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Lions Roar : March 2019
“When we bear witness, when we become the situation— homelessness, poverty, illness, violence, death—the right action arises by itself,” Glassman said. “We don’t have to worry about what to do. We don’t have to figure out solutions ahead of time. Peacemaking is the function of bearing witness. Once we listen with our entire body and mind, loving action arises.” Bearing witness is at the heart of the groundbreaking retreats for which Glassman was to become best known: street retreats and retreats held at the concentration camps of Auschwitz–Birkenau. Street retreats combine meditation practice with living as a homeless person for several days, with no money, no shelter, no job, no usual identity. Retreatants take their meals in soup kitchens and learn to survive without even the guarantee of a bathroom. Pat Enkyo O’Hara has said that the power of a street retreat lies in how it pushes things “right in your face, so there is no way to exclude anything. Living on the street is scary. But the minute you include the fear in your practice, it’s much less scary, because then you can touch the fear, you can feel it, and it’s not this black cloud following you around.” “I had no idea of what I was getting into—and I learned a tre- mendous amount,” Glassman said of his first street retreat. “For me, part of the state of not knowing is entering into the worlds I am afraid of, entering into worlds about which I have no idea. I’m drawn to those aspects of myself that I do not understand, that I fear, that are a mystery. I’m drawn to enter that realm. If I meditate in an arena which is very familiar to me, then I find that it’s too peaceful. It’s wonderful. It’s like having a cup of cappuccino. I love to meditate. But when I go out into these arenas like the street, things arise that are tre- mendously important, and there comes a healing of myself and others that I would never have expected.” As Frank Ostaseski puts it, “Bernie’s street retreats and Auschwitz–Birkenau retreats were ways of going into the darkness and illuminating it.” Glassman was inspired to hold the Auschwitz–Birkenau retreats after he visited the extermination camps for an interfaith conference. “I walked into Birkenau,” Glassman said, “and I could feel the millions of souls crying out to be remembered. I said I have got to bear witness to what’s going on here. I spent a year and a half creating a format, which involved bringing together people from all walks of life—children and grandchil- dren of SS members, survivors, children of survivors, people from many countries, many religions.” During the bearing-witness retreats at Auschwitz–Birkenau, the lion’s share of each day is spent sitting by the infamous train tracks where more than a million victims were brought in on freight cars, alternating silence with chanting the names of the dead. Ostaseski remembers sitting on those tracks with Glass- man. “He sat in stillness but it wasn’t distant stillness. It was engaged,” says Ostaseski. “Then the tears just rolled down his face. He really let himself connect with the pain of the people who died there, and were guards there.” It was on the eve of the twenty-third annual Auschwitz–Bir- kenau retreat that Roshi Bernie Glassman died. “BERNIE TAUGHT ME more about grief than anyone,” said Joan Halifax at the memorial for him held at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. “What we learned from him is that to turn away from grief is to turn away from life.” Glassman and his wife Jishu had moved from Yonkers to Santa Fe in March, 1998. Their new home—lovingly chosen by Jishu—was adobe, hacienda-style, and perched over the Santa Fe River. Six days after moving in, before they’d even finished unpacking, Jishu had a heart attack. Four days later, she passed away. Glassman did not hide his grief from anyone and he did not want consolation. Time went by and Glassman began to feel a shift. From his Bernie Glassman with his wife Roshi Eve Marko. Marko is a novelist and the head teacher at the Green River Zen Center in Massachusetts. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2019 50