Drawing by Manfred Bockelmann
On the window ledge behind my altar is a charcoal drawing of a Gypsy girl who was killed at Auschwitz/Birkenau, done by the Austrian artist, Manfred Bockelmann. For the past ten years Bockelmann has done charcoal drawings of children and young people killed by the Nazis from photos taken by the SS (http://manfred-bockelmann.de/arbeiten/zeichnungen/zeichnen-gegen-das-vergessen/).
The photo was given me by a participant at the Auschwitz retreat that took place in early November. The girl seems to be around 10, dark, fringed hair parted down the middle and waving down the sides almost to her chin. Short, dark, upraised eyebrows under a high forehead. Eyes slightly slanted, pupils high and penetrating, the corners of her small lips turned down. A blouse with a V-shape collar, and what looks like a beaded necklace from which something dangles below the bottom edge of the picture.
I’ve looked at this drawing every day since coming home, at the round face and pale, defenseless skin below her neck, and mostly the eyes that seem to call out with some kind of plea: To be remembered? Understood? Loved? Are they asking me to bear witness to what happened to Gypsy girls like her, to the starvation and exposure, their terror and despair? Recently I read about Settela Steinbach, who was murdered along with her mother and 9 siblings at Auschwitz. Do I bear witness to the scale of such atrocities each time I look at the Gypsy girl’s face? Or does that face become a catch-all for my own confusions and fears, my own dread of being blown away one unexpected, disastrous day?
Our last day at Birkenau is always Friday; having been there for four days, we arrive like old hands. Our routine, too, feels like a daily practice. I go through the familiar gate and down the tracks to the shed housing our equipment, pick up a chair, bench, cushion, or mat, and continue down the tracks to the site where they once did selections of who’d die right away and who’d die later. People offer to carry my chair. The truth is that I like to carrying it myself, I want to be part of this group of people carrying what they need to set up a circle that will bear witness to what happened here over 70 years ago, and to what still happens around the world.
By 10:15 the circle is set up. The mist dissipates, frost no longer glitters between the grooves of the wooden slats, the sun is coming up, gray and ashen, and the place is ours. The big groups haven’t arrived yet in row after row of parked tour buses, the loud voices of guides speaking in clipped, assured English of something that is beyond words, the occasional flapping of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Those will come by noon, but for now, strange to say, we have Birkenau to ourselves. In the second period of sitting we’ll chant the names of those who died here, but this first period of meditation is silent, giving me a chance to ponder what I’m doing here once again, this 20thyear at Aushwitz/Birkenau.
This time I locate inside myself a special dislike of labels and abstractions: the perpetrators, the victims, the Nazis, the Jews, the Poles, the Israelis, the Europeans, the indigenous people, the refugees. We look at photos of men and women in striped uniforms and heads shorn, which cause their facial features to seem bigger—ears protruding from the sides, eyes open wide, chin more pronounced—but after the first few, the photos begin to blur into one generalized countenance of suffering. I try to individualize and separate, but soon I give up. My eyes aren’t good enough, my mind, my memory. My imagination.
Chanting of the names begins at our meditation circle. The names aren’t chanted fast, but I can’t attach anything to them, can’t attach a family, a job, a wife, children. Names are all there are, muttered, proclaimed, shouted, or whispered into the morning air.
This year I spent a lot of time in the Sauna at Birkenau, looking at photos that were found of entire families that perished there, the siblings and cousins, those who married and those who didn’t, those who left Poland before the cataclysm and those who came back just in time, the Orthodox, the Communists, the ones who built businesses and the ones that lost them, children everywhere, and the vacations with green hills and the faces of fun-loving friends. Finally, they’re individuals with stories. But only members of four or five families are memorialized in this way; the rest are just names. We don’t know the color of their eyes, the name of their mother, their favorite food, if they were quiet or liked to laugh, what they thought about the sky.
My father died right after our retreat at the concentration camp and overnight I became a mourner. We looked at photos of him, listened to many visitors’ stories about how he affected their lives, sniffed his smell in a jacket draped over a chair, listened to his voice leaving a phone message (“Not to worry, today is a good day for me”), saw his body before it was buried.
How does one mourn at Auschwitz/Birkenau? People died there over 70 years ago, leaving in their wake ponds, fields, and trees nourished by human ash. They’re all here, I tell myself. They’re not gone; in some way and fashion they’re still all here. That’s the best I can do.
Deer-shooting season has begun back home and Stanley (the dog) and I wear bright orange vests when we go into the woods. At night I glimpse a deer running cross the road and find myself wishing it will survive till January, when the shooting season is over (though many will then starve to death in New England’s bitter, long winters). What do I bear witness to in that deer? To its grey brown color and the white underside of its tail as it bounds down the slope? Its grunts and snorts warning the rest of the herd? The feel of earth under the scraping of its front hooves or the rough feel of branches as it rubs its head against them? The taste of the leaves, twigs, and grass that it loves? The sprint and leap over a fence and the rush over the crackling leaves on the ground?
Or do I bear witness to my own sense of powerlessness, my own fear of the uncertainties and dangers in life? Do I bear witness to myself or to the deer?
In the morning I look again at the pretty Gypsy girl. How easy it is for my imagination to pour onto that face all the suffering of the world, the killings, the assaults, the indifference, the helplessness, the unendurable fear and pain. But is that all she is, a Gypsy girl killed at Auschwitz? When does empathy become projection? When does the desire to feel for others become just another reflection of my own self concerns? I look at her photo, and especially at the dark strands that come down to her neck, and wonder: Did she like flowers? Was she close to her brothers? Did she have a favorite color? A favorite food? Did she like music? Did she like to play games and dance? Was she beginning to wonder about boys?
“We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories,” Pope Francis said in Washington, D.C. about the Syrian refugees whose photos continue to swamp the front pages of newspapers every day. Are they all nothing but the essence of misery multiplied by thousands? Reproaching mirrors to our own neglect and indifference, amplifiers of our guilt? We don’t kill them like the Nazis did, but don’t we equally label them, attributing to thousands the same characteristics, as if they’re all interchangeable? Numbers instead of humans?
Person by person, I think to myself. Story by story, detail by detail. What’s your name, I can ask the homeless person on the corner. “Where do you eat? Where do you sleep? Do you have a family? Do you like to watch TV? Did you dream last night?” If I ask those questions of the picture of the Gypsy girl, I’ll get no answers. But I can ask them of one living human being.
I was just doing zen meditation 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.
In 1996, Zen Master Bernie Glassman went to bear witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time – together with 150 other people from ten nations. Ever since, peacemakers from many cultures and religions all over the world have joined this retreat each year.
In the infamous place where the mechanized murder of more than a million people took place, participants not only encountered the horrors of the past but also explored the limits of their own humanity, examining how they themselves deal with the “Other”. For many, it was an inter-faith “plunge” that pierced deeply and transformed their lives.
This book compiles the testimonies of more than 70 participants over the two decade span of the retreat. Those who wish not just to comprehend the events of the Holocaust, but also to confront its challenges to spirit and heart, will find themselves moved and inspired by these honest stories. They encourage all of us to open up and expand our understanding of what humanity truly is and can be.
Edited by Kathleen Battke (D). Inspired and co-edited by Ginni Stern (USA) and Andrzej Krajewski (PL)
Order the book on : https://www.janando.de/steinrich/en
The Zen Peacemaker Order has decided to continue the peace work process in Bosnia while postponing the retreat to 2017. Please read ahead on some of our reasonings. We at the ZPO are grateful for all those who have contributed, participated and supported this process to date. We are particularly grateful and excited to keep our collaboration with our friends at Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia as we develop and listen to the process of bearing witness, to take action, together.
We say Never again. But the impulse towards having one way of life in a particular area, is a very familiar one right now. It’s the wish to look around us and see people who look like us and speak our language, whose children dress and behave like ours. It’s our resolve to preserve our heritage and way of life to the exclusion of others whenever we feel they’re threatened. Many of us deeply feel the reality of Europe these days. Thousands of thousands refugees flocking there seeking safety and met with kindness and hospitality from some and violence, fear discrimination from others.
In Bosnia, Muslims have lived together with Christians since the 15th century. Sometimes one dominated, sometimes another. Walking along Ferhadija Street in Sarajevo is a tour of both space and time, bearing witness to different religious and cultural streams as they come together and split apart. The architecture, the places of worship, stores and restaurants all testify to that unmistakable quality of aliveness when different cultures come together in a spirit of mutual respect and appreciation. Not so the thousands of bullet holes in the walls of almost every building built before 1992. Not so Srebrenica. more than 100,00 Muslims Roman Catholics, and orthodox Christians were hurt and killed. The complexity that is Bosnia/Herzegovina requires more listening.
Times of great change test us strongest. It’s easy to lower our voices and withdraw in the face of violence by extremes on both sides. It’s easy to say that we don’t know what to do. Already today innocent people are persecuted even as a great, silent, fearful majority waits to see what happens. On this day the drowned, washing ashore on Mediterranean beaches, amidst our indignation and shame silently call us to action.
This action, as practiced in the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, rises from not-knowing and bearing witness. As we witness Europe today and deliberated on the design, scope and purpose of the retreat, we realized that more listening and more bearing witness needs to take place, the action has not risen in the form of a Bearing Witness retreat yet.
The Bearing Witness Retreats are a result and a continuation of a long process of relationship-building. Bernie and a dedicated group returned to Auschwitz over twenty times to result in the acclaimed retreat we hold there every year and have affected so many lives. Roshi Genro Gauntt’s Sixteen years of listening finally translated into a retreat in the Black Hills when the conditions were right.
Our process in Bosnia, in collaboration with Center for Peacebuilding in Saski Most and headed by Vahidin Omanovic and Mevludin Rahmanovic, continues. In March 2016, we are planning on sending Jared Seide, director of Center for Council and head trainer of Council facilitators in ZPO Bearing Witness retreats, to train locals in the practice of Way of Council.
Postponing the retreat will also allow us to concentrate on the Black Hills and Auschwitz retreats 2016 while building a clearer infrastructure of administration and staff that will facilitate three retreats in 2017. To support that, we will concentrate on nurturing and developing the Zen Peacemaker Order in the US and Europe.
We would like to repeat that the ZPO is grateful for all those who have contributed, participated and supported this process to date. We are particularly grateful and excited to keep our collaboration with our friends at Center for Peacebuilding in Bosnia.
We invite you to follow this process. We will inform everyone with our further steps. By all means, read the papers, keep informed on what is happening in Europe and throughout the world. Our Bosnia/Herzegovina Facebook group will remain open and will feature updates and reflections.
The Zen Peacemaker Order is dedicated to a spiritual practice that is rooted in social engagement. The ZPO’s peace work consists of executing and planning peacebuilding Bearing Witness Retreats in Auschwitz/Birkenau, with the Lakota nation on Turtle Island (Northern US), in Bosnia/Herzegovina, Rwanda as well as through ministering refugees, veterans, the environment, race-awareness, homelessness, poverty and more. This work requires your ongoing support, and we’d like to offer a special way to do so.
For any donation of $1,000 or more, You will receive a unique, hand-made ceramic art piece – a head created by Jeff Bridges – an award winning actor and director as well as long-time hunger relief activist and supporter of the Zen Peacemakers. Along with each statue, the you will receive @ A box and pillow for the Head @ A book honoring a generation of 18 Heads @ A Head For Peace certificate @ A signed photograph of the Head @ A What’s The Deal Here document @ A Why Zen Peacemakers document. Scroll below for a list of available heads. Read Jeff Bridges’ reflection on creating the statues and see the available heads.
For more than a decade, Academy Award–winning actor Jeff Bridges and his buddhist teacher, renowned Roshi Bernie Glassman, have been close friends. Inspiring and often hilarious, The Dude and the Zen Master captures their freewheeling dialogue about life, laughter, and the movies with a charm and bonhomie that never fail to enlighten and entertain.
In a recent interview in the New York Times, Actor and Director Ethan Hawke said “the best book about acting, indirectly at least, is “The Dude and the Zen Master,” by Jeff Bridges and his Zen teacher, Bernie Glassman.” The full interview is available here.
To make a donation and receive the book and the ceramic head, please donate in the button below $1000 or more.
If you’d still like to make a donation without getting the book and the ceramic head, you can provide below a Tax Deductible Donation of any amount for helping to continue the work of the Zen Peacemakers.
Please specify in the comments block of the donation form, that your donation is for the support of the Zen Peacemakers.
You can also give your credit card information, or send a check made payable to Zen Peacemakers, attn: Heads for Peace Promotion 2016 to Rami Efal, ZPO Coordinator and Assistant to Founder, PO Box 294, Montague, MA 01351, [email protected], Tel:347.210.9556