Bernie’s Training: In the Beginning

Essay By Bernie Glassman Picture by Peter Cunningham

I was just doing zen meditation and one day I had an experience in which I felt I lost my mind—and it terrified me. And out of that experience, what came up was I quit Zazen. I quit for a year. I was so terrified by what had happened. That night I had to keep the lights on in the house. I had no idea what was going on. And so I stayed away, and it could have been forever. That experience could have led me to stop doing Zazen forever.

But, I had read a book called Three Pillars of Zen, which many of you might know. And a man, Yasutani Roshi, who appears in that book, and some of you are from the Sanbo Kyodan club, and that, was started by Yasutani Roshi. He’s my grandfather in the Dharma. My teacher studied under Yasutani. My teacher studied under three teachers, one of whom was Yasutani. So, Yasutani is one of my grandfathers. And I also studied under Yasutani, but that was later.

What happened is I had been terrified. I had read many things about Zen. And then I saw, and I read the book Three Pillars of Zen. And then I saw an advertisement saying Yasutani Roshi was going to give a talk in Los Angeles. That’s where I was living. And so I went to the talk. And at that talk I met the translator—Yasutani Roshi did not speak English. His translator was a man name Maezumi, who then becomes my teacher.

I went up to the translator, and I said, “Do you have [It turns out I had met the translator about four years before] a group?” And he says, “I just opened up a place.” And I started to study with him—every day.

If that hadn’t happened, I probably would have never gone back to Zen, because of that experience. I had nobody to talk to about it. So, the result of that experience for me was the importance of having a teacher, which then got reinforced when I became my teacher’s right hand person in our Zen Center in Los Angeles. And many students would come who had no teacher, and had been doing meditation for long periods. By then many people knew about meditation, and they would do it on their own. And in many cases, perfectly OK, but many cases the people that were on their own had damaged themselves. Some in a physical way—their eye sight had gotten worse, some their breathing had gotten worse, many had so conditioned themselves to working on things like Mu, or different things that they had read about that it was hard to get them to work correctly—correctly in the way that we wanted to teach.

So that just reinforced for me—if anybody in those days would say, “Can I study without a teacher?” I would say, “No. You’re opening yourself for problems.” All kinds of things can happen. There are many experiences that can arise out of meditation that can be traps. It’s like taking drugs and having an experience—it could be a problem. It may feel great. Wow! But it may cause problems. The main problem when it feels great is that you want to recreate it. “I want to do that again!” You know? And if you try to do it through meditation, you try to get your meditation to do that—to recreate the experience that you had. And that’s bad news, man. It’s bad news.

At any rate, that was the first experience that came out of bearing witness, out of sitting, and the fear that I had lost my mind. And so the action that had come out of that, which was dropping Zen, you could label it however you wanted to. But at that point in my life, that was the action that came out of not knowing and bearing witness. And most people will say, “Well, who wants that kind of action?” Well, I mean, who are you to choose? And you would say, “That’s bad.” So then we can have as our third Tenet bad actions, you know. At any rate, it was an action that happened.

So I was practicing with my teacher. At that time, my teacher, he was in the Japanese Soto club. And when he went to Buddhist University, he lived at a dojo at a training place of a wonderful man named Koryu Roshi, a lay Rinzai teacher. He lived there, and that’s where he started his koan study. And because of that, when he came to the States, he continued. He came as a young man to help in a Japanese temple. Maezumi Roshi was also studying koan study with Yasutani Roshi—there are two different systems of koans.

In 1969 Yasutani Roshi decided—he had been coming to the United States every year, helping a friend of his, I don’t want to give you all these names, but the friend was Soen Nakagawa Roshi, it gets confusing. But he was helping a friend, so he came every year to run sesshins. And Maezumi wound up being a translator on the west coast for Yasutani, and decided to start studying with him—although he had been studying with this other man, Koryu Roshi. And he also was part of this Soto tradition.

So I was practicing with my teacher Maezumi Roshi, and it was a time that he was not doing koan study. So in ’69, when Yasutani Roshi told him that “I’m not going back anymore to America—the United States—come with me to Japan, and finish your training with me.” And Maezumi said, “OK.” And then he said, “Bernie [he called me Tetsugen in those days] Tetsugen, you run the Zen Center here in Los Angeles.” So, I was just thirty years old, right, and I was put in charge of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which meant giving talks and interviews, conducting the Zazen.

And also that year, Koryu Roshi—the man that Maezumi Roshi started to do his work with when he was in University—decided to come to the United States, to Los Angeles, so that Maezumi could finish the koan study with him. So he came. And  Maezumi Roshi had been gone for a year, and then he came back for a month, then he went back to Japan. But when he came back for the month, Koryu came. And I decided Maezumi Roshi was my teacher—my root teacher—but I decided to do sesshin with Koryu Roshi (and Maezumi Roshi was translating).

And I joined that sesshin. I passed the koan Mu, in a way that Koryu Roshi and Maezumi Roshi thought was very unusual. So Mu is a koan, usually the first koan in koan systems. A koan is something you contemplate on until you can present the meaning—but not intellectual meaning—you can present it via expression, that you’ve experienced what it is. And working on a koan Mu, is exactly like working on what is not knowing? —The first tenet of our Three Tenets.So to pass the koan Mu, you are supposed to experience the state of not knowing. OK. So the Three Tenets actually come out of my Zen training. And they come out of—as you’ll see—a lot from the koan study.

But at any rate, so I was—in the terminology we use now—I was bearing witness to not knowing. Didn’t know it was not knowing, so it was in the form of this word Muuuuu! I was bearing witness to that. And an experience came out in which I felt the unity of life. And they said—I mean they do testing and whatever—but they thought it was very, very deep. In fact Koryu Roshi went back to Japan, and told everybody about what had happened with this guy, this American. So I actually went to Japan shortly after and did more study with him. And everybody that saw me said, “Wow, you’re Tetsugen, huh?” They all had known about it. That experience dictated my next almost twenty years—no, ten years. Ten years had passed, fifteen—but at any rate, it was a major thing during those first twenty years.

So the two big experiences during those first twenty years was 1) feeling I had gone crazy, and out of which came the feeling I have to have a teacher; and 2) the experience of the unity of life in such a way that I felt that I could help people have that experience, and that it was extremely important. It was the most important thing in my life.

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6 Comments

  1. Bernie. Thank you for this piece. It allows me even more than before to recognize how fortunate I was and am to have met Genjo, with whom I am practicing and studying now for three years. Through some books, I am biting myself through, e.g, Zen teaching first and second generation in the US, by Rick McDaniels, whom I happened to get to know personally two weeks ago, some of the names start to sound familiar to me, such as Soen Nagawaka, whom you are mentioning.
    All this unfolding process had started reading your book “Bearing Witness” and kind of sitting with it in front of a candle for quite some time, until I was seeing you – in flesh – in Frankfurt, in the year 2009 at the sie of H.H. Dalai Lama, asking the one decisive question, into the public, which might have consisted of about 8000 attendants: That’s all very nice, but I am asking myself: What about those who are not hearing this mission?

    From Frankfurt I registered for the Auschwitz-BWR in 2010.
    Some days before 2016 is starting, I cannot but stumble, how wondrous this life is. I wish to add that some days ago I had shared with Genjo my reflections about MU and the first tenet.

    There would be more, but for now: Gassho!
    JiOn

  2. See? That’s what bearing witness means. And “See?” That’s what Maezumi Roshi used to interject into most of his Dharma Talks. “See?” Roshi would say after explicating a point, a koan, or an insight. “See?” Yes, I see.

    And when I passed “Mu” with Bernie he said, “Michael, Michael, Michael…” in a kind of exasperated way because I was kind of crazy back then. I first said something relevant on the phone to him after I had an experience with the koan. Bernie said, “Michael, Michael, Michael…” and then I saw him in person soon after and passed the koan. After we left his room at the little house in Yonkers were Bernie lived then, and began walking downstairs Bernie said, “Simpler, Michael. Be a little simpler.” Then he cleaned up the entire house. And his wife at that time Yuho said, “Sensei is cleaning. He never cleans.” She grabbed my arm and looked at me so intensely. As if to say, “What is gong on with you?”

    Later, I was sitting with them and thought, “Gee, I wonder if I could heal the problem, or the distance between them.” And though I said nothing out loud Bernie looked at me and said, “Wow.”

  3. A teacher that thinks he can teach something to seomeone still has to learn a lot.

  4. janet kody

    and somehow i am honored to be part of a ripple effect of your experiences. years ago i “discovered” Roshi Robert Kennedy and life has never been the same…..sometimes crazy…sometimes bliss…but always growth. my gratitude to you. we truly are all connected.

  5. Enjoyed reading this Bernie…warm greetings!

  6. Rich Madden

    Get well soon

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