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) 

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.

Claude AnShin Thomas, Grover Genro Gauntt and Bernie Glassman. New York City, 1998

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.


The Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat is an annual practice of Zen Peacemakers International.  Learn more here. 

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Bernie’s Training: Bearing Witness

7 Responses

  1. I will always love you Barney Glassman you took me from the streets of New York and made me the Buddhist that I am Larry
    Hamzah Chamberlain

  2. What surprised me the most about the Auschwitz retreat was the experience of love coming out of every brick and blade of grass at the end of the week. It was as if bearing witness had produced the context or the field out of which the loving action of the third tenet arises. Thank you, Bernie

  3. Dear Bernie, grateful for his share their views on the meaning of bearnig witness in Auschiwitz where the theme is: How do we treat each other. Its share on the issue of hiking reminding your student and your social work method and the theme of Bearing Witness made me remember the Paulo Freire the creator of Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Brazil in his Last Interview before his passed way. He said he was loving the moment of Brazil with large marches of the oppressed peoples like women, traditional peoples, landless people and He dreamed of these marches is expanding around the world: the march of the oppressed (the hunger for justice and recognition spirits) on its way to release; to a new world of love and peace. Another reminder that You brought me in its share is about the importance of understanding the subject not to lose the focus of the problem. Here again Paulo Freire in his Culture Circle method speaks of the importance of realizing along with the Oppressed which the generating word to be worked in the round. After several years of Zen training and social work with small rural communities and traditional people there about a year ago I joined the ZPO motivated by fusion Zen+ Social Work, by Bearing Witness with Native Americans and the Order of Disorder.I’m still trying to understand on the fundamental practices ZPO and their shares of Your Vision and Opinions is help-me very much. With palms togheter Ivan

  4. Hi Bernie,
    Love reading this and want to add some thoughts. When I was in Auschwitz with you I was drawn most to feed one hungry spirit – mine. Being German by birth, that was really necessary. What is the use of me pretending to feed others when I am starving because my heart is covered with shame and fear, because I too kept feeling the hunger and pain of millions? I had to free myself first.
    And I was able to do it. This was 2006 and I notice – still to my amazement – I have not had one single stressful, hungry spirit moment about the Holocaust or the collective human pain since then. And that used to describe my life. Out of that great gift insight and action arose:
    The heart, once released from under its cloak of shame and fear, naturally knows it’s about all beings. That is the nature of the heart. Once the heart is released, Indra’s net shines with great clarity. This net is where? It is in my consciousness, as is everything. From that view, there is no outer world. Everything is internal and there it can be permeated by the love and wisdom of the heart. That is our natural state. This is the food all souls hunger for, the food of the essence of love, of what we are with and for and in each other.
    And the recognition came that all love and wisdom come from the depth of the heart and that each heart is already and always completely free in its core. There, in the core of each heart lies the capacity to heal ALL pain. We can free that capacity and use it in simple and direct ways, and as we each heal our personal pain we heal ALL collective pain. So the heart (better: the hridayam) is the ‘place’ I work with.
    This became “HeartSourcing”, a practical skill, or set of skills. Auschwitz was its testing ground for me and it tested out beyond what I could have expected. HeartSourcing is now starting to move in the world. So out of feeding one, now many are being fed – and you are one of the many midwifes of this and I want to thank you greatly for that!
    Much love, always

  5. Dear Bernie,

    I vera much like those summaries, you are offering us free. So I was delighted about the last one, and now this. Happy to read about AnShin, whose book, I remembered recently, I have read and often referred to in my workshops I read before your book about Bearing Witness sprang into my eyes some 9 years ago. This astounds me. I have passed One day of a three-day-retreat with AnShin last year and felt very touched. He has been twice at Zen-Dojo Bonn. When I had started to search for a place to connect to zenpeacemakers in Germany, I found the homepages of Heinz-Juergen Metzger, and sat some days with him. Some days later I had some calls with Paul Soju Schwerdt. I was asking both about the beginnings of their commitment to zenpeacemaking, to studying with you. I asked them many questions, because I found they were the first generation of German zenpeacemakers, and we could learn from them, from their Insights, their experiences. I also found that to possibly go on with their blessings for our German path to walk and hopefully bring in some precious ingredient and grow together and mature, gratefully for those of the first generation.

    I think that both felt honoured and they offered support . That was shortly after the first Gathering of German Zenpeacemakers in 2011 in Bonn. But there was – I felt – a kind of shadow, which saddened and disturbed me deeply. And here Claude AnShin again comes into the field. You certainly know that all three – in my eyes – important Zen-teachers, two of them your Dharmaheirs, one – as AnShin closely connected to Auschwitz, the beginnings of the retreats, and the BIG issue of war, peace, trauma, healing… ( What we do to others).have their Centers very close to Bonn! Solingen, Aachen, Leverkusen: What a powerful region in Germany, one might say!

    But I and not only I have been warned of all three persons at my beginnings of Zen peacemaking. It felt, and this is said with caution, as if any of these teachers, would be ” personae non gratae”, better not to be talked about, not mentioned.

    I got really interested, after a while. What is this?

    What about inclusion into the Mandala, what about forgiveness, what about reconciliation in case anythjng really serious had happened. All fantasies.

    Anyway: The collective field of zenpeacemakers in Germany of the first generatiion badly needed healing, I found, which often starts with recognizing that something is wrong, that there is hidden suffering, and people can get confused. We still Need, this is my opinion, a narrative in our country, which respectfully includes any former student of you, especially those who are your Dharmaheirs. I hope I am well informed about this.

    With this piece about Claude AnShin another step has been made in this direction, for which I am feeling very grateful.

    With Gassho:
    Monica Jion

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