Bernie at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Photo by Peter Cunningham

Rami Avraham Efal, an old associate at the Zen Peacemakers, became Rabbi Efal at his rabbinic ordination ceremony a month ago. He sent out the text of his first talk as a rabbi, and it included this:

“As we were about to lead 120 anxious people into a week of bearing witness at the nightmare that is Auschwitz-Birkenau, I turned to my Jewish Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman for last words of advice before commencing. Quick, and gaz[ing] at me sharp as a nail, Bernie said: ‘Nothing depends on you.’”

This was in 2017, two years after his stroke, a year before his death. He insisted on going there even though it was very hard in his condition. He told me he always had something new to learn in that retreat, year after year. I wondered what it was.

Rami’s words reminded me of another retreat at Auschwitz many years before, when he asked me to be the lead there. I didn’t think it worked very well and expressed frustration at the end. He turned to me and said: “You really think that a retreat in a place like Auschwitz depends on you?”

The relief never left me. You do your best, but nothing depends on you.

Bernie knew that not-knowing had nothing to do with ignorance and everything to do with endless karmic forces constantly at work, making our lives more fluid than the Sawmill River below the house. Where others saw not-knowing as uncertainty and anxiety-provoking, he saw it as infinite potential for the most unexpected turns, life turning on a dime. He worked like crazy, and didn’t think anything depended on him.

What happens if I dropped (dead) the next minute? Some people will feel deep sadness, even grief. The sweet potatoes in the toaster-oven may burn. Someone will adopt Aussie, especially since I left a little money for her care in my after-me instructions. Lori will find a new place to live, which she’s done in the past. The birds will go to the neighbors’ birdfeeders and Boris the Bear will show up in other people’s back yards. The zendo has wonderful new teachers, the Zen Peacemaker Order is flowering, and hundreds of thousands of written and unwritten words will go bye-bye, like the leaves of summer.

What happens if the wooden floor under my feet drops? Humans and dogs will drop with it, probably dying in the process. So will the furniture, including various Buddhas on altars, Soen Nakagawa’s magnificent calligraphy of prajna, computers and screens, cabinets holding important papers, disks holding traces of the past. The rest of the house may go as well.

I depend on this wooden floor every minute of the day that I’m here, and this winter, I’m here a lot. Who or what depends on me? Practically no one and nothing, yet somehow, the delusion persists that the actions I take are crucial to everybody’s wellbeing.

Some years ago, an article in the local newspaper made a brief reference to the Zen Peacemakers and called them do-gooders. Many of us do-gooders fall into the trap of thinking that the world will fall apart without our work. But the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote: “What is serious to men is often very trivial in the eyes of the universe. What might appear to us as ‘play’ is perhaps what is most serious. If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear the call and follow along in the mysterious, cosmic dance.”

I think of myself as participating in life, no more. Co-creating sounds pretentious. The invite is to participate, not to save anything, not to put the finger in the dyke, maybe not even to transform, but to participate.

It doesn’t mean you do nothing. By all means, enter the room marked Bodhisattvas, but don’t worry how much attention people are paying you. There will be various commotions at different times; ebbs and flows of trends and popularities.

At certain times one person may seem to be making all the difference, for good or ill, other times it will be someone else, or a new musician or politician (I walked on air for several days after the election of Barack Obama), a new high-tech invention, some AI headband that’ll make all our decisions for us. We’ll moan and groan, cheer and party, and forget momentarily that nothing depends on us—or on any other person, for that matter. The forces in the universe are way too great.

I once flew to Israel from New York. Sitting in the front of economy on a full plane, I saw a stewardess approach the two elderly couples sitting in the first row of economy, middle section.

She looked at one couple. “You’re in luck. I have to put a couple with two infants in your seats because they need bassinets, which are only available in your row, so I have to put you in First Class.”

They got up, and a young couple came instead with two twin infants. We were going to be in for a night of babies, I thought to myself, but that was way less than what the elderly couple remaining next to them was going to endure. Funny, isn’t it? A young couple didn’t book the proper seats, so one couple went to First Class, and another was in for hours of bawling and fidgeting.

We don’t control anything; we don’t save anything. But we can participate fully, be it in Economy or First Class.

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