The Three Tenets: Bearing Witness

In the mid-’90s, I was part of a small group that worked with Roshi Bernie in giving shape to the three tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, Loving Action. All these years later, I am aware of my anxiety in writing about them. I know there are others in our community who may not approve of my understanding. Why risk speaking? I am eager to avoid disapproval. Others might think me wrong. I might find out that I think I’m wrong. Of course, I’m wrong. Painful to see. Wonderful to see.

If I knew it all now, there would be nothing left to do but die. What a blessing, to get up each day, to go to school each day, to live each day with the possibility of deepening my understanding. Three bows.

This is the second of three blogs on Zen Peacemakers Three Tenets.

I am cautious, particularly reluctant to talk about Bearing Witness. A harsh senior student put me firmly in my place. “Bearing witness is not talking about your personal feelings,” she shushed me. I was raised on talking about my feelings – a lifetime of psychotherapy.

My mother was a very progressive thinker. Born early in the 20th Century, she shocked her family by moving out on her own before getting married. She believed in psychoanalysis when that was a very far out, radical idea. She brought me to her analyst when I was five because I stammered. Walking from the subway to the analyst’s office, we practiced articulating, “Come on in the water’s fine; come on out the Rupert’s fine.” The beer jingle of the day. I never saw my mother drink beer but she liked the jingle, or it simply just had the right consonants.

The stammer disappeared.

When I was in elementary school, perhaps first grade, my mother noticed during the Christmas Assembly that I was skipping on only one foot. She took me for physical therapy. It was the age of polio. My mother, probably most mothers, worried all the time. When I found out why, I asked, “Oh, you want to see me skip on both feet?” I skipped around the living room on both feet. My mother let me stop physical therapy.

When I was seven, she sent me to sleep-away summer camp for the first time. I was way too young. The camp was torturous. The counselors frightened us to sleep every night with horror stories. I came home with nightmares. Back to Erika the analyst. Play therapy for half the session and then real talking therapy for the second half.

I think the therapy must have helped. I went back to Erika on my own for one session before heading back to college for my sophomore year following a mildly traumatizing summer romance. That session helped enormously.

Back to Erika I went, in the midst of social work school when my anger threatened to undermine everything, the beginning of a seven-year Adlerian analysis which was transformative.

Then, I spent a couple of years in a leaderless Encounter Group (all the rage in the ’60s) with a very sharp team of mental health professionals at the Brookdale Community Mental Health Center. We were inventing Community Psychiatry and dreaming of ending poverty.

And then three years in the 70’s in a Consciousness Raising Group, which the new women’s movement was injecting everywhere in the New Left.

All of these experiences were heightening my awareness of the ways in which my thinking and feeling were shaping my experience of the world.

Later, during my first mid-life crisis, a short return to psychotherapy with a different therapist, Erika having died by then. I had recently found my Zen practice, I was sitting with Kyudo Roshi at the Soho Zendo, I was working with the I Ching. I was journaling every day.

I am not sure, though, that I had a real appreciation for where I had been and what I had gone through until I was preparing for Tokudo with Jishu Roshi.  A couple of senior students challenged my “right” to ordain. I had not been practicing Zen long enough, they argued.

Shaken, I ran to Jishu. She was really my heart teacher, is still my heart teacher, 20 years after her passing. “Are they right?”

“You have done a great deal of work on yourself before ever coming to formal Zen practice,” she said. That’s all.

Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Sect, through which lineage I connect to the teachings of the Buddha, most famously taught, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.”

But still years later, as we were working and studying with Bernie as he (we) was creating the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order, when I was scolded by senior students, “Bearing witness is not subjective,” I shut up. I was intimidated.

And still today, 25 years later, I am hesitant.

There is only subjective Bearing Witness. Tempered by Not Knowing, if we are fortunate. I can only speak my truth of the moment, and it could be wrong. Of course. And if it is not in the moment of speaking, it will be wrong soon. Because no truth is permanent. Nothing is forever.

Each of us can only speak the truth as it appears to us.

Yes, as we practice, as we deepen our knowledge of ourselves, our truths may become richer, may become more subtle. But at best it is always limited.

Zen people are fond of the story of the blind men and the elephant. One has hold of the trunk, another an ear, another a leg. And so on. They describe very different worlds. We are always, at least partially, blind. No one can get hold of the entire elephant.

In our tradition, there are no gurus, only blind people with varying degrees of awareness of our blindness. However profound our understanding, we all must add with Roshi Kennedy’s, “Or not.”

So, we are developing a decision making process at ICS in which we invite people to share their views. Part of my job has been to put forth a proposition to begin the discussion, to be tested in the group.

I read recently an article in the Harvard Business Review by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Lincoln’s leadership.[1] In the description, Lincoln had already set his course rather unalterably before presenting his theses for testing in his cabinet. I prefer to doubt her story. I prefer to believe that he was much more open to learning from his colleagues than Goodwin believes. And that was why they loved him. Because in that openness was true love and respect.

I go to work to learn. And I can only learn when I speak my truth, allow it to be tested and challenged. It is again the lesson I learned from the Sage of the I Ching: The more honest I am in questioning the I Ching, the more I will learn from the Sage.

So I will speak my truth from the heart. And sometimes when another truth comes back to me from others, it is initially hard to hear. Sometimes, I am so excited by my insight, it is hard to believe I could be wrong.

“Or not.” Roshi Kennedy’s words echo. The essence of living. Not Knowing. The joy of Not Knowing.

I encourage our teachers to stop asking questions that they “know” the answers to. If you already “know” the answer, you will learn nothing. Great teachers ask questions that they don’t know the answers to, that’s how they learn. That’s how we learn together.

My style makes this difficult. I had no formal Jewish education. My parents were rebels. But somehow, I imbibed the Talmudic tradition of debate, of argument. The cauldron of debate is the best test of truth. To really test your ideas, you must defend them fiercely. So you argue as vehemently as possible and the great learning occurs when you see that your most cherished opinions are indefensible. I love this tradition. But I recognize that it can be frightening and off-putting to those who have not inherited the Talmudic tradition. Of course, you don’t have to be Jewish to be raised in a Talmudic culture. The greatest Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, was the most Talmudic of scholars, raised in an intense tradition of truth through debate without ever encountering the Talmud.

I have also learned to be wary of skillful debaters. I learned this first hand from a great constitutional lawyer. Right or wrong, he could always win the argument. Losing arguments to him repeatedly, I learned this lesson and only then understood what Socrates had been going on and on about in his arguments with the Sophists.

At ICS, we are building a practice of decision making through debate. Sharpening questions, testing answers. While it is my job often to frame the debate by introducing the question (and even defending an answer), my position seldom prevails. But we all understand better at the end of the debate why we are doing what we’re doing.

We are all learning to live with ruffled feathers. Yes, it would be nice to be able always to argue fiercely and lovingly. But it is most important that we arrive at our best truth.

Yes, it is often my job to say at the end of the discussion, “Ok.” Someone needs to take responsibility for moving forward, to action.

And yes, we might be wrong. Actually, we probably will be wrong, will certainly not have arrived at a final solution.

We will come back to the question. Because no question is ever answered permanently and forever. Which is why we continue to learn. And to grow.

The joy of living.