Exploring the Bodhisattva Way, Free Adventures Every Day


By Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt

A talk given at Upaya Zen Center on September 28, 2015

(downloadaudio recording)

Transcribed by Scott Harris, Photos by Jesse Jiryu Davis


Genro: Good evening everybody. It’s lovely to be here, lovely to be here with you. And this room, the energy during zazen—good work. It feels great.

Joshin mentioned that I’m here because we’re doing a Bearing Witness retreat tomorrow in Albuquerque. And the whole idea of bearing witness came out of Bernie Tetsugen Glassman Roshi’s practice. Back when he was in college—he did his graduate work at UCLA, in Los Angeles, got a doctorate in mathematics. And when he was there, before he dreamed of Zen practice, he realized that he wanted to do three things. He wanted to start a monastery, somewhere. I’m not sure he knew what tradition he wanted to be in, but he wanted to start a monastery. And he wanted to be a clown. And he wanted to live on the streets as a homeless person. And he’s managed to do all of them.

His early practice at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which started in about 1967 with Maezumi Roshi . . . His doctorate at UCLA was in mathematics. And the Zen Center wasn’t up to full speed yet. It was still growing. And so he would work during the day. And during the day he was in charge of the manned mission to Mars project at McDonnell-Douglas. So they say you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a Zen person, but he was.

When he left the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1980 or so, he came to New York, started a Zen community, and quickly sort of revolutionized Zen practice. Because it became clear to him rather quickly that Zen shouldn’t be practiced only in a meditation hall, only in the temple—that in order to really manifest it, we need to really manifest it in our daily lives, in service to all beings.

If our practice is to realize the oneness and the wholeness of life, and that we’re really one with all beings, then we have to take care of them. We have to serve them—that’s everybody, including our self.

So, he quickly started engaged practice there. Started a bakery employing formerly unemployed persons, people that were actually coming out of jails. And that model is now a major model being studied in business schools in the United States, around the world—a model called open hiring. Where when somebody comes to your company, and they want a job, you don’t say, “Well, where’s your résumé? What’s your history of work?” They say, “Sure. If we’ve got a position, you can work for us.”  That’s open hiring. It just means you can begin right now, if you’ve got the most minimal qualifications, like you’re physically able to do it. And they were taking people right out of jail, a lot of homeless people who had never had jobs before. Those are the people that are making the fudge in Ben and Jerry’s Fudge Brownies. They’re now making four million pounds a year, and increasing.

And then in 1994, it was going to be his 55th birthday—something like that, and he decided he wanted to change his practice. Bernie’s always great, one of the most dedicated practitioners I’ve ever known, and one of the most dedicated people to forms I’ve ever seen. But he loves to blow them up, and blow them away, and change them. And he realized he wanted to change his practice. So he thought the best way to do that would be to go to Washington, DC in January, for his birthday, which was the 18th of January, and live on the streets for four days, and see what happened, see what ideas came up. So there were about fifteen people with him, maybe twenty, and they did that. And at the end of that retreat he decided he wanted to start the Zen Peacemaker Order, an organization based on Zen practice and service of all beings, social service. That wasn’t the first Street Retreat. Actually he’d done one in New York.

And then very quickly, we did an Auschwitz retreat in 1996. And that retreat has been going on since 1996. And this year will be the twentieth, which will also coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the camp, which was in January of 1945.

So what’s bearing witness really about?

Dogen Zenji, his famous quote is, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. And to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. And to be enlightened by all things is to remove all barriers between your self and everything else.” That’s our practice.

But Bernie was trying to figure out how to do it faster than thirty years of meditation in the zendo. So he came up with bearing witness. And bearing witness, whether they be Street Retreats, or Bearing Witness Retreats that we do in Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or we’re going to be in Croatia in May, I’ll be in Greece in May also, in the Black Hills . . . wherever, and however, in the Congo probably coming up . . .  Wherever and however we do it, it’s an upaya. It’s an upaya. And of course all of you from Upaya know what that means. It’s a skillful means to raise the bodhi mind, to raise the enlightened mind.

And so one of the ways a Bearing Witness Retreat is called is a plunge. So when you plunge into the water, you don’t put your feet in just a little bit, and test it, and see “Is it warm enough? Can I really get my feet in there? Do I want to go in as far as my knee or my hip?” No, you just PFFFF! You just go in.


So at Auschwitz . . . How many have been on the Auschwitz Retreat? Let’s see all your hands. Good, that’s good. So come this year. There’s still places. And we’ll be there from November 2nd to November 6th. So Auschwitz—everybody’s got some sort of gut-feel for what Auschwitz is, some deep psychic buzz about what that is. And when we go to Auschwitz, the first day is sort of doing museum kind of things. But this museum is not built to shock you out of your normal consciousness, but that’s what it does. You see a couple movies that are just awful—about how the camps were operating, and what they found when they liberated them. There were film crews. So you could see the bodies, and the people absolutely emaciated, hundreds of little children no bigger than this <gestures> who were leaving their barracks because they were to be experimented on by Dr. Mengele. Horrible things. And of course if anybody knows anything about Auschwitz, they have these places where you can see tons of human hair that was collected, and suitcases, and all the human things that people brought with them because they thought this was just simply a transport camp—where they would be moved to some place where they would have farms, and their homes and communities again.

I’ve been there more than twenty times. And whenever I do that walk through these archives of human suffering, I find myself in a state where my mind doesn’t work anymore. I can’t grasp anything. The thought process sort of breaks down because it’s impossible for any of us as human beings to imagine even one person being killed. Really. Although we hear it on the news all the time, that’s not real for us. We’ve allowed ourselves to be immune to that. But if we really know somebody who is killed, or it happens closely, or we’re in an area where that happened, it breaks us down. We can’t take it. And then multiply that by a million and a half, and the mind doesn’t work anymore.

That’s where we get to the place that’s the first of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, and of Bearing Witness Retreats—that’s not knowing. Not knowing. You don’t have to work at not knowing. In these places not knowing happens to you.

Then from that place of not knowing—that means a clear mind in a sense, it’s not cloudy because there’s so much pain. It’s just sort of cleared up. It’s like wiping your screen of all the dust and stain, and suddenly there’s a new faculty that can see clearly. From that place of not knowing, then we can bear witness. That means that we can see what is. See things as they actually are.

I was talking to friends last night. And I said you know, every day as we’re getting ready to go to work, or school, or whatever it is we’re doing to be residents and practitioners here at Upaya, we’re standing in front of the mirror, washing our face, combing our hair, doing all that, and we’re looking in the mirror. And make faces, you know, whatever we do. Clean out teeth and we walk away from the mirror thinking we know what we look like. But the truth is, that’s not how we look. Nobody sees us that way. They don’t see that person making faces in the mirror that we think we are every day. We’re a total mystery as to what we look like. We cover our perception with all kinds of assumptions and judgments, conclusions, and we just can’t see anything as it is. What is everything as it is?

There’s a line in the Jewish Kaddish, the memorial poem that says, “This is the divine presence here and now.” This is the divine presence here and now.

That’s our life. That’s our life, moment to moment. Our life is nothing but the life of the divinity, however you call it. You call it Krishna, or Rama, or Buddha, or Christ, or God, or the Creator, or Tunkashila Wakan Tanka—they’re all the divine presence here and now. That’s what we see when our minds are clear.

Then seeing life as it is, seeing things happening as they’re happening—our compassionate mind, which is the function of wisdom (Wisdom does not exist apart from compassion. They’re not two things. They’re only one thing.), wisdom is knowing that everything is me. Everything is you.

If you know that, then you have to be compassionate, to take good care of yourself. How often do you say to people, “Take good care of yourself”? What are you really saying? Take good care of the entire universe. Take good care of everything you see, and everything you can’t.

That happens, and that results as loving actions, or actions that come up out of bearing witness. Our whole lives moment to moment, one way or another are not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. That’s just the way we live.

Now what we notice is the mind going, and going, “Man, I didn’t do that right. I should have helped that person, but I didn’t.” That’s what we’re hearing. But it’s all happening all the time.

You chant the En Mei Jukku Kannon Gyo here, probably daily. Is that right?


Namu Butsu Yo

Butsu U

En Yo Butsu U

En Bu Po So En

Jo Raku Ga

Jo Cho Nen Kanzeon Bo Nen

Kanzeon Nen Nen

Ju Shin Ki Nen Nen

Fu Ri Shin

What does that say? It say’s everything is nothing but the divine presence here and now. That’s what it says. Everything is the functioning of compassion.

So we chant these things in zendos, and in monasteries, in churches and temples all the time. What are they trying to tell us? This is it. This is it. Let’s live like that.

Let’s live like that. Let’s have enormous compassion and love for everything around us, because you are my life. You are my life.

So Street Retreats, which a few of you have on your mind right now a little more than others . . . Who’s going on the Street Retreat? Good. Let me just see. Keep ’em up. Yay! Good. Good. OK, Thank you. So bearing witness on the streets is a plunge into the life on the streets. But it’s really not a problem. I know people if they’ve never done this before—even some who have—are kind of frightened. What’s it gonna be like out there with those crazy homeless people? Right? What’s it gonna be like with no money, no credit card, no toothbrush, none of my normal conveniences, sleeping outside? Oh my God.

It’s really not a problem. And here’s the key— have no expectations. And that’s it. If you have no expectations, there’s no problem. You can’t be disappointed. You can’t be surprised. You can walk on with this mind of “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Compassion.  

That’s the compassionate mind. It’s tranquil. It doesn’t care about what’s happening next. Nothing’s happening next. This is it. Right? Moment to moment—this is it. There’s nothing next. What happens next? Nothing really, this is it.

So if we could really just—getting ready for this retreat—just be where we are, take care of our life as it is, right where we are, it all just rolls out by itself without our worry, or without our anticipation. And you’ll find that to be true. It’s actually a real experience of the divine presence here and now.

It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you. If people really knew how much fun it was—seriously—we’d have to like do them in every city twenty times a year. Because there would be so many people who want to come. This, it’s really fabulous. I love it. I love it.

Yeah. No cellphones, no telephones, no computers. It’s all gone. Nobody trying to find us, because they can’t. People say, “Well, where do we meet you out there?” I don’t know where we’re gonna be. We’re just gonna be where we are.

Time to see where we are, and actually look around. We’re not walking down the street to something. We’re just walking. And when you do that, you can look and like, “Wow, look at that light! It’s so beautiful. How did they decide how to do that?” And you can just . . . Details everywhere are just, ah, everything looks fabulous because you can see it. You’re not thinking about something else. You’re just where you are.

It’s giving yourself a chance to live like the Buddha, or like an enlightened lady. People are terrified that the homeless people are gonna go, “Oh, you’re not really homeless. You’re just masquerading.” Because we think, “Is this a charade? I’m not homeless.” Yes you are. When you’re out there, you are homeless.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment. So we’ve taken on this homeless identity. What if everything changes when we’re out there tomorrow? What if the government comes down, and nobody has any possessions, or any property anymore, the state just like takes it all? Nobody has homes anymore. That could happen. We don’t know.

That would be OK too, because one of the things that we find out when we’re on the streets is that you don’t have to kill yourself when all your stuff is gone. You can lose all your money, your home, your possessions, everything. And it’s OK, because I can survive out here. There’s actually food. There’s actually shelter if you need it. Everything you need, doctors, nurses, dentists, toothbrushes, it’s all there.

But in our normal life we’ve got all this stuff, and all these defenses, and all this money that gets between us and anybody we’re transacting with. Right? You don’t have to have a relationship with anybody when you’ve got money, because they’ve got to take your money and be nice to you.

When you don’t have money, it’s a whole different thing. You have to be nice to everybody so they’ll be nice to you. But it just happens that way.

Oh, and I wanted to finish the point about masquerading. So the homeless people go, “What are you doing?” You know, if they do. They’ve usually got so many of their own problems, they don’t care about yours. Seriously, so you don’t have to worry about that. But you just say, “I’m on a homeless retreat. We’re out here with a spiritual group, and we’re out here for four days experiencing homelessness.” And what do they say? “Wow. That’s so nice.” They’re totally grateful that we take the time, and the opportunity to be with them, to honor them as human beings, to walk a few miles in their shoes, to talk to them, to look in their eyes and acknowledge them as human beings—which nobody does, because what if you look in the eyes of a homeless person when you’re walking by? They’re gonna ask you for money, man. And you’re gonna have to go, “Oh, sorry.” Right? Or whatever you do.

So, we don’t have that block, because we don’t have any money to give them. So we have to say, “Hi. Sorry man, I don’t have any money,” or whatever it is, and actually maybe get in a relationship. And what do we find out? They’re human beings just like us, with stories that got them there. And everyone is different.

There’s no such thing as the homeless. No such thing as the homeless. Everyone is a beautiful individual just like us. All have their stories. All absolutely should be honored with our love and presence, as we find out.

(To be continued with questions and answers from the audience in Part 2)

Share :

Exploring the Bodhisattva Way, Free Adventures Every Day

2 Responses

  1. Bernie helped us start a Teen Meditation “IBME” 12 or more years ago. He simply hosted Scott Snow and me and talked about a farm we had started and teen retreats that were housed there. The farm closed but the retreats flourished. We have also started “Sattvic Space” in Portsmouth,Virginia – an Ayurvedic healing center. I will forever be grateful to Bernie for his openness and sharing of his story – it has changed my life. I would like to know how to start a street retreat in our community. You can reach me at 757-477-0610
    My love to Bernie and all of you for the inspiration and work you do – maury

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click Subject for Related Content
Our Journal