Bernie Glassman Dharma Talk: Harvard Divinity School Lecture 3

Harvard Divinity School Lectures (Fall 2007), Lecture 3 – Bearing Witness

by Roshi Bernie Glassman given on October 1, 2007
We will start with the beginning of the”Home Street Home” video to open up your questions.

(video..)

Le’ts use the energy of this film! Does anyone want to say or ask anything? Did anything come up for you?

Student: There is not much writing by spiritual teachers about how they deal with loss. How did you deal with the death of your wife?

Bernie: For me the three Zen Peacemaker tenets of not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving actions are almost the answer to everything.

It is very important that we understand what is meant by them. From the questions you sent in this week, I sense that there is still confusion about what is meant by “not-knowing,” and “bearing witness.” When there is loss or fear, if one can bear witness to what is happening, the terminology becomes very different; You would no longer necessarily use words like “loss.” Certainly, when loss occurs, you are not bearing witness, so you talk about it as loss. Or when the fear rises, you are not bearing witness, and you deal with fear. But as one bears witness, radical changes occur.

First, let me go back to not knowing, Someone asked how to not-know at a place like Harvard where all you’re supposed to do is know. That’s true about life generally. People want you to know. Even your kids want you to know. “Why is the sky blue?” They ask all kinds of questions. Everybody wants you to know. And we want ourselves to know. So we search for knowledge and wisdom.

What do I mean by not knowing? Not knowing has nothing to do with knowledge. My sense is that one should have as much knowledge as possible. Learn as many languages as you can. Study as many fields as you can. Penetrate as deeply as you can. Learn all the tools and the techniques. Fill up your bag with as much stuff as you can. You have to know. I studied a lot when I was young, when I was middle-aged, and now I am old. I enjoy studying and I think there is huge value in more study and knowledge.

What do I mean by not knowing? Not knowing is simply not being attached to any particular piece of knowledge. In the same way, it is also not rejecting any piece of knowledge. You hear something and say “Ah! That’s ridiculous! Forget it!” If you hear something, try responding “Well, maybe that is possible also.” “Oh! That’s another way of looking at it.” Add that to your set of knowledge; don’t exclude anything. Keep adding, and don’t stick to one piece of information as if that’s the correct way. The state of not knowing is not being attached to any of the packages that you have.

Let’s say here at Harvard you have to write a term paper. You figure out,”That’s what they like!” Therefore you write the term paper according to what you believe is going to give you the best grade, or put in favor with the teachr, and so on. That is knowing. Not knowing is to hear the subject of the paper and then to just freshly write it based on all your own understanding and experience; you don’t presuppose anything.

Where does knowing happen mostly? It happens when you are talking to somebody. You hear them talking and before they finish you know what they are saying, You reply with your answer, your rebuttal, your ideas. You are not doing deep listening, not being totally open. We will talk about a way of council, which is to work in a group in which the first premise is to listen deeply, not presupposing anything. Can you do that? No. I can’t do that. Can I attempt to? Can I train? Yes.

I cannot point to icons that have accomplished Zen Peacemaker tenets. The tenets are ways of practice, goals, principles. They are tenets of our work. If you are going to do our kind of work, we ask that you just be open in new situations. We will try to select people who have the right tools, and enough knowledge. When they are open, they will see which tool is appropriate. We can’t even say that it’s correct. All we can say is, “According to my understanding and experience, as open as I can be to this situation, this is what I think should be used.”

The major error we can make is to say, “This is what should be used.” We need to say, “This is what I think should be used,” or “This is what I am using.” Another major error is to say to somebody else “You are using the wrong thing.” This implies that you know what is right. Again, have you grokked what is going on? Have you paid attention? Do you feel that, having paid attention, what you’re doing is the best you can do? If so great—that is the best you can do. What more would we want?

Many times not knowing gets confused with “I don’t know what to do. That is “not knowing.” This is not Zen Peacemakers’ not knowing.

One student asks about situations that push people’s boundaries in order to bring them to a place of not knowing. Yes there are techniques to help us to learn how to not know, how to address things freshly We will work with them in the class. Other techniques that we have developed we call “plunges;” these are not so easy to do in a class.

Plunges don’t have to be sad or heavy. The video we just saw seemed to you to be a little heavy, huh? For me there was a lot of joy there too. The man that was practicing his martial art had tremendous joy. He had some fear about his boundaries, but there was a great delight. His friend, she is a very happy-go-lucky lady/man/whatever. To be with them, is to be full of joy. At the same time, because of our own conditioning, when you look from the outside, you could feel a little sad, too. But if you are with them, if you are bearing witness, there is nothing but delight. It is a very joyful scene especially if you saw him when he first came in weighing seventy-five pounds and in a wheelchair. Everybody said he was going to die in a month and this is two years later. Fantastic!

Bearing witness means bearing witness to everything, and it’s the joys as well as the sorrows. It’s nothing to do with just one side. When we’re going to do social action and help people we may think that it all has to come from the heavy side. I do a lot of clown work. That is not heavy. When you get involved and learn how to do clown work with refugee kids and others, you’ll find that it’s a very joyful situation. (Bernie puts on a red clown’s nose.)

Bearing witness here is essential too. This is an example of bearing witness in clowning. Pretend that you are a bunch of kids, and I’m going to clown. Now, although you’re kids, I have no idea what your culture is like. I can’t speak your language, and I don’t know what you think is funny, what you think is sad, what you think is frightening. If I blow some bubbles that burst you may be scared. I don’t know beforehand. In the refugee camps the cultures were very different. Some people had never heard a tape recorder. To hear their own voice was frightening. You don’t know. That is where we start. I have no idea what’s going to happen. I have to bear witness to you. What’s also interesting in those refugee camps is that the kids would sit up front, then the mothers a little further back, and the fathers way behind. The kids are going to get engrossed pretty quickly; it’s not that hard. The mothers also will tend to get involved. Fathers are a little trickier, in some of these cultures. And I’ve been in cultures where parents have never seen their kids smile. So that’s a big one. Can you make the kid smile, make the mother smile? And all of a sudden, the fathers are moving up a little.

But what’s bearing witness? I have no idea what’s going on. I have no idea what scares, what makes you happy. My red nose might make you scared. So I come on and I have to bear witness. I have to really feel the group. Are you afraid of me? Do I need to back away? Do I need to do this? Can I come closer? What speed? (Bernie makes a sudden movement and startling sound.) Does that make you laugh? Does it make you frightened? I need to become you, get rid of the separation, the subject-object separation. That’s bearing witness. I have to feel when I do something, that it’s funny or sad. I have to know, do I start slowly? Do I speed up? Do I go very fast? (Bernie’s voice and actions speeding up here.) When I’m doing all of that, I have to feel what’s happening, and then my routine can develop. What I do, is a function of what makes you laugh. That’s my goal to make you smile, to make you laugh. My biggest goal is to see if the fathers can start walking down, to become part of the group with the mothers and the kids. That’s bearing witness. That’s a very happy, funny event.

My wife dies. That was huge for me. It was unexpected. It was at a period of my life where she was going to take over the Zen Peacemaker work and I was going to drop into the background and be a clown that pops up in different places. But it was a huge loss. I bore witness to what happened. As I said in the film, I sat with her, and I listened to her music, I merged into her. That wasn’t a happy time. That was a very sad time, but as that happened I transformed. So the person that started that process was not there midway, and certainly not there by the end. There was a different person. And by that time it wasn’t a loss. There was now a whole new person. I couldn’t grieve for the Bernie that had disappeared. There was a new thing that had arisen out of it all. So, the way I look at life..you know a live oak tree? They always have their leaves, but the leaves are always dropping. When I say we’re going to realize the oneness of life, we could look at the live oak tree as a metaphor for the universe. If I look closely, at any time, there are leaves falling. If I look at it at any time, there’s the live oak tree, the whole thing. The leaves that fall down on the ground rot, they become nutrients, they grow back into branches. It’s a flow of stuff but it’s still all one body. When one comes from that perspective, all of a sudden one loses the sense of loss or gain. But when we drop back into out own senses, of course we have loss and gain. The one leaf that fell might be a very special leaf to you. That leaf has fallen and disintegrated.

Bearing witness has nothing to do with testimony. Technically I always say it’s where there is no subject-object differentiation. I seem very technical, but it is explained by what I was trying to do as Bernie the Boobisattva. I tried to merge into the room so that I could feel everything going on there and at the same time I’m able to do things. It’s not an easy state to experience, except when you experience it without quite knowing what’s happened. That happens all the time. You’re constantly bearing witness to yourself, and then every once and a while, you’re stepping out of that, and remarking on it. Your stomach starts to hurt. You can remark on your stomach. Normally, it’s functioning and acting in a way that you’re just bearing witness to. If you’re involved in vipassana meditations you learn techniques to observe what’s going on. Zen tends to put more emphasis on just being what’s happening, on trying to get into a state of just being where you don’t observe. So when you observe, we call that a problem. Or, I shouldn’t say a problem, it’s a technique. You can have lots of observation techniques, and they’re good, but the state of bearing witness is different.

There’s a technical term, a type of meditation that’s used in Japan that’s called “shikantaza.” Literally this means”just sitting.” “Shikan” means “just,” “only.” “Za” means “sitting.” So you’ve probably heard of words like “zafu,” a sitting pillow, “zabuton,” a sitting mat. “Ta” is a grammatical term in Japanese that is not translated, but adds emphasis to the word. If you were to translate “shikantaza” as just sitting, you lose the “ta.” If you translate shikantaza as “Just Sitting!” (Bernie shouts this) you gain the “ta.” That’s what the “ta” does if you’re a Japanese person. If you’re not, the word is a little flat. When I was looking at how to translate “just sitting,” it means no subject-object differentiation. It’s a very difficult practice, and we teach people how to do it, but it can take twenty years to really do it in a good way. But, still, you could start doing it today, and you learn, and somebody can help you to improve it along the way. So it’s a practice. At one point I was trying to translate that word and I came up with the word “bearing witness” as having a certain amount of energy in our English language that I could never get by “just sitting.” But I also knew that “bearing witness” has other meanings within the Christian language and a lot of it around testimony, and testifying. But, you know the root of testify, or testimony. Nobody knows the root of that word? So it’s a whole different feeling than the bearing witness. It goes back to the Greek days when they were reporting on a legal matter and held their testicles as the seed of life. So that’s what that’s about.

When we say “bearing witness” it’s not about that, it’s about getting rid of subject-object relationship. Therefore, it has nothing to do with a particular sad, joy, fearful, happy feeling. If you’re bearing witness to a state that produces fear, for example on the streets. When you go on the streets, well, it’s been my experience that the people that have come on the streets, including myself the first time, whatever fears there were they were basically around whether we would get enough food, fear of starvation, and a fear of being beaten up, mugged, raped. Those were the two major fears that most folks have. I’ve never personally been on a street retreat—I’ve been on many, personally, but I can’t speak for others—I’ve never been on one where anyone who has gone with me has experienced any of those two fears. That’s never happened on the retreats that I’ve gone on.

What the major thing that people have experienced..I hate to talk about this too much before you go on it, because it’s going to condition you, but, still, you may not all go on it. So the major thing that people tend to experience is a sense of being ignored, lack of dignity. That’s the major thing. They’re not used to being ignored. If you ask for a bathroom, you expect that someone’s going to tell you where to go to get one. They’re not going to turn away, they’re not even going to pay attention to you. If you say hello, you expect they’ll say hello, they’re not going to turn away and make believe you don’t exist. You’re not used to that. So that’s probably the major thing that people feel when they do this, but the streets are full of food. That’s not an issue. It may not be the kind of food you want to eat. You may not have the same choices that you have, or be able to have, but lack of food is not an issue. Sometimes bathrooms can be an issue. That would be the second thing. That is generally workable. I’m not sure if there is anything else. But it’s certainly not the things you had your fear of. So fears tend to be in some ways rather irrational. They generally aren’t there when you are in the situation. They’re never there when you’re bearing witness to the situation. You would have to jump out of the situation, and then come up with some expectations that generally have nothing to do with the situation. That is, our mind creates fears very easily around our expectations. That’s a very common thing to do.

And in fact, the Buddhist word in Chinese for compassion, “ji hi,” (spelling?) consists of two Chinese characters. One, jig, literally means compassion in the way that we think of it normally. And “hi” (spelling?), the second character, means to remove fear. So, one of the basic ways of being compassionate in Buddhism is to try to remove the fears that are arising in a person. And normally those fears come about to due to some expectation, not necessarily to the situation. I certainly can think of situations which would be fearful, but

Class: (a little unclear, but question is close to as follows.) An image came to mind of the three tenets, not knowing, bearing witness, and the loving action…I was wondering..if I describe the image than maybe..if it works in any way..It was an image of a door, and so the not knowing would be like the opening the door, the door could be preventing you (unclear) from accessing the situation. And then, maybe the bearing witness would be like looking through the door, and the loving action would be like stepping through the door.

Bernie: Well, the problems with the bearing witness one. The bearing witness one, it’s not stepping through the door, but it’s feeling, it’s really grokking the flow back and forth through that door. Grokking the whole scene. What goes through the door or walking through the door, that’s the loving actions. What the bearing witness is is can you feel what’s moving back and forth through that door.

Class: (Question relates to expectations related to fear; what if the expectation is to bear witness?)..So, when you were demonstrating clowning..how does imagining what it would feel like and I would feel like I wouldn’t want to get it wrong….you know, because the idea is that you don’t know. And I wouldn’t want that fear to get in the way of my just being present enough to get the answers.

Bernie: If you can enter into not knowing, that is the first step, right? There is..you can never do things wrong. It’s impossible. Because in order to do something wrong you have to have a definition of what’s right, you have to have some sense of knowing. In the state of not knowing there is no judgments. And if you’re practicing on it.. Like I was with my clown teacher. My clown teacher’s name is Mr. Yoo Hoo (does this have a spelling?). And his teacher’s name is Wavy Gravy. Wavy Gravy is an old friend of mine, and that’s who I went to to learn clowning. He’s a fantastic guy, Wavy Gravy. He’s even older than me. So that was in Berkeley, and Wavy called Yoo Hoo who lived in San Francisco to come to his place to introduce him to me and ask him to be my clown teacher. And then we happened to go into a computer store. Yoo Hoo had ordered a computer part. He’s a computer freak, also, and the manager had ordered it and the manager was busy with somebody, and said, “Can you wait a second?” And he said, “Sure.” And the manager was serving somebody and there was a huge box-load of software packages, and he was getting on out, and the whole thing came falling down. And Yoo Hoo said, “We practice weeks for that!” So just think of a clown when you’re thinking of not knowing. Is there anything that the clown can do that isn’t funny? There’s nothing that he does that is a mistake. There’s nothing he does that’s wrong.

As an exercise, take somebody you don’t like that talks, maybe some of you don’t like Bush, maybe some of you don’t like Hilary..take somebody who’s on TV, say, and you don’t like what they say..and take somebody who you don’t like enough to where it gets you angry, you know, or upset. Now, watch them talk and imagine them with a red nose on, my nose (Bernie has a red clown nose with him), put this nose on them. And you’ll find that nothing they say will get you upset. You may not agree, you may think differently, but you won’t be so fixed. “Oh! They’re making a mistake.” Put it on yourself. There’s nothing you’ll do that can be a mistake, or an error. You know? Some things make you laugh more than others. It’s great.

Class: In terms of, like, scaring the children, that was the example that came to mind. Those of us who are looking into service…

Bernie: So, that’s not a mistake. What happened is the kids got scared. You learned. And now you’ll do differently. There’s nothing we can do to where we’re not going to scare somebody. We can’t predict the results of what we’re going to do. Our actions are going to have all kinds of effects. We’re probably going to look back at them and think, “That’s a bad effect, that’s a good effect, but that’s after the fact. At this moment, I’m doing the best I can. And now I see what happens. “Oh, I don’t like that. I don’t like that sacredness. Ok, I’ll do something else.” It’s moment after moment.

(151:35 to 215:24 on the pod cast)

Student: My question was: I was hoping we could talk about the distinction between fear in the moment, like an adrenaline rush sort of like the yells that you’ve done in the classroom, and the fear of expectation or expecting something to happen, and bearing witness to that moment.

Bernie: And you gave us an example that when I sort of shouted, or spoke loudly, adrenaline rose in you; you had a certain fear that was in the moment. How do you bear witness to that? Well, I would guess that when I did that, you bore witness without knowing what to call it and it was at least (Bernie snaps his fingers) that amount of time afterwards that you looked back and said “Oh, I was shocked” or something. And that when I did that, you bore witness to that state.

And that’s why Zen has developed lots of techniques trying to get people to experience that state that I’m talking about, where you’re not observing what’s happening, you’re not labeling what’s happening, you’re not adding commentary to what’s happening. But you’ve just experienced that state. Zen has created different techniques for doing that, and some of them are shouting. There’s a whole school of Zen that shouts (Bernie shouts!) because in that moment, that instant, there is nothing else happening. And then you look back and say, “He shouted.” Shout’s one.

They also did beating with sticks because again, if you walk out and a brick falls off the ledge and hits you on the head, at that moment there’s no pain. A second after, a split second after, there’s “Oh my God, my head.” That happens after; that’s not part of bearing witness. The bearing witness is before you’ve had time to reflect on what happened, or you’ve let go of that reflection.

So Zen through the years has tried to create techniques for trying to do that. A gentler one is called koan study. There are gentler ones. There was a whole school of Zen started in China that is based on dance and music. Within music and dance you can get to the place where you’re not separated, where you’re bearing witness to what’s happening. Any musician knows that, to be with your instrument.

(a student comments on the playful music on the Home Street Home film)

That film was made by a Dutch company. It was actually a Buddhist Dutch station. The Netherlands is the first country (might still be the only country) but certainly was the first, (what 5 years ago?) to have an official T.V. station by the government, a Buddhist station. Most European countries have official religious stations. At first they were all Christian, and over the years there are some Jewish stations and also some Islamic. Netherlands was the first to get a full station that was just Buddhist stuff, very high quality. So they made this documentary and they came and stayed.. so it’s a little different, it’s a much slower pace than American films, but Europeans are a little slower pace. We’ve gotten so used to speed that everything is a little bit more speeded up.

(a student asks a question on the feeling of “befuddlement” or disorientation while bearing witness)

My feeling is that when you use words like “befuddlement,” that’s after the fact. Most times we can’t put words on what happened at that instant. It takes some separation (it could be a very small amount of time) to be able to say “bedfuddlement,” “fear,” whatever words we use. That’s not the moment of the fact. So that’s the trick in Zen techniques. They’re trying to create that state, but that’s not enough: you then have to bear witness, you have to stay in that state. That’s not so simple. and you have to stay in it until you make a meta-leap out of the realm of rationalization and consciousness to where you see that state without becoming dualistic. That’s the hardest part; that’s what’s called the kensho experience. So that’s what we’re aiming at, that break. So the first part and different techniques of helping you get into that place, that’s the easiest. The next, how to stay in that, is a bit more difficult. And then the third: how to perceive that state without staying in the realm of duality. The hardest. That’s what’s called “the leap.”

And mathematically if you have this ratio of 1/n (a series of numbers that gets smaller and smaller, and then gets bigger and bigger), no matter how big n is it’s still a continuous thing, a continuous line. But it’s continuous. To get to zero, you’ve got to leap out of that series. That’s a discontinuity, as it’s called in mathematics. Experiencing that discontinuity is what we’re aiming at for you to see. That’s the three-pronged part. The easiest part is the first and of course there are many many techniques.

Plunges, that’s an invention of mine, not the word so much but the kinds of practices of taking you into the streets and experiencing things in a different way, that’s an upaya to help you experience the same thing. The advantage there is that if you go on the streets and stay there for awhile, you wind up bearing witness. If it’s too short an experience, if you just visit the streets you’re not bearing witness. If you go to Auschwitz and just do the tour, you’re not bearing witness. It takes a bit of energy to set up the scenario to where you wind up bearing witness, and once you’re doing that, the possibility of that meta-leap can occur. And there are things to help that.

But that’s all in the realm of trying to get those experiences. My experience is that just bearing witness, that’s quite powerful in itself. And the experience itself without bearing witness, it’s too easy to get experiences. There are many ways to get experiences. Drugs is one big way. There’s lots of stuff you can do to do that. But it doesn’t change the body, the mind. It’s a short-range effect, from my experience.

Student: You talk about developing the street retreat as an upayas, What about for someone who grew up on the streets?

Bernie: That’s an interesting question. So my first street retreat, the people who went on the first one, none of them were from the streets, none of them were homeless. They represented a wide variety of folks, experiences, a wide variety. Some had never meditated, some had meditated a lot — it was a wide variety. And they all had a lot of similar effects. And after awhile they started to say, “What about people who live here, why don’t they have these effects? A lot of people live on the streets anyway, what’s the deal there?”

By the way, one question that always arises is “Isn’t it fake?” You’re not a street person… And generally it’s something like that that comes up a lot. You know, isn’t something wrong? What I tell everybody who goes with me is that this is not a homeless retreat: none of us are homeless. It’s a street retreat. We’re going on the street. It’s a little bit like if you’re going to come to do a meditation retreat with us, like Shakyamuni buddha did, you’re not Shakyamuni Buddha. You’re coming there and you’re going to do a meditation retreat. So if you go on the streets you’re doing a street retreat. And the dynamics of a street retreat are a bit different. Yes, you’ll experience what it is to live on the streets. You will not experience the state of homelessness because you know you’re going home. As a psychological place, you’re going back, you know that. But you will experience what it means to live on the streets. So now take somebody who’s lived on the streets and is homeless. Because by now we’ve had many street people do many street retreats with me, and it’s been different for them. So why is it different? There’s a young lady here who just came here — why don’t you say something about yourself?

(woman introduces herself and her interest in street retreats, her work with Batman, etc.)

So joining her is this guy Batman. Batman, whose name is Larry, I’ve been close with since my second street retreat, so about 15 years or so — and he lived with me for awhile. It’s changed his life. Now he’s a guy who’s been on the streets. He’s what they call an “out person” so he would not go to a shelter, never. He’s an amazing guy, beautiful guy, brilliant guy, but he’s been on the streets. He’s got a crack problem. And he’ll lie to you and tell you he’s okay, but if you know crack or know people on crack, it’s easy to see when he’s using and when he’s not using, and he’s using most of the time: and he’s a beautiful guy, and I’ve known him for 15 years at least. Probably since like ’92 (how many years is that? about 15). When I met him, he’d already been living on the street for about 10 years. Somehow, there’s been many people that have been with me that are street people.

So there’s something about the street retreat that’s a little different than just being homeless. And I don’t know for sure what the deal is. Now I certainly gave it thought how to do it as a retreat. Now they’re not doing it as a retreat, I’m doing it as a retreat. So it’s a little easier to figure out how it has effects on people who haven’t been on the streets.. it’s a little more complicated to see how it affects people who have been on the streets, so I don’t know how to answer that.