What is Bearing Witness from a Buddhist Perspective?

Via on Apr 3, 2012


It is the role of the Bodhisattva to bear witness. The Buddha can stay in the realm of not-knowing, the ream of blissful non-attachment. The Bodhisattva vows to save the world, and therefore to live in the world of attachment, for that is also the world of empathy, passion, and compassion.

Ultimately, she accepts all the difficult feelings and experiences that arise as part of every-day life as nothing but ways of revelation, each pointing to the present moment as the moment of enlightenment.

Bearing witness gives birth to a deep and powerful intelligence that does not depend on study or action, but on presence.

We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re simply there, you don’t flee.

What are Bearing Witness Retreats?

In the days of Shakyamini Buddha, during the rainy season, Buddha would stop his meandering and spend time with his monks and nuns in one locale. In Japanese this period is called Ango, a period in space and time of peace. In English we use the word retreat to often mean “getting away from the issues of the world.”

A Bearing Witness Retreat is becoming one with the “issues of the world.” A Zen Meditation Retreat is to bear witness to the wholeness of life. I use the word “plunge” for my Bearing Witness Retreats. To plunge into the unknown, i.e., to plunge into that which my rational mind can’t fathom.

These plunges or Bearing Witness Retreats have helped folks let go of their attachments to their ideas or concepts and experience things as they are.

My two best known Bearing Witness Retreats are: In the Streets and at Auschwitz/Birkenau.

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Editor: Andrea B.

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About Bernie Glassman

Zen Master Bernie Glassman is a world-renowned pioneer in the American Zen Movement. He is a spiritual leader, published author, accomplished academic and successful businessman with a PhD in Applied Mathematics. He is the founder of the Zen Peacemakers. Having entered his 70's, he is focussing on the promotion of Socially Engaged Buddhism, the development of Dharma Centers (Zen Houses) in impoverished areas to serve the local population and in nurturing communication and interaction between affiliates of the Zen Peacemakers Sangha.He has an intensive inter-national schedule of workshops, lectures and tours. Read more at zenpeacemakers.org

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10 Responses to “What is Bearing Witness from a Buddhist Perspective?”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    "It is the role of the Bodhisattva to bear witness"…. Your lead into this article…I am not sure what it is trying to say. The Buddha you describe is "staying" some other place, a "realm of not knowing and blissful non-attachment"? Therefore, you have the "Bodhisattva" living "in the world" in order to "save" it, in some other place. Why would any Buddhist in his "right mind" (lousy pun intended) want to "save the world"? It is as though a Judeo-Christian messianic complex has found it's way into this style of Buddhism and Buddha is God.

  2. Eric says:

    In Mahayana, the first Bodhisattva vow: "Beings are numberless, I vow to save them."
    (not "save" as in the Judeo-Christian sense, no salvation…but to arouse the intention and cultivation within ourselves to practice for the sake of all beings)

    • Padma Kadag says:

      Eric…your point is a good one. My comment is really about the combination of statements in the article which to me resound to some degree of Judeo-Christian-ism. "Save" has many meanings as you point to. "saving the world" is different. This could also mean "preserve". In combination with deliberate differentiation between "buddha's retreat" and the "issues of the world" retreat of Bearing Witness and that, "The Buddha can stay in the realm of not-knowing, the realm of blissful non-attachment" is placing the Buddha, at least in the way it was written above, in some other place leaving the Bodhisattva in yet another place do do the work of the Buddha dealing with the "issues of the world". The Buddhist's job is through Love and Compassion to be aware and tear down Dependent Origination not to "save" it.

      • Eric says:

        Yes, you can combine statements out of context and construct an interpretation that will resound to you as you choose to view it.

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