Zen Peacemaker


Zen Peacemaker’s Three Tenets:

Not Knowing – Bearing Witness – Taking Action

Bernie Glassman on the Three Pure Precepts

              Dogen Zenji says of the first pure precept, “Ceasing from evil is the abiding place of laws and rules of all buddhas.” This abiding place is the state of non duality, of not-knowing and non-separation. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen defines Zazen as the state of mind in which there is no separation between subject and object – no place between you and me, up and down, right and wrong. So we can also call this precept “Returning to the One.”

              It’s a very difficult place to be in, this place where we don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong. It is the place of just being, of life itself. How many of us can say that we are open to all the ways of all lives? How many of us can say that we don’t have the answer? How many of us can say that every way that’s being presented is the right way?

The question for me is, what forms can we create in modern society that will be conducive to seeing the oneness of life? What are the forms that will make it easier for us to experience that state of non-duality?

              Zen is a practice that pushes us to realize what is. To me, zazen is a form of bearing witness to life, of bearing witness to the elimination of the denial of the oneness of our life. As human beings, each one of us is denying something. There are certain aspects of life we do not want to deal with, usually because we are afraid of them. Sometimes it is society itself that is in denial.

              Zazen allows us to bear witness to all of life. To me, that is the essence of the second pure precept, doing good. Dogen says, “Doing good, this is the dharma, supreme enlightenment. this is the way of all beings.”

              Bearing witness to things we are denying or that society is denying, bearing witness to the things we don’t want to deal with – this is the second precept. When we bear witness, we open to what is, as we learn. The things that we are in denial about teach us. We don’t go to them to teach them. When we can listen, when we can bear witness, they teach us.

              For me, the flowering of zazen is the third pure precept, doing good for others. Dogen says, “This is to transcend the profane and to be beyond the holy. This is to liberate oneself and others.”

              What good is it if we just make ourselves more holy? What’s the point? The point is to serve, to offer, to be the offering. Of itself the fruit is born. So we don’t have to worry about what to do. If we cease from evil, if we become that state of unknowing, if we become zazen, the offering will arise. The fruit will be born.

              The question always comes up: how do we bring our Zen into our life? But Zen is life. What is there to bring? And into what? The point is to see life as the practice field. Every aspect of our life has to become practice.

          I was trained in a traditional monastic model whose forms are conductive to the state of not-knowing. The question for me is, what forms can we create in modern society that will be conducive to seeing the oneness of life? What are the forms that will make it easier for us to experience that state of nonduality? Almost anything we do will cause more dualistic thinking. How do we lead ourselves, our brothers, and our sisters into a state of nonduality? That’s the question. That’s the koan.

(Adapted from a dharma talk by Roshi Bernie Glassman as published in Shambhala Sun, May 2013)



The Way of Council is a core practice of the Zen Peacemakers, along with meditation, the Three Tenets, and social action. It is a staple practice in our Bearing Witness retreats.

Council, as it is referred to in short, is a modern practice derived from indigenous traditions, most importantly Native American, and developed by the Ojai Foundation.

The Circle invites individuals to come together in a dedicated and sacred space, to tune into one’s personal and collective truth, and to the land and nature taking part in the circle. Council is conducted using a set of guidelines, a center altar, and a talking piece which is passed around to indicate a single speaker.  With these forms, council enhances our practices of deep listening, bearing witness and empathy. Council focuses our intention and energy on the common stories, values, fears, and aspirations that make us human; it reminds us that we are more alike than we are different. Most importantly, Council is a powerful container to experience the Three Tenets with others, entering the moment of the circle by Not Knowing, Bearing Witness to oneself and others, and Taking Action, relating from the heart.

The intentions of Council are:

1. When listening, listen from the heart, without analyzing, agreeing or disagreeing;
2. When speaking, speak from the heart, naming what is alive right now; Silence is welcome;
3. Be lean of expression, going to the essence of what needs to be spoken;
4. Be spontaneous, trusting what comes, rather than what one has rehearsed or what one thinks should be said;
5. Confidentiality, with deep respect for people’s privacy and the transiency of the moment, participants are encouraged to not engage with other participants on things that came up during council, and not to share its specific content with others.

These guidelines are not rules. They are practices, inviting us to appreciate the immediacy of the moment, the faith in ourselves and others. Each council is opened by an invocation – participants invite that which they would like to be witnessed by, invoke a state of mind, or others. It is closed by a dedication and prayer. Council has been evoked around the world and during all Zen Peacemakers retreats, street retreats and plunges.

Day of Reflection

Once a month (close to the full moon) we come together for a Day of Reflection. This practice gives us a chance to evaluate and reflect our lives as tools for peacemaking. The event begins with a moment of silent meditation, followed by a specific Liturgy and ends with a Council Circle. The circle provides us with a safe container in which we can share our experience and insight that came with the past month. 

Bearing Witness Retreats

Street Retreats – Street retreats have been a core practice of the Zen Peacemakers since 1991, when Roshi Bernie Glassman led the first one in the streets of the Bowery in New York City. Since then they have been held in many other cities around the world.

We go on the streets with no money and just the clothes on our back. We eat in soup kitchens and beg for money or food at times when soup kitchens are not open. We sleep outdoors or in abandoned housing, though not in shelters since there are not enough beds. We don’t say we’re homeless; we’re simply living on the streets for several days, relying on the generosity of the streets to take care of us. While at times we break up into smaller groups, we come together several times a day to share our experiences in a council practice and chant the Gate of Sweet Nectar liturgy, which is about feeding the hungry ghosts. We also spend our nights together.

This is a powerful practice of not-knowing and bearing witness, where the unpredictable life on the streets is the main teacher. It is a time of raw intimacy, a plunge into a side of life we look at only rarely.

Auschwitz-Birkenau – The Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau was founded in 1996 by social activist and Zen teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman. Roshi Glassman had visited Auschwitz previously and experienced a vision of thousands of souls trapped there in need of healing, remembrance and release. He vowed to return to Auschwitz to do this healing work. In November 1996, Bernie Glassman and the Peacemaker Community brought an international, multi-faith group of more that 150 peacemakers to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland for the first Bearing Witness Retreat.

The participants included survivors of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, children of survivors, and children of Nazi guards who worked in the camps. Many of the participants had lost family members, some their entire families, at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps. The participants were from many countries including Poland and Germany, Canada, England, France, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, and the United States. Among the participants were Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims as well as people with a secular orientation. In later years a Native American elder from the Lakota Ogalala Nation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota attended the retreat. Since 1996, hundreds of participants in the annual Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland have discovered profound personal healing and transformation in service of creating a more just and peaceful world. The Peacemaker Community Poland (Polska Wspolnota Pokoju) is the local host and organizer for the retreat.

( Source – https://engagedmindfulness.org/programs/bearing-witness-auschwitz/)