By Bernie Glassman
I wish to talk about going on the streets during Holy Week, the week of Easter, the week of Passover, one of the saddest and most joyous times of the year. I go on the streets at other times of the year, too, and each occasion is special in its own way, but the streets feel different during Holy Week. The remembrance and caring that spring to life during that time are unmistakable and unforgettable To give you a feel for what I mean, let me describe the 1996 Holy Week street retreat.
We spent our first night sleeping–or trying to sleep–in Central Park. It was so cold that at about 4 a.m. we gave up and began to walk downtown, stopping for breakfast at the Franciscan Mission on West 31st Street en route to our hangout at Tompkins Square Park. We were tired and it didn’t help when we heard that it was going to rain that night, the first night of Passover. Walking past St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, I ran into its rector, Lloyd Casson. Notwithstanding the smell of my clothes after a night in the park, Lloyd gave me a hug. I knew Lloyd from the time he’d served as rector of Trinity Church, and before that, as assistant dean at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. When he heard that we would be in the area, Lloyd suggested we come to the Tenebrae service at St. Mark’s after our Passover seder and then spend the night in the church.
Rabbi Don [Singer] had flown in from California to join us for Passover on the streets, but he’d disappeared in the middle of our night in Central Park. For purposes of the seder, we begged for food in the Jewish restaurants on Second Avenue and in Spanish bodegas by Tompkins Square. One retreat participant, a Swiss woman, was given twenty dollars by the Franciscans when she attended their mass that morning before breakfast. Suddenly, as we began to give up hope, Don appeared. He explained that he’d been so cold during the night that he’d gone into the subway to keep warm. After riding the trains all night he’d visited a few Jewish temples, asking them for food for our seder. He arrived with bottles of kosher grape juice and gefilte fish. Using the money the Franciscans had given us we bought more food and then, at nightfall, held a seder at Tompkins Park.
We sat around two picnic tables in an enclosure behind the Park’s restrooms. This was usually locked by the guard during the evening, but this time he unlocked it specially for our use. We invited the park regulars to join us, including the King and Queen of Punk accompanied by their dog. Don passed around matzos, bitter herbs, and grape juice and we talked about leaving Egypt, the land of bondage, addictions, and delusions, and arriving in the Promised Land. We told the story of slavery and the story of freedom, we sang and danced, Don leading us around the tables. Finally we shared the food we’d gathered, and when the seder was over we left the tables, the guard locked the enclosure, and we walked over to St. Mark’s Church.
We arrived at St. Mark’s in the middle of the Tenebrae service. The church was designed for performances, so there are no pews, only an altar in front and risers on the sides. Chairs had been brought out, candles dimmed, and the church was completely dark at the end of this sad service about the Passion of Christ.
That’s when Lloyd Casson told his president that the strange-looking group sitting in the back, with musty smells and grizzled faces, would be spending the night at the church. I could see some frenzied whispering going on. I walked over to Lloyd and said that we would be happy to camp outside, on the grounds of the church. But Lloyd was adamant. He asked us to sit together with the president of the church and explain who we were and what we were doing. So we sat in the back along with a few of St. Mark’s parishioners and introduced ourselves. We told them about spending last night in Central Park and now coming from a seder in Tompkins Park. I talked a little about our annual street retreats. It didn’t take long for the president of St. Mark’s to change his mind and give us permission to stay. So that night we slept on the risers. The church was warm and dry, and the candles still burned from the Tenebrae service as we fell asleep. When we awoke we were told to go into the vestry. There we found the president of the church, who had spent the night in the church along with us, busy making us a pot of coffee.
It was now Maundy Thursday, a day of divine mysteries. In the middle of the day a man came to invite the regulars at Tompkins Square to lunch at St. Brigitte’s Church, on the east side of the park. Off we went to the church basement where a huge meal had been prepared by the parishioners, who also showed us to our table and waited on us. For dessert they ushered us to a long table in the corner where families had baked cakes, pies, and cookies, and children had prepared cards wishing us a Happy Easter.
At the end of the meal they asked us if we would like to have our feet washed. They took us behind a partition to a row of chairs and sat us down among other street people. I hesitated. My feet had painful, ugly blisters from our 17-mile walk from Yonkers to Tompkins Square just two days before. But one woman crouched before me and helped me take my shoes and socks off. She examined the blisters. They had punctured and were very red. Gently she dipped my feet into a basin of hot water. Then she massaged my feet.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked her.
“I am doing this because Jesus Christ did,” the woman said, her manicured fingers running very gently over my sore feet. “He washed the feet of his disciples even though he was the Son of God, and that is why I do it, too.”
She put special salve on my blisters. She also gave me a new pair of white socks.
The sun shone that afternoon, beautiful and warm as we sat undisturbed on the benches of Tompkins Park. We did our own Buddhist service, inviting all the hungry ghosts to partake with us in the Supreme Meal. And when that was over we began to make our way even further downtown, towards the Masjid el-Farah Mosque. Its former sheik, my student and Zen teacher, Lex Nur Hixon, had died of cancer six months earlier. His successor, Sheik Fariha, had invited us to come and participate in their weekly zikr.
It was twilight and we were making our way down one of the narrow streets of the financial district when we passed a synagogue I’d never seen before. It was brand new with a modern design. As we paused to admire it a man wearing a yarmulke came out. He looked at our showerless, unshaven group without the slightest curiosity and asked: “Are any of you Jews?”
As a matter of fact, we told him, about four of us were Jews. We even had a rabbi with us.
“Good,” he announced. “We need your help to make a minyan.”
A minyan is a quorum of ten men needed for orthodox Jewish services. We went inside. The men were separated from the women, each sitting in a separate section. It was the second evening of Passover and the Hebrew service went quickly. The rabbi spoke about the Passover temple sacrifices more than 2,000 years ago, then led another short service. At the end he came over to us, shook our hands and thanked us, and out we went. Three blocks down, around the corner, was the Masjid el-Farrah.
Here we were greeted warmly by Sheik Fariha, an old friend, along with her husband, Sheik Hydar, and a large group of Sufis. They welcomed us to the second floor of the mosque, where we sat together around long, low tables carrying large plates of oriental spiced chicken and rice, cheese and salads, and fresh fruit. We described the evenings spent in Central Park and in St. Mark’s Church. Don Singer spoke about the meaning of Passover. The poet, Robert Bly, joined the gathering and offered a poem. We sang, “La-illaha-il-allah.” There is no God but Allah.
Finally we went down to the mosque. Again, men and women were separated, with the women covering their hair. In a place of no images a service was held and we made many bows. And then the zikr began. Zikr means remembrance. Forming a circle within a circle, we whirled around, turning our faces from side to side, saying the name of Allah again and again, losing ourselves in His praise. Hour after hour we did this, calling on the divine names, forming circle after circle of ecstasy. The Sufis sang, the instruments played, we turned and whirled and danced. Rumi, the great Sufi poet and mystic, had written:
“In love with him, my soul
Lives the subtlest of passions,
Lives like a gypsy.
Each day a different house,
Each night under the stars.”
During those five days we were abiding nowhere yet we were everywhere, drunk on the passion of Buddha, God, Christ, Yahweh, and Allah. Wherever we went we were given food, shelter, friendship, and love. At every place we were greeted like long-lost children.
The following day, cold and rainy, was Good Friday. After a breakfast of green pea soup and bread at the Catholic Worker food pantry, we went back to St. Brigitte’s to follow their annual Passion play. It began inside the church. A young Hispanic with long black hair, dressed in a simple white robe and sandals, was Christ. Roman soldiers mocked and whipped him, and finally hoisted a big cross on his back. With Christ and the priest leading the way, a procession left the church, going around the Bowery to stop at the Stations of the Cross. It began to snow and soon I could see Christ’s sandals slipping on the wet, white pavement, his legs and feet red from the cold. But he carried the cross north on Avenue B, followed by the church parishioners and us.
The sleet came down hard. We stopped at each Station of the Cross: a house which was a known hangout for drug dealers, a building where a shoot-out had taken place with the police, a house of prostitution, an abandoned tenement. We mingled with the people in the procession who struggled every day to build a life in that neighborhood for their families. We stopped at places of drugs, murder, squatting, homelessness, abuse, violence, and squalor, singing devoutly in English and Spanish, asking for forgiveness. Christ’s mother approached him, wishing to cradle him in her arms. He spoke with the women of Jerusalem, who were none other than the women of Ave. B. He was stripped, whipped, scourged, frozen, humiliated, friendless. And when we returned to the church he was crucified. One of the retreat participants had left the street retreat the night before, then rejoined us at Tompkins Park after a change of heart. Now he wept and wept.
We finished our street retreat at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a candlelight mass on the eve of Easter. Jim Morton knew we were coming and had saved us special seats, but that didn’t prevent many of us from dozing off during the dark, somber service. We all awoke when suddenly the lights of the cathedral blazed on and the organ and choir began to sing loudly and joyfully that Christ, once again, had risen.
These were some of the events of our street retreat in Holy Week, 1996. Other things happened that week, too: a sleepless night at Penn Station, two people with such badly blistered feet that they had to leave us. One of the participants who’d served as my personal assistant, a talented musician with a history of drug use, went back to using that week. He’d fallen back on old habits several times in the past and it wasn’t even clear that he would participate in the retreat. In the end he pleaded with me to let him come. I did. On the eve of Maundy Thursday, as we lay on the risers of St. Mark’s Church, he played melody after melody on their organ, lullabying us all to sleep. But the following day he disappeared. Someone else told me he’d gone to see a dealer. I didn’t see him for a long, long time after that.
His story, too, is part of our Holy Week Street Retreat. The retreat was a banquet that lasted for five days and we savored many wonderful dishes. But my assistant was not with us when we returned to our homes in the early hours of Easter Day.
Photos by Peter Cunningham
Transcribed from a recording at Bernie’s house in Montague, MA USA, 9/21/2015
BERNIE: So we all talk about the interconnectedness of life, the oneness of life, but if we look carefully at ourselves and see how many aspects of life we shy away from or won’t come in contact, and then try to figure why. I think the biggest reason is fear. So that’s how these Bearing Witness retreats… Well, I don’t know if they started because of that, but that’s where the large numbers started.
KD: I had a lot of fear before my first retreat, “How am I going to deal with this?” Just the fear of going, being in that place where so much suffering happened and so much torture and so much inhumanity was manifest. So I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me, you know. So just to go and go through the process and the practice of being in the camp at that time was] very freeing from that fear that I had. Just not that simple. And then to be talking about fear, how much fear there must have been in the camp at the time of the war. The atmosphere was extraordinary.
BERNIE: We were just together in South Dakota, in the Black Hills and we met with the Lakota folks. And the fear, the elders went to boarding schools ran by Church, Catholic Church, and the fear that must have existed there, because if they spoke any Lakota they were beaten up, if they wore any traditional clothes they were beaten up. In that school there is a track where people run around and underneath that there’s graves of children that died there. So they had a reason to be afraid, but that fear permeates everywhere. The other reason for these Bearing Witness retreats is our ignorance, which I think that is with most of the non-Native Indians that came, they] had no idea of what went on in their own country, of what we did.
KD: And are still doing.
BERNIE: And are still doing. And why we have these ignorant things? Again, in a way I think it’s fear. You don’t want to know. So it’s fear, it’s guilt, but we don’t want to know. So we try to stay away. So, what I found for myself, maybe about 25 years ago actually, I was in a place that in my practice I needed to go to places where I didn’t want to know what was going on, where I felt I had to stay away, or where I was afraid of it. So those were the places I went. Now, in the old Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet they had what they call charnal practices where you would go to the cemeteries and sit with the spirits that are coming in, it’s] a very similar thing 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. So if we’re staying away from the large part the way we are staying away from the large part of ourselves, there has to be practices to bring those connections. And then I also feel very strongly that there’s got to be practices to celebrate that. And those are bhakti practices, chanting practices. I mean, there are many practices to do that, but I think that they take on another significance if it’s also linked with bringing in the shadow or the places we don’t want to know about, we don’t want to touch. So we make a good duo, man!
KD: And people get very attached to the way they live. Remember when I sang in… You asked me to sing it was in the women’s, no it was in the men’s… one of the men’s…
KD: Barracks, and so I sat down there on the mud and one guy just exploded, remember? “I didn’t…” and he ran out of there. Remember that?
BERNIE: I do. He’s a student of mine.
KD: Oh, was he? He must be a very good student. So he didn’t want to let go of something, right. I mean, he’s…
KD: He came back.
BERNIE: He didn’t want to open up.
KD: He didn’t want to open up. He was there with the suffering but he didn’t want to open, he couldn’t let go of that, he was attached to his suffering, I guess you could say.
BERNIE: I think so. I think so. And we put a lot of emphasis on that first tenet in the Zen Peacemakers, being open and being open to everything, you know. It’s very difficult and so he had studied that, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it, he was trapped by his conditioning of what should be instead of being open to what is. Another case like that that was sort of interesting, two years ago… We always go to the women’s barracks, there’s a women’s barrack where women were put when they couldn’t work any more, they were put in there, they weren’t given food, they were just left there to die. So two years ago we decided that we would have the men go to the men’s barracks and the women into this women’s barracks. We did that. Then went in Ohad, who is a rabbi from Israel and plays guitar, he started playing some Hassidic tunes and we were singing. There was somebody who got really pissed off. “How are you singing here? This is how we should sit.” And then we were supposed to meet up with the women, but we went on, we were singing, dancing, and it went on so long that it was lunchtime, so most people went outside the camp to the trucks to get their soup. But some including the rabbi went to the women’s barracks to see what was going on. It turned out that one of the men was engaged to one of the women who was in the barracks, they went and she saw them coming and she said… they were going to get married in a couple of weeks in Prague or something.
She said, “Why don’t we get married here?”
He said, “Here?”
She says, “Yes, why not?”
And they ask Ohad, “Can we do that?”
And he said, “Do you really want to do it?”
And they said, “Yes, we want.”
And he said, “Yeah, I can do that.”
And he married them.
Now, a number of people that were upset, there was a woman who was very upset about the women dancing and whatever, she was an Orthodox Jew. And then I pointed out, a few days later, in the evening, the last evening, Friday night, when we end, I pointed out that most people is those barracks were from the Hassidic Tradition, and a wedding in the Hasidic Tradition the men are separated from the women, and they’re both dancing, they’re singing and dancing, and then at some point the rabbi leads the groom to where the bride is and they get married. And I said, that’s what happened here! And can you imagine the delight of the people that we’re here, and singing… A wedding in their tradition happening right in their space. So both of those people who were so upset, “Wow, yeah, why you were so upset? We’re part of history-making.” And again, because they were afraid, they were closed.
[Above: Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony at 2013 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Music performed by Krishna Das, Video taken by Sensei Andrzej Krajewski.]
KD: And even so, being closed and afraid, that is part of the program that they received from the culture. This is how we have to live with this, we have to be closed, we have to be afraid, we have to only be unhappy about it.
Well, I remember when you gave me those eight lines to work on from The Gates of Sweet Nectar, the actual translation as you gave it to me, the last line was “all of your sorrow, I make it mine,” which is the Bodhisattva taking on the sorrows of the world. So when I brought that to you, you said, “Oh, I want the joy too, you got to put that in there.” So I changed it to “your joy and your sorrow.” But it’s more inclusive, it’s more…
You know, when I… That first time I was in Auschwitz, I had my harmonium with me because I had been singing in Europe, so I took it into the women’s barracks and I though, “I will do some Devi Puja here, I will sing to the Goddess, the perfect woman who embodies all the women.” So I got in there and I put up the harmonium, I was just about to sing and I thought to myself, “Well…” First of all, it was so full. I don’t think I’ve ever sang to more people than the beings I felt in that barracks, empty barracks. I don’t have these kinds of experiences, but I just felt it, so I asked them, “What should I sing to you.” And what came back, they wanted me to sing to their children, so I sang Gopala, Gopala, which is the child Krishna. And I felt they felt such joy from that, because they were remembering their children and the love that they had for their children. That was a very beautiful experience, completely unexpected.
BERNIE: I think that’s the beauty of the Bearing Witness, is that what comes out is never really what is expected. There’s no planning it.
KD: Yes, there’s no planning it.
BERNIE: We just open, and bearing witness and letting it be. And so we enjoy, we grow receiving the unexpected… That feels good to me, like a lock.
Top Photo by Rami Efal.
Bernie: I’d like to talk about my vision of the Zen Peacemaker Order. I’ll start off at the beginning. And the beginning took place about twenty-one years ago. Twenty-one years ago (1994) I had finished different phases of my Zen training.
My first twenty years of Zen training was here (Zen Center of Los Angeles) in a Japanese-style Zen center with a Japanese teacher (Maezumi Roshi.) But after about twenty years, I had an experience that made me want to work in a bigger venue than just in a Zen center. And the venue had something to do with Indra’s net. Most of you are familiar with that. It’s a metaphor used in Buddhism for all of life. And it closely relates to the modern physics idea of starting with the Big Bang, and energy flowing through the universe. So Indra’s net is this net that extends throughout all space and time, and has at each node a pearl. Constantly there are new pearls being generated. Every instant there’s a new pearl. So as I’m talking, I’m generating a new pearl. And each pearl contains every other pearl. And every pearl contains this pearl that I’m generating. So it’s all of life.
And my feeling was that I had been practicing . . . For me, enlightenment means to experience the oneness of life. And that keeps getting deeper, that experience. And for me, what it means is at any moment I could look at what portion of the net am I connected with? I’m connected to a fairly large portion. And what portions aren’t I connected to, and why?
And I came to think that one of the big reasons we’re not connected with certain portions of the net is we’re afraid. We’re afraid to get connected, to enter those fears. And there are other reasons that may relate to DNA, or all kinds of things.
So I wanted to extend. My feeling was in those first twenty years, I was connecting only to people who came to our Zendo. So it was a portion of the net. There was much more out there. And the experience I had led me to say I want to connect to all of those spheres. And for the next twenty years I worked at trying to do that. To more spheres in the world of business, and social action, their worlds. And then into worlds that I was afraid of—going to live in the streets, doing these Bearing Witness retreats in places that had a façade, a very negative power. But still they’re part of the net, so I went there.
And then on my fifty-fifth birthday, which was twenty-one years ago, I wanted to figure out what am I gonna do next? And already by then, I was trying to live my life according to three tenets—not knowing (not having any plans what I’m gonna do), bearing witness (spending time trying to grok into the situation), and then seeing what actions would come out of that. So I decided to do a retreat, which I did. I decided to do it on the steps of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C., and I invited people. There were about twenty of us. And I gave as a theme for that retreat, what actions are we gonna take in our lives that will help the aspects of society that we’re not dealing with, and society’s not dealing with? That was the question I put out.
And again the instructions for how to work with that, you could look at as a koan, but the instructions how to work it—start off not knowing. Don’t come up with any ideas at the beginning of what that’s going to mean. And then bear witness to that question, which is what we do in koan study. We’re given a koan—we’re supposed to come to it without any ideas first, and bear witness to that koan. And see what comes up.
What came up for me, after that week . . . My birthday is in January, and I love to say that that particular January, twenty-one years ago, was the coldest January in the history of Washington, DC. So we were sitting in snow. We were all covered in snow. And what came up for me after that week was the idea of a container for people who are interested in meditation, and social action. And an international container, where people could relate to each other, share with each other. And that’s what I started to work on.
And I went home, and I shared that with my wife, Jishu. And she said, “Let’s start an Order.” So we started the Zen Peacemaker Order at that point. And at that point, the Zen Peacemaker Order was for people who were interested in mediation and social action. And we asked everybody who joined as staff, and some who were joining as members to create a mala system to support themselves. What we did is we said find somebody who will help support you in this practice. And that’s one of the beads on your mala. Go out, and reach enough people to get to where you can support yourself. We even hired an executive director—his whole salary was supported that way. So we were basically begging, which is another practice I feel very strongly about. And that eliminated financial difficulties, because we didn’t have to pay. And if we couldn’t raise the money to do what we wanted to do, we did with what we raised.
So that was the beginning. It went on for a while. I don’t remember exactly the history, but certainly when Jishu died I dropped out of the scene for about a year or so. So I dropped the ball in terms of the Zen Peacemaker Order at that time. And Eve Marko, who I’m now married to, sort of convinced me to come back in, after about a year. And I did. But I had dropped the whole working on building up the Zen Peacemaker Order.
But, not everybody had dropped it. There were people being ordained as Zen Peacemaker Priests around the world. But there was no connections. I didn’t know about this. And they didn’t know. Joan Halifax probably inducted around 500 people into the ZPO. I doubt if they knew each other. I certainly didn’t know who they were. And in Europe this was happening. We had founding teachers for ZPO in the States and also in Europe.
And about three years ago Roshi Egyoku asked me, “What’s happening with ZPO?” I said, “Well, nothing that I know of. I mean there’s a lot happening, but I don’t know.” And she said that she feels that what she’s been developing here, the principles within the Zen Peacemakers Order fit much more than the Japanese principles that we had both studied. And she was interested in reviving, putting energy into it. I said, “Great, so let’s do that.”
So around three years ago, two years ago, (I can’t remember exactly when.) we started to do that. We put out an initial document. And one of the things we said in that initial document is that we were organizing according to a method of circles, and peer relationships. And that I would be in the International Circle serving as a steward of the vision of ZPO.
And it was just a few weeks ago that I realized that this vision of ZPO is not stated anywhere. Or at least my vision of it. We have a small vision statement. But my vision of ZPO is not stated anywhere. And it felt very important that I put out what I think, or what my vision is. And I also invite some of the major players, like Roshi Egyoku to share her vision. And then we’ll put this up on the web, and the circles can discuss Bernie’s Vision, and Wendy Blue’s Vision, and Joan Hallifax’s Vision—the vision of the different people. And then we can discuss it further.
But I would still at this point be the steward of that vision. My personal feeling—I haven’t mentioned this, and what I haven’t shared yet is that in about a year I would like to replace myself as the steward of the vision of ZPO with a group of three Spirit Holders. Because part of the vision, part of my vision of ZPO is that it not be a hierarchical organization.
And I’ve heard some people say that they want to join ZPO because they want to support Bernie, or be part of what Bernie’s doing. And I don’t want that to be a reason to join ZPO. That’s the old hierarchical sense, and I’d rather move us out of that before I die. Obviously after I die that can’t be a reason for joining. So I want to move us out of any one person making any or all of these decisions. But for the first year I will hold that position of Steward of the vision.
So let me share what my vision is.
My vision is that the Zen Peacemaker Order would be a collection of folks who are meditators—that’s one. And in each of the things that I mention, I would also say what happens if you eliminate that as a core of Zen Peacemaker Order? Could you still call it a Zen Peacemaker Order? And for me if somebody wants to be a member, but doesn’t want to be involved in meditation, I would say, “This is the wrong group for you.” We are all meditation students. And we share that, and that’s something we can discuss.
My vision includes the Zen Peacemaker Order functioning with the principles of the Three Tenets of not knowing; bearing witness, and taking actions that arise out of that. And these Three Tenets, for me, I live my life that way. I don’t do anything with a pre-set plan. I approach everything I do, including this talk, or including making love to my wife without coming to it with expectation, or a plan, or this is what’s gonna happen. I bear witness to the situation, and I see what arises. I don’t say, or I don’t feel that what arises out of that practice is good or bad, or right or wrong, or any of that. It’s just what arose.
So the next time I do something, again I approach it with not knowing. I bear witness, and then the actions. So if we took the Three Tenets out of the Zen Peacemaker Order, again I feel we don’t have a Zen Peacemaker Order, we have something else.
One of the principles of the Zen Peacemaker Order is doing social action, being socially engaged on a volunteer basis. There are many people that have jobs where they are social workers, or whatever. I am looking at everybody within the Zen Peacemaker Order doing some volunteer work somewhere. And furthermore, doing that social action based on the Three Tenets. So everything that I’m going to talk about as something to be done within the Zen Peacemaker Order has to be done according to the Three Tenets.
And my own opinion is that if you do social action based on the Three Tenets, that is a practice towards enlightenment, or towards connecting with more of Indra’s net. So the experience of enlightenment becomes deeper and deeper, as you connect with more and more of the net.
And again, if you took out social action, somebody say, “I want to be part of ZPO, but I don’t want to do any of that social action,” or, “I’m already a social worker. I don’t need to do any volunteer work.” Again, they’re not fitting my sense of what it means to be part of the Zen Peacemaker Order.
Another element that we list as a core practice of the Zen Peacemaker Order, but for me it’s part of the vision are what we call Bearing Witness Retreats. So these are generally retreats involving aspects of the net that we’re not normally connecting with. And they’re retreats that are structured according to the Three Tenets. All of the retreats that you’ve heard of us having have been structured according to the Three Tenets. Now we try to figure out what does that mean, and how do we structure a retreat that way?
What is a Bearing Witness Retreat will keep evolving. That is, in my opinion if you are working in hospice, say, and you are approaching people from the standpoint of not-knowing, you’re not coming there with a plan of what you should do, or what should happen to the person that’s dying, but you’re not knowing, and you’re bearing witness to the person, and then the actions arise. That’s a Bearing Witness Retreat.
So Bearing Witness Retreats contain different flavors, but there’s a similarity. They’re structured according to the Three Tenets. And you’re entering a realm that you’re not fully connected in. And you’re spending time bearing witness to that world.
So that’s an important part. And we’ve already had meetings. Different meeting, and some people suggesting whether we should have Bearing Witness Retreats as a prerequisite. Again, for me, if you took Bearing Witness Retreats out of it, you don’t have the Zen Peacemaker Order. And many people, including Rami, his first introduction to our world was he attended an Auschwitz Retreat. And many people that have attended these different retreats have become very active around the world. There’s a whole core of people that are friends. They are in different sanghas, but they’ve become friends because they’ve gone through this deep experience of not knowing, and bearing witness in an environment where it really helps you to do that.
Also my vision is that it not be hierarchical. And I mentioned that before. So we’ve set up a governance system. And you can read about this, it’s based on something called sociocratic, or sociocracy that was developed in Holland. And we’ve used it before. But we’re using that as our governance system. And that consists of local circles, regional circles that invites people up to a national, continental circle, with representatives that bring information back and forth. And those continental circles flow their people into an international circle, with information flowing back. So there’s information flowing backwards and forwards from all of these circles, and no one person in charge.
So at this point, to me, if you took out the peer style of governance, and replaced it with a common hierarchical style of governance, for me that’s not the Zen Peacemaker Order. Another hierarchical thing is not what I had in mind.
So those are sort of the pieces of this vision, but an overall is an international sangha of people doing all these things, belonging to sanghas all around the world, or not belonging, individuals. Wanting friends to share their work, and what they’re doing, and to talk, and to do trainings. So we have people, like this group, in a training on the Zen Peacemaker Order that’s happening this weekend. And you’ve got people from around the United States coming to train here. That’s not always that common, but within our family it’s becoming more, and more common. And with the development of Zen Peacemaker Order, I think it will be even more common.
There will be people wanting to train in some of these things that maybe their sangha doesn’t train in or maybe they don’t have a sangha. Or even if they do, you’ll see crossings. I would hope that somebody that’s a member of ZPO here, and is deciding to take a trip to Europe (maybe going to Belgium, or to wherever you’re going), you could look up and see what ZPO friends there are in Belgium, tell them you’re coming for a trip, and that they would offer you a place to stay, or help you in your trip. That’s real international sangha that we would be developing.
That’s my start. Most of what I have discussed—maybe all—is in place. It’s happening. And it will evolve through these peer groups. Right now we have peer groups, regional groups in southern Europe. And the southern Europe group represents Switzerland, Italy, Spain. And because we don’t have enough groups, some other continents, we also have representation from Israel and Brazil. The northern group, circle, has representation from Belgium, Holland, France, Paris, Germany, I think Poland. And in the United States we have an East Coast, Eastern Region, Central, and a Western. And Roshi Egyoku is a steward of the Western Regional Circle.
[continued in part two, posted soon]
“We all form our own clubs,” says Roshi Bernie Glassman. If we’re black, we may exclude whites. If we’re white, we may exclude blacks. “If we’re liberal,” Glassman continues, “we never listen to conservatives or read books by them or invite them to tea, and if we’re conservative, vice versa. “The most common thing we do to people that don’t fit our club is we avoid them. We also imprison them. Sometimes we beat them up. In the South, we used to lynch them. Gays? We bash them.”
Glassman was at one time an engineer and mathematician working in the aerospace industry. After receiving traditional Zen training from Maezumi Roshi, he realized that his calling was to take his practice out into the world. His first step was to establish Greyston Mandala, a collection of companies that both generated profits and benefited the homeless. Next, Glassman began holding his groundbreaking “bearing witness” retreats, in which participants enter an environment that’s so overwhelming that they drop their habitual thought patterns.
For twenty years, Glassman has been leading bearing witness retreats at a place that represents the most terrible case of what we do to those outside our club: Auschwitz. Survivors, children of survivors, people from all over the world, of different religions, even children and grandchildren of SS members—they’ve all sat with Glassman on the camp’s infamous train tracks, alternating silence with chanting the names of Holocaust victims.
Generally, the retreatants believe they’d always deal with others humanely. On retreat, however, they’re thrust into close contact with those outside their club, and “being as we’re human,” says Glassman, “pretty soon what pops up is people get angry at how others are acting. Then we deal with that.
“The theme of an Auschwitz retreat is not the Holocaust,” Glassman asserts. “It’s ‘How do we deal with each other?’”
In 2014, Glassman spearheaded a retreat marking the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The retreatants were half international and half African. It included a Tutsi woman whose arm had been chopped off, and the Hutu man who did it.
Like the Auschwitz retreats, it had a universal theme: forgiveness. For years, Rwandans had been working on reconciliation, but, according to Glassman, “what you see when you look in their eyes is trauma.” Forgiveness is the ultimate challenge.
One retreatant in Rwanda was a man who’d been an officer in the Belgian Air Force. In 1994 he led a team of 300 people flying into Rwanda to rescue Tutsis who were gathered in a stadium and who were going to be killed. When he landed his plane, however, he received orders to not protect the Tutsis, but rather to evacuate internationals. He followed orders. For two decades, this officer suffered such tremendous guilt and pain that he never told anyone what happened. Finally, at the Rwanda retreat, he shared his story and in the sharing he felt some peace. Later, he returned home and revealed tohis wife this burden he’d carried alone for so long. His whole life changed for the better.
Over the years, says Glassman, many people have found healing at bearing witness retreats. He thinks back to one retreat at Auschwitz. There was a German woman whose grandfather had run a concentration camp. For sixteen years, she’d thought about attending a retreat but didn’t because she was afraid of meeting Jews and Poles. She was afraid of her guilt. Another person was Polish and he’d been thinking about going on a retreat for ten years, but didn’t because he was afraid of meeting Germans. He was afraid of his anger. After four days on retreat together, these two were hugging.
“The Chinese character that’s translated as compassion consists of two radicals. One is compassion as we normallythink of it, and the other is removal of fear. That,” says Glassman, “is how I practice compassion. I try to remove fear.”Learn More
An Interview of
Batya Swift Yasgur
Every year, I do something strange. Some people might even consider it bizarre. I bring a group of people to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we sit at the selection site to meditate, pray, recite the names of the dead, and hold counsel. We all come from vastly different backgrounds, walks of life, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and countries. We gather to bear witness to the enormity of suffering that took place there. We gather to confront our judgments and labels about what happened, about each other, and about life itself. We gather to bow to the unknown. We gather with trust that loving action will flow from our explorations. We gather to celebrate our oneness and our differences. We gather to honor the Interconnectedness of Life. This experience of Interconnectedness of Life is key to my understanding of Karma.
Karma Is a Story
But then, so is everything else.
From my perspective as a Buddhist, I regard everything as Emptiness. A physicist might use different terminology and say that everything is Energy. Energy permeates everything that exists, energy is everything that exists, energy is the fabric from which everything is woven. This includes the things we think are “solid” and permanent. You and I are constructed from particles of the same Energy.
Within that Emptiness, events come and go. Experiences arise and recede. They seem real, but they are nothing more than transient configurations of energy, with no substance. They may seem like facts, but they are stories. The Energy never changes. It doesn’t have a narrative. It doesn’t move forward or backward, it doesn’t grow or shrink. It has no birth, no conditioning, and no death. It has no beginning, end, or middle. It is outside time, inside time, and unaffected by time. Linear time is a perception, not a reality.
So how do we translate those energetic waves into the experiences that form the building blocks of our stories?
The brain has instrumentation, circuitry that takes the energy and makes something out of it, like a radio has an antenna that converts radio waves into sound. The television converts waves into a visual picture. Our brains convert energy into perception that we think is “real.” Certain waves become “vision” and others become “sound” and still others become touch or taste. The brain is a fantastic receiver, a fantastic transmitter, and a fantastic database—an absolutely amazing storage system. The sum total of everything experienced and then stored is called memory. My Karma is my own unique instrumentation.
My brain may convert a particular set of energy waves into some experience that I regard as “real,” while your brain may convert the same set of energy waves into a different experience that you consider “real.” But it is the same energy. Recognizing and realizing that we are individual in our circuitry but universal in our make up is my definition of the Enlightenment experience. Understanding that fundamental Enlightenment experience is the key to what I call Karma.
Direct and Indirect Karma
We are everything. Our Karma encompasses all the direct and indirect things that happen to us, and to everyone else in the universe—and not only in our universe, but in all of the multiple universes and galaxies. In the Buddhist tradition, we call it the Oneness of Life. In some traditions, it is called God.
I define Karma based on a Chinese ideogram, which actually consists of two ideograms–one meaning indirect Karma and the other meaning direct Karma. When you combine these two, you get the meaning of Karma: all the indirect causes and effects, plus all the direct causes and effects.
“Direct” Karma is relatively easy to understand. It consists of things that are the results of the things I do, actions I take, and thoughts that I have. Direct Karma is something I recognize. For example, if I bump my head, I recognize it. My direct Karma is that if someone bumps me on the head, I may label the person as “unintentionally” hurting me, or as “intentionally” hurting me, and conclude he isn’t a very nice guy. Whatever my conclusions, I can find a direct cause-and-effect between the bump on the head and my reaction.
“Indirect” Karma refers to things that have affected me without my recognition. For example, my DNA obviously affects my health, my biology and my thinking, but I’m not consciously aware of its impact. Additionally, my DNA isn’t a result of one particular action. It’s the result the millions of interactions that led to my ancestry, my parents’ meeting and marriage, my conception, and the body/mind I have now. Solar radiation might be changing me, the ozone layer might be affecting me, but I have no direct awareness of these
Since we are all interconnected, anything that anyone does affects my Karma and anything that I do affects everyone else’s Karma. All the direct and indirect causes affect not only me, but all beings. Individual Karma, collective Karma, and global Karma are irrelevant terms because we are all one thing and therefore there is nothing but changeless, formless, timeless Being. There is no past, present, or future. There is just ”now.” So our experience in the moment we call “now” is affected by everything that has already happened or will ever happen. I may label some things as “already happened” and others as “will happen one day,” but that is a perceptual label. I may label some things as “direct” and others as “indirect.” In reality, all time and space are simply What Is.
Buddhists sometimes refer to this as “Indra’s net.” Indra is a deity, originally from Hindu mythology, whose palace on Mount Meru sits under a net. The net stretches out in all directions, right to infinity. At each vertex of the net sits a pearl, and because the net is infinite, the pearls are likewise infinite in number. Each pearl contains a reflection of all the other pearls. So if you look closely at any given pearl, you see every other pearl that exists, all infinitely connected with one another. The Whole is present in every part, and every part is present in the Whole. Every moment—be it “present,” “past,” or “future”—is reflected in every other moment.
Koan and Karma
In Zen we have techniques called Koans—riddles or paradoxes to be meditated on, which are designed to help the practitioner experience things as they are prior to labeling, to experience our selves before we developed a name, a self-perception, and a story. Each label, each story, separates us from What Is, and creates duality where in truth, all is One.
Emptiness is things as they are before I put a label on them. As I write, I’m looking at a birdfeeder in my back yard. The hummingbirds are hovering around it, darting in and out, their wings quivering against the summer breeze. Everything is labeled. The hanging glass object with holes is labeled a “birdfeeder.” The liquid in it is called “sugar water.” The beautiful colored things with the long beaks and the whirring wings are labeled “hummingbirds.” The sensation on my check is labeled “breeze.” The season is labeled “summer.” But to someone blind who hears the whirring of the hummingbird’s wings without seeing the hummingbird, it’s just a mysterious sound. Similar to a baby, who sees only objects but has no vocabulary, so he can’t name them, define them or interpret them.
The energy waves are crystallized into a story that we call “Experience.” Then we label that experience a “fact” if we believe it, and if we don’t believe it we say it’s a “lie.”
For example, right now I’m smoking a cigar. Why am I smoking it? Because my cousin introduced me to cigars when I was young. I was on the boardwalk in Brighton Beach, where I grew up, walking with my cousin. I remember the light spray of the sea and the wooden boardwalk under my feet. I remember what my cousin looked like and how he handed the cigar to me. I remember inhaling and since then, I’ve been hooked on cigars. But smoking is a label. Cigar is a label. Hooked is a label. But the bottom line is that I’m smoking a cigar right now.
And maybe my cousin has a completely different memory. Maybe he remembers the scene as taking place outside a movie theater. Or maybe he remembers me as snatching the cigar, or finding it unpleasant the first time. If we agree on the memory, we call it a “fact.” If we disagree, each of us thinks the other is lying or doesn’t remember correctly. Anyone who watched the movie Rashomon knows that many people can witness something, and each “sees” something different.
If I share a “truth” with someone else—meaning, we agree on the facts—I’ll get along better with that person than if I disagree. Human beings go to war with one another when they don’t agree on “Truth.” One person thinks there is a God, another one doesn’t. One nation thinks that history unfolded in a certain way, while another nation has a completely different version. Israelis and Palestinians have their own version of history. The Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda each has its own version of history. The Americans and the Germans each have a different version of history, or a different interpretation of facts they agree on. Each thinks their version is true and the opposing version is false.
And each group takes action on those Stories. This is the reason for so many genocides. The Germans believed they were a superior race and that the world had to be “cleansed” of inferiors. From their perspective, they were doing a service to the world. The Hutu in Rwanda believed that the Tutsi were cockroaches, who were polluting their homes and villages. They honestly believed they were performing a service by killing the Tutsi—including their friends, neighbors, wives and children–just as many of us believe that cockroaches pollute our homes, and we reach for a can of Raid.
I think that all of these versions are equally true or equally false. They are all Story. Real Truth has no opposite—because how can there be an opposite of What Is? The very act of misunderstanding, misremembering, or misrepresenting a “fact” takes place within the broader totally of What Is. The duality of truth/falsehood is splashed across the greater screen of a Nondual Truth that doesn’t change and has no opposite.
The brain cannot grasp this, which is why I call it a Koan. Our stories are both real and unreal. Our Karma is both real and unreal. That is the nature of Koan.
Memories of Present and Past Lives
Memory lies within the realm of Story. I may remember my childhood, growing up in Brooklyn. I may also remember that I lived in the 18th century and murdered someone, and then regard my hardships of this lifetime as a consequence of that murder. But all of this is a narrative I tell myself. I don’t regard it as a literal linear account, any more than I regard events of this lifetime as a literal, linear account.
This differs from the Tibetan concept of rebirth. “Buddhism” isn’t uniform in its approach to Karma. In Zen, for example, we don’t believe that an individual soul can reincarnate again and again as the same person, as Tibetans do about certain Lamas. We don’t talk about that type of reincarnation. But I’m sure if you ask 100 Zen masters, you’ll probably find 100 different versions—or Stories—of what reincarnation is. There are many versions of what the Buddha said and what was meant by “rebirth,” but my understanding is that he was reluctant to talk about life after death. It was of no concern for him. This was in the realm of philosophy, and he made it clear that he wasn’t a philosopher. The Four Noble Silences contain nothing about reincarnation or the afterlife.
As I see it, everything instantly and constantly is reborn. That’s my version of reincarnation. My person energy field–my instrumentation– is active every instant, and each instant is different, so I’m continually being reborn.
A metaphor for this is a live oak tree. If you look at an oak tree, it’s always alive. Green all year round. If you look loosely, there are leaves falling. They fall, disintegrate into the soil, and there are always new leaves sprouting. I can look at that oak tree as a big energy field that’s always changing. It will be different at any instant you look at it. Leaves have fallen off and leaves have popped up. You could say one of the leaves that fell on the ground is reincarnating as one of the leaves up in the tree, but that’s your story and it’s more of a Tibetan than a Zen story. From the Zen perspective, things are always changing, dropping away and popping up, but they leave no traces. How can this be? It is another paradox, another Koan.
All of that fits into my story of what interconnectedness means. I believe that we’re all interconnected, it’s all one universe. The memories we have could be from anything, since it’s all one thing. All the pearls are reflected in all the other pearls. There’s no past, present or future, and no such thing as space. It’s what Jung calls cosmic consciousness. In Buddhism, it is similar to Alaya, which means storehouse. The term originated in the Himalayas, as a place where snow is stored. Vishaya is what we might call “Storehouse Consciousness.”
There is a vast storehouse of memory, a vast energy bank consisting of all the experiences that human beings have ever had, are having now, or will have in the future. My instrumentation may pick up another person’s memories and experience them as if they were my own. They may then be interpreted as “my” past life. “My” memories are part of “my” story and have no more or less substance than any other part of my story.
Implications of Story
I would like to make clear that calling everything a “Story” is not a license to be uncompassionate toward another’s suffering or pain. I’ve sometimes heard people say dismissively toward someone in distress, “Oh, that’s just your Story. Get over it.” On the contrary, when we realize the Interconnectedness of all Life, the Oneness of All There Is, we are more compassionate because if another person is hurting, then so are we.
The person I call “Bernie” consists of many parts—limbs, organs, tissues, bones, and cells. If my right hand is gashed, my entire body will spring into action. My brain will think of ways to get care for my injured hand. My feet will take me to the doctor. My tongue will explain to the doctor what’s wrong. My left hand will change my right hand’s bandage. Wouldn’t it be absurd for the other body parts to say, “Oh, it’s only the right hand hurting. I’m going to get on with my life.” If my realization and actualization expand not just to “Bernie,” but to all of society and the world, then when someone is gashed or starving I’ll naturally take care of it. Because, in doing so, I’m taking care of myself.
Standing apart, we can call that compassion. With somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I think he is manifesting that actualization in the world. He’s not just taking care of his particular sect or particular tribe or the Buddhist community. He is serving the world, because that is who he is. So, yes, we would call that compassion. But it’s also just the normal functioning of non-duality.
Compassion in Action: the Zen Peacemakers
The Interconnectedness of Life lies at the foundation of the Zen Peacemaker Order, an organization I founded together with my wife Sandra Jishu Holmes. I had been involved in social action with underserved populations for many years prior to formally founding the organization. In April 1991, I decided to hold a street retreat. Since I was heavily involved with working with populations that were homeless or impoverished, I wanted to join with them in living on the streets. Around 20 of us did a seven-day street retreat in the Bowery of New York. Many of the retreatants were long-term Buddhist practitioners; some had never meditated and knew very little about Buddhism. All the retreatants had strong experiences of the interconnectedness of life and of living in the present. Street retreats became one of the cornerstones of my practice, which eventually led to the founding of Zen Peacemakers.
Several years later, I held my first retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I had been to Auschwitz on my own two years earlier and had vowed to return two years later to lead a bearing witness retreat at the camps. Not just a retreat for Buddhists, Jews or Christians but for everyone–people with different memories. People with different Stories.
Hitler and Nazi Germany had been determined to stamp out differences. They had deified one race and one culture, declared all others inferior, and selected some to be exterminated. Put in different terms, they were determined to impose their Story on others, to splinter off one component of the Whole and discard the rest. I was determined to bring people from different religions and nationalities to the very place where diversity had once been condemned to a terrible grave. There, we would bear witness to our differences.
And indeed, our retreats have drawn individuals and contingents from a wide range of backgrounds and countries—Poland, Germany, the United States (including Native American spiritual leaders), Israel, Ireland, France, Holland, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Africa. Rabbis, Catholic nuns, priests and monks, Buddhist priests and teachers, Imams, Hindus, Sufis, Palestinians, Israelis, and laypeople from all walks of life. We’ve had children of survivors, children of victims, and children of Nazis. We have commemorated the victims and we have commemorated the perpetrators. We are all one body and no one is excluded from the Circle of Life. All of us–men, women, children, the killers, the killed, the tormentors, and the tormented–are billions of cells of one indivisible body.
Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers
There are three basic tenets of the Zen Peacemakers: Bearing Witness, Not Knowing, and Compassionate Action.
Bearing Witness means bringing Presentness and empathy to suffering, but it’s more than that. It means “grocking” the other person’s pain. Joining with the other person’s pain. Experiencing the other person’s pain as if it were your own. Getting to the point where there’s no duality, no subject and object, no “self” and “other.”
There’s bearing witness to oneself, where I am wholly one with my own pain, confusion, and suffering. There’s bearing witness to another human being, for example, someone homeless or someone dying. In our society, we often turn away from the homeless because we find it unbearable to see a disheveled, unwashed person sitting in the street, with a battered Styrofoam cup and an outstretched hand. We look away and hurry on. We turn away from death, afraid of our own mortality. Bearing witness means entering the reality of suffering. Turning toward it, instead of away from it.
When we visit Auschwitz, we are horrified and repulsed. Our first inclination is to flee from our horror and revulsion. During the retreat, we don’t deny our feelings. We bear witness to our own horror and revulsion. We sit at the selection site and deal with what’s coming up for us. We bear witness to the enormity and unspeakable atrocities that took place at that site. And we bear witness to each other. We celebrate our diversity and we celebrate our Oneness.
Not knowing means standing back and allowing ourselves to be led, rather than thinking we need to lead. For example, when I visit children in refugee camps, I have to allow them to show me what they want me to do, and what they don’t want me to do. I have a red clown’s nose, and one of the things I do is to stick it onto my own nose. But when they’re kids from different cultures, they may find me scary, rather than funny. Or they may not be accustomed to smiling. I’ve been around children whose parents have never seen them smile. So I have to watch them very carefully and allow them to show me what’s OK and what’s not OK. I need to give up the idea that I know anything at all about what’s best for them to see, hear, or experience.
On an even deeper level, Not Knowing means suspending judgments and labels—right and wrong, good and bad, thinking we know what should have happened and what shouldn’t have happened. It means stepping out of duality.
But it’s more than that. We take our exploration to the place of not knowing, to where the brain can’t come up with answers. Answers stop us from growing, struggling, and healing. It’s not the answers that are important, it’s the questions. Questions lead us deeply into a situation. They are the key to entering the place of Not Knowing. To being where we are. Sitting deeply with the questions. We can say that Auschwitz and all it represents is a Koan that leads us deeply into the unknown, where our minds cannot follow. One of the Peacemaker vows is, “I vow to penetrate the unknown.”
Loving action will emerge from the Bearing Witness and Not Knowing. How do we know what action to take? How to heal? The right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t come with a fixed idea of what is needed. We don’t have to figure out the solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises. Loving action is right action. . It’s as simple as giving a hand to someone who stumbles or picking up a child who has fallen on the floor. We take such direct, natural actions every day of our lives without considering them special. And they’re not special.
If I’m in 100-degree weather, and sweat is pouring down my face, I don’t think about what to do. Automatically, I reach up and wipe the sweat out of my eyes. My action doesn’t arise as a statement to myself, such as, “boy, you’re hot, go wipe your forehead.” It’s reflexive, instinctual, and doesn’t have to be thought up. It comes out of Bearing Witness, I call it Loving Action. If it comes out of plan, I call it dualistic thinking. Ninety-nine percent of time, our reactions are dualistic, rather than emerging organically from Truth.
When we bear witness, and when we step out of thinking we know what another person needs, when we become the situation—homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death—and then the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.
Karma Without Traces
In the Zen Peacemakers Order, we commit ourselves to healing others at the same time as we heal ourselves. We don’t wait to be peaceful before we begin to make peace. In fact, when we see the world as one body, it’s obvious that we heal everyone at the same time that we heal ourselves, for there are no “others.”
We heal our Karma by healing ourselves. We heal ourselves by healing our Karma. Part of that healing is recognizing our Karma as Story, and seeing our Story everyone else’s Story as well. We are one Story.
In the Zen centers of which I’m abbot, and in the Zen Peacemakers Order, we start our day’s schedule with a verse of atonement:
All karma ever committed by me since of old,
Due to my beginingless greed, hatred, and delusion.
Born of my actions, speech, and thought.
Now I atone for it all.
After chanting this verse we begin our morning meditation, and after that we go on to our daily peacemaking work and social action projects.
How do we atone? By being “at-one.” By seeing that at every moment, a part of me is raping while another is being raped, a part of me is wantonly destroying while another part is being destroyed, a part of me goes hungry while another eats to excess. We are all interconnected. We are all one. If we get stuck in anger, in blame and in guilt, then we are paralyzed, we can’t act. When we can get beyond those things, when we can forgive, then the right action arises by itself, and we begin to take care of each other. In doing so, we shed our karma.
In Buddhism we say that we are all constantly transmigrating from one realm to the other at every minute. There is the hell realm and the realm of the gods. There is also a realm of hungry ghosts. One of our images for a hungry ghost is a painfully thin person with a tiny mouth, a long, narrow throat and an immense stomach. The hungry ghost is always hungry, but has only a tiny capacity to absorb the nourishment that he needs.
I am full of hungry ghosts. I’m full of clinging, craving, unsatisfied spirits. Each part of me that is struggling, in pain, unsatisfied, angry, and unresolved, is a hungry ghost. A starving child, an abusive parent, a drug addict who kills to get his fix, a brutal mercenary, they are nothing but hungry ghosts, and they are all starving, struggling aspects of me.
All Karma ever committed by me since of old…
”Me” is everyone and everything. “Me” is the SS guard, the victims marching to their death, the city inhabitants looking away.
Now I atone for it all.
I only have “now” in which to become “at-one” with all these hungry ghosts, all these people who are none other than myself, I let go of guilt, blame, and anger. I let go of fear and paralysis, and I take loving action.
I let go of Karma.
I let go of my Story.Learn More
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.Learn More