An Interview of 

Bernie Glassman



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.

10 Responses

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  2. Bernie,
    Great discussion of Emptiness, which I’ve recommended to my students. Also enjoyed how you related it all to our “stories” and ultimately to your Zen Peacemaker work.

    Thanks so much
    Barry McMahon

  3. In the Tibetan Buddhism I have been taught, rebirth is really a reflection of primordial wisdom/emptiness as the moon may be reflected in different basins of water.

  4. Dear Roshi,

    I found this particular writing very helpful in understanding the concept of emptiness.
    Deep bows for all your work in the world.


  5. As a Black woman, my crazy pilgrimage would be to go to Africa and stand in the place from which shackled, bound slaves sailed, bearing witness to the ongoing suffering of all involved.

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