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Thread: query: Bearing Witness

  1. #1

    query: Bearing Witness

    I have come across the term and activity bearing witness in several Buddhism-related magazines and some articles/books by engaged Buddhist authors. The latest example was a description of a tour to the various concentration camps in Poland where participants beared witness to the atrocities of WWII. And, I've heard about a group that will bear witness regarding the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

    I have to admit that I've never heard of the term bearing witness until recently. Is this a concept/activity more affiliated with Buddhism than other religions? I think I have an idea of what it means but I would be interested in learning from the Sangha their thoughts/experiences.

    Thank you,

  2. #2

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Hi Jeff,

    The first example you gave, of trips which tour the concentration camps, is obviously of great importance to Jewish people. In the Jewish tradition, we are commanded to tell the story of our history to the next generation and to anyone who will listen; it is important that it not be forgotten. Even though by now the world is well aquainted with the Holocaust, we (Jews) don't take that fact for granted. It's only by each person's effort that the truth is remembered. Hitler was aware of this fact; he observed, "Who remembers the Armenian Genocide?"

    I'm not familiar with the Buddhist connection - except for the fact that a great many American Buddhists are/were Jewish ("JewBus" :wink: ).

  3. #3

    Re: query: Bearing Witness


    Bernie Glassman Roshi has been on the forefront of "Bearing Witness" as part of the 'Engaged Buddhism' movement. However, it is not limited to Buddhists, or Zen Buddhists, by any means ... and has come to include members of all faiths. The origin of the term itself did arise in the Old Testament, yet has since come to mean any human being's bearing witness to Man's inhumanity to Man ... and that we are all capable of both great good and great harm. No group or person is excluded, including all of us sitting in the comforts of our day to day existences. Bernie discusses this in an essay ...

    What is this process of witnessing, or bearing witness, that is more than just seeing?

    When we bear witness to a situation, we become each and every aspect of that situation. When we bear witness to Auschwitz, at that moment there is no separation between us and the people who died. There is also no separation between us and the people who killed. We ourselves, as individuals, with our identities and ego structure, disappear, and we become the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys. When we bear witness to Auschwitz, we are nothing but all the elements of Auschwitz.

    It is not an act of will, it is an act of letting go. What we let go of is the concept of the person we think we are. It's why we start from unknowing. Only then can we become all the voices of the universe -- those that suffer, those that inflict suffering, and those that stand idly by. For we are all these people. We are the universe.

    After five days of sitting at the Selection Site and chanting names, many could see themselves as those who had gone to the gas chambers, including those who had no direct family connection to Auschwitz. Mothers thought of themselves bringing their own children into the death chambers. Men saw their own bodies going up in smoke in the crematoria. It was harder to see oneself as a guard who'd herded people to their death. One of the retreat participants was a Vietnam veteran. He said that he could see himself as one of the guards on top of the guardposts, aiming his gun at the people below. But not many people could see themselves that way.

    The famous prayer about oneness, the Sh'ma Yisrael, begins with Listen: Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Not only does oneness begin with listening, listening begins with oneness. And Zen Peacemaker Order's Buddhist service begins similarly: Attention! Attention! Raising the Mind of Compassion, the Supreme Meal is offered to all the hungry spirits throughout space and time, filling the smallest particle to the largest space.

    Listen! Attention! Bear witness!

    It can't happen if you want to stay away from pain and suffering. It probably won't happen if, like most people, you go to Auschwitz, look over the exhibits, and return to the buses for a quick getaway. When you come to Auschwitz, stay a while, and begin to listen to all the voices of that terrible universe -- the voices that are none other than you -- then something happens. ... clnk&cd=40
    Bernie Roshi also has a book out on this Practice ... ... bb_product

    Gassho, J

  4. #4

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Bering witness to humans inhumanity to other humans is an important endeavor for all if the world is ever going to arrive at a point where atrocities are not repeated again and again. The names and locations may change but the face is the same.

    You do not have to go to Europe or Africa to learn. Those of us from the United States can look right on our front porch. The National Park Service has for years has tried to preserve sites of such events and tell the stories, not as you find in school books, but as the events occurred, so we all will remember. (Not all parks are fun places) Visit the sites, stand quietly away from any other visitors, and contemplate the story in its original setting and I assure you that you will experience tears and visceral pain realizing what we can do to each other right here at “home”.

    Jim (Lorax)

    Here are just a few

    Sand Creek Massacre

    "At Sand Creek on November 29, 1864, John Chivington led the Colorado Volunteers in a dawn attack on Black Kettle and his band, who had been told they would be safe on this desolate reservation. Two hundred Cheyenne men, women and children were slaughtered, and their corpses often grotesquely mutilated, in a massacre that shocked the nation."


    “Manzanar, officially called the Manzanar War Relocation Center, began as an “assembly center” under U.S. Army control. Construction began in March 1942 and the camp was quickly filled with more than 10,000 former residents of Bainbridge Island, Washington and Terminal Island, California, followed by those persons of Japanese ancestry expelled from the Southern California area with more than 70% from the Los Angeles area. The War Relocation Authority took control of Manzanar on June 1, 1942 and operated the camp until it closed in November 1945.”


    “Not only was this the first major Civil War engagement on Northern soil, it was also the bloodiest single day battle in American history.
    To view the magnitude of the losses, consider that Antietam resulted in nine times as many Americans killed or wounded (23,000 soldiers) as took place on June 6, 1944--D-day, the so-called "longest day" of World War II.* Also consider that more soldiers were killed and wounded at the Battle of Antietam than the deaths of all Americans in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, and Spanish-American War combined.”


    “Two tragedies occurred on the Kalaupapa Peninsula on the north shore of the island of Moloka`i; the first was the removal of indigenous people in 1865 and 1895, the second was the forced isolation of sick people to this remote place from 1866 until 1969. The removal of Hawaiians from where they had lived for 900 years cut the cultural ties and associations of generations of people with the `aina (land). The establishment of an isolation settlement, first at Kalawao and then at Kalaupapa, tore apart Hawaiian society as the kingdom, and subsequently, the territory of Hawai`i tried to control a feared disease. The impact of broken connections with the `aina and of family members "lost" to Kalaupapa are still felt in Hawai`i today.”

  5. #5

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Just to add, it does really include everyone. I have known friends (of faiths and non) from the UK to visit the fields of headstones or trenches from the First World War. I think it was out of respect for lost family members ( just about every family lost someone) but now it includes all who died, all sides of battle. The same thing also happens for all victims of the second world war and all sides and those stuck in between.


  6. #6

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Antietam is not too far from my house. It is pretty powerful to stand on the ridge near the visitor's center and survey the beautiful country where all this blood was shed.

    Near sunset, the weather was a little chilly and an eerie sort of calm and quiet hung in the air. It's a little difficult to believe that perhaps someone else stood where I stood and in place of serenity looked over a scene of carnage and destruction.

    But it is no different than seeing the five o'clock news and hearing a mother's cry over her 8 year old son being gunned down at random.

    It's not different from seeing the front page photos of the same young man's blood staining the sidewalk, the grapefruit he was delivering to a neighbor sitting neatly on the stoop.

    It's not different from knowing that a mile from my home, a man was stabbed and killed for a few dollars at a gas station while bringing his wife to the hospital to deliver their child. It was father's day.

    It's not different from passing a graveyard and knowing that perhaps for each stone a voice cried out in anguish.

    The throat tightens, the eyes water and the fists begin to clench... all that pain.

    The river keeps flowing.


  7. #7

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Hello to all posting here!

    Several years back I came across a book of photographic art work by the photographer Sally Mann entitled What Remains.
    Many of the comments above reminded me of this book and the impact the photographs had on me.
    When I think of some of the photographs I remember, a certain feeling comes over me, and it reminds me of the portions of the Great Heart of Wisdom Sutra: nothing is pure, nothing is defiled, nothing can increase, nothing can old age and death and no end to old age and death.
    A series of photographs of Antietam is part of this book: the trees and the grass and the unblinking sky:
    there is no place where witness is not borne of everything anywhere.

  8. #8

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Reminders of these atrocities and terrible acts of war are indeed all around us. The examples quoted are very moving. Those acts of genocide against the Native American people are personally moving as my own grandfather was a Sioux who came to Britain(as a prisoner of war released on license) with Buffalo Bill.

    Recalling the appalling events of the concentration camps we should remember that concentration camps were invented by the British. During the "Scorched Earth policy" of the Boer War (1899-1902) the homes and farms of many Boer farmers were burnt to the ground and the families herded into concentration camps. 28,000 died in the camps including 22,000 women and children and in addition some have estimated that 20,000 black Africans also perished.

    A more recent conflict when British forces were sent 8,000 miles to free "British territory" in the Falklands, hundreds on both sides died and hundreds more on both sides have committed suicide as a result of the trauma. My friend and Buddhist colleague, Gus, was in that war and expressed his feelings at a 25th anniversary memorial service last year. Gus wrote to ask if he could say a few words as a Buddhist but he was ignored. When he arrived at the cathedral in Port Stanley he was ushered to the back, but out of site of the officials he gradually made his way forward and waited his opportunity. This youtube video captures the scene.

  9. #9

    Re: query: Bearing Witness

    Great link Brian thanks very much for posting it.

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