Genro Gauntt is one of the co-founders of the Zen Peacemakers movement which grew out of Bernie Glassman’s street retreats where, instead of sitting on cushions in a zendo, participants lived for a week on the streets with the homeless.
I ask Genro how that is Zen practice.
“Zen isn’t about learning a Japanese form. It isn’t about striving for enlightenment or gaining anything or knowing anything. So the street retreat was a beautiful way to have people throw off all of their identities as fast as they could, as much as they could, to be in old clothes, look unpresentable, have no money, no ID, and dive into the streets in whatever city we are and have no idea of how it’s going to work out. And it works really fast. To be in a street retreat or a Zen Peacemaker Bearing Witness retreat is like doing years of practice in a couple of days. Because it’s not familiar with the context you find yourself in, your mind can’t process it. It can’t identify with it. That makes us be awake and aware and mindful, because there’s a lot to be mindful of when you’re living on the streets. Eventually what happens is the mind’s not really processing it as data and information; it’s something that needs to be understood. What happens is a deep sort of freeing and happiness arise for the great majority – the great, great majority – and these are people who have never done anything like this, never dreamed of doing anything like this, but for some reason were drawn to do it. And they’re terrified coming in; there’s so much to worry about. How am I gonna find a bathroom? What are we gonna eat? You know? What if I need this or that? We beg for everything, and they’ve never begged before of course. And after maybe the second day of a four-day retreat, they go, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve never been happier in my life, and I really wish this retreat would last a few more days.’ Because they have a freedom they’ve never known before, from themselves, from their own routines, and in their minds about who they are, about what life is. It’s beautiful. So what’s the relation to Zen? Buddha is not-knowing; it’s coming from this space of openness and non-judgement and non-criticism and just wide-open experience. That’s what happens.”
Shortly after starting the street retreats, Glassman was invited to an interfaith peace conference held at Auschwitz. “And one day he walked into the camp and was just overwhelmed by the presence of what he described as souls and spiritual energy. He said, ‘This is an incredible place for people to experience.’ He didn’t know what would happen, but he wanted to bring people there to experience it. And he knew the souls there wanted prayers and presence. That particular concept was confirmed later by Rabbi Zalman Schachter, who told him, ‘Go! It wants you. It needs you.’ That was ’94. The first Auschwitz retreat was ’96.
“It was very powerful. I was recently divorced and was in between the transition of my regular daily life and working fulltime with Bernie. And I was depressed. I was in bad shape. Who knows for what reasons. Right? So I went there with 150 others. And I knew what Bernie was talking about when he said the spiritual atmosphere was dense. It was palpable. There are places on Earth where you walk and you go, ‘My God! Something happened here!’ And it for sure happened there. You could feel it. Days on end we’re doing meditation on the tracks between the two main crematoriums and listening to testimonials from people at night, from survivors and from Polish people whose families were directly involved one way or another, from children of Nazis from Germany, from Israeli Jews who found the courage to go there somehow and were children of survivors. It was huge.” As an unanticipated consequence of taking part in the retreat, Genro overcame his depression.
The retreats became an annual event. “For the next several years, it was heavily attended and over-subscribed. We had to turn people away.
“Then in ’98, it became obvious that we had world religions involved in these retreats – Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims – but no indigenous spiritualities. So I said, ‘Let’s invite somebody.’ I called an elder at the Pine Ridge Reservation, Birgil Kills Straight, and he said ‘I would love to do that, but I can’t. I’ve got other obligations. But I’m gonna send somebody.’ So he sent a Lakota from Pine Ridge named Tuffy Sierra. Never been out of the country. Didn’t have a passport. Got his passport the day before he left. So Tuffy asked Birgil Kills Straight, ‘What am I supposed to do there?’ Birgil Kills Straight said, ‘Pray.’ So that’s what he did.
“And a couple of months later I thought, ‘For somebody to be with us and to do something with us, that’s a huge offering that they made. I’ve got to do something with them. So I called up Birgil Kills Straight, he said, ‘Great. Come do the ride.’ He meant the Big Foot Ride, which is an annual two-week horseback ride, several hundred miles from the Standing Rock reservation – where Sitting Bull was – along the path travelled by Big Foot and his band who were seeking refuge with Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge reservation, and, of course, it ended up with the Wounded Knee massacre. So I went and joined the end of it. Tuffy Sierra was there, and I spent a few days with him. Spent a few days with Birgil and his family. Met medicine people. Incredible stories.”
Out of that encounter Genro came to work with the Lakota in organizing an annual retreat in the sacred Black Hills to bear witness to the genocide of Native Americans.
Zen Conversations: Pp. 29-31; 115-16; 140-42.