Making peace, making things whole, is an endless task. There are many definitions of a peacemaker. One of these I like most is that a peacemaker, knowing that the well needs water, climbs the mountain to reach the snow, comes down, drops it in the well, and goes back up the mountain. She knows that the task is endless, but she does as much of it as she can, day after day after day.
For Bernie Glassman the beginning of making peace is bearing witness. In fact, one is always bearing witness, taking time to listen and to see, to convey one’s experience as vividly as possible, sometimes even in silence. To bear witness is to testify. It is to tell the true stories about what one has seen, what one knows, and what one does. Where Glassman’s earlier book, Instructions to the Cook, was a recipe for creating a whole life of Zen practice, Bearing Witness focuses even more closely on the interpenetration of our own and others’ suffering, understanding that in the seamless fabric of life there really is no line between self and other. Even as Buddhists, who lay claim to this understanding at the heart of our faith, we must constantly learn this lesson. We must constantly put ourselves in the place of bearing witness.
The book begins at a retreat in Auschwitz on Thanksgiving Day, 1996, where the souls of the countless dead and the souls of survivors and practitioners mingled in remembrance, grief, vow and sometimes even joy. In this charged situation, Glassman introduces both principles and characters. The principles are what he calls “Peacemaker Vows,” his radical reworking of the Bodhisattva Precepts, the first of which are:
I vow to be oneness.
I vow to be diversity.
I vow to be harmony.
I vow to penetrate the unknown.
I vow to bear witness.
I vow to heal myself and others.
The characters are founding members of Glassman’s new Zen Peacemakers’ Order. Their stories are deeply moving. Claude Anshin Thomas is a Vietnam veteran who found healing through practice with Thich Nhat Hanh and who has chosen to live a life of bearing witness, placing himself in war zones and walking for peace. Fleet Maull was a student of Chogyam Trungpa who got caught up in a cycle of drug and alcohol addiction and was imprisoned for drug smuggling in 1985. In prison, he has worked on his own transformation, founded the Prison Dharma Network, and established the National Prison Hospice Association, which has helped create hospice programs staffed by volunteer inmates all around the United States. Joan Halifax has been working with the dying for twenty-five years and now directs the Upaya Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The robe she fashioned as a Peacemaker monk was made of patches of fabric given by those whose illness and death she has witnessed. Joan now carries their stories on her back.
Glassman’s own story and that of his late wife and partner-in-vision, Jishu Holmes, is woven throughout the book. Bernie was an aerospace engineer from Brooklyn-turned-Zen student, who then became a teacher, sitting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on his fifty-fifth birthday, asking himself, What can I do about homelessness, AIDS, and violence in this country? Formerly a biochemist, Jishu’s way as a Zen priest was to nourish and be present with the workers, families and children who came for refuge at the Greyston Family Inn in Yonkers, New York.
How each of these exemplary practitioners found the path of bearing witness and how they chose to take vows and sew their own Peacemaker’s robes offers hope to each of us. From their stories, along with the witness of many others, including retreatants at Auschwitz and on the streets of New York’s Bowery and Zürich’s Letten, our own notions of humanity and of Buddhism are challenged. Glassman explains that the very ways we have learned to protect our “self” will not properly serve us as Bodhisattvas, those who open to each being and each moment.
When we live out of unknowing we’re shedding our suit of armor. Each time we let go of our fixed ideas about ourselves and others, we’re letting go of our individual system of survival. For these systems may have once helped us survive, but now they are destroying us. They are destroying our ability to act spontaneously, to respond directly, to take care of any situation that arises.
In this last year, following the death of his wife, Jishu Holmes, and the publication of this book, Bernie Glassman has stepped back from engagements and entanglements in the world. In bearing witness to his own suffering and loss, in bearing witness to the world, and in the compelling words of this book, Bernie Glassman continues to teach us a way to live and to connect day after day after day. I think this is the most difficult and natural thing we can ever learn to do.