followed a daily schedule.
In the mornings I took a bath. Then I sat in front of my wife's
picture. Sometimes I listened to music. Sometimes I looked at the
I read and re-read the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, whom she admired.
I played with her dogs. I read her journals.
During the rest of the day I worked on the formation of the Peacemaker
Community and developed its web site. I was available to teachers
and senior students, usually by phone.
Sometimes I laughed and said that in comparison to the way I worked
over the past 30 years, I was not doing anything. But when the sun
went down I was exhausted and I went to bed early. For I was actually
working very hard. I was bearing witness.
In March 1998 my wife, Sensei Jishu Angyo Holmes, and I left our
home in Yonkers, New York, to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were
accompanied by three associates and four dogs. We drove two cars
and two 26' trucks across the country, pausing for six hours in
Pennsylvania to fix an oil leak in one of the trucks and for 3 hours
at the Federal Penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri, to visit one
of our peacemaker priests, Fleet Maull.
Jishu and I had worked in the inner city of Yonkers since 1982,
with the beginning of the Greyston Bakery. We had lived in Yonkers
since 1987, all that time focusing our energies on developing the
Greyston Mandala, a group of organizations which built housing and
provided jobs for homeless families and people with HIV/AIDS in
Yonkers. But once we'd co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order in 1996,
we began to look elsewhere for a place to live. We were on the road
half the time, visiting ZPO sanghas and peacemaker groups all over
the world, and we were getting older. The idea of a refuge, a sanctuary
where we could both breathe and rest between trips and engagements,
became very important.
Finally, last December, Jishu saw a house in Santa Fe. It was a
square adobe home with an inner courtyard, hacienda-style, perched
over the Santa Fe River. It needed to be rewired and replastered.
It needed new windows, doors, and bathrooms. She loved it. It would
mean living in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. There
would be room for her dogs, for new trees, for a big garden She
invited her parents to move down here so that she could live close
to them. It would be the start of a new life, for her and for me.
On Tuesday evening, March 3, we left Yonkers. Jushin, our housekeeper
and a student of Jishu, took a picture of her teacher smiling through
the window of one of our giant trucks just before we pulled out.
It was the last photo taken of her alive.
We arrived in Santa Fe on Monday morning, March 9, and closed on
our new house. Sic days later, in the midst of unpacking on a Sunday
afternoon, Jishu complained of chest pains. She was rushed to the
hospital. The doctors said she'd had a heart attack. For four days
she seemed to be getting better and stronger. But on Thursday night
she had a second attack, and after struggling for almost 24 hours,
she passed from this sphere of teaching late on the evening of March
20, the day of the spring solstice. She was several days shy of
her 57th birthday.
A week later we held her funeral. We brought her back to the home
she'd loved and hardly lived in, bathed and dressed her in her bedroom,
then laid her out to rest in the canopied inner courtyard. We kept
her company all night and in the morning returned her to the funeral
home. There we talked about our life with Jishu. Her mother talked
about her when she was a child, while her brothers talked about
how they'd grown up together. I was the last. When it was my time
to speak I looked at her as she lay in her casket, draped in the
kesa she had sewed, wearing her mala and a beautiful Hawaiian lei,
and said, "There are no words." It was all I could say.
Then we covered her entire body with flowers, hundreds of flowers,
and sent her to her fire samadhi. In the afternoon we planted a
plum tree in the yard so that birds could nestle in its branches
and the dogs lie in its shade. Then we went and brought her relics
home. They lie beneath her photo in the living room across from
the altar where she did her Zen and Tibetan Buddhist practices every
morning. She's always in the house. In fact, I call the house Casa
At first I was in shock. We had just come here to begin a new life
in a place she loved. Our bedroom looked out at the mountains and
she had loved to wake up to the dawn each morning. She was full
of joy and exuberance when we'd arrived here. But all she had been
given was five dawns.
A week after Jishu's death an advance copy of my new book, Bearing
Witness, arrived. In it I write about the Three Tenets of the Zen
Peacemaker Order: Not-knowing, bearing witness to joy and suffering,
and healing ourselves and others. As I reviewed the book, I realized
what the shock had done for me. I was in a state of not-knowing.
What had happened was inconceivable, unthinkable. Most people couldn't
believe it. Over and over, people talked about Jishu's lighthearted,
happy smile, a smile that none of us was going to see again.
What are you going to do? they asked me.
I'm going to bear witness, I replied.
I cancelled my schedule of public appearances for the rest of the
year, including a book tour. I put off hundreds of friends, associates
and students who called or wished to fly over. I knew from the beginning
how easy it is for a man like me, surrounded by people and programs
and plans, with schedules finalized two years in advance, to throw
himself into his work.
Instead I chose to do a plunge. I chose to plunge into Jishu.
Plunges are trademarks of our Order. They're retreats designed to
jar us out of our usual way of doing things, out of our usual concepts,
and bear witness. I have done plunges on the Bowery of New York
City for many years; I have done plunges at Auschwitz-Birkenau in
This was my hardest plunge of all.
This is the schedule I followed for my plunge. I got up early and
took a bath. I learned about baths from Jishu, who found them a
wonderful way to relax. Then I sat in front of her picture in the
living room. Sometimes I put on music, especially Mahler's Fourth
Symphony, which she loved. Sometimes it was Philip Glass. Sometimes
it was Shlomo Karlbach, the singing rabbi and an old friend, who
sang songs to the daughter he named Neshama. My soul. I put our
tapes and CDs in order. Jishu started doing that back in Yonkers,
arranging the music by composers in their respective centuries.
I just finished the job.
The birds sang outside the window. She loved birds, and before joining
the Zen Community of New York had gone on birding expeditions around
the world. So her bird books and binoculars were close at hand,
so that I could look at the birds that she loved.
She also loved doing jigsaw puzzles, the bigger the better. So there
was a jigsaw puzzle out on the round table by the cushion where
I sat. The pieces were in disarray. That way, whenever people come
in they could find a piece that fits and put it in the puzzle. It
took a while to finish, but there was no hurry.
In the beginning I wasn't sure I could do this. In the spring purple
and white lilacs blossomed so profusely that they appeared inside
our windows and doors, their smell overpowering the incense I light
in the mornings. Hummingbirds looked through the window, the trees
sprouted leaves, the twilights were longer and golden. It seemed
as if I was surrounded by the things that Jishu loved. I couldn't
look anywhere without thinking of how she would have loved to see
this, how she would have exclaimed over that.
Instead I watched the hummingbirds, I sniffed the flowers. And I
didn't want to, I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave the house,
leave Santa Fe. This is not my kind of place, I told people. We
came to the southwest for Jishu's sake. This house, the canyon,
the mountains, these are the things that she loved, not me. I'm
more comfortable in the inner city, not here. I talked about selling
the house, leaving, and getting myself a studio in the Bowery. And
in fact a buyer for the house came quickly forward, a neighboring
family I had just met and liked. They would take care of the house,
they promised. They would take care of it for Jishu.
But I've stayed for 9 months. Except on two occasions. In early
June I went to Philadelphia to install a group of students into
the Zen Peacemaker Order as Buddhists. They had begun their studies
with Jishu and I installed them in her name.
The other was when I visited San Francisco to see Ram Dass. Some
time ago R.D. had suffered a terrible loss, too, a major stroke
that had left his right side completely paralyzed. Jishu had also
suffered such a stroke in 1994, only she had recovered most of her
powers. I could have talked to R.D. on the phone, but I needed to
do it face-to-face. So I visited him at his home and we talked quietly.
And as we talked I began to realize what was happening from my bearing
witness, from my grief for Jishu.
She was integrating with me. I was becoming Jishu-Bernie.
When she was still alive, Jishu had brought into our relationship
certain energies that lain dormant in me. She had brought her softness,
her femininity, her down-to-earth practicality and deep empathy
into our life together. Now, with her death, I either had to manifest
them myself or watch them disappear from my life.
Jishu was not the only one to die on that first day of spring. Bernie
died, too. Someone else is now emerging, someone else is coming
to life. For lack of a name, I call that person Jishu-Bernie. That
new human being is unfolding. I still don't know who that person
is or what that person will do. There are many things I still don't
The Third Tenet of the Zen Peacemaker Order is healing ourselves
and others. But often I think that what's really happening is more
basic than that. When we don't know, when we let go and sit with
shock, pain and loss, with no answers, solutions, or ideas, with
nothing at hand but this moment, this pain, this grief, this absence,
then out of that something arises. And what arises is love.
I don't have to do anything. I don't have to create anything. Love
arises by itself. It's been there all the time, and now, when I'm
less protected than at any other moment in my life, it's there.
People ask me every day how I'm doing. I don't know how to answer
them, there are no words. So I just tell them I'm bearing witness.
It must be hard, they say.
But isn't it sad? they ask. Isn't it painful?
No, I say. It's raw, that's all. It's bearing witness. And the state
of bearing witness is the state of love.
Jishu continues to lie in peace in her home, by candlelight that
is never extinguished. At some point I will build a stupa and her
relics will go there. I am travelling again, and appearing in public
again. That I includes Jishu.
Jishu kept a journal for many years. When I get low it helps me
to read it. On December 23, 1992, two days before Christmas, she
wrote the following:
"I have reached a crossroads. The old ways of being don't
work anymore. I can't just "do" anymore. God has taken
away my capacity for that. I am in a state of not-knowing: not-knowing
who I am, what my values are, what my goals are, how I will get
along, what will become of me. It's frightening and at the same
time I feel hopeful."
And on April 9, 1995, she wrote this:
"I want results instead of process. What a trap. As I create
and listen, I will be led. As I create and listen, I will be led.
As I create and listen, I will be led. The process takes care of
itself. Just listen. As I create and listen, I will be led."