“In the old Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet they had what they called charnel practices where you would go to the cemeteries and sit with the spirits that are coming in. It’s a very similar thing [to Bearing Witness Retreats] and a way of dealing with our own insecurity, our own fears, our own wanting to be ignorant of certain things and not really grasping that that means that we are not connecting to all that which is us. We are all one, we are all interconnected.” – Roshi Bernie Glassman
For twenty years, the Zen Peacemakers, founded by Zen Teacher Bernie Glassman, created Bearing Witness Retreats in places of deep suffering around the world, such as in the Black Hills, Rwanda and in Auschwitz, where this retreat has recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. These retreats are open and all-inclusive, crafted in intention to bear witness to suffering and to heal by bringing together as many, often estranged, constituencies as possible.
This year, the Zen Peacemakers will return for the 21st year to the old site of the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oświęcim, Poland, for a Bearing Witness Retreat, a decades-long process of leaping into Not-Knowing where so much knowing is stored in suffering. Last year, the 20th Anniversary return to the camp was marked by 130 participants from over twenty nationalities, including Gaza, Palestine, the Lakota Nation of Turtle Island and Kalkadoon & Kiwai Nations of Papua New Guinea and Australia. Muslim, Jewish, Lakota, Buddhist and Christian spiritual ceremonies celebrated the diversity of faiths present.
“Individuals bearing witness […] can break a corrosive and demoralizing silence.”
– C.H. (Retreat Participant, Lakota, Turtle Island)
In 2015, the Lakota Nation and Zen Peacemakers conducted the first Native American Bearing Witness retreat in South Dakota. It hosted over 180 people from over a dozen countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia who came to the Black Hills to bear witness to the land and to individuals from the Shawnee/Lenape, Tohono O’odham, Navajo, Mohawk, Lakota and Dakota nations about first-hand accounts of intergenerational trauma, present-day teen suicide epidemic, acute poverty, alcoholism and addictions, as well as presentations on historical bulls leading to the genocide and ecological justice issues. From the retreat in 2015 several members-led actions came forth, including the delivery of hundreds of pounds of winter cloths and distribution in Pine Ridge reservation. A Lakota delegation accompanied the 2015 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat.
To Learn more about how these retreats are planned, structured, financed and staffed, read a comprehensive overview here.