Photo by Peter Cunningham

I loved watching the inauguration. It’s our only day of pomp and circumstance. No royal marriages or divorces here, no royal personage opening Parliament. Just one day every four years, and by now I know the elements, even this year during covid, when flags covered the Mall instead of people. You get to know the sequence, only the stars are different, and the political leaders taking office.

I have to admit that I deeply appreciated seeing Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell there, freezing in the wind, and listening to Senator Roy Blunt, all Republicans. Showing up when you’d really rather not, in fact when there’s pressure on you not to show up, is hard. Obama seemed happy, but it’s easy to be happy when what you wanted to happen happens.

I enjoyed Biden’s speech. It wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t historic, it was Joe Biden. Sounded just like him. Very decent, a warrior for unity, urging us to do what he did—keep on showing up.

The big star was the 22 year old Amanda Gorman. Her poem, The Hill We Climb, was inspiring, but not as inspiring as she was. Beautiful, confident, poised—Yes! I felt like yelling, you go, girl! You’re the one we depend on for the future, you’re the one surpassing hopes and expectations.

My one issue with Joe Biden’s government picks (other than Tom Vilsack, which is another matter) is that he drew on so many from Obama’s time. He knew and respected them, but I would have liked to see younger, newer faces; I would have liked to see him groom a new leadership to take over, not so many old names and faces.

“I do solemnly swear . . .” The same oath every four years; I remembered when Chief Justice John Roberts stumbled administering the oath to Obama, and Obama reminded him. Always the same words, the same oath written up in the Constitution, regardless of who fills the position. It’s not personal to you, it’s personal to the country.

Vows are more personal. When I make a vow, even if it’s said in a few simple words, my entire life is there: awareness of attachments and karmic cycles, a life that disappears as quickly as it appears, wasted opportunities and endless possibilities for renewal.

People say they don’t want to make vows because they’re afraid they won’t keep them. But how do you know? How do you know that the minute you made a vow a world wasn’t created in which those vows were kept all the time? We know so little about this world, this dimension of being, what do we know about others?

In that spirit I remembered that Bernie’s birthday was January 18, 1939—”a triple Capricorn,” I used to say, shaking my head sadly— and on that date in 1994, when he turned 55, even as the Greyston companies he and Jishu Holmes founded were still trying to find a stable footing in the world, he knew it was time to make another vow. He didn’t wait to assess the success of the past, he was moving on.

That used to annoy folks—You can’t just leave now, Bernie, wait a few more years, etc. But he was a man in a hurry. He also had a gift for seeing where things were headed, both individually and socially, and he liked to be ahead of the curve. And, too, he didn’t need to be affirmed or validated by anyone else (except maybe his wife).

So he sat on the steps of the Capitol in the coldest time of year. He invited folks to join him. That, too, was Bernie. Many of us make our vows privately, perhaps feeling that if no one else knows, they also won’t know if we fail. We’re self-conscious and keep it to ourselves.

Not Bernie. “I’ve made a vow to end homelessness in our county,” he’d announce every chance he got. Then he’d work like crazy to do that, day after day; how it came out didn’t concern him too much. “If you announce it to the world,” he liked to say, “the world comes in to help. If you keep it secret, nobody knows so they don’t help.”

And folks joined him. People from different walks of life sat with him in DC that winter, a motley group. It was historically cold and the Capitol actually shut its offices, very typical for Bernie’s retreats. As one man from Cameroon later said: “I always hated the winter cold in New York. After sitting with Bernie that winter in DC, I lost my fear of the cold.”

He made a vow at the steps of the US Capitol that he would begin an order of Zen Peacemakers, folks not content with sitting on a cushion to gain clarity and peace for themselves but use that as a foundation to make peace in the world in all areas, integrate all the voices, see the dharma in all things. He came back home and set about doing that.

Peter Cunningham was with him, the photographer who dogged Bernie’s steps and documented the fulfillment of his vows again and again. These photos are all his, as are so many others in which he bears witness, showing again and again how personal and creative this bearing witness journey is. You can find many of these photos, and others, on Peter’s website.

Peter, too, was someone whose life intersected with Bernie’s trajectory in many different places, though the two men had their own respective journeys. As I wrote yesterday, every once in a while, someone else says to me: “I was there in that retreat on the steps of the Capitol that freezing winter.” They may have made vows as Bernie did, or not. They went back home and did photography, social service, poetry, business, one is even the President of Naropa University. But at some point, their lives intersected with Bernie Glassman’s because he opened his space of practice so widely, let everyone in who wanted to come, let them be who they were, and said goodbye when they left.

Photo by Peter Cunningham


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