Bernie Glassman

If one gets off the Interstate and the Turnpike, rural Massachusetts is very picturesque. Small towns, lovely rivers, and trestle bridges. This is Johnny Appleseed country. There are either striking big green hills or small green mountains – perhaps part of the Berkshires – on the horizon. Montague is a village surrounded by farms, some of which profess to be organic.

I drove there in July 2013 to visit Bernie Glassman. I found his house down a narrow county road where the trees came together overhead. His wife, Eve, was just going out for a swim in a nearby lake; my wife, Joan, joined her while I conducted the interview.

We sat in an area in front of a glassed-in fireplace. On the coffee table was a copy of Cigar Aficionado magazine with Jeff Bridges’ photo on the cover. He and Glassman had recently released a book entitled The Dude and the Zen Master. There was a large calligraphy scroll on the wall behind Glassman’s chair; an eight-foot Jizo in the further part of the room, as well as a small table or altar with statues of both Kannon and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Bernie was wearing a blue patterned shirt and loose white slacks with suspenders that he occasionally adjusted as we spoke. He was bearded, and his gray hair receded from his forehead; he wore it long, tied in a pony tail. Looking at him then, it was difficult to picture him in formal Zen robes and rakusu, but at one time he had been very proper in his appearance and his teaching. His days of formal teaching, however, were over by the time I met him.

“I have twenty Dharma successors, which is insane.” Many of them carry on traditional Zen instruction, but if he thought they might be getting a bit stuffy “or too arrogant,” he would show up at their centers unannounced, dressed as a clown and “disrupt things.”  He earned his clown nose legitimately, having studied with a couple of teachers named Wavy-Gravy and Mr. Yoo-hoo. He told me he carried the nose all the time and, indeed, it was in his pocket as we spoke.

There’s nothing clownish, however, about what he had dedicated himself to.

When he was studying at the Los Angeles Zen Center with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, he had a deep experience of the interconnectedness of all things. The purpose of Zen, he told me, is to elicit such awareness, and it makes use of a number of upayas—skillful means—to bring it forth. Meditation is certainly one, but not the only. Out of that experience he moved gradually into social engagement. After all, basic to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things is an awareness of the interconnectedness of people – even people, perhaps especially people, whom we have marginalized or whom in some way we have defined as “other” than us.

When he left Los Angeles, he went back to New York—where he had been raised—and established the Zen Community of New York. In addition to standard meditation training, he began to do street meditations with his students. They would join him in immersing themselves in the life of homeless. As one participant told me, if he wanted a cup of coffee, he needed to beg for the money. The only preparation was to not bathe or shave for two days before going on the street. The only rules were not to lie and to stay together in small groups of three. Every morning there would be a shared reflection; and in the evening they found a place to sleep together. They tended to avoid shelters because of the dangers of violence and tuberculosis. “You could sleep in bus stations, but you’d be kicked out by the police.” The only “practice” was to be present.

Bernie identified three “tenet koans” which he later carried over to his work with Zen Peacemakers. 1) Not knowing; 2) Bearing witness; 3) Loving action. If one wanted to, one could analyze how these tenets evolved from the classical Hakuin koan curriculum, beginning with Mu (not-knowing) and proceeding through the precepts. But it isn’t a pattern unique to Buddhism, or even Zen. A friend of Bernie’s had shown how they also relate to a contemporary understanding of the Torah.

He and his previous wife (Sandra Jishu Holmes who died in 1998) founded Zen Peacemakers in 1996. Every year they held a Witnessing Retreat at Auschwitz. “There’s no teacher,” he told me. “Auschwitz is the teacher.” The Nazi program at Auschwitz was the supreme example of defining people who don’t represent a specific norm as “other”—whether Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, or whatever.

The retreats had had as many as 160 participants, although by the time I spoke with him it was capped at 120. The majority of those participating would never have done any formal Zen training. It isn’t only Zen practitioners who can realize interconnectedness.

When I ask to take his photo, he suggests we do it in the yard behind his house. There is a tall wooden Kannon statue with distinctly non-Asian features. “It was carved by a guy who didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but he carved it for a woman who was a Buddhist.” Again, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is not unique to Buddhism, as the Virgin of Guadalupe in the house attests.

Our wives returned from swimming. As Joan and I drove away, I heard Bernie and Eve discussing who would prepare dinner that night and whether the proper ingredients were available.

Bernie Glassman died on November 4, 2018, a few months shy of his 80th birthday.

Cypress Trees in the Garden: 76, 134, 173, 235-50, 255, 258, 260, 274, 276, 280, 287, 296-97, 305-07, 309-10, 468

Catholicism and Zen: 148, 152-54, 156, 158, 164, 165

The Story of Zen: 7, 270-73, 320-21, 353, 362-67, 371, 427

Zen Conversations: 28-29; 105-06; 137-40.

Other links:


Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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