Zen emphasizes daily meditation with periodic periods of multi-day meditation retreats. Many Zen meditation techniques allow us to let go of our attachments to our thoughts, drop subject-object differentiation with the “outside” world and bear witness to the wholeness of life.
In a Bearing Witness Retreat, participants plunge into an environment that is so overwhelming that they have no choice but to drop their conditioning and habitual thought patterns. By staying in the Environment, our initial refusal to accept the undesirable reality dissipates and we are left to see the situation for what it is.
Council practice allows us to express and bear witness to our own reactions and to the reactions of others. While a Zen teacher will lead a Zen retreat, on a bearing witness retreat, the Environment is the teacher. While Zen retreats may involve Zen meditation and koan study, on a bearing witness retreats, participants of a variety of faiths and practices sit in silence and in circles, with the invitation to deeply listen and share their feelings with each other.
The first Zen Peacemakers Street Retreat, led by Roshi Bernie Glassman, occurred in 1991, in the streets of New York City’s Bowery. In 1994, Bernie Glassman was part of a multi-faith gathering and prayer vigil at Auschwitz. Moved by his sense of the millions of souls wanting to be remembered, Bernie initiated the Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz in 1996. This retreat has occurred annually since then.
A diverse multi-faith group gathers every year, in November, to bear witness at Auschwitz/Birkenau. Another kind of Bearing Witness Retreat will be taking place, with Bernie in April 2012, on the Streets of New York.
While a number of teachers within the Zen Peacemakers family continue to lead street retreats and participate in the annual Auschwitz retreat, several have also innovated new Bearing Witness Retreats. Fleet Maull started a retreat in Rwanda in 2010. Heinz-Jurgen Metzger has led retreats in slaughter houses and at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Grover Genro Gauntt is developing a retreat with Native Americans in the U.S. Bernie’s Journeys to the Field will all involve Bearing Witness Retreats.