to the joy and suffering of the world

You cannot live solely in a state of not- knowing, because life also asks that you face the conditions that are coming at you by being present to them. When you bear witness you open to the uniqueness of whatever is arising and meet it just as it is. When combined with not-knowing, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity for spaciousness, thus enabling you to be present to the very things that make you feel as if you have lost your center. It can strengthen your capacity to listen to other points of view, thus allowing a more nuanced picture of a situation to emerge.

Over time, you learn to bear witness to all the elements that are arising with a curious and compassionate attitude. This does not mean repressing the strong emotions that arise or stopping the escape into story drama, but rather being aware of what you are choosing to feed. A wise old tale often attributed to the Cherokee warns that when many demons are struggling inside you, the one that you feed is the one that will become the strongest. You alone are responsible for what you feed.

Bearing witness can allow you to eventually come to terms with the most difficult life circumstances. The practice is always available to you regardless of the time, place, situation, or people involved. 

Sometimes spiritual practices can have a neutralizing effect, flattening feelings rather than stimulating them. To hold to the center is not about becoming a spiritual zombie; it is about living the fullness of your own humanity. You are alive, so be fully alive.

When We Participate in a Peacemaking Process We Participate in a Bearing Witness Retreat
When We Participate in a Bearing Witness Retreat We Participate in a Peacemaking Process

To Bear Witness is to have a strong glimpse into the truth that the life of the other is actually our own life itself, that we are indeed, one body.

Our Bearing Witness retreats are held in places where deep human trauma occurred and where healing is endlessly needed. With our retreats, we intend to contribute to this healing.

To do this we rely on the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers. All aspects of the retreat are founded on these Three Tenets:

letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves, others, and the universe.

to both the joy and the suffering of the world.

that arises from Not-Knowing and Bearing Witness.

These will be our anchors to which we will return throughout each day of the retreat.
They are a powerful way to live one’s life and to respond to the needs of the world.

While a Bearing Witness Retreat cannot precisely be a Zen sesshin, we do create a container of intention and awareness we all share responsibility to maintain. Moving as one, sharing meals, adhering to the schedule, and attending all activities are part of this. Everyone is asked to maintain presence and attention throughout the retreat as each setting allows.

Often, we experience strong emotions and reactions in these places of profound human trauma. Our retreat is designed to support us, with Council practice, meditation periods, prayer sessions, and the presence of senior Spirit Holders who are available to you if you need. All of us should remain vigilant for how our fellow participants are doing. These reactions can be transformative, and we want to protect the space to fully experience them.

Prepare to arrive with this spirit in heart and mind.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat

For over 20 years we have sat together in the place of fences and guard-towers, 80-100 people from many different backgrounds, from Bosnia, Rwanda, Israel, Palestine, Brazil, Russia, Germany, Poland, the United States, along with members of First Nations. Time and again we learned to listen deeply to each other, gaining a new respect for the richness of life that arises out of different stories and viewpoints.

Native American: Bearing Witness Retreat

Zen Peacemakers has been conducting bearing witness retreats following the principles of Not Knowing, Bearing Witness and Taking Action since 1996 in Auschwitz, Rwanda, and the Black Hills since 2015. This program is a continuation of this rich legacy, and part of our dedication to grow in connection with the indigenous communities of Turtle Island. 

Bearing Witness to Racism in America

It has long been our desire to create a bearing witness retreat around America’s racial history – as seen through the eyes of African Americans.  We began in 2021 but were limited to offering an online retreat, but we are now able to do something in person.

This year we plan on walking the ground in three cities with a deep history in the expansion of slavery, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement – BirminghamSelma, and Montgomery.



An international group of Zen Peacemakers came together to Bear Witness to the genocide that took place in 1994. Over a period of 100 days, 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi women, children, and men were brutally slaughtered. The genocide was the culmination of decades of persecution and hatred directed at the Tutsi, a tragedy deeply imprinted on the land, hearts, and spirits of the Rwandan people. In our conversation, Thérèse described how the victims, and also the offenders, are still severely traumatized.

Holy Land

Every year the Holocaust day in Israel is commemorated with a siren, heard all across the country. 70+ years past and the nation is mourning, memorializing and reflecting. The Holocaust memorial-day is always the first event initiating the full cyclical narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Exactly a week later, Israel commemorates the Memorial of the soldiers that were killed in the different wars immediately followed by the Israeli Independence day. Like in a mirror, this of course ignites the beginning of the Palestinian tragedy resembled in the Nakba day and the on-going struggle against the occupation and towards an independent state.

Zen Peacemakers International Journal