Bernie’s Training: Bearing Witness
(Pictured above R to L: Michael O’keefe, Peter Matthiessen, Siddiq Powell, Bernie, Alisa and Mark Glassman (Bernie’s children), Brendan Breen. Auschwitz/Birkenau 1996)
By Bernie Glassman
Photographs by Peter Cunningham
(Continued from Bernie’s Training: Social Engagement)Â
I had a student that many of you probably know, named Claude AnShin Thomas. And when I met him he had already been pretty heavily involved with Thich Nhat Hanh. He had been in the Vietnam War. He had had a mental breakdown. He was a very confused person. He couldnât sleep at night, you know. Heâd be kept up by the bombs, and all kinds of things. He had been a tailgate gunner on a helicopter, shooting people. And then he had a nervous breakdown. At any rate, he came to me wanting to know if he could ordain with me, and be my student. And for many different reasons I agreed. And it turned out that he was soon going to be involved in a walk. He did a lot of walking. His practice was walking. He walked across Europe. He walked all over. And very soonâmaybe a year, I canât remember the timingâhe was going to join a bunch of Buddhist monks who chant theÂ Lotus SutraÂ while marching and beat a drum, and chantâÂ as they walk. Their practice is walking and social engagement. So somebody here was confused about Japanese maybe not being involved in social engagementâtheir leader, sort of a Gandhi kind of guy in Japan told them if they werenât in jail half of the year, they werenât being a good monk. They had to do resistance. That was part of their practice, and walking.
So they were planning a walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshimaâthrough all of the war-torn countries. And AnShin had decided to join them. So I said that I would go with him to Auschwitz, and give him Precepts, as a layperson. And I would do that at Auschwitz. And then I would join to the last month of that walk, and ordain him as a Priest at the helicopter site where he was stationed in Vietnam.
And it turned out there was an interfaith conference being held at Auschwitz, in regards to this walk. And so different people were invited for this interfaith conference. And the group that was going to walk was sitting in Birkenau during the conference. And we were all wishing them well. Then they started their walk. So I decided to go to the interfaith conference. It was my first time to Auschwitz.
And Eve was on her way to Israel to visit her family, so she said sheâll stop off with me. And that was also her first time physically to Auschwitz. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, so the Holocaust was part of her daily growing up. But this was the first physical time to Auschwitz. So we went.
And then there was a tour; I mean there was all this conference stuff. For those of you that have been to Auschwitz, thatâs where I met Ginni. She was at that conference. Iâm not sure if there was anybody else at that conference whoâs been a part of our retreats. There was a Lakota man there. The Lakota elders have come to Auschwitz, and we now have a Bearing Witness retreat with Native Americans. But at any rate, we went, and part of that workshop is they give a tour. And so in the tour we entered Birkenau. And I was struck againâlike before when I was struck by all the hungry spirits suffering, and wanting to be fed, wanting their suffering to be relievedâso now I was struck by the feeling of souls. In my head it was like millions of souls wanting to be remembered.
And so again, this came out of my bearing witness to that placeâthis action of these souls arising, wanting to be remembered. And that sent me on a path of designing a retreat that would work with that theme. It took about a year and a half to design the retreat. And whatâs fascinating to me is this was just the 20th year of that retreat.
And at each of these retreatsâI havenât been to all of them, maybe three or four that I didnât goâand in all of these retreats, when Iâm there, I always talk about for me, what the retreat is aboutâwhich has to do with remembering. See, these souls, whatâs fascinating to me is that most people who come pick a few souls. Maybe the Jewish soulsâthe Poles in the first retreat picked the Jewish and the Germans. They said, âItâs all about you guys. Itâs got nothing to do with us.â Everybody in that is saying, âThis is what itâs about.â
Iâm saying itâs about all. Itâs how we treat the other. I mean thatâs where the handicap were killed. Thatâs where gays were killed. Thatâs where the gypsies were killed. Thatâs where the Polish intellectuals were killed. Thatâs where the Catholics were killed. Thatâs where the Jews were killed. Thatâs a lot of people, man.
So for all those years I was saying that. And other people were writing âOh no, itâs about the German/Jewish thing.â Thatâs too narrow. Nothing is that narrow. Thatâs our way of thinkingânarrow. Itâs like thinking the Israel/Palestine thing is about the Israelis or the Palestinians. Itâs not about either one. Itâs not even about the Middle East. Itâs about the gestalt of this Indraâs Net, and why we are constantly picking on each other, or doing things. Whatâs the deal here? Once we narrow it to one group, âoh itâs what the Germans doâ, and then they feel guilty or, âoh itâs about this.â We lose the picture, man. I think, in my opinion, if you donât see the whole net, you go astray. And youâll cause more problems. Thatâs my opinion.
So I tried to devise such a retreat, and we called it a Bearing Witness Retreat, and in my head a Bearing Witness Retreat would come out of two thingsâa place, Iâve always been interested in the place. The Zen Peacemaker Order was born out of a retreat at the Capital of the US, Washington D.C., and out of that came an international family of people wanting to do meditation and social action. This time the place for me was Birkenau. And the theme was how we treat others. But because I chose Birkenau, for most people the theme is the Holocaust. Thatâs never been my theme, and Iâve said that each time. I keep repeating it, because it still amazes me.
November 21, 2019