Call and Response Ep. 27 Spiritual Experiences, Auschwitz and Bernie Glassman
Recently I’ve been having a draw to learn or feel more of my tradition and the ancestors and who’s come before me, and what moved me that I saw online was when you were in the barracks in Auschwitz, (you) sat down and sang to the children. My parents survived the holocaust. Their people did not. And when you sang and I experienced that video, I felt you were singing to and for me. I don’t know if that’s what your intent was but if you want to speak to that, please do because I want to know your experience and by way of request, if you want to sing that for our children, please do, Krishna Das.
“I had a great friend named Bernie Glassman who’s a Zen Roshi, who had many deep enlightenment experiences and finally realized that the only thing keeping him and others out of that place was his own fear. So, he began to move towards the places where he had the most fear and where culturally in the world there was a lot of fear. So, one of those places was Auschwitz. And he began going to Auschwitz every year and bringing people to bear witness to the suffering. It wasn’t to just to go and suffer, but it was to bear witness and that’s a practice, to bear witness. And the idea was, in order to bear witness to something, one has to look at it and see it and in order to see it, one has to drop one’s ideas about it. And be with it. To see it clearly, one has to drop one’s stuff.” – Krishna Das
Q: Jai Ma. Thank you Krishna Das, for being here. I’m just wondering, when you were the pujari of the Durga temple in India, did you have any experiences where you really felt the presence of the Mother.
KD: Of course not. What do you think I am?
Q: You have all of these amazing other experiences that you talk about. I’m sure there’s something.
KD: Like what?
Q: I don’t know. Anything.
KD: Experiences come and go. At my age, I forget them anyway. It doesn’t make any difference But they change you. That’s all. They do their work and then they go. You don’t have to hold onto them. In fact, holding on to them is just destroying them anyhow. Just making a big thing about nothing. If you have some experience that is in some way more opening for you, to try to cling to it and keep it is closing you down right away. Live. All these things pour into you like streams into the ocean. You don’t hold onto the stream. You’re the ocean. It’s not important. It’s not important at all. It’s ok. You can enjoy. But if you’re trying to cling to something, you won’t enjoy it for long because it’s gone already. So just be with it. The more fully you can be with everything, every minute, you know, but we think, we think something has to happen. Somebody’s going to push a button and change everything, you know?
I remember, I was sitting with Maharajji once and I’d taken, washed in the afternoon because I was working in the morning, singing in the morning, so I put on my clean clothes and I went to sit in front of Maharajji and I laughed. At one point, I just laughed because I saw in my mind, I recognized that I thought that enlightenment would be someplace where I wouldn’t be. Why? Because I hated myself. So, there’s no possibility of me being in Enlightenmentland. Right? Because I hated myself. And then I laughed because I saw there was never any place I wasn’t going to be. It was a big thing. It was a big experience. So, experiences come and go and they may help us open our hearts more, but to cling to the experience itself or try to get it back or try to manufacture other experiences means you’re not here in the first place.
Maharajji and all great saints are Love. They don’t love you. They’re not busy loving. They are Love. And so are you.
If you’re busy loving then you’re not Love. You’re doing something. Once I was very much in love with somebody, right? And I was telling my Indian father, Mr. Tiwari, all about how beautiful this woman was. I loved her so much. And he listened for a long time. And when I finally finished, he said, “My boy,” he said, “Relationships are business. Do your business. Good. Enjoy. But Love,” he said, “No, love is what lasts 24 hours a day.” People mistake because we’re so needy. We want to hold onto that feeling of being loved. And we think that’s loving. It’s not exactly the same thing. Real love is here always. It’s nowhere else. It could be nowhere else. It’s who we are.
Q: I also, like a lot of people, have a very direct connection in hearing you, both singing and speaking. And the speaking part is what I have a question for you about. I think, the thing that connects with me so well and it’s moving for me to talk about it, is you’re speaking from the slog, as you put it. Not from grand ideas. But just, what we go through moment to moment. So thank you.
KD: So, you’re thanking me for being stuck in the slog.
Q: No. For connecting with me being stuck in slog.
KD: Ok. Well, hey, we’re all in the same slog. Thank you.
Q: So, I’m going to ask you a question about an experience you had that I saw a video of that is really not close to the sweetness in the room now.
KD: Ok. Can I lie?
Q: yes. You can slog right along with me. Recently I’ve been having a draw to learn or feel more of my tradition and the ancestors and who’s come before me and what moved me that I saw online was when you were in the barracks in Auschwitz, sat down and sang to the children. My parents survived the holocaust. Their people did not. And when you sang and I experienced that video, I felt you were singing to and for me. I don’t know if that’s what your intent was but if you want to speak to that, please do because I want to know your experience and by way of request, if you want to sing that for our children, please do, Krishna Das.
KD: Thank you. Well, I had a great friend named Bernie Glassman who’s a Zen Roshi, who had many deep enlightenment experiences and finally realized that the only thing keeping him and others out of that place was his own fear. So, he began to move towards the places where he had the most fear and where culturally in the world there was a lot of fear. So, one of those places was Auschwitz. And he began going to Auschwitz every year and bringing people to bear witness to the suffering. It wasn’t to just to go and suffer, but it was to bear witness and that’s a practice, to bear witness. And the idea was, in order to bear witness to something, one has to look at it and see it and in order to see it, one has to drop one’s ideas about it. And be with it. To see it clearly, one has to drop one’s stuff. Whatever the stuff is involved. And then one can bear witness and his feeling was that those souls needed that and wanted that and welcomed the bearing of witness to what they went through there. So, I avoided going to Auschwitz as long as I could and one day I was in the backyard in somebody’s house with Bernie and he was smoking a cigar and he just looked at me and said, “I want you to come to Auschwitz.” “Ok.”
So I had to go.
I was scared shitless, you know? Because I remembered, I had so much pain around being Jewish when all my Catholic friends wouldn’t talk to me one day. You know, they got half a day off and went to confirmation class and they come back and they wouldn’t talk to me. I said, “What’s wrong with you guys? What’s wrong?”
They said, “You killed Jesus.”
And that was it.
I didn’t want anything to do with Judaism anymore because I wanted to be one of the boys. So I cut that off. And now I was being asked to jump right back into the middle of it in the most intense way. So, I was scared shitless. But Bernie was there and he, his presence was what allowed for the possibility of letting go of all that stuff. That all one stuff. So, I got to Auschwitz with the group and it was in early November and all the trees were gold and red and, you know, just, it was fall, it was so beautiful and the grass was green. First thing the Polish guide told us, “You see all these colors? All the leaves and the grass, In those days there was nothing because the people ate every blade of grass. Every leaf of every tree. And the bark off the tree because they had nothing to eat.” “Oh.” So, a few days went by and I was walking around this place, I spent a lot of time walking by myself. We did ceremonies every day. Different ceremonies from, one was two… where the whole group, there’s a place called the, I think it was called like the Distribution Point where the train tracks stop in the middle of the camp, where people would get off the cattle cars and be separated, the people who were strong enough to work would be sent some way and the women and the children and the sick people would be sent off right to the ovens directly. Right from that spot. So we sat in a big circle around that spot and we recited the names of the dead. Right across from me, there was this big healthy German woman and when it came time for her to recite the names of the dead, each one of us had maybe 50 names to recite, she started reciting and every name was the same family. First, she would say the last name and then the first name, 50 names, and by the end she was just weeping. Weeping uncontrollably. Very powerful. So I was just walking around and I was pissed off. I was pissed off, I would look up at the sun and I would say, “How do you fucking dare shine on this place?” “How dare you shine on this place?” I mean, I was a little bit crazy with grief, with the intensity of the experience, “How dare you shine on this place?” And it was beautiful. I mean, golden light and the trees and everything. “How dare you?” And after like three days of that, I looked up at the sun, I went, “Oh… it’s your nature to shine.” It’s your nature to shine on the good and the bad. And I understood, that’s unconditional love. Unconditional. Love that shines because it’s its nature to shine on all. And everything changed at that point.
This was also Maharajji’s nature. The nature of all the great Saints. The great yogis. The great Beings of all traditions. They shine on all of us equally. And yet it’s very personal. We experience it very personally. Because it is. It’s not God’s love for His people. It’s the Love that’s right there all the time. And Maharajji loved us, loves us, whether we’re good little boys and girls or bad little boys and girls. The same. We couldn’t do anything to turn off that love. And we tried, believe me. I would in front of Him like this, completely angry and depressed and fucked up and the days would go by and I’m like this and everybody around me is laughing and joking and getting bananas and apples thrown at them and I’m sitting there like this. Like, “no apples, no bananas, I’m just bad. I don’t deserve it. Two days. Three days. No apples. No banana.” And somebody calls me and I turn my head and boom, I get hit in the heart with a banana and I look and He’s going…He did that on purpose.
Bernie asked me to sing in the barracks, the women’s barracks and I was, “Ok, I’ll do it.” I was a little uncomfortable and in fact, at one point when I started, that was by myself, one time he asked me to sing in the men’s barracks with all the group there, and this one guy ran out pissed off and angry because, “This doesn’t belong here…” but you could see that was his stuff, you know? And he was stuck in that and there was nothing he could do.
So, I felt bad for that.
Eventually he came back.
But in the women’s barracks.
So, I had been touring in Europe, so I had my harmonium with me. So I went one day, by myself to the women’s barracks and I sat down and I thought I was going to sing to the goddess, the great Krishna Das’s gonna do Devi Puja in the barracks in Auschwitz. How fantastic this Being is. Such a great Being. So I sat down and I closed my eyes and I felt surrounded. I can tell you, honestly, I’ve never been in a room with more people in it than at that moment. There were, it was full of these women. I could barely move they were surrounding the whole place and I just was like, “Whoa…” I said, “Well,” I said, “What should I sing for you?” And I heard in my mind, I said, “Sing to the children.” Ah. Of course. All these women were separated from their children. They saw their children dragged away and thrown into the ovens.
And they want that love back.
And so, they asked me to sing to the children and so I sang. I sang “Gopala Gopala.” And it brought them joy, I felt. I told Bernie that experience while we were walking in Auschwitz. He just said, “Hm.”
He was an incredible Being.
He left the body last fall.
So, you know, as our hearts ripen, we become more aware of what’s going on around us, that isn’t directly connected to us as a person. The suffering that other people have, what other people, how they carry themselves as you walk, you look around, you see what people are carrying, you know? And your heart just, it wants, it naturally just feels to try to, you feel kindness and compassion and it also makes you sad that somebody else is sad.
But when I saw the sun and I understood what it, the nature of unconditional love is that it shines on everything, all the time, everyone, all of us. It shines on us when we think we’re hiding from ourselves and from others and it shines on us when we’re showing off and being very whatever. We can’t turn it off. That’s the other nature of the sun. The real sun. The inner sun. It will never stop shining on us. And little by little, the walls of that house are crumbling and the sunlight comes in unrestricted, unimpeded. And this is what we want. We want to come out and play. We just don’t know how.
So, speaking about Bernie, one day I got an email from him with eight lines of a prayer from the Japanese Buddhist prayers and it’s called the Gates of Sweet Nectar. And the idea of this prayer is that one enters through the Gates of the Sweet Nectar, the Gates of Sweet Nectar, by offering one’s heart, one’s enlightened heart to all beings as a meal. Come, take. And this comes from his transformative experience he had, like I told you, he was, he used to do these, run these retreats where, and he could create the situation where people would have these very very powerful experiences because he was a lineage holder in a long lineage from Japan. A Zen lineage. But like I said, eventually he recognize that the reason we keep coming back was our fear, coming out of those states that we generate or generated because of our fear. So then he decided to move towards the fear directly and that led him to Auschwitz and Rawanda and Ireland. Lots of places, wherever there was stuff going on, he would go. And one time in the back of a car, on the way to work, he had this powerful experience where he saw the interconnectedness of all of us. The interdependence of all of us. That all of us are actually dependent on each other to exist. And if one person isn’t there, none of us are there. It’s a very deep experience. And that led him to really resonate with this prayer. So he sent me these eight lines and then he said, at the bottom, “Can you do something with this?” So I wrote back, “Like what?”
And he said, “Well, you know, we Buddhists aren’t that good with melody. Maybe you could make up a nice melody for this and then we could sing this at the Zen Peacemakers Community meetings” and stuff. So, I said, “Well, when is that meeting?” And he said, “It was eleven months from that day.” Good. Ok.
I carried that little paper with the prayer on it all around the world, right? And I kept looking at it. It would look at me. Nothing was happening, right? So I wrote back to him, I said, “Can I mess with the words a little.” I get a one word email back, “Mess.” So I rearranged the words a little bit and then this melody came. So I said, “Bernie, I’ve got it.” And he said, “Good. Now you can start working on the rest of the prayer.” I said, “How long is that?” And he said, “25 pages.” I said, “Bernie that will take three lifetimes.” I get a one word email back, “Two.”
Bernie’s a great… you know, you’ve heard of the four noble truths, you know, which was Buddha’s teaching. He called them the “four noble opinions.” He said, “If it’s a truth then you can’t talk about it, but if it’s an opinion you can discuss.” The Four Noble Opinions. That’s so great, eh?
So it’s, believe it or not, it’s almost time to quit, so I would like to sing the Hanuman Chalisa, so what happened was, I got that melody for that prayer and then I recognized that it would also work for the Hanuman Chalisa, and the reason that works for me is that, Hanuman is this, believed to be, a Being that removes obstructions in the heart and allows us to accomplish what we want to accomplish in our lives, allows us to be who we really want to be. He frees us from the binds and the things that hold us back so the gates of sweet nectar is our, wanting to offer our hearts to the whole universe but we don’t know how. We’re locked in our own little egocentric prisons. So, the Hanuman Chalisa helps us free us from that prison of self-centeredness and selfishness and allows us to make this offering with a good heart, with a full heart. So I’m going to sing and you’re welcome to join in, the Hanuman Chalisa.
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