Bearing Witness

A week ago I read Bernie Glassman’s Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace. Bearing Witness is at once a collection of personal accounts of bearing witness and practice and a convincing and inspiring description of ways we can work toward peace ourselves.
The first segment of the book is incredibly powerful and introduces the unconventional approach this book presents. Roshi Bernie Glassman opens his book with an account of an interfaith, intercultural bearing witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of a Nazi concentration camp where between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people were slaughtered in one of the world’s most horrific tragedies. Out of this mediation and coming together of 150 people of diverse and once opposed groups Glassman anticipated a healing to occur. This may seem a contradition, that acknowledging the suffering of this place, a place steeped in horrors and the remnants of the worst traits of humankind, could heal. However, through the course of this endevour a healing did take place, disarming anger of children of both camp victims and Nazi suporters, bringing together disparate faiths, forming a sense of community and altering everyone present.
Through the rest of the book Glassman details witnessing on streets, where he and other participants attempted to live as homeless would in order to deepen their understanding of suffering and deepen thier spiritual practice, a man who brought meditation and buddhism into prisons to help those in captivity and numerous other attempts at gaining peace. Indeed, this is a book rich with human stories that reveal both the hope and challenges of the human condition.
What was striking about each endevour was the sense of unknowing that Glassman stressed. One of his most admant assertions is that we must approach problems by setting aside preconceptions about what we should do, about the situation and about the way things should be. He shows that right actions often come from this openness to what actually is, from a mindset that does not anticipate change but prompts us to be proactive anyway, without expecting to be successful.
The book also told of Glassman’s work creating the Zen Peacemaker Order, an organization which emphasizes both personal and societal transformation and provides a meditational practice environment that is open to practitioners of different religious traditions. The guidelines of the order, its Three Treasures, Three Tenets, Ten Practices and Four Commitments are universally beneficial and helpful in working to create peace. We would all do well to live by these guidelines in whatever path we choose.
Bearing Witness is an excellent resource for those of us wishing to work toward change in our world, whether we wish to take on poverty, injustice, environmental damage or any number of causes of suffering we can learn from the holistic and wise approach that Bernie Glassman has shared. We can also find hope in the many accounts of change begun through modest acts of compassion. Bernie’s ability to make his work accessable to people of all faiths should make this a book that anyone can find valuable to their spiritual endevours.

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