Do Not Look Away

A talk delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis on July 29, 2018, and at sesshin December 2018,

by Robert Jin Gen Ertman, Sensei

This is one of my favorite places. It’s a grove at Auschwitz-Birkenau . Peaceful. Serene. Beautiful.

I’ve been going to Bearing Witness Retreats at Auschwitz with the Zen Peacemakers each year for a

while now and I’ll be back there this November. We spend most of the days sitting Zen between the

railroad tracks where the selections were made. Only the strong were selected to live until they were

worked and starved to death; most--the old, the young, the infirm--were marched to the gas chambers

upon arrival. In the mornings, we sit in silence. In the afternoons, we sit and listen, taking turns reading

the names of the dead. Some days are sunny but we sit in the rain, the sleet, the snow, the cold.

What we are doing is practicing the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers— “practicing” means living

them, not pondering them but making them a part of our lives. The first tenet is “Not Knowing.” Bernie

Glassman, Zen master and founder of the Zen Peacemakers, explains that “Not-Knowing is entering a

situation without being attached to any opinion, idea or concept. This means total openness to the

situation, deep listening to the situation.”

In most times and places, it’s really hard to give up our favorite ideas. But Auschwitz is a place of Not

Knowing. What happened there, what was done there, is beyond understanding. None of the ideas we

bring are adequate and so “Not Knowing” flows over us like a river.

The second tenet of the Zen Peacemakers is “Bearing Witness.” We Bear Witness to the joy and

suffering we encounter. Bernie says that, “Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation.

We become intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re

simply there, you don’t flee.”

My own practice there is, “do not look away.” There is much that is hard to look at, hard to become.

But we gather to light candles and chant around a pond where human ashes were dumped. We do not

look away. We gather along ditches and fields where ashes were dumped, and chant. We can’t sit there

because the earth is wet and spongy. We do not look away. We sit in the children’s barracks—the

children were kept for Dr. Mengele—and sing nursery songs to give comfort to the spirits of the children.

I do not look away, even though I cannot sing and can hardly breath. (Atheist and humanist that I am, I

do not doubt that there are souls there.)

I think you can understand why the grove drew me in—so Peaceful. Serene. Beautiful.

I was distressed when I found out that the place had a name, “The Grove of the Hungarian Women.”

When the number of people selected for death exceeded the capacity of the gas chambers, they were

made to wait in this grove. One day a few Sonderkommando--prisoners assigned to work in the gas

chambers and crematoriums-- obtained a stolen camera and at great risk photographed a group of women, Hungarian Jews, who had been stripped and were being driven out of the grove to the gas chamber. They also photographed prisoners burning corpses in an open pit; the capacity of the ovens also having been exceeded. The photos were smuggled out to the Polish underground and distributed, but the world, for the most part, looked away.

After the war and the liberation of the camps, a scrapbook was discovered by merest chance, with

snapshots taken by SS photographers documenting the destruction of the Hungarian Jews.

So the grove was a place of horror but also a place of brief respite. And in a miracle of ascendant

humanity, there was also joy and love, from which we should not look away.

Look closely, and you will see a little child extending a flower to an older boy.

Do not look away.

The grove is still one of my favorite places. And I can call it by its name.

The third tenet of the Zen Peacemakers is loving action, the right actions which arise naturally when

we practice Not Knowing and Bearing Witness, when we enter a situation without any fixed ideas and

then become that situation.

Why do we do this? Other Buddhists can abide in the blissful realm of not-knowing and non-

attachment. We are determined to live in the world of attachment, because, as Bernie tells us, that is also

the world of empathy, passion, and compassion. We are practicing engaged Buddhism, engaged with the

interdependent web of being of which we are all a part. In Zen, we speak of the underlying oneness of the

universe, but I prefer the UU statement.

One year I went to Krakow early for a workshop on Not Knowing and Bearing Witness. It wasn’t

what I expected, not at all.

In the morning, we were paired off to speak and listen. We were given topics like “tell about a time

that you felt unconditionally loved.” One would speak and the other would listen, without judgement or

comment. Then the other would repeat back what they heard, adding nothing, omitting nothing, being

corrected as necessary. Then the roles were reversed. Most of us found that we were careless listeners

and had our own agendas but we got better as the exercises went on and most of us grasped that Not

Knowing and Deep Listening are necessary to one another.

After lunch, we went out to the plaza, the old Market Square, and we paired off again and took turns

being blindfolded and led around to experience different sounds and smells and the treacherous

cobblestone pavement. We also experienced trust and caring. We finished up with coffee and talked

about the day, but one among us was angry:

Is that it!? Is THAT it!? Did I miss something!??

Now, the room was top-heavy with experienced Zen teachers—I was brand new—and some of them tried

to explain to him that, yes, he had missed something, but he wasn’t having any of it and he became



I don’t know, but I don’t doubt that our companion learned a lot at Auschwitz that he would never

have learned any other way; he wept much of the time. I don’t know, but I’m afraid I doubt that he

learned much about Not Knowing and how to practice it in daily life.

Just think of the possibilities—letting our fond opinions go and really listening to others; listening

without any agenda, not looking away from their hopes and fears which may be so different from our

own. Just think of the people to whom we could listen—our children, our spouses, members of our

congregation ..... mere acquaintances and strangers, people who may have voted for politicians we

despise ... and fear.

And just think of the things to which we may be called to Bear Witness, the things from which we

must not look away.

And just think of the loving actions, the right actions, which may arise from our Not Knowing and Bearing Witness.

Just Do Not Look Away.

Finding your place in zen practice

Segments from a dharma talk given by Martine Palmiter, dharma holder in One Heart Sangha, from Winter sesshin January 2019, starting with a koan from The HIdden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five centuries of awakened women.

“Crying in despair, an earnest student asked her teacher, Seisho Maylie Scott, “I’ve worked so hard to transform this crippling loneliness. I can neither shake it nor live with it. Can you help me?” Holding the student in a steady gaze and offering her confident smile, Maylie ended the conversation with “Please don’t ever think anything is out of place.”

We all struggle with feelings of sadness, anger, tension and stress that seems to lodge in our hearts, our throats, our stomach. Sometimes, even sitting with it cannot dislodge it, like a hot iron ball stuck, it won’t go away. When we sit zazen quietly, you can really allow these feelings to have some freedom, unpleasant as they are, and feel confident that your practice can reveal something to you.

We can lose our place in practice, our ground, our peace, in life.

Our Soto founder Eihei Dogen wrote about our “place”—Actualizing the Fundamental Point he called it—Genjo Koan.

“When you find the place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way in this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. For this path, this way, this place is neither big nor small, neither yourself or others. It has not existed before this moment nor has it come into existence now. The reality of all things is thus. To attain one thing is to penetrate one thing, to meet one practice is to sustain one practice. For this, there is a place and a path.”

Roshi Genpo Merzel: “A subtle undercurrent can persist in our practice, one that we need to rout out eventually. It is the drive to find something to hold on to, something that will make us more secure in the midst of change. It can take many years of practice to see that seeking is the reason we cannot find what we are looking for. Giving up seeking is extremely difficult, but an essential step. The small mind wants grasping, wanting, searching, looking. Continuous seeking is wired in us. We look for answers but do we find peace?”

Roshi Robert Kennedy: “Zen is life itself, and the teacher turns the student away from any answer to life, any safe harbor, or any package to wrap up and take home…Zen however teaches us the vital importance of educating our own vision. There is no one to imitate, there is no time but now, there is no path but our own. …For a Zen student, imitation will never bring him to the fundamental point. If a student imitates another’s path, she will never find her own. The student must go deeper until she experiences insight for herself once and for all. The truth is that she cannot imitate. In one moment of insight, the student will find she is rooted forever in emptiness (boundlessness), and …is destined to be unique and free forever.”

Nothing is out of place.

Keizan, the Mothers of Zen, and Ekan Daishi

 From a talk by Martine Palmiter, dharma holder in One Heart Sangha, at the Tea Ladies dharma study group

“Keizan is the mother of Zen” is often repeated in texts describing the founding of Japanese Soto Zen. In April with the start of our sangha’s women’s dharma study group, the Tea Ladies, we discovered Keizan Jokin as the one who paved the way for women to practice Zen in 1300 A.D. in Japan—in a time when women were not allowed to practice. Our Tea Ladies studies the book The Hidden Lamp, Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, and use as our companion text, Zen Women, Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters by Grace Schireson.

Keizan was heavily influenced by women. There is much written about how Keizan was influenced by his grandmother who herself practiced with Dogen’s own teacher Myozen and was an early supporter of Dogen. Keizan’s mother Ekan also was a fervent practitioner of Buddhism and prayed fervently to Kannon. She prayed to Kannon for a baby and at age 37, Keizan was born.

Even though Dogen wrote the “Raihaitokuzui “on the importance of recognizing women’s equal teaching ability in the Dharma, this teaching text was hidden in Eiheiji temple for centuries, and Dogen was not able to fully bring this dharma to fruition, or to the real lives of women who wanted to study or teach Zen. Women were forbidden into the teaching temples at the time. However, as Dogen’s disciple, Keizan was able to later give transmission to the first woman Soto Zen dharma heir, Ekyu Daishi, in 1325 A.D. He included women and laypeople more fully in practice, training, and ceremonies. He actively appointed women as priests. It is said that without Keizan’s more open spreading of the Zen practice, Dogen’s monastic practice might have died out.

Keizan’s mother continued to be a major influence in spreading Zen, with Keizan’s support as well, and became the abbess of a Soto convent, Jojuji, Ekan was devoted to teaching Buddhism to women and founded the temple Hooji.  Her order of Soto nuns “had the plum blossom as its symbol, since it is the first to bloom in early spring and its delicate blossoms often meet with snow and cold. It is said that the plum blossom teaches us to be gentle even in the harshest conditions.” [Zen Women]

Our Tea Ladies study the women ancestors to completely realize the Tathagatha’s true meaning. Our honoring starts from Mahaprajapati, Buddha’s aunt and step mother, the first woman Buddhist and lineage holder, down through the ages, to include all the men and women teachers, as Dogen wrote about 700 years ago.

Dogen: “Why are men special? Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the Buddha Way.”

Keizan: “In perfect ease go, stay, sit and lie down. Seeing, hearing, understanding and knowing are all the natural display of the Actual Nature. From first to last, mind is mind, beyond any arguments about knowledge and ignorance. Just do zazen with all of who and what you are. Never stray from it or lose it.” 

Zen practice in times of incivility and fear

From a talk by Martine Palmiter, dharma holder in One Heart Sangha, at Zazenkai in November 2018.

The world has gone seemingly insane. News and conversations swirl with refugees and homelessness around the globe, bombings, shootings, uncivil talk from our leaders, racism, violence, hurricanes, wildfires, climate change, sexism, hate.  Did your body just get tense? We also have the fear of being emotionally numbed or overwhelmed so we are unable to act. People speak in angry tones and we lose heart. We think we know how things are and then find out they are not. We think we know how others experience the world and find out we do not. We don’t always know what is going to happen or what is happening, or what did happen.

The Buddha offered: “To open our heart like a Buddha, we must embrace the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.”

How do I practice in the Way of the Buddha, the way of compassion?

Our silent sitting, our zazen practice, day after day, is the gateway. We must believe this. Dogen says that to study the way is to study the self, then to drop the self, then to be enlightened by the 10 thousand things, to be enlightened by the 10 thousand joys and sorrows, our lives just as they are. We can learn to accept the joys and sorrows with great compassion.

We listen to our own hearts, our true teacher.

Through stillness and inquiry into our heart, we can feel some small freedom. We examine the place in us before anything arises, a place of profound silence and the deepest rest. We relax. We can rest in a place where “I” or small conditioned self is not controlling us. We can drop the small self and open up to a larger view. With practice, we can see these habitual thoughts or feelings and they diminish.

This brings us some peace and lets us see peace in the world.

Overtime, our minds and bodies and vitality—our energy will literally change. Our lives will change. We can handle this, we can open our hearts wider to ourselves and to others and turn toward kindness. We can laugh more, slow down, refrain from harsh speech, be more flexible, go more quietly, respond with kindness. Roshi Robert Aitken wrote about zen practice: “We become free to approach our humanity appropriately in the moment, according to the needs of people or things around us. We can stand on our own two feet and decide “I will do this. I will not do this.” This is compassion.”

When we are overwhelmed by all we cannot do or save, we can be also reminded of our Bodhisattva vows (creations are numberless- we vow to save them, delusions are inexhaustible- we vow to put an end to them, reality is boundless- we vow to perceive them, the enlightened way is unsurpassable -we vow to embody it) and the sangha and other good companions on the Way—and remember that no one can save the world or awaken alone. We are humans who are embodied on this earth-- we are never helpless.  Numberless beings we vow to save. Keep your heart “open like a buddha”—Thank you.


Practicing with Great Doubt

Great questioning, or great doubt is to investigate every point. You may say, “The Buddha says such and such” or “Dogen Zenji says such and such” or “I believe such and such.”

And yet, somehow you say, “I cannot really accept how my life is.” “Who am I?” and “Where do I get stuck? Why can’t I have a great faith that takes care of everything?”

These questions are good to focus on. The more serious you are in resolving these matters, the more desperate you feel, the stronger your determination becomes, and the clearer the answers come.

Have good trust in yourself. Have good faith in your practice. Sit well and unconditionally open yourself up.—Taizan Maezumi Roshi (Founder, White Plum Asanga)

Wisdom is creating Wisdom - Dogen

Dogen - "We remain unclear because our minds go racing about like horses running wild in the fields, while our emotions remain unmanageable, like monkeys swinging in the trees. If only we would step back and carefully reflect on the horse and monkey, our lives will be one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things, even while simultaneously we are being turned by them."


Commentary~ When we observe our minds and the truth of the moment, making our fears conscious, seeing that our thoughts are holding us in place, we can be just who we are. When we back out of unreality by witnessing it, we see it for what it is; we fall into reality. At first, we only see it a second at a time, but over time, sitting zazen, we see it more and more. We then see what life is, we are life. Then, we know what we are and we live it.



Three Tenets of Zen Peacemakers and Zen Practice

From the Zen Peacemakers website, Wendy Egyoku Nakao Roshi 

In Three Tenets practice, Not-knowing trains you to continually set aside fixed points of view. I describe not-knowing as a flash of openness or a sudden shift to being present in the moment. This dropping away of the things you have relied upon for a sense of stability may lead you to examine what you believe is your center, to take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence, a place of the deepest rest where self-interest has not yet entered. This is not a void, but rather a darkness where things are not yet differentiated or seen. You yourself can go to the darkness and become like an empty vessel, empty of points of view and preferences. An empty vessel refuses nothing and receives everything that is coming at it from all directions. By practicing in this way, you can create more space to accommodate your own reactivity and the points of view of others.

Bearing Witness: The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation including your attachments and judgments. You cannot live solely in a state of not- knowing, because life also asks that you face the conditions that are coming at you by being present to them. When you bear witness you open to the uniqueness of whatever is arising and meet it just as it is. When combined with not-knowing, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity for spaciousness, thus enabling you to be present to the very things that make you feel as if you have lost your center. It can strengthen your capacity to listen to other points of view, thus allowing a more nuanced picture of a situation to emerge.

The third tenet is Taking Action. It is impossible to predict what the action in any situation will be, or the timetable for when it will arise or what might result from it. The underlying intention is that the action that arises be a caring action, which serves everyone and everything, including yourself, in the whole situation.

Sometimes the action is as simple as continuing on with the practice of the first two tenets of not-knowing and bearing witness; the very practice of the Three Tenets is itself a caring action. And though the action that arises from the engagement of not-knowing and bearing witness is spontaneous and often surprising, it always fits the situation perfectly.

Training with the tenets is a matter of taking a backward step again and again and continually discerning your internal processes in the midst of acknowledging what is happening around you.  An effect of ongoing and consistent practice of the Three Tenets is that when you lose your sense of center and fall into reactivity, you also regain your center more quickly. And when you continually perform this practice in the midst of all the activities of your daily life, the practice will be readily accessible to you during the most challenging circumstances.