Interview Questions for Zen Master Bernie Glassman

As I explained in a previous post, a Zen journalist in Germany sent us a set of excellent questions that became the basis of a workshop given by Zen Master Bernie Glassman.  Here are the questions.  Stay tuned to this blog for answers.

Interview with Bernard Glassman Roshi

by Christa Spannbauer

Berlin, 2010/01/20


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 Germany and the Western world as a whole. 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?

2) When people in the West think of Zen, they tend to think of people wearing black robes sitting in meditation-halls for many hours, in strict silence, without moving. Your practice of Zen seems to be very different from that. What is Zen for you?

3) It’s become almost a sort of spiritual dogma in the Western world: the belief that you first have to find inner peace before you can commit yourself to peace-work in the outer world. Your own opinion is very different from that and refreshingly rebellious. Would you like to explain your opinion?

4) Your own social activism as a Buddhist Zen-master is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of taking care of others. Despite the first vow in Zen, which is to save all sentient beings, in the Zen-tradition there’s not much real engagement in taking care of the poor and the underprivileged, which is often the case within the Judeo-Christian tradition. What do you think are the reasons for that, and what’s your vision of Zen in the modern world?

5) You are the founder of the Zen-Peacemakers and you initiated many social projects within the last decades: AIDS-houses, the Greyston bakery, housing-projects for homeless people. Your newest project is the foundation of Zen-houses. Can you explain what they’re for and what the idea is behind them?

6) Some people say that your practice of Zen is nothing more than social activism and your students are no longer Zen-disciples but social workers and street-workers. They wonder how your students will ever wake up if they don’t sit in retreats for weeks and work instead helping AIDS-patients, opening child-care-centres and helping homeless people on the streets. How do you answer those critics?

7) How do you train your students to be able to go right into the centre of the suffering of the world without loosing their spiritual trust in life and their inner balance?

8 ) Zen-Centres and meditation-halls in Germany are full of people who belong to the well-off middle-classes. Spirituality has become a domain for people with a good income and with a higher education. We could even sharpen that and say that spirituality is only for privileged people who can afford to search for their enlightenment. Poor people don’t have the money or the time to do that. How can we make spirituality accessible to all people?

9) For more than ten years you’ve been holding retreats with people from all over the world in the former concentration camp of Auschwitz. What has Auschwitz taught you in those years? And what can Auschwitz teach all of us who are on the spiritual path?

10)In an interview that you gave in Auschwitz you said: “There is a part of us that allows us to dehumanize people. It’s an aspect of ourselves that we don’t want to touch. Auschwitz is the world-monument of that aspect of ourselves.” How can we deal with this aspect in us so that it doesn’t cause so much harm in the world?

11)The subtitle of your book “Instructions for the cook”, which is a classic in Buddhist literature and which is now re-published in Germany, is: “Instructions for living a life that matters”. What does it mean for you to live a life that matters?

12)What is your vision today for a better world in future?


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