Bearing Witness
A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace
Bernie Glassman.
Belltower: New York, 1998
256 pp.; $22.00 (cloth)

Roshi Bernard Glassman’s latest focus in his ever-evolving practice of Buddhism is the Zen Peacemaker Order. The ZPO is not only engaged in social activism and interfaith networking, but also cultivates another prong of social service—that of bearing witness to suffering for the purpose of growing through and from it.

Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace documents the creation of the Zen Peacemaker Order. It began in 1996 when a group of 150 people journeyed to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp where millions of Jews were systematically exterminated, to bear witness to the inconsolable suffering of the past and its present effect upon the world. Glassman feels that where there is great pain, there is also the potential for enormous transformation. A place like Auschwitz-Birkenau is thus a powerful energy center.

Glassman uses the story of Claude Thomas, a Vietnam veteran who began a peace walk at Auschwitz and completed it at Hiroshima. Thomas was in Belgium when a man who had abducted six girls, and killed four of them, was captured by the police. The veteran talked for hours with the mother of one of the murdered girls. Through his own suffering as a murderer of Vietnamese children, Thomas was able to get the mother to empathize with the suffering of her child’s killer. Together, Thomas and the mother were able to feel the oneness of grief and loss and the pain of both victim and perpetrator.

reviews 95 fall 1998 (1)

One of the insights offered by bearing witness is the recognition that many social activists fail to truly know what it is like to live in the situations they seek to improve or eliminate. People who feed the hungry often don’t know how it feels to be hungry. Glassman believes the direct experience of suffering is crucial to helping others. It is one reason he began his street retreats, in which a group of people agree to live on the streets for one week as if they were homeless, begging for food or eating in shelters and sleeping wherever they can. When pushed into the unknown, the street retreatants are forced to be more observant of themselves and their surroundings. From this increased awareness, healing takes place.

The jewel of this volume is in Glassman’s description of the Letten, an area in Zurich, Switzerland, that officials once turned into a legal drug market in an attempt to resolve the city’s massive drug problem. He describes the “thousands of addicts lying in a stupor” and preyed upon by greedy dealers with their openly displayed weapons and wads of cash, all under the watchful eyes of Zurich police and not too far from the Zurich the world knows—the international city with its beautiful lake, expensive shops, and discreet and accommodating banks. Glassman explains his philosophy:

“Bearing witness means to have a relationship. I wanted to have a relationship with the Letten and all its inhabitants, as I subsequently wished to have a relationship with Auschwitz and all its inhabitants, as I try to do with the places where we sit during street retreats and all their inhabitants.”

The weakness of Bearing Witness lies in its lack of depth. For the most part, Glassman reveals snippets of insight but quickly moves on, leaving the reader hungry for more. The perspective of the book is that of a person of privilege. Glassman states that most of the participants have never experienced rejection. Obviously, not too many people of color are involved. Definitive statements by Glassman include the following: “When I go on the streets I feel as if I’ve put behind me all the details and concerns of my daily life. Life is simple. . . . When we go on the streets and discover that what we need is right there, we develop more faith in life’s basic goodness.” Tell that to a woman who has been raped repeatedly after she lying down in what she thinks is a safe place to spend the night. Glassman is making the point that when privileged people spend a week on the street, they realize how much they can live without and how attached they are to things that control their lives. But the way the author describes the street retreats can be discomforting to those who have truly lived a life of lack, limitation, and endless despair.

The intent of Bearing Witness is a worthy one. However, the fact that Glassman’s book is unable to impart the power and effectiveness of the ZPO’s dedication is a disappointment.

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