Preface: As we are gearing towards the 21st Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat, Bernie requested to bring to view his questions, intentions and themes that were shaped by twenty years of co-leading these retreats in Poland, Rwanda and the Black Hills. The narrative of events that led to the first retreat is described in the article “Bernie’s Training: Bearing Witness”. Part 1 of this interview is available here. Below is part 2 of this interview.
Rami: I heard you say once that you have a vision of what Bearing Witness retreats are and that while both the Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness retreats in Rwanda 2014 and in the Black Hills 2015 were successful in their own way, they both differed from that vision. Can you say more about that?
Bernie: In Rwanda, we had mostly two sides, the Hutu and the Tutsis. We had some Europeans of course, but it was all about Rwanda. No Congo, no others… We did have this guy—you heard about the guy that was a paramilitary guy that came to a retreat. Twenty years before, when the genocide in Rwanda was happening, he was sent with a battalion (I think it was 600 Belgian) to rescue the local Rwandans that were surrounded in a coliseum by militia. He was sent with orders to stop what was going on. He commanded armed soldiers, they could have stopped what was happening. When their planes landed, he got a message from Belgium headquarters saying, “Forget it. Rescue whatever Europeans you can. Go there, get them out, and leave.” And that’s what he did. For the twenty years he hadn’t told that story to anyone. Not to his wife—his marriage was on the verge of breaking up. It was killing him. At our retreat, 20 year later, he broke that story. Now that’s a bearing witness kind of thing. I tried to get more people like that. We couldn’t. So if I had any remorse, it was that I wasn’t able to get enough different kinds. It was just a few people.
We had a woman who’s arm was chopped off, and we had the guy who cut her arm off there. But it wasn’t broad enough for me. I wanted—because I know the Europeans have a heavy burden in what happened there, and we did not have enough Europeans to spell that out.
You could focus on what the Hutu did to the Tutsis or vice-versa, but there’s that whole history of how this goes on. That’s what I was trying to bring out. Well it’s not so simple, you know. You start looking at who you’re blaming. It’s like in Israel, you dig down and say oh, this is what it looked like in there. And these people were in charge, and these people were killed in their villages. And you dig a little deeper, and you know.
Part of my thing is wanting to show that things are not so simple as you think. And then the Jews wind up talking about how bad ‘these people’ are. Come on man, go back a little. Why did that happen? What went on? They were all caught up in what the thing is, which was enough for them. For me, it was never enough—just to see the one-sided view, or the two-sided view . . .
Rami: And that goes back to that point that you were trying to make about Auschwitz—that it’s not just about Jews, or just about Gypsies. So I’m really hearing from you that there’s a sense of expanding the scope. There’s something very vast, very wide around it.
Rami: And I heard you say about that Belgian trooper, you said that he told the story after twenty years, for the first time. And you said, “that’s the kind of bearing witness.” Can you say more? What do you mean by that? “That’s the kind of bearing witness.”
Bernie: Well, first of all, he kept that inside him—what the Belgian government did. The Belgian government told him, “You can’t do that.” The Belgian government set up this goddamned war between these people. But it wasn’t all Belgian, it was Dutch, the French had huge play. If you go far back the Hutus and Tutsis were one knot. But the Europeans created this hatred among them.
So we allowed something to come out. I met him a year later at Frank’s place. He came to Frank’s. And he told me, he tells his wife the story after twenty years. He couldn’t tell anybody. The same kind of thing we heard about the Holocaust. People couldn’t tell what went on. They couldn’t tell. Then twenty years later he tells the story. And now he’s free to tell his wife. His whole life changed.
So it’s a case of what happens—in all of these cases where people are allowed to tell, to bear witness to what went on, and it changes their surroundings. It did not happen years ago. In the past, they didn’t do bearing witness. They just did blaming, or grief. They didn’t go through a bearing witness kind of . . . not just the people—the country. In the country there was no bearing witness. . . .
That was my feeling – to start asking where can I create these venues where you bring more than one voice? How many voices can you bring? Because all of these things are not one voice. Or two voices, more and more, we can’t comprehend, as it gets too big. But that’s what I was trying to do, you know. We keep doing that, and not that many people could understand where I was coming from.
But it doesn’t matter. It’s a bearing witness, whatever you do is a big enough story that it’s really . . . It was a big enough step away from just bearing witness to myself, like in Shikantaza [a form of Zen Meditation], it opened up, and opened up. I’ve always felt that you can go and go and go.
So people now, they call something a Bearing Witness Retreat—I don’t know if I would call it that. They call it, because that’s the genre. But they don’t even think the way I think about what it means. It doesn’t matter. They think about it the way they think about it, and it’s enough. But to leap from doing something as a Sesshin on your own in your own zendo to something that involves another person—that’s a big leap, to try to make it bigger, and bigger.
Rami: What is the essence of what Zen Peacemakers, and what you are trying to do in Bearing Witness retreats? how is that different from a Plunge? I was recently asked about the ZPO members-led plunge in Cheyenne River Reservation, if what we did in there was a Bearing Witness Retreat. We have these different containers and I find it important to clarify what each means – so my opinion is that it was fulfilling a different container, it was a terrific example of a ‘Plunge’ — entering a new situation with not knowing, with no agenda — hopefully we will see more of these plunges. I wonder if what you mean in a ‘Bearing Witness Retreat’ is that is it’s beyond going to a place and being with it. Because that’s a lot of what I hear people say. “Let’s go to the river to Bear Witness.” What I heard from you now is that in these retreats we are proactively expanding our view of how big is the narrative. There’s no end to the complexity of those things. And how can we involve more and more aspects, and hear more voices and stories that illustrate that complexity?
Bernie: Yeah, that’s my feeling.
This interview with Roshi Bernie Glassman was conducted in Montague, MA USA in June 2016 by Rami Efal, executive director of Zen Peacemakers Inc. It was transcribed by Scott Harris. Photographs from Rwanda by Aleksandra Kwiatkowska, song ‘In the Center’, in Rwanda video (above) by Morley. Photographs from the Black Hills by Peter Cunningham