Bernie Interview Q1: How do you bring together the poles of spirituality and activism?

Questions by Christa Spannbaur
Recorded at Rowe Conference Center by Ari Pliskin

1) You’re one of the most important Buddhist pioneers in bridging the gap between spirituality and social activism, a gap which is still very wide in the Western world. Many people on the spiritual path are convinced that they do enough for the betterment of the world by sitting on their meditation-cushions searching for their inner peace. Because of that, many socially and politically engaged people are very suspicious of spiritual people and think of them as being egocentric and selfish. How can we bring these opposite poles together?

Bernie Glassman: As a teacher, I come up with things that work for this place and time to help my students realize the oneness and interconnectedness of life. I’m strongly committed to the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers. Our first tenant is not-knowing, our second tenant is bearing witness and our third tenant is loving actions.

By not-knowing, I don’t mean not collecting knowledge and studying and learning. What I mean is not being attached to any of that. Enter a situation as open as you can be. We have different things we do to reach not-knowing. For those who have done koan study, that is the state that is the essence of mu or the essence of one hand.

Bearing witness is removing the dualism between you and the object. If you are bearing witness to suffering and you are not suffering, then it isn’t bearing witness. Bearing witness to joy is joy. Bearing witness to suffering is suffering.

Third is do something about it: loving actions. Get involved. It’s not enough to just sit in a group and talk about it or read interviews about it. My experience is that if you can enter the space of not-knowing and bear witness, then unplanned loving actions arise. As people deepen their understanding of the oneness of life, the loving actions are the side effects.

My biggest interest is in bearing witness to the system. My reflection has been that people honor those who attend those hurt by the system, but we kill those who try to change the system. Many wonderful people, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahtma Ghandi were assassinated because they were changing the system. I think one can both bear witness to the people in front of you and to the system as whole. That is why I’m trying to promote social engagement throughout all of Buddhism. That is a systems change.

You don’t have to choose between meeting the needs of the people in front of you and changing the system. You do all of it. If you run into someone who is hungry, you feed them. It doesn’t prevent you from doing the job training and help get out of welfare, but it is critical to take care of issues that threaten people’s lives.

Some people get upset when they observe how much going is on. They ask, ’how can I do it all? I only have two hands!’. I ask ’what is the best thing I can do now?’ When Kannon makes the Boddhisatva vow of saving all beings, Kannon breaks into tons of pieces. If you think of only what you have, you could think of all kinds of reasons for not doing things. But if you think of the whole world as you, you have many more resources. Leaders need to motivate, mobilize and coordinate entire communities.

At Greyston, we didn’t know enough to know we were in over our heads. We bore witness to needs of people needing housing and we made a difference that rippled throughout the country. You need to constantly focus on what you are going to do and do it.

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