First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
ďBearing WitnessĒ
Rev. Samuel A. TrumboreOctober 9, 2005

 

Remembering Harriet Adams

Harriet Dyer Adams hasnít been active in our congregation since she moved to the Beechwood facility in Troy in 1993.

Daughter of famous early ecologist Charles C. Adams, curator of the New York State Museum, she grew up on Manning Boulevard.Inspired by her mother, she studied art and developed a strong interest in Nineteenth Century French self-portrait painting.After completing her masters of fine arts at New York University, she lived in France and Spain taking classes at the Sorbonne and the University of Madrid.Harriet worked at a number of art institutes and galleries before returning here to Albany in 1955 when her father died.The art world never offered steady and secure employment, so on the advice of a professor friend, she returned to school for a masters in library science which she completed in 1960.She then worked for Skidmore College and U Albany from which she retired in 1977.

Harrietís attraction to becoming a librarian was partly inspired by her interest in collecting books, especially on art.She loved to garden, calling the small woodlot behind her house a pocket park.Harriet also loved to travel, especially on riverboats.Most years she traveled to Britain or Europe with her librarian friends.

Because of her fathers ecological work, Harriet has endowed the Charles C. Adams and Harriet Dyer Adams Biodiversity, Conservation and Public Policy Fund, which will support fellowships, visiting lectureships, and research in the Universityís new Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy program.In establishing the fund, Harriet hopes to bring scientists and policy-makers together to study and collaborate on ecological issues and formulate effective environmental policy.The strong point of this program, said Harriet, is that it includes other academic disciplines, the marketplace and the political sphereÖIf we do not take the concerns we have on world ecology and develop them into government policy, we wonít get anywhere.Ē

As Harriet didnít want a memorial service, there will be a reception for her after the second service today in Channing Hall.Please stay and remember her with her friends.

 

Sermon

How do we practice our faith in a personally transformative way that brings justice and equity, healing and renewal to the world around us and beyond us?The Fourth Wave of Feminism Lecture Series is exploring this question looking at how spirituality can support and advance our advocacy for womenís rights.My involvement with community organizing through ARISE, the West Hill Ministerís Fellowship, and more recently with the NAACP is one way I explore this question. You can hear more about ARISE in two weeks, the date of the ARISE public meeting at the First Methodist Church in Schenectady at 4:00pm.Be there or be square!

I return again and again to the question of how to integrate personal and spiritual growth with social action.This question is at the center of the ministry I bring to this congregation.Unitarian Universalists donít want to find the correct prayer to offer or mantra to chant to escape this world of woe and appear in some heaven realm.Uus donít want to retreat to a cave and do meditation and yoga to create their own personal sanctuary of delight on earth that abandons the suffering of others.We want to lead healthier, happier more fulfilled lives while at the same time working to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty and institutionalized racism, classism and oppression.

This morning I bring to you a vision of this work from an American Jew become Zen master who is working on these same questions.I find his writing very inspiring and I think we can learn from him.

Tetsugen Bernard Glassman grew up in New York City and graduated from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1960.In a pizza parlor, he made three vows to a friend:

  1. To live on an Israeli kibbutz;
  2. To study in a Zen monastery in Japan; and
  3. To live on the streets.

Over his lifetime he accomplished all three in ways that have shaped his life and teaching.He studied Zen in Japan and received transmission from Taizan Maezumi, Roshi in Los Angeles.He returned to Yonkers to set up a Zen community.As he began his teaching work, he was also exploring new, American friendly, ways to adapt the traditional Japanese way of transmitting awakening to his students.Seeing the poverty around him, he was moved to action that would also integrate with the Zen transmission process.Glassman initiated projects to build apartments for homeless families living in Westchester motels and started Greyston Bakery to provide jobs for the unemployed.

But after 27 years doing this good work in the community he still hadnít fulfilled his last vow to live on the streets.He also noticed his students working in Greyston projects with him were identified with being helpers but didnít fully understand or connect with the experience of being vulnerable and needing help themselves.Remembering that Southeast Asian Buddhist monks have no possessions and beg for their food, he decided to start having street meditation retreats.

For a week, in groups of three or four people for safety, the participants lived on the streets of Manhattan.They began with no money in their pockets.They ate only what was given to them.They slept wherever they could find a place, wet or dry.Each day they would meet in a public park and share their learning and experiences.Then they would separate in groups again for the next 24 hours.The goal was the same as a meditation retreat, to bear witness.

Bearing witness, in Glassmanís understanding, is directly experiencing reality in the present moment.New insights and understandings arise along with a broader sense of compassion and a deeper feeling of connection.In the moment of bearing witness there is more direct contact with emptiness and unknowing.

Not knowing where your next meal may come from is a humbling experience.The experience of receiving a bowl of soup in a shelter is quite different than being the one ladling it into the bowl.On the streets, the dirt and grime accumulate quickly on oneís clothes. Few of us, probably, have had the experience of being scorned as a social outcast.One of the shocks of these retreats is both being treated like a beggar, and also, at other times, receiving unexpected kindness.These direct, personal experiences intensify the experience of listening.

Here is how Glassman describes the listening activity of bearing witness on the streets:

When we really listen, when we really pay attention to the sounds of joy and suffering in the universe, then we are not separate from them, we become them. Because, in reality, we are not separate from those who suffer.We are them; they are us.It is our suffering and it is our joy.When we donít listen, we are shutting ourselves offónot from others but from ourselves.

We canít do this from a place of knowing.When we think we know something we donít listen.We have to empty ourselves over and over, return to unknowing and just listen.And listen.And listen.

Central to the Buddhist approach to reality witnessed in the present moment is what Glassman describes as being in a place of unknowing.He didnít start out to be a social activist dealing with the homeless, unemployed and hungry.The Greyston Foundation that supports the inns and businesses in Yonkers that serve these people is in constant flux, adapting to changing conditions and noticing the opportunities that arise.He could not have imagined Greyston in its present form when he began.He just worked skillfully with each present moment as it arose.Carolyn Stetson is leading us in this kind of exercise right now looking for ways to be directly involved in hurricane relief.

A visit to Poland inspired Glassman to design another retreat format, but with a much larger scope:doing a meditation retreat at a former Nazi concentration camp.

On the week of Thanksgiving, 1996, Glassman brought 150 people speaking English, Polish, German and French to Auschwitz-Birkenau to sit together where over a million met their deaths.

The people came from all over the world and every connection to the camp.There were survivors, children of survivors, children of Nazis, children of German soldiers and children of refugees as well as those with no direct family connection to Auschwitz.

They gathered with the range of emotion you might expect, from some pale and tense filled with anxiety and dread to light hearted disconnection catching up with old friends.There was concern and distrust not knowing what might happen.

Their buses first brought them to the Auschwitz museum and their differences vanished into collective horror. Glassman writes:

Grisly evidence of dehumanization Ö greeted us everywhere: mountains of grey hair shorn from the women about to be killed, huge collections of shaving brushes, luggage, clothes and prosthetic devices.There were rooms full of babyís and childrenís clothes.The endless rows of photos of gaunt, starved faces stretched across wall after wall, face staring Ö out of hollow black eyes, the eyes of men and women who knew that they were dyingÖThey died there nameless and alone, forgotten by the world, dehumanized by their executioners.

The effect of being exposed to this kind of suffering completely overwhelms the most hardy defense mechanisms.Some were crying; most were in shock.The struggle to make sense of senseless brutality had thrown them into a profound place of unknowing, a place where bearing witness becomes sharpened and intensified.

Each day they would walk together the two miles from their residence to the selection site.Each period of meditation began and ended with the blowing of the shofar.During the meditation, they chanted the names of the dead found in the Death Books compiled by the Gestapo as well as others who had died in other holocausts.The names were kept in a red lacquer box in the center of the group.Jewish, Buddhist, Christian and Moslem prayers were offered in memory of the dead.Each day closed with an interfaith service led by leaders from all four religious groups.

At first this was very difficult as people reeled from the shock of the museum.Yet stripped of their usual protective mechanisms, people began to really meet each other as human beings joined in worship and prayer.In the overwhelming presence of death, new life blossomed forth as they lovingly attended to the memory of those whose lives were abruptly and savagely cut short.

The work of making peace requires bearing witness to the realities and the possibilities of life.In the protective cocoon we spin for ourselves, we are insulated from that reality Ö and the vibrant possibilities that can emerge when we are in contact with reality.Many couldnít or didnít want to chant the names of the dead at first.Toward the end of the four days many participants developed a deep sense of reverence as they heard and chanted those names honoring the memory of each soul still bound to Auschwitz.

By the end of the retreat, the diverse group of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Buddhists found oneness.Listen to Glassmanís description of what happened:

By the time our retreat ended at Auschwitz, it had become a one-people event.Adolf Hitler had also wanted a one-people event.His way of doing it was to eliminate diversity.He created hundreds of places like Auschwitz and Birkenau where he could destroy diversity and create one people who looked the same, thought the same, lived the same.Be he couldnít do it.Because the one thing we ultimately have in common is that weíre all different.

Living with differences is not easy.Throughout our time together people came to me with advice on how to do things better: We shouldnít permit the Our Father prayer at Birkenau; we shouldnít have Islamic prayers at all; we shouldnít translate the Kaddish; we should do more meditation; we should do less; we should talk more; we should talk less.They had many ideas about what would make them feel more comfortable.But the retreat wasnít about making any of us comfortable.It was about bearing witness to our differences.

And during those five days we came togetherónot despite our differences but because of them, because we acknowledged and honored them.Out of diversity, we became one.

Isnít this what Unitarian Universalists are trying to do too?We donít all have to think alike to love alike said Universalist John Murray?Atheists, theists and agnostics can coexist and thrive together drawing sustenance from our differences.People of different ethnic, racial and socio-economic backgrounds can find common purpose together.What we have to give up is always getting our way Ö and that means at times being uncomfortable.That means not just tolerating hearing God language but listening carefully for the context and the meaning in the words.That means making commitments to powerful ideas that involve action that isnít comfortable.That means being open to bearing witness and being changed.

The Zen Buddhism of Bernie Glassman is one source for understanding how to bear witness.Another source, perhaps a childhood inspiration for Glassman, is the Jewish tradition.Ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Yippur is not a comfortable time.During the Days of Awe also called the Days of Repentance, the observant Jew must review his or her life ferreting out the sins of the previous year and repenting them.They seek reconciliation with those they have wronged.God is believed to be inscribing in the Book of Life the names of those who will live and who will die, who will prosper and who will suffer, in the coming year.Thankfully, God is merciful and can be influenced by repentance, prayer and charity.The anxiety and distress can grow as sunset approaches on Yom Kippur, when the Book of Life is sealed till next year.

The fresh start helps Jews make peace and let go of the past that allows them to begin the New Year renewed, reunited and restored, more present and able to bear witness to the moment.Dwelling in unknowing during the Days of Awe creates a new opportunity for oneness.

The goal of the Days of Awe and the goal of Glassmanís ideas of bearing witness are both making peace.Glassman makes these sixteen vows the foundation of his Zen Peacemakers Order:

1.            I vow to be oneness.

2.            I vow to be diversity.

3.            I vow to be harmony.

4.            I vow to penetrate the unknown.

5.            I vow to bear witness.

6.            I vow to heal myself and others.

7.            I vow not to kill.

8.            I vow not to steal.

9.            I vow not to be greedy.

10.        I vow not to tell lies.

11.        I vow not to be ignorant.

12.        I vow not to talk about othersí errors and faults.

13.        I vow not to elevate myself by blaming others.

14.        I vow not to be stingy.

15.        I vow not to be angry.

16.        I vow not to speak ill of myself or others.

Glassmanís Zen Peacemaker community is finishing a retreat center in Montague, Massachusetts called House of One People.I visited it in September to ask Glassman to be the theme presenter for the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowshipís Convocation in April 2007.He accepted.Perhaps some would want to join me on a field trip over there Ė the center is only two hours away.Let me know.

The core work of any religious community is helping its members make peace with being conscious beings that know they must die and social beings that experience conflict with each other.Glassmanís visionary work blending social action and interfaith spiritual practice grounded in bearing witness, I believe, holds great inspiration and promise for what Unitarian Universalists are trying to accomplish today.

Now Iím uncomfortable and moving into a place of unknowing.
Iíve exposed my excitement about Bernie Glassmanís work.
Iím ready to bear witness to your response.

Benediction

Mark Belletiniís adaptation of the Kol Nidrei a traditional Jewish prayer offered on Yom Kippur.

Gone are the promises we made
because of pressure or praise.

Gone are the promises we made
because of shame or guilt.

Gone are promises and vows we made
because of habit, because of custom, or
because of confusion.

Gone they are, vanished! I see them no longer.
††††††††† They are no more.

Gone the excuses for why I can't.

Gone the vows I made to confirm my vanity.

Gone the dreams I dreamed that cut me off
†††††††††† from everyone else's dream.

Gone my vow to never have dreams,
†††††††††† so that I could carry my future in my dark little pocket.

Gone, vanished, just like that!

As magically as sunset, as wondrously as moonset,
†††††††††† it disappears, this habit of refusing to live on the edge.

The paper is blank, the field is empty, the map has not been made. The guarantees are gone. And, thus, now I can begin to set down my burdens, and define myself no more by my failings.

The breath of my life will bless, the cells of my Being sing in gratitude, awakening!

Go in peace.Make peace.Be at peace.

The quotes are from Bernie Glassmanís book, Bearing Witness: A Zen Masterís Lessons in Making Peace, © 1998, Bell Tower, New York

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.All rights reserved.