Bernie Glassman, founder of Zen Peacemakers, has been a student of Zen for over 50 years. Since 1996, he has been leading Bearing Witness retreats in the Auschwitz concentration camp with people from all different faiths and nations. This November, Zen Peacemakers are planning the first retreat involving young adults from key conflict areas. The three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers are not-knowing, bearing witness and loving actions. They deepen the practice of bearing witness at Auschwitz and on the streets, and they practice loving actions based on the first two tenets through their service projects of the Montague Farm Zen House. In the following interview, Bernie Glassman discusses Zen Peacemakers' Auschwitz retreat.
These comments are part of a longer interview with Bernie Glassman in January, 2010. The questions were written by Christa Spannbauer, journalist and assistant to Roshi Willigis Jäger, and the interview was conducted by Ari Pliskin.
What do you teach at Auschwitz?
Nothing. I am not the teacher there. Auschwitz is the teacher. Its an amazing teacher. I'm always seeking places to learn. Many times, I invite people to do the trip with me. Maybe they'll learn something, too. I try to bring us into a situation in which there is almost no way not to learn. This plunges us into the state of not-knowing and then we can bear witness to the joy and suffering of the world.
Many people and groups visit Auschwitz. What makes the Zen Peacemakers Bearing Witness Retreat unique?
Most visit and then leave the same day. We stay for six days. We also bring people from many cultures, countries and traditions. We bring people from both sides: children of survivors and children of SS officers. Those who come consider themselves open-minded enough to come, but when they come together in the same room, it is a different story. Problems erupt and people clash.
What happens when people clash on the retreat?
If you stay in the cauldron of Auschwitz, by the third or fourth day, changes happen. At one retreat, a Jewish man had become friendly with a German woman and discovered her father ran the camp that killed his family. At first, he was enraged and she was overwhelmed with guilt. Within another day, they went through the cycles of emotions and they were hugging and kissing. I don't know what would happen if any given person came, but I know they won't be the same when they leave.
There is a part of us that allows us to dehumanize people. It's an aspect of ourselves that we don't want to touch. Auschwitz is the world-monument of that aspect.
How can we deal with the dehumanizing aspect in us so that it doesn't cause so much harm in the world?
The first way to deal with this aspect is to remember. "Re-membering" as the opposite of dismembering -- remembering is putting back together what's been taken apart. After the eighth year of remembering victims, Heinz-Jürgen Metzger, the coordinator of Peacemaker work in Europe, said it was time to start remembering the perpetrators. Heinz's uncle was castrated because he wouldn't do the work of the SS. Heinz didn't learn about this for 25 years because his family was disgraced because his uncle wouldn't comply. When Heinz proposed remembering the perpetrators, about half the participants were ready to leave.
I brought up the issue of remembering and honoring the perpetrators at a later retreat, which was very difficult. Honoring means we cite their name, like we do for those who died there. The goal was to change from just blaming and hating the perpetrators to get into what was going on a deeper level. So we did a ceremony in the guards' tower, where each person honors a time when they were a perpetrator or someone was a perpetrator to them.
How far can you go in this remembering? If this is one world, and the point is to re-member the whole world, where do you stop? That's where your practice has to be. To go into the spaces of what the perpetrators went through and what happened after -- many committed suicide.
What else can we do?
Another way is to recognize who we exclude and invite them in. The most common way of dealing with outsiders to our club is to avoid them. At the worst, there is lynching, imprisonment, gay bashing, war and Auschwitz.
I'm a Democrat. I've never voted Republican, but I will talk with Republicans and invite them to my house. I can't get angry at people outside my club. I don't like their viewpoint, but I'm not going to be angry at the guy for having it. In conflict resolution work, whatever faction you don't invite to the table will be where the process breaks down -- it will be the Achilles Heel.
But what if we are really angry at people who we believe are causing suffering?
Take the red clown's nose. Visualize it on the person you hate. Imagine Bush with a clown's nose. You won't hate him. You'll say, "That's ridiculous! He's a clown." We're all clowns!
What is special about the upcoming young adult retreat in November?
We are bringing together 50 to 60 young adults from key conflict areas. We are bringing together young adults from groups associated with the Holocaust, like Poles, Germans and Jews. Because interpreting the Holocaust is key to the story of Israel, we are also bringing together people on both sides of the Middle East conflict: Palestinian Israelis, Jewish Israelis and Palestinians from the West Bank. These are the people who will be making decisions, going to the armies, passing through check points and guarding them. We hope that if we could inject a bit of compassion and communication, then we can build a more peaceful future.