Layman Pang and his daughter Lingzhao were selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Lingzhao saw this she ran to her father’s side and threw herself on the ground.

“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.

“I saw Daddy fall down, so I’m helping,“ replied Lingzhao.

“Luckily no one was looking,“ remarked the Layman.

~ The Recorded Sayings of Layman Pang

I was reading the above koan with a friend recently, and thoughts of Tetsugen Bernie Glassman, who passed away a month ago, came up. One of his favored expressions was “bearing witness”. I had always thought of “bearing witness” as an archaic Christian term, as in: “The spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Paul to the Romans 8:14-17). In that context, the words mean a profession of faith, a demonstration of proof through testimony, even to proselytize. But in Western Buddhist circles, in recent years, the term has taken on new meaning. Bearing witness is recognition of a human situation, inherently considered unacceptable, that is illuminated through quiet, meditative protest. Bernie was all about that, and more.

Like hundreds of others, I knew Tetsugen mostly as the head monk and assisting teacher at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, where I attended retreats for some years. Like Layman Pang’s daughter, Lingzhao, he continually threw himself on the ground next to us. He was a powerful, magma-like presence sitting in the zendo, but could also be very soft and warm. I remember after one emotionally-trying retreat, which held for me moments of both enlightenment and “en-darkenment”, he kindly sought me out and spent some time checking in. I remember his dark, baleful eyes which like deep, black pools held in them the trials of the world. About 25 years ago, Bernie disrobed and jumped full-time into socially-engaged Buddhism, illuminating homelessness by holding Street Retreats or shedding light on the horrors of genocide by giving meditation retreats at Auschwitz and elsewhere. It was, and remains, critically important work.

I think, however, there is a deeper message about the meaning of “help” in this koan: it means “witnessing”. I can’t speak for Bernie, but it seems to me that both his social-engagement work and daughter Lingzhao’s throwing herself on the ground, were not just expressions of aid. Their acts of diving were clear recognition that the world, and all its many parts, is whole and complete from the very first. When everything is in the right place, what is there to help? But in Zen, “show” is often clearer than “tell”. That is why Bernie, who once attended clown school, was known to put on a red clown’s nose when he wanted to help. Luckily, everyone was looking.