Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are Bearing Witness Retreats Sugar for the Privileged Practitioner?

Over at one of her blogs, Buddhist blogger Nella Lou writes:

There’s a lot of these witnessing retreats going on where the bourgeoisie pay substantial amounts to be with suffering, whether that be located on the homeless streets, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda or elsewhere.

This to me turns the extraordinary suffering of people into a circus. The spectacle of suffering.

The purpose seems to be to assuage some kind of privileged guilt. You can’t buy that. Give your money to a refugee organization and your time to a literacy campaign.

I know people who have gone on these kind of retreats. Mostly Buddhist folks who have gone with Bernie Glassman to meditate at Auschwitz.

Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers, has done some powerful, innovative work weaving together Buddhist teachings and social engagement (in my opinion). He seems to be someone willing to try a lot of different approaches out, to take risks, and let go of whatever doesn't work. And he's hilarious to boot.

However, I can also see Nella Lou's point about things like the Auschwitz retreats, although I do wonder if some of this is largely context dependent. For example, if someone dedicates their life to service and social action, and attends one of these retreats as one step along a larger life path, then I'd say there's no problem. Furthermore, there's a particular attraction to Jewish Buddhist practitioners to the Auschwitz retreat specifically, which often has both a personal healing element, as well as a collective recollection of, and reclamation of, past injustices to it. I don't know if Bernie and the others who started that particular retreat have also been concerned about the re-emergence of Nazi groups in Germany and eastern Europe during the past few decades, but that's something which comes up for me in connection to the Auschwitz retreat.

On the other hand, I wonder how often it's the case that at least some of the attendees of these kinds of retreats are mostly there for themselves, for some experience to take back home with them. Or how many of these folks are also actively involved in their communities.

So, I don't know. What do you think about all of this? I guess another question might be around the idea of "bearing witness" and why people feel compelled to go half way across the world to do so. Especially when suffering is all around us.

1 comment:

PDA said...

My reaction to Nella Lou's post was not dissimilar to what yours seems to be. It seems overbroad to just dismiss the whole exercise as a means "to assuage some kind of privileged guilt," though, sure, it's worthwhile to examine the possibilities for grasping/aversion that are brought up by such a dramatic experience. I wonder if Nella Lou spoke to Tetsugen or to anyone who actually attended such a retreat. The way it is presented and worked with would seem to be key in whether such witness is meaningful or a "circus."

I had to block her on G+ because I found what seemed to me like reflexive negativity to be extremely offputting. And I haven't found the online world to be an especially fruitful place to resolve style conflicts like that. Better that she have her say along with others who feel similarly. My approach is, simply, different.