotte). Lee had planned to play a short piece of tape with Charlotte's voice. The tape came on and we heard Charlotte speak about bowing to each moment. There were long pauses between her words and at one point Norman Fischer thought it was over. He got up and walked toward the altar to end the ceremony when he was told by Lee: “Wait, Charlotte's not finished speaking yet!” Upon hearing this, Norman collapsed and sank to the bowing mat, where he remained until Charlotte's voice faded away as she wished everyone a very good life. Then he got up, threw his arms in the air, shouted: “Great ceremony!” – and left the temple.
Thus the ceremonial chanting of the “Di Hi Shin Dharani” and the dedication of merit did not happen but some people proceeded to bow before Charlotte's altar and offer incense before everybody left the zendo.

Many people had to leave now but others stayed to have tea and cookies together and visit with one another. Many people had not seen each other for years and Charlotte's death reconnected us. It was good to be together in this time of great loss.


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Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449 USA
Email: stelaeng@mac.com / Tel.: (603) 525-7289