Joshin Byrnes

Bread Loaf Mountain, Vermont

Joshin Byrnes is the founder and Guiding Teacher of the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community in Vermont. He is also active in Bernie Glassman’s “Zen Peacemakers” and continues the tradition of Street Retreats that Bernie had conducted, bringing Zen practitioners to live among the homeless in urban centers

Joshin’s life story is compelling. He attended a Catholic seminary for a while, although he stopped short of ordination. Instead of becoming a priest, he earned a degree in Medieval Musicology and took up Zen practice, studying with Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe.

He describes his family as working-class poor. “My dad did blue collar work. Sometimes a truck driver, sometimes a floor manager when he worked. He was often unemployed because of his alcoholism or because he had lost a license for driving while under the influence. And then in ’82, my mother died and soon after that, my father became homeless, which influenced my spiritual life pretty deeply.”

For a long while after his mother’s death, Joshin and his father were alienated from one another. “Then later in life he came out of homelessness, and I was already a Zen practitioner. One of the connections I had to Bernie Glassman’s Zen was the street practice which appealed to me. I did a lot of other things; I’d worked in a lot of social services by then. But by the time my father reappeared, I realized I had compassion for all these anonymous people, these strangers who were suffering, but – boy! – when I dealt with my father there wasn’t much compassion there. And I started trying to work on that a little bit.

“Then he got in touch with me and wanted to see me. At first, I didn’t want to go. At this point, I was already at Upaya; I was already practicing. So, this kind of inner confusion or conflict was interesting to me. So I decided to go, and he was living in a tiny little efficiency apartment. There was cigarette smoke and beer cans and open cans of pork and beans and Fox News blaring in the background. To me it seemed like a Hell realm; to him, I think, it was a little bit of paradise. And he told me then that he had esophageal cancer and was dying. And so I sat with him there for a number of days, and over the course of those days – I didn’t realize it at the beginning, but I realized as the conversations went on – he was going to confession to me. He was talking about his regrets in life and was looking for some kind of forgiveness, I think. And the conversations were slow. He wouldn’t look me in the face. We’d sit side by side watching Fox News, and he’d say things like how terrible he was to my mother or things he did and witnessed when he was in the Korean War. The opportunities that he squandered during his life.

“And it went on and on and on, and it struck me, ‘Oh! He sees me as a priest.’ And something about that kind of melted me and softened me. And by the end of three or four days, I decided I would cook him a meal that I knew would please him very much. It was a meal my mother used to cook a lot. And I saw that as – you know, without saying the words – it was a kind of absolution, and it was very touching to have that meal with him. It was very emotional. And that experience really changed me. Yeah.”

Joshin tells me there is a residential training program for novice priests at Bread Loaf Mountain. I ask what the priests do once ordained.

“That’s a very good question. It’s a question we grapple with all the time. We don’t know exactly. These are the questions on the table. What is priesthood? Why do it? What does it contribute to anything? In our tradition, the terms ‘priest’ and ‘monastic’ have been exchanged with one another at different times. We wonder if we are more New Monastics than we are priests. We’re not in the culture that provided the philosophical and cultural context within which Buddhism emerged, and I think that’s part of the experiment of Buddhism in the West.”

The “New Monasticism” he refers to is a concept developed by lay Christians in Britain during the 1970s and ’80s. “I think the distinction between lay and monastic gets blurred in New Monasticism and quite intentionally,” he explains. “In some ways it’s a funny remnant – isn’t it? – that we think only those that have separated themselves from society are capable of reaching high levels of spiritual insight. That is an odd thing, and I think it’s a cultural remnant. I would say we should question that assumption. Anyone is capable of spiritual insight – profound spiritual insight – and spiritual experience. So what are the structures and systems that allow people to practice rigorously even though they are not living on the outskirts of town or up on top of a mountain or in a cave? I think this is a Zen gift. Can our ordinary daily lives, can washing your bowl be a path to awakening? And if we practice whole-heartedly with whatever we’ve got, wherever we are, no matter what conditions we place ourselves in, isn’t the opportunity of awakening always there? Because Buddha’s always there. Your own Buddha Nature is always there.

He tells me about a street retreat in which he had recently participated. “We were incognito, but every day we had some meditation time, and we’d do some chanting and stuff. And one guy in a park noticed us doing this. A very large rotund guy with a big smile. And he called me over one day, and he said, ‘Are you guys Buddhists?’ And I said, ‘Ah! It’s interesting that you ask. Yes. We’re doing this as a Zen Buddhist practice.’ And he said, ‘I’m Buddha.’ And then, before I could respond, he said, ‘So are you.’ And I said, ‘Oh, wow. How’d you get there?’ And he said, ‘Years ago I was in prison, and a Zen Buddhist came in and taught. And he sat down with us, and he didn’t tell us his name. He introduced himself as Buddha. And then he made all of us go around and introduce ourselves as Buddha. And I really understood, right there, that everybody’s a Buddha.’ He said, ‘This made total sense to me, ’cause when I was a kid I was always fat and I was always smiling and everybody called me Buddha. But,’ he said, ‘I get it. Everybody’s a Buddha.’” Joshin smiles. “And I thought, ‘That’s the wisdom of the streets. It’s so beautiful.’”

Further Zen Conversations: 68-69; 137-39.

Joshin with Bernie Glassman, 2015

Published by Rick McDaniel

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

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