Today I’m going to talk about my first twenty years in Zen. How many in the room have been involved in Zen more than twenty years? One . . . in Zen? More than twenty years? Oh no, you were a Sufi. [Audience laughs] One, two, OK, three, four . . . wow! So I’ll ask the same question tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the second twenty years—the last day, the third twenty years.
At any rate, my first twenty years—and what’s interesting—to me, at least—is each twenty years, the main activities which dictated my experiences that I had during those years. And when I look at it in terms of my terminology of the last twenty years, it came essentially out of the Three Tenets. So these are actions that arose out of bearing witness. And you’ll see, I mean the not knowing was obvious. And in each case they were bearing witness, and things arose, which then affected my life quite a bit.
And by the way, we’ve been working—a small group has been working on updating the Zen Peacemaker Order, and revitalizing it. And the Abbot of Zen Center Los Angeles, where I initially trained, she and I spent a week—all day long, each day—and came up with things to put on the web, and also we’ll be setting up regional circles to discuss these things. And one of the things we all looked at, that initial group, and Egyoku and I, was the wording of the Three Tenets, and of the Precepts. All together, the Three Tenets, and the Precepts, and we have Four Commitments. But the change we made in the Three Tenets is—the first two stay the same, Not Knowing, and Bearing Witness—the third we change to “Actions That Arise from Not Knowing and Bearing Witness.”
The problem with Loving Actions is that’s already a judgment. And it made people feel good to think that they were going to be doing loving actions, but what we are talking about is actions that arise out of not knowing and bearing witness. And then somebody else looks at them, and says, “Oh, that’s good.” Somebody else looks at them, and says, “Oh, that’s bad.” But that’s after the fact, and that’s commentary. The third tenet is taking action—the way we explicitly said it—taking action that arises out of not knowing and bearing witness.
So, the taking is very important. That is, do something. Don’t just sit on your cushion, and say, “Oh, I had a great experience, and that’s that.” No, do something with it. OK.
So, the first experience that I wanted to talk about—it just came up to me as I was sitting with you this last period—sitting is Bearing Witness. Many things come up, arise out of Zazen. Zazen is Bearing Witness. And if you’re doing Zazen in a good way—in my opinion, a good way—you’re bearing witness to the wholeness of life. Now we do, in the Zen worlds, we do have you work on certain things like breathing, or Koan study. So there you’re concentrating on something, and those are techniques we use in certain teachings. But eventually, you do what’s called Shikantaza—just sitting. And that’s bearing witness to the wholeness of life.
At any rate, I was just sitting. And what came up to me is an experience, which I want to share. It’s one of my first Zen experiences—it’s before I had a teacher. I had already been to a Japanese Zen temple to do some meditation, but nobody spoke English, and I decided to just do meditation on my own—do Zazen on my own. So, of course I was very young, and I didn’t have—oh, I was about twenty—and I didn’t have much information or knowledge. But I sat, and I made—actually I had a garage, and I draped it with black curtains, and I did Sesshin retreats. I did a lot of sitting. But I didn’t have a teacher, and I didn’t really know what I was doing.
And one day I had an experience in which I felt I lost my mind—and it terrified me. And out of that experience, what came up was I quit Zazen. I quit for a year. I was so terrified by what had happened. That night I had to keep the lights on in the house. I had no idea what was going on. And so I stayed away, and it could have been forever. That experience could have led me to stop doing Zazen forever.
But, I had read a book called Three Pillars of Zen, which many of you might know. And a man, Yasutani Roshi, who appears in that book, and some of you are from the Sanbo Kyodan club, and that, was started by Yasutani Roshi. He’s my grandfather in the Dharma. My teacher studied under Yasutani. My teacher studied under three teachers, one of whom was Yasutani. So, Yasutani is one of my grandfathers. And I also studied under Yasutani, but that was later.
What happened is I had been terrified. I had read many things about Zen. And then I saw, and I read the book Three Pillars of Zen. And then I saw an advertisement saying Yasutani Roshi was going to give a talk in Los Angeles. That’s where I was living. And so I went to the talk. And at that talk I met the translator—Yasutani Roshi did not speak English. His translator was a man name Maezumi, who then becomes my teacher.
I went up to the translator, and I said, “Do you have [It turns out I had met the translator about four years before] a group?” And he says, “I just opened up a place.” And I started to study with him—every day.
If that hadn’t happened, I probably would have never gone back to Zen, because of that experience. I had nobody to talk to about it. So, the result of that experience for me was the importance of having a teacher, which then got reinforced when I became my teacher’s right hand person in our Zen Center in Los Angeles. And many students would come who had no teacher, and had been doing meditation for long periods. By then many people knew about meditation, and they would do it on their own. And in many cases, perfectly OK, but many cases the people that were on their own had damaged themselves. Some in a physical way—their eye sight had gotten worse, some their breathing had gotten worse, many had so conditioned themselves to working on things like Mu, or different things that they had read about that it was hard to get them to work correctly—correctly in the way that we wanted to teach.
So that just reinforced for me—if anybody in those days would say, “Can I study without a teacher?” I would say, “No. You’re opening yourself for problems.” All kinds of things can happen. There are many experiences that can arise out of meditation that can be traps. It’s like taking drugs and having an experience—it could be a problem. It may feel great. Wow! But it may cause problems. The main problem when it feels great is that you want to recreate it. “I want to do that again!” You know? And if you try to do it through meditation, you try to get your meditation to do that—to recreate the experience that you had. And that’s bad news, man. It’s bad news.
At any rate, that was the first experience that came out of bearing witness, out of sitting, and the fear that I had lost my mind. And so the action that had come out of that, which was dropping Zen, you could label it however you wanted to. But at that point in my life, that was the action that came out of not knowing and bearing witness. And most people will say, “Well, who wants that kind of action?” Well, I mean, who are you to choose? And you would say, “That’s bad.” So then we can have as our third Tenet bad actions, you know. At any rate, it was an action that happened.
So I was practicing with my teacher. At that time, my teacher, he was in the Japanese Soto club. And when he went to Buddhist University, he lived at a dojo at a training place of a wonderful man named Koryu Roshi, a lay Rinzai teacher. He lived there, and that’s where he started his koan study. And because of that, when he came to the States, he continued. He came as a young man to help in a Japanese temple. Maezumi Roshi was also studying koan study with Yasutani Roshi—there are two different systems of koans.
In 1969 Yasutani Roshi decided—he had been coming to the United States every year, helping a friend of his, I don’t want to give you all these names, but the friend was Soen Nakagawa Roshi, it gets confusing. But he was helping a friend, so he came every year to run sesshins. And Maezumi wound up being a translator on the west coast for Yasutani, and decided to start studying with him—although he had been studying with this other man, Koryu Roshi. And he also was part of this Soto tradition.
So I was practicing with my teacher Maezumi Roshi, and it was a time that he was not doing koan study. So in ’69, when Yasutani Roshi told him that “I’m not going back anymore to America—the United States—come with me to Japan, and finish your training with me.” And Maezumi said, “OK.” And then he said, “Bernie [he called me Tetsugen in those days] Tetsugen, you run the Zen Center here in Los Angeles.” So, I was just thirty years old, right, and I was put in charge of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which meant giving talks and interviews, conducting the Zazen.
And also that year, Koryu Roshi—the man that Maezumi Roshi started to do his work with when he was in University—decided to come to the United States, to Los Angeles, so that Maezumi could finish the koan study with him. So he came. And Maezumi Roshi had been gone for a year, and then he came back for a month, then he went back to Japan. But when he came back for the month, Koryu came. And I decided Maezumi Roshi was my teacher—my root teacher—but I decided to do sesshin with Koryu Roshi (and Maezumi Roshi was translating).
And I joined that sesshin. I passed the koan Mu, in a way that Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi thought was very unusual. So Mu is a koan, usually the first koan in koan systems. A koan is something you contemplate on until you can present the meaning—but not intellectual meaning—you can present it via expression, that you’ve experienced what it is. And working on a koan Mu, is exactly like working on what is not knowing? —The first tenet of our Three Tenets.So to pass the koan Mu, you are supposed to experience the state of not knowing. OK. So the Three Tenets actually come out of my Zen training. And they come out of—as you’ll see—a lot from the koan study.
But at any rate, so I was—in the terminology we use now—I was bearing witness to not knowing. Didn’t know it was not knowing, so it was in the form of this word Muuuuu! I was bearing witness to that. And an experience came out in which I felt the unity of life. And they said—I mean they do testing and whatever—but they thought it was very, very deep. In fact Koryu Roshi went back to Japan, and told everybody about what had happened with this guy, this American. So I actually went to Japan shortly after and did more study with him. And everybody that saw me said, “Wow, you’re Tetsugen, huh?” They all had known about it. That experience dictated my next almost twenty years—no, ten years. Ten years had passed, fifteen—but at any rate, it was a major thing during those first twenty years.
So the two big experiences during those first twenty years was 1) feeling I had gone crazy, and out of which came the feeling I have to have a teacher; and 2) the experience of the unity of life in such a way that I felt that I could help people have that experience, and that it was extremely important. It was the most important thing in my life.
So I quit my job. That became my whole profession. And I was very tough; in I felt I had done it through a tough kind of experience. And it was very tough, in that you know, my teachers were Japanese, so they trained in almost a Samurai kind of way. It was a very tough kind of situation. We would never allow anybody to come in late. We would never allow anybody to move once we were sitting. We would never allow anybody to whisper. We would, you know [claps] help them [claps] to try to realize things. And I felt that was very important, because the experience I had experienced, for me was so important, I wanted people to experience that.
So for that first twenty years, the practice in a way that I was involved in was all about me. And I was trying to have other people have the same experiences that I had had. And those experiences would then be all about them. It’s an interesting twenty years of practice, in which I have—I feel—that maybe eighty percent of the Zen groups around the world, that’s what they’re doing. And it was extremely important for me, but in my opinion it’s not the only way to practice. And in my opinion I would not—I have stopped doing that kind of practice for a long time now.
And the question that I have—do you have to go through that phase? Does everybody need to do that, or can you bypass that phase? And I think you can bypass that phase—personally, that’s my opinion. But as I always say, everything I say is my opinion. I have no truths—nothing I can say that would be other than my opinion about things.
Let me stop a little there and ask for questions, and I’ll get your sense of what I’ve been saying.
Audience member 1: Bernie, I’d like to ask something. Peter Matthiessen, who passed away in April, I remember a number of times said to you that he thought that what made your next stages so strong was precisely because you had this first stage. I remember him telling you that.
Bernie: I remember too.
Audience member 1: You know, that he said that’s what changed everything, in terms of two and three, the rest of your life. So, he had a different opinion from yours.
Audience member 1: And I wonder if you want to address what he said—that if you don’t have that, you can’t do the other thing.
Bernie: Yeah, I don’t know. He said that to me many times. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about the second phase of my life, which was serving people, which came out of an experience. So the question is, could that experience have happened without the first twenty years of my life? That’s basically what he’s saying. The work I did during that second phase did not come out of that first twenty years. It was triggered by this experience, which was so deep for me. And so the question—which I have no idea—the question is can you have that kind of experience without those twenty years?
Audience member 2: You say that people can bypass that first period, but what is it exactly that you can bypass? Is it the experience you had, or is it the way you were trained?
Bernie: Yeah, so that’s a good point. What I’ve learned, and what’s been a constant through the sixty years is meditation—so I’m not talking about bypassing meditation. Meditation has been part of my daily practice for those sixty years. And by the way, it’s not quite sixty, because I’m only seventy-five. So that would make fifteen—it’s actually fifty-six years, so I rounded it off.
So, when I say to bypass, it’s the toughness—that austerity. And we know that there are all kinds of Zen Centers. Thich Nhat Hanh has a Zen Center—he doesn’t have that kind of austerity. We, you and I, and many people here practice Zen in a Japanese model. And that model is a very austere model. It really comes out of the Kamakura period, which is the Samurai period in Japan. Shakyamuni Buddha did not practice that way. So, it’s not from that era. And one of the things that drew me to Zen was all of the stories of Chinese monks that were living in the mountains. And that was not their style.
So, when I say you can bypass the austerity . . . I’ll give you a sense of the austerity, it’s crazy, in my mind. I’ll give you two examples. There’s a man, his name was Ban Roshi. He was a student of Harada Roshi. Harada Roshi was a teacher of Yasutani Roshi. So Ban Roshi was a brother of Yasutani Roshi in the Dharma, and a wonderful teacher, an amazing guy. And I went to his Zendo. When you go in to the hall leading to the Zendo, on the wall is all these broken keisakus. A keisaku is a stick in which we walk around and will hit people to help them deepen their practice [claps]. You know, it’s interesting, when I talk about our first precept, not knowing, the state of non-rationalizing, different Zen teachers throughout the ages have used different techniques to help us have that state. So I’ve concentrated on what we call plunges, or going to the places where the brain can’t fathom what’s happening. But there’s all kinds of . . . Rinzai Shreeeeee! In that scream—it’s hard for the mind to rationalize. It brings you right to that place. Tokusan, a Chinese guy, hippie Buddhist, whatever you said, he would hit you with a stick sixty times. If you didn’t say anything he would hit you with a stick. So he was using that stick to get you out of your thinking—out of ideas, and experience a state of non-thinking.
So the keisaku, theoretically, it has a few purposes. They say it helps if you get drowsy sitting; it gets rid of the drowsiness. For some, it puts them to sleep, or makes them unconscious if you hit hard enough. And, if you hit hard enough . . . In the thirties in Japan, in the Soto sect there are two major monasteries Eihei-ji and Shoji-ji. In Shoji-ji—I think it was in the thirties—during Zazen a monk was killed with the keisaku. Japan being Japan, the parents came to the monastery and thanked the Abbot for allowing their son to die in such an honorable way.
So the culture, the hitting is good. So it’s not just to wake you up. I said that because not only could you fall asleep, you could fall dead with the hitting. And we, in the Zen Peacemakers have a whole bunch of different kinds of practices that help you experience this not knowing. And if you’re involved in koan study, that’s what that’s about. A lot of Zen practices are about trying to get you to do that. And bearing witness—Zazen, is a major way of doing bearing witness.
But we’ll also bring you into places where you wouldn’t normally go, and it enlarges the sense of bearing witness. And I think in my third talk, I’ll talk about how that happens.
Audience member 3: Can you talk about—a little bit about your revelations around Mu?
Bernie: The revelation around Mu was experiencing the oneness of life. Pretty simple. No separations. That’s a basic experience. The word Buddha (I was going to say it’s a basic experience in Buddhism) the word Buddha means to awaken—an awakened one. And that awakening is called in different languages different terms. In English it’s called enlightenment. In Japanese it’s called kensho, which translates into English as “seeing the nature.”
So, I always say, “awakened to what?” Awakened to the unity of life. Awakened to the oneness of life. Awakened to the interconnectedness of life. So that’s what Buddhism is about. That’s what Buddhism is about. And there are just different techniques. So Mu is one technique to help people do that, the way it’s used.
You know, in Shingon there’s a lot of mystical stuff. In Tendai they try to do it through philosophical stuff. There’s techniques through visualizations, through chanting, all kinds of ways. And the Zen Peacemakers, our major way besides meditation, is through social action—via the Three Tenets. Not just any kind of social action, it’s got to be based on those Three Tenets.
So if you’re a Buddhist group, or a Buddhist teacher, that is your life’s work—what are the ways to help people experience the oneness of life? And people come up with different things. It is not just to make us feel better. Now during those first twenty years, in today’s talk, the first twenty years, a lot of it is really about feeling better. And one of the ways you can feel better is to say, “Oh, I’ve been enlightened,” without knowing what that means. For many people, to be enlightened means to be nice, to be happy. That’s that first twenty years. You get involved, and you feel good, you sit, and it’s a good feeling. It feels good. And then maybe things come up, and it feels even better. But it’s all about your self, and how you feel. And maybe you’re more . . . it’s not a bad thing.
But for example, I think mindfulness is in that game. Mindfulness is about how do I do things more concentrated, do it better? It’s a game about me. It’s not in the game of how do I serve others? That’s a different game that we’ll talk about tomorrow—at least in my opinion.
But that doesn’t mean the first stuff is . . . And some people will argue that you can’t serve others unless you’ve taken care of yourself. And I don’t—that’s not my opinion. So, tomorrow we’ll talk about that. But I get that all the time. Even I got that in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. And I gave him my opinion. That in my opinion you can take care—you can work on the experience of the oneness of life via social engagement. You don’t have to do one first, before you do the other. That’s a very common concept—I think even Thay, Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of thinking, whatever.
So, you know, just different opinions—you don’t have to take my opinion. And of course, what I am most interested in is people experiencing things, not taking my opinion about anything.
Audience member 4: I have a question. How you felt, because you had a lot of students in these twenty years, did you never have doubts that one upaya—such a tough upaya—would be for all of them? Did not many people [go] away? And what did you think then?
Bernie: I thought they went away. Yes. Many People went away, because my way of doing. There was a person who came up to me later on, that I met, and she said she dropped out of Zen because of me—because her impression of Zen was what I was doing. You know, I mean it seemed sort of natural for me. Many people think that they run into as a teacher, that’s what it’s all about. Anyway, she felt that Zen was all about my style of doing things. And she couldn’t stand it. And she told me that she dropped completely out of Zen.
Audience member 4: And you, yourself, you didn’t have doubts about—you never asked yourself maybe it’s not for everybody?
Bernie: No, I knew it wasn’t for everybody. I wasn’t interested in it being for everybody. I was interested in working with those who wanted to work this way. Being interested in working with everyone moves into serving others. I wasn’t there yet. I knew that this was good for you, and the way I was doing it, man, would really help you.
You know, later on, in later years, what struck me—because I became an organic gardener—and what struck me was that I was using chemical methods to produce flowers. And I thought that that was the way to do it, that was very important. And later on I learned that there are organic ways of doing this. You don’t have to use chemicals, which can hurt the soil. It can hurt. You can produce beautiful flowers, but also can hurt the soil. But at that time I wasn’t thinking about that. I was concentrating on work. I had enough to do, you know, we had a lot of students in the Zen Center Los Angeles. By the time I left, we had two hundred people living on the block. We’d split people up among my teacher and myself. I had over a hundred people that I was responsible for. It was too much. I was not worried about those that didn’t like this way. There were other places to go—other things people could do. That wasn’t my concern.
Audience member 5: You said that to be able to take care of others, you don’t have to get first to the stage of taking care of yourself. Is Buddhism originally about taking care of others?
Bernie: You know, when you say, “Is Buddhism originally,” I don’t know what that means. Are you talking about Shakyamuni Buddha, because that’s the origin of Buddhism? Now, if I step away from the question I just posed, Buddhism (I just defined the word Buddha), Buddhism is those people, or those clubs that are helping people to experience the unity of life. Now, if you’re going to experience the unity of life, can it be just about your self? So if you ask me, originally—Yes, originally Buddhism is about the world—about the unity of life. And so it has to be involved with everybody. It cannot be just your self. That limits you, in my opinion.
In others opinions, they say, “You’ve got to first take care of this body, before . . .” And I never know what that means, because what they’re saying to me is that you should first become enlightened before you do anything else. Well, enlightened to me is you’ve experienced the unity of life, of all of life. I don’t know anybody who’s done that. And I’ll talk about that . . . well, since it came up, I’ll talk about it now.
Kobo Daishi is the founder of the Shingon sect in Japan—the tantric sect in Japan. He’s considered by the Japanese to be the number one spiritual philosopher, or spiritual person of all time. And a man named Dogen is considered number two. And Kobo Daishi lived in late 500 A.D. And he said, “The way you can tell the depth of a person’s enlightenment is how they serve others.” So there’s two things there; one is that enlightenment comes in stages. And when Shakyamuni Buddha says, “We’re all enlightened as we are,” that includes the fact that most of us think of our one body as one body. Bernie’s arm generally doesn’t think it’s separate from Bernie. And if everything I’m doing is about Bernie, then Kobo Daishi would say, Bernie’s enlightenment, the depth of Bernie’s enlightenment (since he’s only serving himself), it’s himself. That’s how deep it is.
One can experience the unity of life in so many stages. And there’s no way of not serving, once your experience is bigger. The actions will arise automatically to serve those, and that goes on, and on.
So your question brings in two things. What is Buddhism? And what is it originally? And my feeling—so I have this metaphor, which says do not conduct your life via the things you don’t have. Take the things you have, and make the best meal possible, and serve it—and offer it. So, many of us conduct a lot of our life by things we don’t have. That is, somebody says, “Would you get involved in this project?” Then, “Oh, I don’t have enough time. I can’t do it. I don’t have enough money. I can’t do it.” In Buddha’s world, what was said, “You don’t have enlightenment, you can’t do it.”
So, for me, wherever you are now, look at the ingredients you have, and make the best meal possible. And serve it.
Audience Member 6: I wanted to ask how would you describe serving? What is serving? And who . . .
Bernie: Right. So, what’s interesting for me is—I don’t know Kobo Daishi’s words in Japanese. He was Japanese. I know the translation. So I’m curious what word was serving. I should look that up. I need to look that up. It doesn’t matter too much. Because serving—many times in English the word serving implies another, right? So, if we say we’re just serving ourselves, what does that mean? Now my feeling is that we always will be taking care of ourselves. We don’t necessarily take care of others. So maybe taking care would be better than serving.
For example, you know I use the example of the arm—it’ll probably come up in these days. But if the arm is gashed, this arm will do something. It doesn’t think about, “Should I take care of it, or not?” You wouldn’t call it serving. It just automatically takes care. And in my opinion, whatever is in our head—which many times we call our ego—whatever we think we are, we automatically serve that. We don’t think about, “Should I?” You know, if I’m hungry, I look for food. We don’t say, “Well, there’s other things to do. Maybe I shouldn’t do that.” Or if I need to breathe, “Eh, there’s other things to do. Why waste time breathing?” I don’t do that, you know, I take care. So I think that’s a better word than serve, because serve implies a dualistic thing. And Kobo Daishi is saying look at who they’re taking care of. If I’m only taking care of myself, then that’s my state of enlightenment. That’s not bad.
But since, in my opinion, we all are one, if we’re not taking care of the majority of that one, there will be problems. And vice-versa, if we’re taking care—if we could see the Palestinians and the Israelis as nothing but me—it’s hard not to take care. But as long as I can see them as others, I can blame one or the other, get angry about this, about that, and I don’t have to do anything. I can just sit there, “Ahhh, they’re all screwed up, man—especially those Israelis, especially those Hamas people.”
Eve Marko: [In Tootsie voice] But Rocky, that would seem to imply that you really need an enlightenment experience to know that everybody’s one—in order to be like that.
Bernie: [In Rocky voice] Yeah Tootsie, I think you do.
Eve: So therefore, your enlightenment experiences were very important.
Bernie: I think they were, and you keep having them. And as you keep having them, your ego, or the Dharma, or Indra’s net—the portion of Indra’s net that you’re working with. The energy field of life that you’re working with—that keeps growing.
Eve: So how important is it to really sit, and sit, and sit, and have an enlightenment experience, so that you can see everything as one, and then take care of everything?
Bernie: To me it’s very important—that’s ’cause I grew up as a boxer. I don’t think it’s so important to most people. That’s why the world’s a mess.
Eve: But you described that in your first phase you didn’t do anything—I mean, I know you had a family and everything—but you didn’t take care of the rest of the world. You sat, and you sat, and you did sesshins, and you sat, and you sat, and you sat, and you did koans, till you had a big enlightenment experience, which showed that you are one with everything. And out of that, you can serve everything, or you can take care of everything. So is that what you think everybody else should do? Take the first twenty years, and sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, and sit, till they have a big experience, and then they can take care of everybody.
Bernie: In my opinion, Tootsie, the sitting is great, is important. And, what I’ve learned in my life, if you get involved in social engagement via these Buddhist Peacemakers, it speeds the whole thing up. It speeds the whole thing up. And that came to me on my first Street Retreat. But that’s for tomorrow, that’s not during these first twenty years, see. In these first twenty years it was all about sitting on the cushion, and in the Zendo, and the formal way I had trained. Later, different upayas, or different expedient means were used. And the process of that awakening to the unity of life seems to be much, much more sped up—to me. So that’s why I do it that way. To others, no, so they do it a different way.
Audience member 7: A couple of questions—first of all, what is the experience of unity of life? What is it?
Audience member 7: So, second—there are many people taking care of others in the world, without maybe having the same experience of the twenty years. Does it mean they do without having the experience of the unity of life, or have they caught the unity of life experience another way?
Bernie: Well, I would have to know the people. So I say that serving others, or taking care of others, or social engagement via the Three Tenets can have a huge effect on the experiencing the oneness of life. It doesn’t have to be done through the Three Tenets. It could be done—I’m doing it because I like it. It could be done for very selfish reasons. And I don’t think that leads to that experience. I think it can make you feel good. I was on my first Street Retreat; there were many people that were taking care of us. And you could feel love in their eyes, and they certainly felt good. But we that were being given things, we could experience them feeling superior to us. They were helping us, and it made them feel superior—better than us. We were lower. And that’s not about the unity of life. And I think that can happen many times—that we’re doing things not through these Three Tenets, or not through a selfless way, but in a way to make us feel better—feel more . . . yeah, I got to use the two hands again.
So, here’s Bernie. And this hand doesn’t consider itself part of Bernie. This hand feels separate from Bernie, and calls itself Mary. And this hand feels separate from Bernie, and calls itself Charlie. So there’s Charlie, and Mary, and Bernie. And Charlie and Mary are social activists. And they read, they’ve gone to retreats, and workshops, and they read books, which said they’re all interconnected. But they haven’t experienced it. So there’s still a separation.
And now Bernie gets hungry. Mary sees there’s a bunch of food—there’s food here. So Mary reaches for food to give to Bernie. But Charlie says, “No, I want to give the food to Bernie, ’cause I’m a social activist, and I want the merit of giving the food to Bernie!” And Mary says, “No, no, I’m a social activist. I want to get the merit of giving the food!” So they fight. Who’s gonna give the food? In the meantime, Bernie starves to death, and Mary dies, and Charlie dies.
So that’s a case of doing social action not from the standpoint of the Three Tenets. And that’s a very common thing, and it’s great. We all acknowledge, you know, wonderful things. But I also think there’s another way.
Audience member 8: What does Bernie do when he feels the suffering of the Palestinians?
Bernie: The question is “What does Bernie do when he feels suffering?” Everybody is suffering, right? But, what does Bernie do when he feels the suffering of Israelis, or Palestinians, or Africans, Nigerians? What do you do when you feel the suffering, because there’s suffering everywhere? What do I do when I feel the suffering of Francisca, because she is suffering, because Palestinians are suffering? It goes on, and on. What did Shakyamuni Buddha do? He said, “Everyone is suffering.” He said there’s nothing in life but change, and also suffering. So what did he do? What do you do? What do I do?
I try to approach the situation from the standpoint of not knowing. So I’m not approaching from the standpoint of the Palestinians, from the Israelis—from I don’t know. I’m coming from not knowing. Then, I bear witness. And then I see what arises out of that bearing witness. It has made my life so simple. I do everything out of the Three Tenets—everything out of the Three Tenets.
And it’s all I know. I mean, that’s all I can do. In fact, I was telling Eve, I’ve been very frustrated about the Middle East, because we’ve done a lot of work there. I have family there. All of her family’s there. She’s Israeli. She used to go every two months. We had staff in three different—Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I go every four months. Now we’ve stopped that work, but she goes twice a year to visit family. But I, about a year ago (maybe even two—I don’t know) I came to the decision of boycotting. So what was I doing about suffering? I was boycotting. I didn’t go.
When I talk about the fact that we’re all in clubs, and when we look at our club—that’s who we’ll deal with, that’s who we’ll visit, that’s who we’ll invite in. And I say what do we do with people not in our club? The majority of us avoid it. You know, if there’s a homeless person in the street, we don’t look at him, or her. We’d cross the street. We don’t invite people that we don’t like politically to our house. We don’t watch their TV shows, read their books—we avoid.
So there I was, I was frustrated. And what did I do? I avoided, by boycotting. That’s denial, man. That’s avoidance. And I would say, philosophically, I don’t like that. But that’s what I did. That was my immediate reaction. Bearing witness to what was going on there, the action that came up was boycott. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
I’ve been doing a lot more not knowing and bearing witness, and another action that arose a couple of months ago (I think, maybe a month, I don’t know) is I gotta do something. I have no idea what to do. But that came up out of the Three Tenets. I gotta do something. This morning—either last night, or this morning—because I’ve been spending a lot of time bearing witness on what do I do? I already last week told Eve that I need to go back to Israel, because I need to bear witness. And I want to do something. I can’t just plan what to do. I need to bear witness, and see what comes up.
Today (or last night, I can’t remember) something came up, because I’ve been spending so much time bearing witness to this question. And what came up is I need to go there, and do a Bearing Witness Retreat (not a big Bearing Witness Retreat). I need to sit there with a group of people that I know, that are activists both in Israel and Palestine, and maybe some others. I don’t know yet who to invite. It could be just me. I’ve got to sit, and I don’t know where. It could be in the desert. It could be West Bank. I don’t know where. I’ve got to sit, and ask myself the question what do I do? And just use that as a koan, and bear witness. Because that—on my third day I’m going to talk about this—that’s how the Zen Peacemaker Order arose. I did exactly that. I sat on the steps of Washing D.C. in the snow, and asked myself the question what do I do, in terms of people that are rejected. And out of that came create the Zen Peacemaker Order.
So, at any rate, that’s what I do with everything. I do not have any preset ideas about how to take care of any issues that you might have, or anybody else might have, or how to reduce the suffering of the world. I mean, in my opinion, the world will continue to suffer ’cause that’s what Shakyamuni said we all are doing. Almost the question about how do you reduce the suffering of the Palestinians or anybody, to me would be how do I reduce the suffering of you—of any person. I don’t know. You’ll join fields. I become a Zen teacher, and try to help people realize the oneness of life. Others become doctors, physicians, psychiatrists. Everybody’s trying to help everybody end suffering, man, but it’s no simple task.
Audience member 9: So, what importance is a Zen sesshin? Do you need it any more?
Bernie: So, in terms of myself, if I just look, I haven’t signed up for a sesshin in years. I mean I signed up for Bearing Witness Retreats—that’s very different. But what you’re calling sesshin, do you remember me signing up for one?
Eve: Sure, when we had the place in Montague, we did sesshin. We lead sesshin with Peter once, if you remember. We did—not too many though.
Bernie: Yeah, enough to where I can’t remember. When was that?
Eve: About . . . not more recent than seven years ago.
Bernie: In terms of my own life, so if somebody came up to me and said, “How important is sesshin?” I would ask them, you know. Is it something you want to do? Then do it, you know. It’s different than sitting. I think sitting is extremely important. And I personally like Bearing Witness Retreats much more than sesshin, or the Street Retreats in different places. You know the idea of sesshin is not that old. I mean Shakyamuni Buddha didn’t do sesshin. It actually arose because—I think it arose maybe two hundred years ago—and it arose mainly because the people that decided to do it felt that individuals didn’t have enough oomph on their own. You know, they were too busy with where’s the warm weather for swimming, and you know, other issues. And they decided they needed a concentrated thing.
And for me, during those first twenty years, man, I did hundreds of sesshins, and it was great. What was amazing, when I did the first Street Retreat, we had about twenty of us, and some of us, like myself, had been involved in Buddhism for so many years, done so many sesshins. Some, there was around four among those twenty, had never meditated. We all had a very similar experience about the identity of—about the oneness of life. So it brought up the question to me, you know. I had done hundreds, and hundreds of sesshins, and here one Street Retreat, and it had such an effect, because it brought us [claps] right into it, what sesshin [claps] hopefully does.
So it was not my main vehicle ever since then, although I did a lot of sesshins still. When we moved to New York—well, this was already New York—I did a lot of sesshins still, until I can’t remember, I think ten years, maybe twenty years. That’s why I wanted to make it clear on the first night that this was not a sesshin. You know, if that’s what you wanted, fine. But we don’t do that.
Audience member 10: It seems a bit to me that the social engagement is like a new methodology. Coming from the point that if you look at Christianity, it’s at the end of the Way of the Cross, where you find love your neighbor. If you go to Buddhism, it seems at the end where you understand the lesson of love. And it seems on the surface, if you start with the tenth ox picture. So the confusion might come from first enlightenment, then you feel it in your heart that you can serve.
Bernie: Yeah, I don’t share your opinion.
Audience member 10: No, I don’t have an opinion.
Bernie: Oh, but you said that Buddhism . . .
Audience member 10: I have question.
Audience member 10: My question is because the social engagement seems like the essence of all the other different methodologies, all the other different ways. And so I was asking if starting with the social engagement way, if this is like an old methodology?
Bernie: Like an old?
Audience member 10: Like an old, like an old [translator clarifies] like a new, like a new methodology? A different approach—start with open heart, and then look at what’s coming up in an experienced way.
Bernie: In my opinion, no. In my opinion, if I look at all the different—I’ve done a lot of interfaith work, and study in different traditions. And in most of them, you’ll find that they divide into clubs, which specialize in certain ways. So in Christianity, you’ve got the Franciscans that are specializing in social engagement. And you’ve got the Cistercians that are specializing in contemplative work. You have divisions like that. So also in Buddhism, for example, if you go to Japan the biggest Buddhist group in Japan is called Rissho-Kosei-Kai—the largest group—they only do social engagement. There are no priests, they’re ministers and they work in third world countries. That’s based on the Lotus Sutra.
So, the same here, when Buddhism first came to the West, what people specialized in is the contemplative orders. And then that became the only way. But I think it’s very natural within any religion, or type of work that different clubs will arise that focus on different things. That’s my opinion. And each one would probably say, “You’ve got to start with this, then that will come up,” and whatever. Those are arguments to talk about the height of the club—I think, I don’t know. That’s my opinion.
I don’t know, were Franciscans looked at as weird when they arose, doing social engagement? Or were there always groups in Christianity that focused on social engagement? I don’t know the answer to that. And certainly you know, you find this, in Christianity you have groups like the Franciscans, all kinds of groups that are all about social engagement, as the way of God—you know, as the way of doing things.
Audience member 11: So, in an abstract way . . .
Bernie: Whoops! I just picked three people, and guess what—we’ve run out of time.
Eve: But the bell hasn’t rung.
Bernie: But the bell hasn’t rung.
Eve: That’s a koan.
Bernie: That’s a koan. So the koan is why are we stopping if the bell hasn’t rung?
Audience member 11: So, in an abstract way, do we help the situation in the Middle East if we all take care of each other?
Bernie: Huh? Do what?
Audience member 11: In an abstract way, do we help the situation in the Middle East if we all take care of each other? That’s what you just said. If we all take care of each other . . .
Bernie: So, in my opinion, it’s not abstract. If we all take care of each other—it’s very rare to see that happen—but in my opinion, if we all took care of each other, there’d be no problems. So there’s that wonderful example where—I don’t know if it’s God—somebody takes this person up to visit Hell. Right, you’ve probably heard that. And all these people are at a table eating, and they each have chopsticks. So this is probably a Japanese Hell. They each have chopsticks, and the chopsticks are about two meters long, and they’re having a lot of trouble eating. And then the person says, “Well, can I see Heaven?” So God takes him down to see Heaven. In Heaven, that same banquet table, all those people, same chopsticks, but each person is taking their chopsticks and feeding somebody else.
So that’s one example of saying yes, if we take care of each other, there’s no problem. And if we just take care of ourselves, there will be problems. That’s an opinion—my opinion.
Audience member 12: When you ask about Christianity, traditional Christianity, I think Christ himself was an activist, as I understand his teachings.
Bernie: Yeah. I think so too. But then lots of clubs form after that—different styles that teach. Theoretically—it’s sort of interesting—different clubs arise to probably, they say, to teach brotherly love. But maybe not, maybe they say they arise so that there can be more Christians—to procreate the numbers of Christians. And that’s happened in Buddhism. A lot of the Buddhist groups grew, and then the theme becomes how many people can have Jukai, and how many people can, you know, to grow the numbers. The original reasons of actualizing the oneness of life get forgotten.
I see the bell is ringing. But lets’ have one more at the sound of the bell.
Audience member 13: It’s OK.
Bernie: OK. He wants to serve the body. Get some food, man.
OK, so for me tomorrow is the next twenty years. And this afternoon . . .
Eve: Before that . . .
Bernie: Yeah, before that, what?
Eve: We’ll see.
Bernie: But certainly, in a way this will continue, Eve will make comments on it, and you will have thought it through as you chew your food. Chew what we’ve talked about.
Eve: Rocky, I have one last question.
Bernie: Ah ha Tootsie! By the way, if you don’t know, we have a radio show, Rocky and Tootsie. And usually we tweet or something, and did I tell you at St. Virgil, one of the guys in my group, in the workshop, is a cartoonist, a Buddhist cartoonist. And he’s now into making animation. And in September, he’s going to make an animated Rocky and Tootsie—take one of our shows, and there will be a film, an animated film of Rocky and Tootsie.
Eve: So Rocky, what I want to know is . . .
Bernie: Yeah Tootsie?
Eve: Did anybody ever say the word love in all those first twenty years of your life?
Eve: Why?! How come they didn’t say love?
Bernie: That’s an interesting point. That first twenty years was not about love. Now I consider love to be the rug that ties the room together.
Eve: What’s that?
Bernie: They now have the Dude book in German.
Eve: How could you be without love?
Bernie: Because that wasn’t . . . It’s interesting. Well, we had Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, you know Kannon, Avalokitesvara. But, during those first twenty years, my training—I almost divorced. My training, most of the people that lived at the Zen Center of Los Angeles divorced, or the children became really screwed up—because it was a monastic model. And love was not part of the model. And family was not part of the model. So our schedule—my schedule—made it such I never saw my kids when they woke up, because I was in the zendo. I never saw my kids when they went to sleep, because I was in the zendo. I never saw my kids on the weekends, because we always had weekend activities. So, I’m very, very lucky—I think—that my kids are in very good shape, and we love each other. And I think they’re really, really great kids. But they had such a wonderful chance of being totally screwed up by the way they grew up. And I was told by my teacher that family doesn’t count. The Dharma counts. Family is like a one lifetime thing. The Dharma is forever. It’s a whole different way of thinking, and I bought into it. In those twenty years, for me, the whole thing was that scene.
Eve: Man, I’m glad that I didn’t know you then.
Bernie: Yeah, and I’m sorry that I knew me then!
OK, let’s go eat.
Audience ember 14: How about taking care of your own body in that time? Love—taking care of your own body.
Bernie: I didn’t do any of those things. Anything that you can think of that sort of seems sentimental, or helpful—no. No, that wasn’t my life—in those twenty years—it was before. But that experience that I had of the unity of life, within the environment I was in—that experience put me on a track, which I don’t find good or healthy at this point in my life—but then I did. And that was a twenty-year path.
OK José. Let’s go eat.
It would have been a better path—I think—for monastics. So somebody like Dogen, yeah, no problem.