Zen on the Streets of London

The Observer profiles the Peacemaker Circle International Community, a Zen Buddhist group that holds “street retreats” in which participants spend several days living homeless in major cities. At a “retreat” in London this weekend, participants paid £150 (about US$220), much of which is donated to homelessness charities, but their time on the streets includes making use of facilities (soup kitchens and free blankets) intended for the genuinely homeless. The experience was also supposed to include begging, although a police warning put a stop to that. Speaking to the Observer’s sister paper The Guardian a few weeks ago, group leader Grover Gauntt (or Senso Grover Genro Gauntt) had explained the motivation behind the “retreat”:

Everybody takes away something different…To understand the other you begin to understand yourself, to bear witness to what actually is; you transform yourself.

However, according to the Observer journalist, who lasted half of one night undercover with the group, many people are unimpressed. The journalist herself was left

cursing the self-righteous and self-indulgent arrogance of some so-called spiritual communities.

Homelessness charities have complained of “grotesque tourism”, arguing that it “is dangerous, obstructive, foolhardy and patronising. It is obscene.” Homeless people themselves were also critical, calling the group “bonkers”, “religious nutcases”, and expressing scepticism over their decision to sleep rough in June rather than during the winter.

The “street retreats” actually predate the Peacemaker Circle, although both were begun by ex-NASA scientist Bernie Glassman (or Bernie Tetsugen Glassman), first President of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America. Glassman (of whom Gauntt is a “dharma successor”) considers “street retreats” to be a form of “Bearing Witness”. The Peacemaker Circle and Glassman’s Zen Peacemaker Community also undertake retreats to Auschwitz, have organised various reconciliation/dialogue events in Israel/Palestine and Jordan, and have some community programmes in New York. In 1991 the PCI won a “Best of America Award for Social Action” from US News & World Report.

Glassman himself studied under Roshi Taizan Maezumi,* a Soto Zen monk who established the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967. Maezumi, the son of a prominent Soto Zen priest, received approval from three teachers: Hakujun Kuroda (who seems to be confused with Maezumi’s father, Baian Hakujun Daiosho, on some sites), Koryu Osaka, and Hakuun Yasutani (whose wartime militarism and anti-Semitism, some years before he met Maezumi, were exposed by Brian Victoria, as reported here). More of the lineage is untangled here.

*Japanese family names here appear after the given names, in Western style.