Buddhism, Reconciliation and Auschwitz: An Interview with Zen Master Bernie Glassman


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.


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.

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