Stringed Together: on the Zen Peacemakers’ Mala Practice and Being a Good Relative

ZPI encourages reflections from retreats participants, staff & members around the world, as part of the practice of bearing witness, to share their personal reflections, stories, and responses to the teachings of Zen Peacemakers’ Three Tenants. Rami Efal, the exiting Executive Director of Zen Peacemakers International, discusses the practice of raising a Mala and reflects on how its lessons have impacted other areas of his life.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, USA. A few days ago I spoke with Katherine May, a British Author writing about practice & connection to nature. Among her books are Wintering: How to survive when life is frozen and The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home.  From her home in England, we discussed the Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat, the Three Tenets, their relationship to humility – the subject of her current writing project. We connected about street retreats and Bernie’s encouragement to beg – the practice of raising a Mala.

In the past I used to name its origin – the begging practice the Buddha carried out each day for his and his monks’ sustenance. I would describe how Bernie required his staff at Greyston and Zen Peacemakers to raise their own salary, promote the vision of their mission of bearing witness, or to donate to services to those who experienced homelessness, in order to join a street retreat. I would speak about the technical aspects of reaching out to a loved one and community, sharing one’s visions and aspirations and asking for their support. I often noted that begging actually gives the opportunity for others to practice dana, generosity, the first paramita of letting go.

At the 2019 Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Rami on left, Spirit Holder Roshi Cornelius Collande on the right, and between them, two participants who completed a Mala to attend the retreat. Photo by Retreat Staff Mikko Ijäs

But this time, the image of the beads on a string brought to mind another image – that of Indra’s net, one of Bernie’s favorite teachings, which describes the interconnectedness of all things. As the Hindu myth (which pre-dates Buddhism) goes, the Net is made up of pearls, and in each pearl, all the other pearls are reflected. Each movement of one pearl effects and ripples the other. More so, each action creates Karma. These Pearls represent each and everything in the universe. Bernie brilliantly added onto the old teaching that not just the ripples are the effects of our actions but each action creates a new pearl. Therefore, we are even more responsible for the consequences of our choices. 

For archival purposes, I’ll digress here to note that Bernie gave this teaching in 2015 at the Sivananda Ashram in the Bahamas where Roshi Eve Myonen Marko and he met with the yogis every year in April to explore Living a Life that Matters. It was one of the first trips I did with Eve and Bernie on my second month working for him as his attendant, just following a short trip to Palestine to ideate peacemaking with Sami Awaad in Bethlehem. I joked to Bernie “Man you really do bear witness to the suffering AND the joy!” referring to the contrasting realities of this lush paradise and the bustling life under occupation experienced in the period of two weeks. There were other Zen Peacemakers there- Roshi Roland Wegmueller, David Hobbs, Sensei James Daikan Bastien, and his partner Karen, Scott Bradley, and Roshi Barbara Wegueller. Barbara noted that she had never heard Bernie teach that nuanced – on the creation of the new pearls – before. It may have been the playful exchange on stage with Eve, the ocean breeze, or the Bhakti chantings we did together with the Yogis every morning – but it felt like the teaching Bernie gave that day was a new pearl. I have never heard him repeat it since.

Returning to my conversation about Mala practice with Katherine, I reflected on how this Net is another way to speak about Mala – how this interconnected net is in fact an interrelatedness that makes each one of us and each of our actions, a bead.  Our whole life, in fact, is this mala, this net. 

Bernie often taught about our life as an ever-growing integrating mandala. What if I saw my life as an ever-growing Mala – a continuum of giving and receiving – relating?

Renee and Claudia Iron Hawk facilitating an activity at the 2019 Zen Peacemakers Native American Bearing Witness Plunge.

With that in mind, what does that mean to bring the Mala practice into how I lead my life? How I view every interaction with you, and this precious planet, my fellow pearl-beads? Katherine reminded me – with humility. The same way I will describe my aspiration and ask others to join me, never demand, just an open spirit of invitation and presence, I will bring this attitude to discussing my engagement with my partner, or negotiate an employment item. I will bear witness to all the times I am not in Mala mind, not acknowledging my connection to the other pearls, when I demand, expect outcomes, become disappointed. All the times I am hopeless, forgetting the abundance of pearls-beads around me. Bernie’s insight about generating new pearls with our actions, speech and thought, is a tremendous insight into the abundance of creativity that is available to me – that not only I can depend on the other pearl-beads around me (how can I not), but can endlessly create new ones. 

As I write this, fires are burning in Australia, conflict edges in the Middle East, millions of displaced people migrate across the crust of planet Earth due to its unprecedented changes in the ecosystem. Manny Iron Hawk, Renee Iron Hawk, and Violet Catches, the Lakhota co-leaders of the Zen Peacemakers Native American Bearing Witness Plunges, encouraged me and thirty others during the 2019 plunge at the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe reservation “to be a good relative – to everything.” I deeply appreciate this calling. How to acknowledge my being a fellow pearl-bead on this net with millions of Koalas scorched? The thousands of firefighters that rose to respond in support of 2 legged and 4 legged relatives? Relative of the Smoke? Relative of fear itself? How am I being a good relative to my own actions, thoughts, and words – them being new pearls in the net – Do I nurture my speech, thought and action by respecting their effects, using mindful speech, clarifying my mind, taking responsibility for the consequences of my actions? Most importantly, when the Dogen’s One Bright Pearl is obscured to me, when I feel hopeless, depressed, overwhelmed by the enormity of the work or sense of responsibility, what do I do? How would I maintain my faith in this ever-present twine that threads me and all these beads in this Maha Mala together? I wonder, how would this life I live transform had I embodied this Mala Mind – as a humble, responsible, connected, faithful, creative and generous pearl?


About the Author: Rami Avraham Efal has been a student of Zen Buddhism since 2005 and executive director of Zen Peacemakers International since 2016. He was Bernie Glassman’s last student and was recognized as a Dharma holder in the Zen Peacemakers lineage in November 2019 by six of Bernie’s successors, Roshis Barbara & Roland Wegmueller, Paco Lugovina, Cornelius Collande, Genro Gauntt and Fleet Maull. Rami has trained and worked in different peace-building and nonviolent modalities and is a published and presented artist. He is currently undergoing rabbinical studies.

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Stringed Together: on the Zen Peacemakers’ Mala Practice and Being a Good Relative

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