NPR Interview of Bernie Glassman

Host: And now for a fuller picture of Zen Buddhism, we turn to the man known as the grandfather of socially engaged Buddhism, Bernie Glassman. He says Zen Buddhism is indeed focused on looking inward, but it’s also about helping the world around you. He’s been a practicing Zen Buddhist for nearly sixty years. And he’s the founder of a Buddhist peace activist group called Zen Peacemakers. His latest book is called The Dude and the Zen Master. Welcome back to the show Bernie.

Bernie: Thank you.

Host: Now as we just heard from our interview with Mark Oppenheimer, Zen became extremely popular in America in the 1960s, which is right around the time that you became interested in it. So, what appeal did Zen have for you, as someone raised in a Jewish home?

Bernie: I read a book in 1958 called The Religions of Man by Huston Smith. And there was one page about Zen, and it struck home to me. And what it was talking about was realizing the interconnectedness of life and living in the moment. As Ram Dass has said, “be here, now.”

Host: And that’s what grabbed you, “be here, now”?

Bernie: Yep.

Host: And what about other Americans? Why does Zen continue to be so appealing?

Bernie: Well, Zen is an experiential religion. That is, it’s not a dogma. It’s not based on any scriptures or sutras. But it’s based on a direct experience of the interconnectedness of life. Its mode is very simple. So it’s appealing to those that are not drawn to iconography or beautiful figures, but are drawn to personal experiences of the oneness of life.

Host: Would you call Zen Buddhism a religion? Or is it something else?

Bernie: Well, if you say “Zen Buddhism,” sure, it’s a religion. But, Zen can be practiced by people in many religions. So, I’ve empowered forty different folks as teachers of Zen. And some of them are Rabbis, some are Sheikhs—Sufi Sheikhs, and some are Catholic Priests and Sisters in the Catholic Church. So Zen by itself can be practiced by anyone in any religion, or by secular folks.

Host: And so when you say, “Zen can be practiced by people of these other faith traditions,” what is it that can be practiced across these faith traditions?

Bernie: Well, Zen means meditation.

Host: OK.

Bernie: So a basic practice of Zen is meditation. But it’s meditation directed—a particular kind of meditation, there are many kinds of meditations—Zen is a mediation that’s directed at experiencing the non-dual state—the state in which there’s no subject and object relationship. That’s a state that’s coming not from the brain, but from the heart. And in that state you are experiencing the oneness of life. The word Buddha means awakened one.

Host: Mmmm hmmm.

Bernie: And then the question becomes “awakened to what?” And it’s an awakening to the oneness of life. Within Buddhism there are many many different schools using different techniques to help you experience that interconnectedness of life, or that oneness of life. Zen focuses on meditation as it’s main method. But there are many other methods. As you mentioned in the introduction, I use social engagement as a major method of experiencing that interconnectedness of life.

Host: What would it actually look like to live as if you knew that we were all connected? How would that person live his or her life?

Bernie: Well let me give you an example—a metaphor. One of the major figures in Buddhism in Japan, who lived around 500 a.d., said that “the way that you can tell the depth of a persons enlightenment is how they serve others.” So let’s start with the simplest type of awakening experience. You function as if you’re all one. That is, your head, your arms, your legs—you don’t even say to people “Well, that’s all me. That’s Maureen.” You take that for granted. But your functioning is such, that for example, let’s say that your left arm and your right arm felt they were separate entities. And they called themselves, maybe Mary is the left arm, John is the right arm. If Mary gets cut and blood is gushing out, John might say “I haven’t studied medicine. I’m not a doctor. I don’t have the tools,” and might contemplate “Should I help Mary or not?” And maybe John walks away. And Mary bleeds to death. And John dies. And Maureen dies. Once that experience has happened, there’s no way that the right arm can ignore the left arm bleeding, and does the best it can do to take care of it. It doesn’t say, “Do I have the right tools? Do I have the right knowledge?” It just does the best it can. So now if we go a little further, and say a woman gives birth. At the time of birth the child might be colic and the mother reacts immediately, because there’s no separation. It’s one being. But as time goes on, they become separate entities. And now, I might walk down the street, see the child on the street that may have fallen, and I may say, “Well, I’m too busy. I’ll cross the street and get away from that.” If I realize that that child is me—I’m that child, that we are one body—I can’t walk away. I take care. So the functioning of life becomes one of service to all that you have connected with.

Host: And so, helping that child, or the baby, or whomever, this is what it means to be engaged with the world in your vision of Zen?

Bernie: I believe so.

Host: Yeah.

Bernie: And so as a practice, I take people to live in the streets to realize what it is to be a street person. And in fact, I then out of that experience have worked with the homeless in Yonkers, New York, building housing, childcare, creating jobs, taking care of people with AIDS, because it’s all me. So I take care of that which is me—which is the world. And so it looks like I’m serving the world, but in reality I’m serving myself. I’m taking care of who I am.

Host: Because it’s all of a piece. It’s all really one, in your conception of Zen. And if you were going to communicate one big idea that you would want our listeners to understand about Zen Buddhism, what would that idea be?

Bernie: Yeah somebody asked me “what would be my dying words?” If I were dying and saying to people what do I think is important to say, I would say, “It’s just your opinion, man.” That is, we have our concepts which we hang on to, and fight in fact. Many times we go to war and we kill people because they don’t hear our opinions. Because we think our opinions are the truth—that that’s the reality. But in my opinion, those are just opinions. And if we can take that fact, then we can share opinions. We can disagree about our opinions. And we can dialog about our opinions. And then it becomes fun, man. But once we grab onto it as the truth, as the way. That leads to fighting, to separation, to isolation, and killing.

Host: And thus, when you let go of that, you have Zen Peacemakers?

Bernie: Yep. That’s my opinion, man.

Host: Bernie Glassman is the founder of Zen Peacemakers, and his latest book is called The Dude and the Zen Master. Thanks so much for joining us today.

Bernie: Thank you.

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4/18/2014