(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)
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 couldn’t sleep at night, you know. He’d 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 soon—maybe a year, I can’t remember the timing—he was going to join a bunch of Buddhist monks who chant the Lotus Sutra while marching and beat a drum, and chant— as they walk. Their practice is walking and social engagement. So somebody here was confused about Japanese maybe not being involved in social engagement—their leader, sort of a Gandhi kind of guy in Japan told them if they weren’t in jail half of the year, they weren’t 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 Hiroshima—through 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 she’ll 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, that’s where I met Ginni. She was at that conference. I’m not sure if there was anybody else at that conference who’s 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 again—like before when I was struck by all the hungry spirits suffering, and wanting to be fed, wanting their suffering to be relieved—so 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 place—this 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 what’s fascinating to me is this was just the 20th year of that retreat.
And at each of these retreats—I haven’t been to all of them, maybe three or four that I didn’t go—and in all of these retreats, when I’m there, I always talk about for me, what the retreat is about—which has to do with remembering. See, these souls, what’s fascinating to me is that most people who come pick a few souls. Maybe the Jewish souls—the Poles in the first retreat picked the Jewish and the Germans. They said, “It’s all about you guys. It’s got nothing to do with us.” Everybody in that is saying, “This is what it’s about.”
I’m saying it’s about all. It’s how we treat the other. I mean that’s where the handicap were killed. That’s where gays were killed. That’s where the gypsies were killed. That’s where the Polish intellectuals were killed. That’s where the Catholics were killed. That’s where the Jews were killed. That’s a lot of people, man.
So for all those years I was saying that. And other people were writing “Oh no, it’s about the German/Jewish thing.” That’s too narrow. Nothing is that narrow. That’s our way of thinking—narrow. It’s like thinking the Israel/Palestine thing is about the Israelis or the Palestinians. It’s not about either one. It’s not even about the Middle East. It’s about the gestalt of this Indra’s Net, and why we are constantly picking on each other, or doing things. What’s the deal here? Once we narrow it to one group, “oh it’s what the Germans do”, and then they feel guilty or, “oh it’s about this.” We lose the picture, man. I think, in my opinion, if you don’t see the whole net, you go astray. And you’ll cause more problems. That’s 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 things—a place, I’ve 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. That’s never been my theme, and I’ve said that each time. I keep repeating it, because it still amazes me.