When we bear witness, when we become the

situation — the right action arises by itself. We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the functioning of bearing witness. -- Roshi Bernie Glassman

Exploring the Bodhisattva Way, Free Adventures Every Day

Street Retreat 2013



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.

Street Retreat 2013

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.

Street Retreat 2013

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)

Zen Peacemakers Street Retreats are planned in many cities around the world. JOIN A STREET RETREAT IN 2016

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Bernie’s Health 2/3/2016

By Eve Marko 2/3/2016


The other day it hit 50 degrees Fahrenheit in Springfield. I come in to visit Bernie holding his jacket and say, “Let’s go outside!” He gives me the same look he’s always given me each time I suggest exercise, so I’m careful not to use the “H” word (as in, fresh air is healthy for you!). The nurse agrees it’s a great idea, especially as Bernie hasn’t been out since January 12. She helps him into his winter jacket, which I zip up, and we’re off in the wheel chair, down the hallway, down the elevator, and out through the front door of Weldon. Ahead of us is the pathway to the big Mercy Hospital, built by the wonderful Sisters of Providence Order, whose youngest member, I’m told, is 75.

“Isn’t this great?” I chirp.

Silence from the wheelchair. A left hand climbs up surreptitiously and winds the collar tighter around his throat. We move towards the front entrance, nothing much to see other than the big parking lot on the left, but the air is amiable, the skies gray.

“I want to go back,” he tells me.

“Back! We haven’t even been out 3 minutes!”

“I’m cold.”

“How can you be cold?” He’s wearing the same old green jacket he wears at our retreats at Poland, along with a thick woolen hat, while half the folks around us are down to shorts and short-sleeve Tees, which is what happens in Massachusetts every time temperatures climb over 40.

“Cold. Need my red beret.”

I forgot that Bernie feels practically naked without his red beret.

We enter the hospital and I take him down the elevator to the basement connecting the hospital with Weldon. We’re completely alone. “Race?” I suggest, he smiles, and I run pushing the wheelchair down the two long corridors.

Back in his room I show him emails with songs from his Washington grandson Milo and photos of Ethan, Rebecca and Shai, his grandchildren in Jerusalem. We talk about plans for the Black Hills retreat in July. He reads certain emails, face moving left to right with the text because the corner of his right eye is still blurry from the stroke.

He’s happy to read announcements: meetings of ZPO regional circles, the initiative to go to Greece in April to work with immigrants. There’s a street retreat in Albuquerque, council training in Paris, a new circle on Art and the Three Tenets, the odd couple of Rabbi Shir and Sensei Paco going to Arizona to talk about our bearing witness retreats, and most important, an initiative to do selfies while putting on a red nose. He’s happy and forlorn at the same time, shaking his head. “I’m not involved,” he says sadly.

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by Roshi Eve Myonen Marko

February 2nd, 2016


I continue to watch closely as my husband, Bernie, does physical therapy to strengthen the right side of his body, afflicted by the stroke that sent blood coursing through the left side of his brain. He stands with some difficulty while holding on to a bar with his left hand, and begins to walk slowly while the therapist on the other side helps him step forward with his right leg. Like almost all of us, Bernie assumes that once he walks the legs will go by themselves, so he moves his chest forward thinking the legs are there, only the right one isn’t. He can’t assume that what worked before is working now. And without much feeling in the right leg, he has little awareness of where it actually is.

I stand behind the two men, feeling how each small scene paints such broad strokes. I myself, who haven’t suffered a stroke, also tend to move forward with my upper body ahead of the legs that carry me, ahead of myself, mind working out some future plan or scenario while the body lags behind. I remember Bernie often telling me that Maezumi Roshi, his teacher, used to caution him: “Tetsugen, when you move fast, people stumble.” I’ve stumbled. And now Tetsugen, or Bernie as he’s presently known, moves very, very slowly.

The therapist is also concerned that Bernie will favor the left leg, which he’s aware of, over the right: “Don’t stand on the leg you know can hold you,” he tells him. “Stand on the leg you don’t know can hold you.” Let go of what you know, the working limb that gives you confidence, and lean on the other side of the body, the side you don’t trust, that you can barely make out is there or not.

“Don’t wait for the brain to figure it out, you do it first.” And I remember 1986 when I participated in my first public interview. In that highly ritualized, public ceremony, one student after another approaches the teacher and asks a question. I approached and quoted a verse from the “Gate of Sweet Nectar” liturgy: “I am the Buddhas and they are me,” meaning that I am everyone and everything, and they are me as well.

“I don’t believe it,” I told Tetsugen Sensei, as he was known then, “so why should I chant the words?”

“You don’t have to believe it,” he said. “Just keep on chanting.”


More on Bernie’s Recovery on CaringBridge.org

More writings by Eve Marko on Eve’s Blog

Photo by Peter Cunningham: 1980, Bernie Tetsugen Sensei and Taizan Maezumi Roshi, outside of Greyston Mansion in Riverdale, New York.

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Bernie’s Trainings: Street Retreats

homeles bernie sml

Bernie’s Trainings: Street Retreats

By Bernie Glassman

I wish to talk about going on the streets during Holy Week, the week of Easter, the week of Passover, one of the saddest and most joyous times of the year. I go on the streets at other times of the year, too, and each occasion is special in its own way, but the streets feel different during Holy Week. The remembrance and caring that spring to life during that time are unmistakable and unforgettable To give you a feel for what I mean, let me describe the 1996 Holy Week street retreat.

We spent our first night sleeping–or trying to sleep–in Central Park. It was so cold that at about 4 a.m. we gave up and began to walk downtown, stopping for breakfast at the Franciscan Mission on West 31st Street en route to our hangout at Tompkins Square Park. We were tired and it didn’t help when we heard that it was going to rain that night, the first night of Passover. Walking past St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, I ran into its rector, Lloyd Casson. Notwithstanding the smell of my clothes after a night in the park, Lloyd gave me a hug. I knew Lloyd from the time he’d served as rector of Trinity Church, and before that, as assistant dean at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. When he heard that we would be in the area, Lloyd suggested we come to the Tenebrae service at St. Mark’s after our Passover seder and then spend the night in the church.

Rabbi Don [Singer] had flown in from California to join us for Passover on the streets, but he’d disappeared in the middle of our night in Central Park. For purposes of the seder, we begged for food in the Jewish restaurants on Second Avenue and in Spanish bodegas by Tompkins Square. One retreat participant, a Swiss woman, was given twenty dollars by the Franciscans when she attended their mass that morning before breakfast. Suddenly, as we began to give up hope, Don appeared. He explained that he’d been so cold during the night that he’d gone into the subway to keep warm. After riding the trains all night he’d visited a few Jewish temples, asking them for food for our seder. He arrived with bottles of kosher grape juice and gefilte fish. Using the money the Franciscans had given us we bought more food and then, at nightfall, held a seder at Tompkins Park.

We sat around two picnic tables in an enclosure behind the Park’s restrooms. This was usually locked by the guard during the evening, but this time he unlocked it specially for our use. We invited the park regulars to join us, including the King and Queen of Punk accompanied by their dog. Don passed around matzos, bitter herbs, and grape juice and we talked about leaving Egypt, the land of bondage, addictions, and delusions, and arriving in the Promised Land. We told the story of slavery and the story of freedom, we sang and danced, Don leading us around the tables. Finally we shared the food we’d gathered, and when the seder was over we left the tables, the guard locked the enclosure, and we walked over to St. Mark’s Church.



We arrived at St. Mark’s in the middle of the Tenebrae service. The church was designed for performances, so there are no pews, only an altar in front and risers on the sides. Chairs had been brought out, candles dimmed, and the church was completely dark at the end of this sad service about the Passion of Christ.

That’s when Lloyd Casson told his president that the strange-looking group sitting in the back, with musty smells and grizzled faces, would be spending the night at the church. I could see some frenzied whispering going on. I walked over to Lloyd and said that we would be happy to camp outside, on the grounds of the church. But Lloyd was adamant. He asked us to sit together with the president of the church and explain who we were and what we were doing. So we sat in the back along with a few of St. Mark’s parishioners and introduced ourselves. We told them about spending last night in Central Park and now coming from a seder in Tompkins Park. I talked a little about our annual street retreats. It didn’t take long for the president of St. Mark’s to change his mind and give us permission to stay. So that night we slept on the risers. The church was warm and dry, and the candles still burned from the Tenebrae service as we fell asleep. When we awoke we were told to go into the vestry. There we found the president of the church, who had spent the night in the church along with us, busy making us a pot of coffee.

It was now Maundy Thursday, a day of divine mysteries. In the middle of the day a man came to invite the regulars at Tompkins Square to lunch at St. Brigitte’s Church, on the east side of the park. Off we went to the church basement where a huge meal had been prepared by the parishioners, who also showed us to our table and waited on us. For dessert they ushered us to a long table in the corner where families had baked cakes, pies, and cookies, and children had prepared cards wishing us a Happy Easter.

At the end of the meal they asked us if we would like to have our feet washed. They took us behind a partition to a row of chairs and sat us down among other street people. I hesitated. My feet had painful, ugly blisters from our 17-mile walk from Yonkers to Tompkins Square just two days before. But one woman crouched before me and helped me take my shoes and socks off. She examined the blisters. They had punctured and were very red. Gently she dipped my feet into a basin of hot water. Then she massaged my feet.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked her.

“I am doing this because Jesus Christ did,” the woman said, her manicured fingers running very gently over my sore feet. “He washed the feet of his disciples even though he was the Son of God, and that is why I do it, too.”

She put special salve on my blisters. She also gave me a new pair of white socks.

The sun shone that afternoon, beautiful and warm as we sat undisturbed on the benches of Tompkins Park. We did our own Buddhist service, inviting all the hungry ghosts to partake with us in the Supreme Meal. And when that was over we began to make our way even further downtown, towards the Masjid el-Farah Mosque. Its former sheik, my student and Zen teacher, Lex Nur Hixon, had died of cancer six months earlier. His successor, Sheik Fariha, had invited us to come and participate in their weekly zikr.

It was twilight and we were making our way down one of the narrow streets of the financial district when we passed a synagogue I’d never seen before. It was brand new with a modern design. As we paused to admire it a man wearing a yarmulke came out. He looked at our showerless, unshaven group without the slightest curiosity and asked: “Are any of you Jews?”

As a matter of fact, we told him, about four of us were Jews. We even had a rabbi with us.

“Good,” he announced. “We need your help to make a minyan.”

A minyan is a quorum of ten men needed for orthodox Jewish services. We went inside. The men were separated from the women, each sitting in a separate section. It was the second evening of Passover and the Hebrew service went quickly. The rabbi spoke about the Passover temple sacrifices more than 2,000 years ago, then led another short service. At the end he came over to us, shook our hands and thanked us, and out we went. Three blocks down, around the corner, was the Masjid el-Farrah.

Here we were greeted warmly by Sheik Fariha, an old friend, along with her husband, Sheik Hydar, and a large group of Sufis. They welcomed us to the second floor of the mosque, where we sat together around long, low tables carrying large plates of oriental spiced chicken and rice, cheese and salads, and fresh fruit. We described the evenings spent in Central Park and in St. Mark’s Church. Don Singer spoke about the meaning of Passover. The poet, Robert Bly, joined the gathering and offered a poem. We sang, “La-illaha-il-allah.” There is no God but Allah.

Finally we went down to the mosque. Again, men and women were separated, with the women covering their hair. In a place of no images a service was held and we made many bows. And then the zikr began. Zikr means remembrance. Forming a circle within a circle, we whirled around, turning our faces from side to side, saying the name of Allah again and again, losing ourselves in His praise. Hour after hour we did this, calling on the divine names, forming circle after circle of ecstasy. The Sufis sang, the instruments played, we turned and whirled and danced. Rumi, the great Sufi poet and mystic, had written:

 “In love with him, my soul

Lives the subtlest of passions,

Lives like a gypsy.

Each day a different house,

Each night under the stars.”

bern street ladies aml

During those five days we were abiding nowhere yet we were everywhere, drunk on the passion of Buddha, God, Christ, Yahweh, and Allah. Wherever we went we were given food, shelter, friendship, and love. At every place we were greeted like long-lost children.

The following day, cold and rainy, was Good Friday. After a breakfast of green pea soup and bread at the Catholic Worker food pantry, we went back to St. Brigitte’s to follow their annual Passion play. It began inside the church. A young Hispanic with long black hair, dressed in a simple white robe and sandals, was Christ. Roman soldiers mocked and whipped him, and finally hoisted a big cross on his back. With Christ and the priest leading the way, a procession left the church, going around the Bowery to stop at the Stations of the Cross. It began to snow and soon I could see Christ’s sandals slipping on the wet, white pavement, his legs and feet red from the cold. But he carried the cross north on Avenue B, followed by the church parishioners and us.

The sleet came down hard. We stopped at each Station of the Cross: a house which was a known hangout for drug dealers, a building where a shoot-out had taken place with the police, a house of prostitution, an abandoned tenement. We mingled with the people in the procession who struggled every day to build a life in that neighborhood for their families. We stopped at places of drugs, murder, squatting, homelessness, abuse, violence, and squalor, singing devoutly in English and Spanish, asking for forgiveness. Christ’s mother approached him, wishing to cradle him in her arms. He spoke with the women of Jerusalem, who were none other than the women of Ave. B. He was stripped, whipped, scourged, frozen, humiliated, friendless. And when we returned to the church he was crucified. One of the retreat participants had left the street retreat the night before, then rejoined us at Tompkins Park after a change of heart. Now he wept and wept.

We finished our street retreat at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a candlelight mass on the eve of Easter. Jim Morton knew we were coming and had saved us special seats, but that didn’t prevent many of us from dozing off during the dark, somber service. We all awoke when suddenly the lights of the cathedral blazed on and the organ and choir began to sing loudly and joyfully that Christ, once again, had risen.

These were some of the events of our street retreat in Holy Week, 1996. Other things happened that week, too: a sleepless night at Penn Station, two people with such badly blistered feet that they had to leave us. One of the participants who’d served as my personal assistant, a talented musician with a history of drug use, went back to using that week. He’d fallen back on old habits several times in the past and it wasn’t even clear that he would participate in the retreat. In the end he pleaded with me to let him come. I did. On the eve of Maundy Thursday, as we lay on the risers of St. Mark’s Church, he played melody after melody on their organ, lullabying us all to sleep. But the following day he disappeared. Someone else told me he’d gone to see a dealer. I didn’t see him for a long, long time after that.

His story, too, is part of our Holy Week Street Retreat. The retreat was a banquet that lasted for five days and we savored many wonderful dishes. But my assistant was not with us when we returned to our homes in the early hours of Easter Day.



Photos by Peter Cunningham

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“What Should I Sing To You?”

“What Should I Sing To You?”


Conversation with Krishna Das and Bernie Glassman

Transcribed from a recording at Bernie’s house in Montague, MA USA, 9/21/2015



BERNIE: So we all talk about the interconnectedness of life, the oneness of life, but if we look carefully at ourselves and see how many aspects of life we shy away from or won’t come in contact, and then try to figure why. I think the biggest reason is fear. So that’s how these Bearing Witness retreats… Well, I don’t know if they started because of that, but that’s where the large numbers started.

KD: I had a lot of fear before my first retreat, “How am I going to deal with this?” Just the fear of going, being in that place where so much suffering happened and so much torture and so much inhumanity was manifest. So I just didn’t know what was going to happen to me, you know. So just to go and go through the process and the practice of being in the camp at that time was] very freeing from that fear that I had. Just not that simple. And then to be talking about fear, how much fear there must have been in the camp at the time of the war. The atmosphere was extraordinary.

BERNIE: We were just together in South Dakota, in the Black Hills and we met with the Lakota folks. And the fear, the elders went to boarding schools ran by Church, Catholic Church, and the fear that must have existed there, because if they spoke any Lakota they were beaten up, if they wore any traditional clothes they were beaten up. In that school there is a track where people run around and underneath that there’s graves of children that died there. So they had a reason to be afraid, but that fear permeates everywhere. The other reason for these Bearing Witness retreats is our ignorance, which I think that is with most of the non-Native Indians that came, they] had no idea of what went on in their own country, of what we did.

KD: And are still doing.


At Wounded Knee Memorial Site, South Dakota USA during the 2015 Native American Bearing Witness retreat. Photograph by Peter Cunningham


BERNIE: And are still doing. And why we have these ignorant things? Again, in a way I think it’s fear. You don’t want to know. So it’s fear, it’s guilt, but we don’t want to know. So we try to stay away. So, what I found for myself, maybe about 25 years ago actually, I was in a place that in my practice I needed to go to places where I didn’t want to know what was going on, where I felt I had to stay away, or where I was afraid of it. So those were the places I went. Now, in the old Buddhist traditions in India and Tibet they had what they call charnal practices where you would go to the cemeteries and sit with the spirits that are coming in, it’s] a very similar thing and a way of dealing with our own insecurity, our own fears, our own wanting to be ignorant of certain things and not really grasping that that means that we are not connecting to all that which is us. We are all one, we are all interconnected. So if we’re staying away from the large part the way we are staying away from the large part of ourselves, there has to be practices to bring those connections. And then I also feel very strongly that there’s got to be practices to celebrate that. And those are bhakti practices, chanting practices. I mean, there are many practices to do that, but I think that they take on another significance if it’s also linked with bringing in the shadow or the places we don’t want to know about, we don’t want to touch. So we make a good duo, man!

KD: And people get very attached to the way they live. Remember when I sang in… You asked me to sing it was in the women’s, no it was in the men’s… one of the men’s…

BERNIE: Barracks.

KD: Barracks, and so I sat down there on the mud and one guy just exploded, remember? “I didn’t…” and he ran out of there. Remember that?

BERNIE: I do. He’s a student of mine.

KD: Oh, was he? He must be a very good student. So he didn’t want to let go of something, right. I mean, he’s…

BERNIE: Right.

KD: He came back.

BERNIE: He didn’t want to open up.

KD: He didn’t want to open up. He was there with the suffering but he didn’t want to open, he couldn’t let go of that, he was attached to his suffering, I guess you could say.

Bernie, KD and Morley in the Black Hills

BERNIE: I think so. I think so. And we put a lot of emphasis on that first tenet in the Zen Peacemakers, being open and being open to everything, you know. It’s very difficult and so he had studied that, but he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do it, he was trapped by his conditioning of what should be instead of being open to what is. Another case like that that was sort of interesting, two years ago… We always go to the women’s barracks, there’s a women’s barrack where women were put when they couldn’t work any more, they were put in there, they weren’t given food, they were just left there to die. So two years ago we decided that we would have the men go to the men’s barracks and the women into this women’s barracks. We did that. Then went in Ohad, who is a rabbi from Israel and plays guitar, he started playing some Hassidic tunes and we were singing. There was somebody who got really pissed off. “How are you singing here? This is how we should sit.” And then we were supposed to meet up with the women, but we went on, we were singing, dancing, and it went on so long that it was lunchtime, so most people went outside the camp to the trucks to get their soup. But some including the rabbi went to the women’s barracks to see what was going on. It turned out that one of the men was engaged to one of the women who was in the barracks, they went and she saw them coming and she said… they were going to get married in a couple of weeks in Prague or something.

She said, “Why don’t we get married here?”

He said, “Here?”

She says, “Yes, why not?”

And they ask Ohad, “Can we do that?”

And he said, “Do you really want to do it?”

And they said, “Yes, we want.”

And he said, “Yeah, I can do that.”

And he married them.

Now, a number of people that were upset, there was a woman who was very upset about the women dancing and whatever, she was an Orthodox Jew. And then I pointed out, a few days later, in the evening, the last evening, Friday night, when we end, I pointed out that most people is those barracks were from the Hassidic Tradition, and a wedding in the Hasidic Tradition the men are separated from the women, and they’re both dancing, they’re singing and dancing, and then at some point the rabbi leads the groom to where the bride is and they get married. And I said, that’s what happened here! And can you imagine the delight of the people that we’re here, and singing… A wedding in their tradition happening right in their space. So both of those people who were so upset, “Wow, yeah, why you were so upset? We’re part of history-making.” And again, because they were afraid, they were closed.

[Above: Gate of Sweet Nectar ceremony at 2013 Auschwitz/Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat. Music performed by Krishna Das, Video taken by Sensei Andrzej Krajewski.]

KD: And even so, being closed and afraid, that is part of the program that they received from the culture. This is how we have to live with this, we have to be closed, we have to be afraid, we have to only be unhappy about it.

Well, I remember when you gave me those eight lines to work on from The Gates of Sweet Nectar, the actual translation as you gave it to me, the last line was “all of your sorrow, I make it mine,” which is the Bodhisattva taking on the sorrows of the world. So when I brought that to you, you said, “Oh, I want the joy too, you got to put that in there.” So I changed it to “your joy and your sorrow.” But it’s more inclusive, it’s more…

You know, when I… That first time I was in Auschwitz, I had my harmonium with me because I had been singing in Europe, so I took it into the women’s barracks and I though, “I will do some Devi Puja here, I will sing to the Goddess, the perfect woman who embodies all the women.” So I got in there and I put up the harmonium, I was just about to sing and I thought to myself, “Well…” First of all, it was so full. I don’t think I’ve ever sang to more people than the beings I felt in that barracks, empty barracks. I don’t have these kinds of experiences, but I just felt it, so I asked them, “What should I sing to you.” And what came back, they wanted me to sing to their children, so I sang Gopala, Gopala, which is the child Krishna. And I felt they felt such joy from that, because they were remembering their children and the love that they had for their children. That was a very beautiful experience, completely unexpected.

BERNIE: I think that’s the beauty of the Bearing Witness, is that what comes out is never really what is expected. There’s no planning it.

KD: Yes, there’s no planning it.

BERNIE: We just open, and bearing witness and letting it be. And so we enjoy, we grow receiving the unexpected… That feels good to me, like a lock.



Top Photo by Rami Efal.

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BERNIE’S HEALTH: 1/17/2016

BERNIE’S HEALTH: 1/17/2016


By Rami Efal




“Oy vey” Bernie muttered over the mushroom soup at lunch. His speech is clearer when his energy is up, and along with talking about the state of work he is very concerned about the recent cigar order that’s been sitting in the post office. To stay fresh they need to go into a humidifier — STAT, which, our dedicated nurse explained, is faster than ASAP.

Saturday, Bernie spoke with Marc his son on the phone, and Alisa, Eve and myself were all struck by the candidness and vulnerability in his voice. Later that evening Alisa left back to DC and will return to his side soon.

This morning Sunday, He read Eve’s written updates and chuckled. We acknowledge this simple act being an unimaginable progress over the first few days after the stroke. He read some of the comments and emails he received and leaned back, seemed tired, and, we suspected, moved.

The doctor prescribed him to exercise his right arm. Many of us have heard Bernie teach using his body — how Mary and Joe, his two arms, are part of Bernie, the whole – so they care for one another. Today he turned to Joe, warm but limp on his right, and called out ‘Hey! Tip’sha (Hebrew for silly)! Move!’ Eve and Bernie laughed. He dons Boobysttava’s clown voice and goes into a fascinating, and hilarious, dharma spiel. Eve, assuming a challenging tone and pointing at his arm, asked: ‘If you can’t feel it, is it still part of you?’ They exchanged a glance. Then Bernie raised his working left arm, reached over and lifted the other – pushing and pulling – doctor’s orders.

We were getting ready to leave. A young RN pops into the room and gasshos to Bernie – “You did it to me yesterday coming out of the MRI, so I wanted to return the favor.”

The old Cambodian man in the bed next to Bernie, we learned, was a Buddhist monk who had been living for years at the Peace Pagoda in Leveret MA. Each day, his grandson hitchhikes three hours back and forth to see him. We saw no other visitors. Several flower vases arrived for Bernie. They really lit the room up. One was sent by Claude Anshin Thomas, a Zen Priest and a Vietnam vet, who began his work with Bernie on a pilgrimage organized by the Peace Pagoda in ‘96. We nodded acknowledging the coincidence and placed Anshin’s vase by the monk’s bed. Bernie was waiting out on a stretcher. Leaving the room, Eve turned to the sleeping man, gently touched his left shoulder, and bowed.

Bernie said goodbye to the terrific doctors, nurses and technicians at Baystate Health Neuroscience care unit and on Sunday afternoon he was transferred to Weldon Rehabilitation Center in Springfield MA. He will stay here for at least a few weeks. Tomorrow Monday morning, his 77th Birthday, Bernie will start acute rehab (Bernie:“oh boy” – rolling eyes,) with occupational, speech and physical therapy.

While not seeing visitors Bernie could use all the encouragement we can muster as he enters rehab. So please, send him a happy birthday card or photo to rami@zenpeacemakers.org, post it on his Facebook page, or send it to POBOX 294 Montague MA 01351. Flowers or pureed meatball grinders can be sent to Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital 233 Carew St, Springfield, MA 01104, Room 405.If you wish to send an encouragement to his Cambodian neighbor at Baystate Hospital Neuroscience Care, the room is 5152A. Click here to Bernie’s CaringBridge website.

We are grateful for the support and many prayers for Bernie’s quick recovery. Thank you.

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