Eve’s mother is 86 years old. In her long life she survived the destruction of most of the Jews in Bratislava, in what is present-day Slovakia, immigrated illegally to Israel with a 3 year-old nephew whose mother had been killed at Auschwitz, fought in Israel’s War of Independence a year later, raised children in Israel and the United States, and now lives independently in Jerusalem, mother to three children, grandmother to five, and great-grandmother to seven. Did you expect to live so long and see all these generations, Eve asks her on Skype, and she shakes her head: Never.
But the last time mother and daughter spoke, on June 16, the vigorous smile was gone. Her mother sat hunched, head bent, crumpled in depression.
“You know,” she answered when Eve asked her how she was. “The news here isn’t good.” Three Jewish teenagers, students at a West Bank yeshiva high school, had been abducted. Even now the Israeli army is searching all over for the kids, as she calls them.
The next day Eve called again. Her mother had gone out that day but her tone was still flat and lifeless. We know that she’s hooked to the radio and television news, and that if she leaves the house to go anywhere, the first question on her lips when she sees someone she knows is: Have they found them?
Israel is a small country and most young men serve in the army, so when any soldier is hurt or killed the grief seems to resonate everywhere. It’s something we’ve always respected. Strangers murmur among themselves or else shake their heads. Everyone worries about the family. And in this case they’re not soldiers but religious students. We wonder where they are now, we think about the boys’ families and about what it is to wait for the phone to ring.
But something else seems to happen to Eve’s mother. The old trauma gets reawakened, the expectation of inevitable catastrophe. At times she’ll say it out loud: This will never end. They’re always out there. They won’t let us live.
Eve remembers how years ago, when she was working in Israel and Palestine, the day after two Israeli soldiers were kidnapped and taken into Lebanon a young woman turned to her at a bus station, her eyes wild and haggard, and shouted: Why won’t they leave us alone?
Time seems to blur. The kidnapping of three young men metamorphoses into 2,000 years of persecution. When you plug into trauma, you don’t think of good times, you don’t think of your prosperous country and strong army, you don’t even think of life. You think of survival.
The Israeli author, David Grossman, said this at a San Francisco conference over a dozen years ago:
It occasionally seems that not only private men and women but also peoples like the Jewish people—and certainly the Jewish people who live in Israel—live this paradox: throughout all our history we survived in order to live, and now we are living in order to survive. And when history suggests to us the rare opportunity to stop merely surviving, and to begin to live our life by making use of the enormous military power that we have gathered, and to use it to create a political solution that is strong and generous—we are unable to do this with the initiative and courage required. We prefer vacillation, which ultimately brings us back to the life that isn’t life, but just surviving from catastrophe to catastrophe.
Between catastrophes, people wait, knowing something will happen. Inevitably it does, and they nod: Yes, I knew it was coming; it was only a matter of time.
There are several differences between Eve’s family and us. We live in New England and they live in Israel. They know the place where it happened, they know friends of the family and are surrounded by people who feel as they do. That is not the case for us here even though Eve was born in Israel and is but one generation removed from the conflagration in Europe. Nevertheless, who needs to go that far to protest the kidnapping of three teenagers in the middle of studies? It’s abhorrent whenever kids are hurt or made use of, here in the US, in Israel, in Palestine, Africa, anywhere.
But we don’t plunge into trauma, into the survival mode of us vs. them. The Buddha said that we are the heirs of our own actions. In other words, if you want to see what tomorrow will bring, take a good look at your actions today. You can’t practice that when you’re just surviving, but you can if you’re fully living. And if we choose to live, then after the initial shock and dismay that arise from such a kidnapping we have to ask ourselves a much bigger question: How do we create a situation, a world, in which this does not happen to anyone, not just to young people? In which Never again does not mean Never again to us, but Never again to anyone? Never again to us is the victim’s trope, survival at any cost; Never again to anyone is asserting our internal freedom even in the bleakest of circumstances, our insistence on the big picture.
Never again to anyone is the biggest vision of all; anything that big meets up with cynicism and frustration. But as a call to life instead of survival, it nourishes and sustains us, and provides a peacemaking framework that demands much, and gives back much more.Learn More
As the message of Malgosia’s death reached me on Monday, June 23, I was returning home to Germany from San Diego, planning to go see Malgosia in a few days in Warsaw. I had just received Dharma Transmission from my teacher, Nicolee Jikyo Mc Mahon Roshi, in California on June 20, and I had been very sad not to be able to be with Malgosia in the hospital and also sad that she could not be present at my transmission. But she had written to me, “Too bad it is so far and yet so close. I love you.“ and no more words were needed.
Malgosia was one of the most important people in my life. She was not only my older sister on the Dharma path, she was also like a beloved real sister to me and a dear, dear friend. Almost always when I called her, she would say, “I just thought of you,” and vice versa.
I met Malgosia and her husband, Andrzej Krajewski, in the early 1990s in Warsaw. Since 1982, I have lived in Germany, I had to leave my native Poland when martial law was imposed, and so now when I visi Warsaw, I always spend time with Malgosia and Andrzej. Every year my daughter and I have spent our summer vacation with them by the Polish sea. And after the sudden death of my husband 10 years ago, Malgosia and Andrzej came immediately to Germany and supported me tremendously in those tough days and after.
Malgosia and I also shared our artistic path as actresses. We had studied at the same school, the State Theatre Academy PWST in Warsaw, although Malgosia was there before me, as she was 13 years older. She became a very famous film actress in Poland, and then stopped acting at the peak of her career in the early 1980s. I remember our meeting with our mutual teacher, Professor Rena Tomaszewska, who said to us, “It is great you both are doing your Zen business, but don’t forget acting.” And Malgosia did not. When she returned to acting in the late ’90s, she was “free from acting,“ not playing, but rather being whatever she played. She was authentic and humble. And people loved her for this.
For me, Malgosia was a walking heart! With a wonderful sense of humour, her laughter was very infectious. She was seeing and listening with her heart! I experienced many times how she was listening to people, to her family, to her students, to her friends. She was always interested in what others had to say, she was very compassionate and very often forgetting herself. I remember many times when complet strangers on the street would speak to her as if she were a member of their family.
It was very important for me to watch how she combined Zen practice and family life, teaching and acting. She was my older sister on the way, opening new roads for many of us as a powerful Zen teacher, woman, wife, mother, grandmother, social activist and — not to forget — clown. In her zendo in Poland, she opened the space for children. She brought along her daughter, Orinka, and then many other parents and children followed. Catherine Genno Pages Roshi in France opened the same possibility for people with children. That’s how I could walk this road with my daughter, Noemi, since she was a small child.
To you my dearest sister Malgosia, I miss you very much! I still hear your voice and your wonderful laughter. I can see you in my heart, beautiful and radiant. Thank you for all these precious years we could share. I celebrate your very rich life and pray for your safe passage to the other shore.Learn More
It is the last day of the retreat; I am walking with Claudia (name changed for confidentiality), a new Rwandan friend. Earlier in the retreat, she asked for guidance in meditation to help with painful thoughts that won’t stop. I am grateful for the opportunity to offer some guidance.
On this day she tells me about the killing of her parents and four of five siblings when she is about 6 years old. A Hutu man protects her. Later he is killed by other Hutu’s angered at his kindness. Luckily she meets her one remaining elder sister who can take care of her. Being with this tender young woman, bearing witness to her courage, pain, intelligence and life-forward intention my heart is deeply touched.
Zen teacher Bernie Glassman has created forms for bring the practice of sitting meditation into social action. The “Bearing Witness Retreat”. For more than 20 years, the Zen Peacemaker Order (ZPO) has been conducting these retreats at Auschwitz and Birkenau, the concentration camps in Poland. About 6 years ago members of a Rwandan reconciliation group, Memos-Learning from History attended the retreat and asked for something similar in their country. This retreat grew from that request.
ZPO has three main views or tenets: 1) Not-knowing (putting aside all opinions, conclusions, and certainties), 2) Bearing witness (being present with all the joy and sorrow within the situation you are in and 3) Loving actions (if some beneficial possibility arises to offer your care).
At Auschwitz the practice is to invite healing by being present with the suffering of all beings: prisoners, guards, survivors, the dead and the land itself. Through meditation, chanting of names of the deceased, respectfully walking around the entire site, the history is recalled and experienced with tender, open and broken hearts.
In the unique situation of Rwanda, where every person is carrying the trauma of the recent past (see previous writing), sitting with the intention of Bearing Witness is a huge challenge. Our group of about 56 was equally divided between Rwandans, plus two Congolese and westerners from seven different countries. We went every day to the Murambi Memorial Site, a place where 50,000 people were massacred.
Each day we would start “council” sitting together around a candle and some sacred objects with the intention of speaking from our hearts. Being in the presence of authentic, heartfelt, truth telling allows an intimacy and trust to grow. Bearing witness to ourselves and to each other creates a healing environment. The power of humans connecting from their hearts cannot be underestimated.
Each person, African or westerner, was processing deep personal and societal wounds through the power of the Memorial site. In numerous rooms, lying on wooden tables, there are many skeletons including babies and children that have been preserved in lime emitting a sickening stench. The smell lives in my nostrils. The bits of clothing and tufts of hair make this so indelibly real. The idea is to make the reality undeniable. As with the German holocaust, there are those who will deny or minimize the horror. We must create conditions so that humanity never forgets that this is possible.
In the first days we meditated by the mass graves sometimes in silence and at other times reading the names of the dead. It took some time to realize that this was socially inappropriate and very frightening for the Rwandans. The next days we sat in a more neutral setting at the Memorial Site and spoke the names there. For me, saying and hearing the names was very important. As I said in my previous writing, I cannot process a large number of deaths, my body goes numb. With each name, I can sense this one individual and my heart gets torn open. Maybe this kind of remembering brings some kind of solace to the soul of that person, this I do not know. I do know that in the process of remembering, in experiencing our heart connections to unknown people, we become more human. I had the added potency of reading names on Good Friday, recalling the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross in this Christian country added a whole other level of meaning.
In the evenings we would hear “testimony” from members of the three groups: Survivors, Perpetrators and Rescuers. Hearing the stories of people who I was getting to know was the most compelling, heart wrenching part of the whole retreat. People just like you and me went through these experiences. I could feel my deep inner connection to each person and each story. Each individual is part of a whole family of tragic stories.
Through the eyes and words of one person, their relatives also somehow appear in the room. This experience lives deeply in my heart.
(In the following examples from our group, I altered their names for confidentiality. Some of these stories are very challenging to read, some readers might choose to skip this section. I offer them not to shock but to awaken our hearts. Listen well to your inner life and take breaks as needed)
Anna tells her story of hiding in the marshes, crawling in the mud with snakes for many days. Dead and dying bodies would surround her. Teeming with lice and desperate with fear, she experienced the daily struggle to survive. As she spoke, sitting nearby was Aaron the man who cut off her hand and helped kill her family. Aaron expresses sorrow for his actions yet his testimony, which includes various deflections, does not satisfy many of the Tutsi’s who are present. Is the greatest expression of human compassion, forgiveness, even thinkable?
Rosanne, a Hutu sat with Theodore, a 31 year old Tutsi man who she saved when he was 11, at the immediate risk of her own life. Her husband was scared and angry that she was saving Tutsi’s. Theodore’s family had been killed while he escaped by running and hiding. After 5 days without food or water, Rosanne came upon him. Rather than turning him in, she sheltered him. How does one person find such courageous kindness when almost all others cannot?
Jeannette, participating in the retreat with her 21-year-old daughter Paula showed us the place where she hid 20 years ago holding Paula to her chest. She had watched as her husband and two sons were killed nearby. She was attacked with rocks and barely escaped. What lives in mother and daughter after such an event?
Roland is an ex-Belgian soldier who tried to help in Rwanda gave his harrowing, tearful story for the first time in 20 years. What does it mean to help in such a situation? The Belgian government was part of the horrific, colonial history that created the great division amongst these people. What is our collective responsibility for the actions of our governments? As an American, I have my first experience of collective shame for the actions and negligence of my country as I sit with all these people.
Can we see that every one of us is a survivor, a perpetrator and a rescuer? Can such an extreme situation as Rwanda help us to reflect on our own life?
Within me is one who has survived challenging situations. I am also a survivor. Raised by alcoholic parents, my mom dealing with manic-depression, I witnessed some harrowing scenes. Attacked at gun point while counseling a distressed ex-convict at a drug rehabilitation center, my life was threatened. As with all of us, my list goes on. While my challenges were not near the level of my Rwandan friends, it is not helpful to compare suffering. Mine is mine. Yours is yours. Had I been born elsewhere I might have been one of the survivors in Rwanda.
I have perpetrated violence on others in my life. Whether through word, thought or deed I have violated others. At times I have asserted my desire to dominate others, through the use of my voice and intellect. As a young man I hit people with my fists. I have often treated the earth with carelessness as if I had dominion over it. Also, who has not violated their own bodies, by treating it as an object to be manipulated. Who has not violated their own inner life with vicious judgments? Our self- talk can be filled with much violence. For deep healing to occur these perpetrations must be seen, acknowledged and alternatives uncovered. From my point of view, we do not have the right to violate the sanctity of LIFE even when it appears to be OUR life. Life is a gift that requires our care. Seeing all this, I recognize that had I been born elsewhere I could have been a killer. It is the same impulse toward domination of life that exists in me acted out in another social milieu.
I have rescued others in my life. Who has not served as the dove of peace and healing in at least some situations? Who has not protected the weak, fed the hungry at least some of the time? I have been blessed many times in my life with opportunities to offer healing, solace and care. Had I been in born in another place I might have saved some threatened people.
In The Embodied Life work we speak of being present with all that arises in body, feelings and thoughts. I use the term ‘presencing’. This is the same as “Bearing Witness”. Holding presence for our inner world and/or our external situation is the essential ground for healing. Anything exiled from our care will remain unprocessed and therefore keep us from feeling whole. All that is rejected must be carried as a kind of tension in our bodies and will create a closing of our hearts. Opening to the entirety of life, to the inner and outer suffering as well as to the joy is our collective direction.
Integrating my experiences from Rwanda brings vivid questions to the fore: when do I turn my back on life? How do I turn away from the suffering within and around me? What in my inner and outer world do I exile from my realm of care? For me this is clear- bearing witness or presencing is the ground of true healing for individuals and for our world.Learn More
Recently I heard this story: A woman’s son is killed. The killer is convicted and sent to prison for a 10-25 year sentence. The distraught mother visits the man in prison trying to make sense of how he could do such a thing. After numerous visits, the woman’s heart softens to the man. She eventually adopts him. Upon release from prison, he lives with his new mother.
As I reflect on the impact of my journey to Rwanda, a huge question emerges: how does a person live with an open, loving, heart that includes the rampant violence and suffering all around us? How does one live with a heart that has been broken open?
Opening the newspaper this morning I see: 31 killed by a car bomb in Bagdad. Unlike in the past, before turning the page, I reflect that each of them was a father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter. Being in Rwanda creates this sense of intimacy, recognition that each of these victims are real people, like you and me. How did I filter that out before? How do I let that in now? 31people do not constitute genocide, but they are 31 individuals with pain and joy and dreams. Can one experience this and still turn the page? How can we live as empathetic people without turning away from this reality? This is a deep question living in me right now.
When overwhelmed, humans have three stereotypical reactions: fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Our biology leans toward self-protection and protecting our identified social group. The impulse to fight, unless tempered by a sense of inter-connection will result in some kind of violence that perpetuates what we are fighting against. Fleeing or running away from the world by turning a blind eye to the violence around us creates an implicit sense of disconnectedness and isolation, a strategy with painful results. Freezing in shock hurts the frozen one and offers no beneficial action to the world. Sitting here with the morning newspaper I think, what is “right relationship” to all this? Or how does one open to the reality of 31 people dead and still enjoy the gift of the tulips sitting in front of me blossoming in the sunlight?
Safety and Freedom
I see that it is only because of my privilege as a physically, economically, and socially secure human being that I can even contemplate these questions. One must be free from survival needs, especially immediate threats to life, to have the freedom to ask these questions. This is the second profound learning that comes to me from Rwanda: before freedom can be experienced either individually or in social groups, one must feel safe. Safety precedes freedom! This is so simple, yet it is important that we remember this.
In the U.S. we can see that the attacks on September 11 created enough fear for our collective safety that we were very willing to curtail many of our basic freedoms. The fear based reactions to this traumatic event still lives in many people and in our leadership. We can see how it influences behavior today. As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Still, there needs to be enough safety to move toward freedom. Traumatized individuals will often bond with anyone who offers a feeling of safety, even those who have hurt them. Hostages often become aligned with the kidnappers who have been feeding and caring for them.
In Rwanda, the sometimes-fascist, violent government of President Paul Kagame creates enough sense of safety for most people that some degree of normalcy can return to social interactions. I feel a need to say that this is politically complex. Some astute people believe that this government is the source of current genocide in Congo and resent the fact that the world has accepted Kagame’s sophisticated propaganda. Still, the fact that most Rwandans feel safer with this strong leader seems to create enough security for daily functioning. I believe a sense of safety is a requirement for life to unfold, even as this tight-fisted control creates limitations on freedom of speech and self-expression. Each of us individually and collectively works with this dynamic relationship between ‘playing it safe’ and ‘speaking/enacting our truth’.
Presencing: In and With
Bearing witness to the great suffering within and around us is essential for human life to blossom. Bearing witness or what I call “presencing” is like the radiant sun and a healing balm. The only other option that I can see is a closed, defended heart. For me “presencing” has two interconnected aspects. First is the sense that we are not turning away, we are turning toward, we are entering into the situation. Rather than running from the places of sorrow, we embrace them, we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow. Embracing does not mean that we like or want these feelings, rather that we welcome them with a warm heart as we might meet a good friend who is in pain. I call this being “in” the feelings or “in” the situation. Second, presencing means being “with” the sorrow not only “in” the sorrow. “With” implies enough distance that one can offer the challenging situation the light of our presence. In classical spiritual language this is called cultivating a witness or the capacity for witnessing. “Challenging situation” refers to both the external situations that we encounter and the internal feelings/voices that one experiences. If one is lost inside the suffering, it becomes too difficult to take care of that situation. We need some space- too much space, we become disconnected- too little, we become lost in it. In a paradoxical positioning, to be “one” with something we need to be both “in” and “with” it.
When being present with anything, finding the most helpful and accurate spatial relationship- not too close, not too far-is most important. In my experience, this sense of right relationship is a dynamic, ever-changing, living process. Sometimes we need more distance; sometimes we need to be right in the middle of the situation. Ultimately, and again paradoxically, we might find that being ONE with something has a simultaneous sense of in and with. One finds oneself in a large field of awareness that is simultaneously much vaster than the immediate situation, yet right inside it also. This difficult to describe experience creates a deep sense of intimacy.
Bearing Witness to Blessings, Cultivating Gratitude
The Zen Peacemakers speak of bearing witness to both joy and suffering. It seems easy to forget the joy when overwhelmed by the suffering. In my practice, this means to experience the shower of blessings inherent in every moment and thereby cultivating the field of gratitude.
As I reflect on Rwanda, I am reminded of my first years as a Feldenkrais teacher. As a young practitioner, I felt overwhelmed by the suffering of the people who came for help. I am remembering the young quadriplegic man who following an automobile accident, lost all functioning below his neck. Next I recall the parents of a brilliant, beautiful, severely brain injured teenage girl who suddenly had a devastating stroke. There are many others. There was a part of me that just wanted to run away from all this, something went a little numb in my heart.
Quickly, I came to see that to live well with all this suffering I needed to grow my capacity for joy. The most direct and simplest path for me was through the experience of gratitude. I saw that gratitude is our spontaneous response when something wonderful occurs. When surprised by an unexpected gift, even a parking place in a crowded parking lot, “thank you” arises. When a potential disaster is averted, say an imminent automobile accident, even the most committed atheist is likely to utter ‘thank you’. I saw that I could experience a sense of gratitude just by giving my attention to the small gifts that seemed to always be present. I call these gifts “the shower of blessings”. When I give my whole-hearted attention to anything for even 5-10 seconds, a color, a sound, a breath or the smile on someone’s face, I experience a feeling of being touched by life. This is a blessing and gratitude naturally arises.
Working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta produced an identical lesson. She would always say: “if there is not joy in the action, there is no love”. Whether working with the brain-injured children in her center or navigating the suffering on the streets, blessings were always available when I learned to attend to the world in certain ways. To perceive a situation directly and not be lost in mental stories about the situation almost always allows the shower of blessings to emerge.
Something similar occurs now in integrating my responses to Rwanda. At first I could sense how my troubled heart could darken a bit, as I struggled to include the suffering into my sphere of caring. Yet, the joy, love, bright eyes and positive intentions of all the people I met enlivens my heart. I see this as one of the current challenges for awakening humanity: to open to the world’s pain and to keep experiencing the constant blessings that are showering at each moment.
Lessons from Rwanda: Growing your Sphere of Caring
In the Buddhist world, the Bodhisattva (great being) of compassion goes by various names: Avalokiteshvara, Kanzeon, Kannon. Avalokiteshvara is pictured as a Being with 10,000 ears and 10,000 arms: the former to hear the cries of suffering and the latter to take action to ease the pain. She is a model for current and future humanity whereby all of life is cared for and all people live together in brotherly and sisterly love.
In esoteric Christianity she is called the Mother of All Peoples or Sophia. One form that Sophia takes is that of Mother Earth, the great Being who carries and feeds us. She also bears witness to the suffering of all her children. Her tears are endless. Can we, ordinary people like you and me, grow this spirit of great compassion for all the beings in our world? This is the unfolding of Love as our basic condition, the ground state, as we enter our potential as truly human beings.
Learning to open my heart toward the unthinkable darkness that can inflict humanity is one important lesson for me from Rwanda. Recognizing this potential for darkness in myself seems vital. Seeing the beauty, joy and courage of my Rwandan friends amidst their life situation is another lesson. The human need for safety as the ground for freedom becomes tragically clear to me. Recognizing my own life in their suffering and joys invites a profound sense of closeness and inter-being.
Even as our biology veers us in the direction of self-protection, self-interest and narrow group identities, our task is to widen the sphere of caring to include ALL of life. To include the earth, animals, people of every culture, even those who out of ignorance violate others is our collective direction. I can imagine a world in which the intentional killing and violation of others is unthinkable. How many life times will it take for enough of us to experience unconditional love toward all? I have no idea… but what other direction could possibly be worthy of awakening humanity?Learn More
Sept. 12-14, 2014, at the Garrison Institute, New York
Venerable Dr. Pannavati Bhikkhuni has long been known as an active advocate of “getting off the pillow”. This has become known as engaged Buddhism and it is taking many forms and directions. On the weekend of September 12 through 14, 2014, Ven. Pannavati is gathering a few special colleagues to share their thoughts and experience with those drawn to this path.
Through panel presentations and interactive small group sessions, we will receive the wisdom and experience of the following leaders in those fields:
Roshi Bernie Glassman, Founder, Zen Peacemakers
Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, Founder, Buddhist Global Relief
Father John Dear, Jesuit priest and peace advocate
Venerable Ani Drubgyuma, Founder, SOCW, former missionar
Venerables Pannavati and Pannadipa, Founders of MyPlace and My Gluten Free Bread Company, Co-Abbots of Embracing Simplicity Hermitage
The conference will focus on eight areas of mindful social action:
There will be an opportunity for participants to present information on their current or intended projects in any of these areas. Mini-grants will be awarded at the conclusion of the conference to further the work of those identified as having the greatest potential.
The weekend is open to the public, and includes a Saturday-only attendance option.
To attend the Power of One Conference, either as a weekend resident or a Saturday-only participant, contact the Garrison Institute, (845) 424-4800.
Please join Zen Peacemaker minister, Anthony Stultz, for a Bearing Witness Day of Reflection at the Flight 93 Memorial and Memorial Chapel, August 16, 2014. Tony was a chaplain to the victim families of Flight 93 and along with three other clergy, performed the burial at the national memorial in 2011 ( see ‘the One Heart of Flight 93′ – Buddhadharma Magazine) for a reflection on the experience via the ZPO Three Tenets.) The day will begin at 10am with the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy and the chanting of the names of all who died there on 9/11. We will then have meditation, Council, a shared meal together and reflection on the Zen Peacemaker Order Precept, “Recognizing that I am not separate from all that is. This is the precept of Non-Killing.”
If you would like to participate, Please contact Tony at [email protected]Learn More