The work of Roshi Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers has elicited significant critical and media acclaim.
Below are links to a selection of articles:
When Bernie Glassman met Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, it was the beginning of a high- caloric connection.
They met in 1987 at a lakeside conference in Colorado , attended by dozens of business executives who were planning a network of “socially responsible” companies.
Cohen and Greenfield , the co- founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company, were also taking care of business – looking for someone to bake a really thin brownie for a new ice cream sandwich.
Glassman, a Buddhist priest and founder of the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers , was looking for anyone who wanted to buy a lot more baked goods – so he could expand his inner-city business and offer more jobs to people trying desperately to find work.
“So I ended up meeting Bernie, this Jewish-Buddhist, former nuclear physicist-monk from Brooklyn ,” Cohen recalled in a recent phone interview from his Vermont office.
“He was easy to talk to,” said Cohen, who grew up in Merrick . “And somehow or other, we fell into a conversation as we all walked around the lake.” During the stroll, Glassman mentioned the bakery and his plans to employ the supposedly unemployable.
“Well, that’s amazing,” Cohen said, “because we’re looking for some thin, chewy, fudgy brownies. Do you think you can make them?”
“Sure, I can,” Glassman replied, and the link between baker and ice cream- makers was established. Soon after, the first shipment of brownies was trucked to Vermont .
There was one dark moment, when that first batch of Greyston brownies arrived. Because of a temperature failure, they had solidified into massive, 50- pound blocks of chocolate fudge cookies, Cohen said, and attempts to pry them apart resulted only in many small bits of cookie.
In a desperate experiment, they tried putting bits of cookie into batches of chocolate ice cream – and Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream was created. Today, Greyston is still making thousands of pounds of brownies every day for three of Ben & Jerry’s flavors, and across the country, chocolate fudge brownie ice cream remains in the company’s top 10 list of most popular flavors.
While sitting in an elegant Manhattan restaurant, savoring the triple chocolate mousse cake from Greyston Bakery, you’d hardly give a thought to Steve Gill, who once spent six years behind bars.
At home, watching TV and crunching on Ben & Jerry’s popular chocolate fudge brownie ice cream – with the cookie bits from Greyston’s – you aren’t likely to ponder the life of Mohammed Kasheem, a young man from Bangladesh who struggled to find a decent job.
You might love the sweets from Greyston’s old factory in Yonkers but probably never heard of Maulette Anderson – a single mother with no vocational skills when she found a better life at the bakery. Now, she decorates the fanciest cakes like an expert.
Gill and his co-workers – about 60 of them – are employed at Greyston’s time-worn plant on Woodworth Avenue , once a lasagna factory in the 1920s. It’s located in a sad and slightly foreboding neighborhood a few blocks from the Hudson River in southwest Yonkers .
Most of the workers are people who have often been described as the most unemployable and expendable in America . Among them are new immigrants and members of minorities, people who dropped out of school, fell into trouble with the law, never learned the rules of the workplace or how to support themselves.
At the bakery, they get a regular paycheck, on-the-job training, a chance for advancement and a taste of dignity. Bathed in the permeating aroma of chocolate, many have found an unexpectedly sweet life here, in unpromising surroundings where a passerby would hardly suspect the artistry in flour and sugar going on within.
Greyston’s ovens work around the clock, three shifts a day, to produce brownies by the thousands, as well as such mouth-watering excesses as coconut lemon mousse cake, ivory mocha mousse cake, Venetian wine cake and its bestseller, triple chocolate mousse cake.
Most cakes are bound for top-scale restaurants – though Greyston itself often does not get its just desserts. The cakes are fully credited on the menu, for instance, at the National Arts Club in Manhattan , but many other classy eateries silently imply that the baked goods came from their own ovens. They’re that good.
But that’s acceptable – the Greyston Bakery is much more than the sum of its calories.
Profits in dough The Greyston Bakery, once an experiment in job-making, has become the for-profit wing of the Greyston Foundation. After taxes, the bakery profits are “contributed” to the foundation to support its growing community assistance program.
With an annual operating budget of $13.5 million, the foundation’s projects include housing for formerly homeless, low- income and working families, as well as child-care services, educational and scholarship programs, an adult health care center serving about 180 people, parenting classes, a drug abuse program and housing for people living with HIV/AIDS.
The creation of the bakery and the foundation was a dream come true for a Brooklyn-born, Jewish aerospace-engineer-turned-Buddhist activist named Bernie Glassman .
A lifelong advocate of progressive causes, Glassman was living in California , where he became entranced with the altruistic principles of Zen Buddhism. After his conversion, he studied at the Zen Center in Los Angeles and became a teacher and priest. By 1980, he was ready for action.
“Social action had always been a part of who I was, and I wanted to return to New York to start a Zen center there and to get involved in social issues,” Glassman said. His first move was to open a tiny bakery in a Bronx storefront in 1982. “It was a Zen training center and also a way of earning money, so we could start working in the community.”
In 1985, Glassman was able to move the baking operations to Yonkers , where his focus was on the neighborhood, beset with the problems of single-parent families, the poor and the homeless. And the work of the Greyston Foundation began.
It was Glassman’s dream to offer a wide range of social services, including housing and child care, to both employees and people in the community. From the start, Glassman hired people who had the most difficulty finding employment – people who had been in jails, in youth detention, without job skills.
Meanwhile, Glassman recruited help from the Zen community in San Francisco to help train people. And soon enough, Greyston’s gourmet cakes were winning awards.
“We were working with folks who were supposedly untrainable and unusable – and they created top-of-the-line products. That was what I was looking to do – to create things that were beautiful with folks who society felt couldn’t do anything. It was a Zen idea: to create a profit-making enterprise to support a spiritual and social goal.”
Brownies, cakes and tarts At the Greyston plant, work went on nonstop as usual on a recent afternoon. The air was filled with the heady aroma of brownies. On the production floor, everyone was wearing white coats, white shower caps and beard masks – the required dress code – to keep hair from falling into the mix.
In the cakes-and-tarts section, Mohammed Kasheem was supervising final touches on the triple chocolate mousse cakes. Kasheem, 31, started as a dishwasher in 1993 and now is supervisor of Greyston’s production of baked desserts.
Nearby, Maulette Anderson sculpted little curlicues of frosting atop a chocolate almond cake.
In the brownie department, Rodney Johnson is boss. A former crack dealer, Johnson gave up the street life to take an entry-level job here. Now, he’s in charge of the department, which produces 10,000 pounds of brownies a day, most of them trucked to the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream plant in Vermont .
The bakery’s credo is displayed throughout the plant: It reads in part: “Greyston Bakery provides a support ive workplace, offering employment and opportunity for advancement. Our profits contribute to the community development work of the Greyston Foundation.”
At street level, cakes were on sale to walk-in customers in an office big enough for a couple of desks. Baked goods also are available online and at Greyston’s new cafe in downtown Yonkers .
A dimly lit, rickety staircase leads visitors to the cramped offices on the second and third floors. Just 8,000 square feet in area, the old plant does not look much like the home of a business grossing $5 million a year. But in April, the bakery will move to a new home a few blocks away – to a light and airy factory designed by Maya Lin, the noted architect who created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington .
The $9 million project, with 24,000 square feet, has high ceilings and many skylights and will allow Greyston to double or perhaps triple its production volume, said Greyston Foundation president David Sweeney.
Lin, who donated a portion of her services, said she was attracted by the Greyston Foundation’s commitment to help the homeless, unemployed and needy.
“I couldn’t resist getting drawn into it,” she said during an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes.” “One, because of what they do. Two, it’s sort of a very happy, very fun, very challenging design problem.”
Boundless opportunities Julius Walls wears his white shower cap all day, even in his office. It has become a symbol of his solidarity with all his fellow employees.
He still feels Greyston is a special place. He was working as a salesman for a chocolate manufacturer in 1992 when he first visited the plant on Woodworth Avenue .
“I knew nothing about Greyston’s mission,” Walls recalled, “but when I came into the building, I was surprised to see who had been hired. Not necessarily who was on the factory floor, but who was working in the offices, on the management team. Seeing people of color there was a rarity, even in Yonkers . I was intrigued.”
Growing more interested in the Greyston experiment, he joined the bakery soon after as a consultant and later became director of marketing. A protege of Bernie Glassman , Walls was named president and chief operating officer in 1997.
The bakery’s mission has always been to work with “a rejected portion” of society, he noted. “I believe opportunity is truly opportunity only if one has the resources to be successful. What we try to do here is not only provide jobs but provide the resources for people to become successful.”
With success, workers do move on after learning work skills at the bakery.
“We don’t worry about that,” Walls said. “It is what we call path-making. Everyone is on a path in life, and we don’t take the selfish view that the only thing good in a person’s life is what they can do for Greyston.”
But, Walls noted, “it’s up to the employees to show they can handle the job and, with our support , to have the wherewithal to keep it. We don’t lower the bar.”
Many so-called “unemployables” never learned the rules of the workplace, he said. “So we make it very clear what employees need to do. If they fail evaluations during their apprenticeship, they are terminated.” But, Walls added, “We also remember there’s a human being at the other end of the process.”
A life-changing move For Wendy Powell, apprenticeship was a first step nine years ago when she was homeless with a child to support . “I found Greyston’s when I needed a place to live for me and my son,” said Powell, who is 37.
“Greyston was providing housing and child-care for homeless families, and when I moved in, I heard about a job in bookkeeping.” It was a life-changing move, she said. Five years later, after a series of promotions, she was asked to become chief assistant to Walls.
Steve Gill, steely-eyed and intense, was also eager to talk about his pre-Greyston life. “Before I came here, I was incarcerated,” he said.
He had spent six years behind bars, his second run-in with the law. “When I came home the first time, there were jobs, but I didn’t see myself working for nobody. You know what I mean?” But, he said, prison changed everything. “I knew I had to stop what I was doing because it wasn’t the life I wanted. And Greyston allowed me to be me.”
Last year, he completed work on an associate’s degree in computer technology and took an entry-level job at the bakery. “When I was released from incarceration, I knew I had to get a degree if I ever wanted to make decent money. It was a step up in my life. Julius Walls calls it ‘a path.’ I call it a rite of passage.”
He started in production, learning to bake brownies. When he completed his degree, the Greyston people thought his skills could be used elsewhere, and he was promoted to chief purchasing clerk late last year.
Now, at 35, Gill does not want his 11- year-old daughter to grow up without a father, as he did. “I knew I didn’t want to walk in the footsteps of my father. He wasn’t a bad man, but he was never there for me. I didn’t want her to go down that same road.”
Jim Ross, the shipping supervisor, came to Greyston six years ago, when he was somewhat adrift, moving from job to job. “I really didn’t know what I wanted, but you got to have a job to survive.” At the bakery, he discovered that promotion was possible. “Most places, they hire supervisors from outside. Here, they expect you to move up or else move on to a better job.”
Three years ago, he was promoted to shipping supervisor, and he isn’t looking for a new job. If people need a job, he said, they need to be persistent. “Looking for a job is like anything else – like looking for a girlfriend – you can only inquire, and they can only say yes or no. If the answer is no, you’re only back where you started.”
Spin-off success Bernie Glassman left his job as Greyston president in 1997, moving to Massachusetts to start a Zen-related activist project called the Peacemaker Community. “Greyston was in solid shape, and I was ready to move on,” Glassman said in a phone interview. “I wanted to take the holistic techniques I used at Yonkers to use them on the global scene. So for three years, our focus has been in the Middle East , in Jordan , Palestine and Israel , trying to get nonprofit agencies there to work together.”
At Greyston, the turning point had come in 1987 at a conference in Colorado . There, Glassman met two like-minded entrepreneurs who shared his sense of social responsibility: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co- founders of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc.
Over the years, being a regular supplier of brownies to Ben & Jerry’s meant many more entry-level jobs in the bakery and more income for the foundation’s work in the Yonkers community.
“I had wanted to do something that would involve a lot more training of folks with zero skills,” Glassman recalled. “I wanted to create an environment demonstrating the interdependence of life…. The big question was how to bring spirituality – an awareness of the oneness of life – to the marketplace. I looked to create that atmosphere where people felt that.”
By the mid-1990s, the Greyston Foundation also was pursuing that goal. In addition to the bakery’s growing profits, the foundation is support ed by philanthropic donors, charitable foundations and a variety of social agencies.
“Greyston still operates with the principles instilled by its founder,” said foundation president Sweeney. “We try to cultivate all parts of the person and the community – from providing employment to enhancing spiritual life.”
SIMON (voice-over): The Greyston Bakery is located in an old building in a section of Yonkers, where the well-heeled do not walk — where inside a few cramped rooms, the bakers make gourmet cakes which are served at the finest restaurants. Cheesecakes, chocolate cakes, mousse cakes. They also bake wedding cakes and cakes which have been served at the White House. It`s a $5 million a year business, but the bakery doesn`t hire people to make cakes. It makes cakes to hire people — people like Rodney Johnson, a former drug dealer. He got his GED in jail and his first legal job here at Greyston. (on camera): You were making $5 an hour when you started working at the bakery?
RODNEY JOHNSON, BAKERY EMPLOYEE: Yes. SIMON: What were you making in the streets?
JOHNSON: A good week? Two, three thousand.
SIMON: How did you manage to stick with the job paying $5 an hour when you could make a couple of thousand a week in the streets?
JOHNSON: I had a child. I wanted to show her something different.
SIMON (voice-over): And he says his drug dealing taught him some useful job skills.
JOHNSON: When it comes to having a job to get done, you know, we try — at the bakery, we try to meet that quota. You know, in the streets when I had “X” amount of drugs, I tried to meet that quota.
SIMON (on camera): It`s business.
JOHNSON: At the end of the day, I don`t have to worry about police coming. I don`t have to stash crack. I don`t have to run into buildings – – things of that nature.
SIMON (voice-over): No, Rodney makes cakes and brownies now. He says he owes much of his turnaround in life to Julius Walls, the CEO of the bakery, who gave him and others like him a chance. (on camera): You are employing people who are generally considered by most businesses in this country to be…
JULIUS WALLS, CEO, GREYSTON BAKERY: Unemployable, hard to employ. We want to get the crumb structure a little tighter, you know, to give a better mouth feel.
SIMON (voice-over): Walls was studying to be a Catholic priest, but left that calling to have a family and enter the business world. He now calls Greyston his ministry, and he believes anyone — anyone — deserves a chance to work.
WALLS: We get people who are straight out of prison. We have people who are just coming out of substance-abuse programs and need an opportunity to make a go of their lives. We have people who are returning to work from the welfare rolls.
SIMON (on camera): And rehab centers and probation officers know that you`re a man to call.
WALLS: Yes, absolutely.
SIMON (voice-over): The bakery has a unique hiring policy. Every other Wednesday is open-hiring day. Applicants gather outside the bakery. (on camera): If you`ve got one job opening, for example, and you`ve got two applicants and one of them is a clean-cut high school kid and another one is off the street, how do you make up your mind? How do you do it?
WALLS: It is somewhat by chance because we number the applications, and so…
SIMON: Whichever guy showed up first.
WALLS: Whichever guy showed up first.
SIMON (voice-over): Most new employees start out as apprentices working on the brownie line, where the work is repetitive and the temperature can get up to 90 degrees. About half drop out, but the other half go on to get full-time jobs with decent pay and benefits. (on camera): Why run it for profit? Why not just run it as a charity?
WALLS: We understand that most people that come to work for us aren`t going to stay with us forever, and they`re going to have to go out and work for someone else. And we want them to understand what it means to have a real job.
SIMON (voice-over): The bakery employs some 65 people — people like Dieulane Philogene, who left Haiti as a child and became a homeless teenage mother. (on camera): Dieulane, how old were you when you came to this country?
DIEULANE PHILOGENE, BAKERY EMPLOYEE: Eleven.
SIMON: And you`ve been on your own since.
PHILOGENE: Fourteen, 15.
SIMON: Was life was pretty rough?
PHILOGENE: Sure. At some point, I ended up being in a shelter and stayed there for about a good couple of months or so. And I didn`t think that was a good thing for me either, and I got pregnant and left school.
SIMON: How did you land at Greyston?
PHILOGENE: I applied, and they told me to keep in touch. And so, I went to Greyston every morning, and I stood in front and waited until a position was given to me. And one day, they told me they had a full week`s work for me, and, oh, I was so excited.
SIMON (voice-over): Today, Dieulane works in accounting at Greyston and provides a stable home for herself and her two children. And Rodney, who`s been at Greyston nine years, is the production manager of the entire bakery. (on camera): Does it make any difference that you`re making very fine bakery products as opposed to doorknobs?
JOHNSON: There`s a little more love and finesse put into a cake as opposed to a doorknob, unless it`s an elegant doorknob for a mansion. But, no, I like cakes. Cakes are good. Cakes have been good to me.
SIMON (voice-over): Specifically these cakes, with names like Peanut Butter Explosion, Venetian Wine Cake, and their bestseller, Triple Chocolate Mousse. (on camera): How many calories do you think are sitting on this table?
SIMON: Zero. That`s what I was hoping you`d say.
WALLS: This is such an interesting cake. This is a “lotus-in-mud” — as in lotus flower in muddy waters.
SIMON: Is this the flower?
WALLS: That`s the lotus flower, handmade.
SIMON: And what might that be, butter cream?
WALLS: Butter cream. Again, made from scratch and made with real butter. And this cake…
SIMON: You sure it`s real butter, or should I probably try again?
WALLS: You should try it again. Yes, check it again.
SIMON: Perhaps, yes. (voice-over): Greyston cakes retail for about $35 and are sold at gourmet food shops, on the Internet, and at upscale restaurants. (on camera): Do these famous restaurants where you sell your cakes know who`s making them?
WALLS: Some do, some don`t know at all. I mean, the most interesting thing about most of the famous restaurants, who I can`t name, is because they actually put the cakes out and say they made them.
SIMON (voice-over): If Greyston is an unusual place, it had an unusual founder. Bernie Glassman, from Brooklyn was a Jewish aerospace engineer who said goodbye to all of that and became a Buddhist priest with a bent for social activism.
BERNIE GLASSMAN, FOUNDER, GREYSTON BAKERY: I wanted to show that people that are homeless, if they`re given the chance and the right training, could not only work in our labor force, but can produce the high- niche items of our society — they can produce items that only the French chefs could create.
SIMON (on camera): Did it go very smoothly at the beginning? Were there a lot of problems, a lot of obstacles?
GLASSMAN: We had a tremendous amount of obstacles. We almost went broke a few times.
SIMON (voice-over): The bakery, which started in 1982, struggled for years, until it struck up a deal with Ben and Jerry`s, the Vermont ice cream company with a social conscience. Ben and Jerry`s hired Greyston to make extra-thin brownies for ice cream sandwiches. It was the biggest customer the little bakery had ever had. And, according to Ben Cohen — the Ben in Ben and Jerry`s — there was a problem with the first batch of those extra-thin brownies. (on camera): What went wrong?
BEN COHEN, BEN AND JERRY`S: The brownies all stuck together, and they clumped up into this 50-pound block of brownie. When we got these huge blocks of 50-pound brownies, it was really hard to pull them apart. And mostly, we got little bits of brownies. And we said, well, what can we do with these little bits of brownies? And we said, well, we`ll try shoving them in chocolate ice cream and make chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. And that`s how the flavor came into being.
SIMON (on camera): Eureka, the birth of a flavor. (voice-over): In fact, today Greyston`s brownies are in three of Ben and Jerry`s top-selling flavors, including, of course, chocolate fudge brownie. The bakery makes 11,000 pounds of brownies a day just for Ben and Jerry`s. (on camera): All of the bakery`s profits go into the Greyston Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs programs for needy families in Yonkers, whether or not they work for the bakery. The foundation`s funding doesn`t only come from the brownies. It comes from grants, from other business ventures and from private donations — and the idea is that giving people jobs is fine, but it`s not enough. (voice-over): People also need decent housing and daycare for their kids, or how else could they keep their jobs? And the foundation offers even more, including a computer class for school-age kids and a clinic for people who are HIV-positive. Angela Rodriguez came to Greyston`s HIV clinic more than four years ago, after she learned that she`d been infected by her husband, who has since died of AIDS.
ANGELA RODRIGUEZ, GREYSTEON BAKERY EMPLOYEE: I wanted to die. At that moment I wanted to die, and I went into a deep depression, because I didn`t know how to handle the situation.
SIMON: She was terrified of the future, and furious at her late husband.
RODRIGUEZ: And when I came in, I was a very angry person. I would take out my husband out of the grave and kill him again. Every time I got angry, I would take him out and kill him and put him back. And, you know, this anger just kept building up and up and up.
SIMON: Well, she got her anger down after working with counselors at Greyston, and she also got her life back on track. She works at Greyston now as a part-time receptionist. She`s taking some college courses and hopes to become an HIV counselor. (on camera): Has Greyston given you hope for the future?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh, Greyston has gave me more than hope for the future. Greyston has given me my life back.
SIMON (voice-over): Another success story for the Greyston foundation is Jamilla Shabazz and her family. She was unemployed for years, not because she didn`t want to work, but because she was afraid to leave her kids alone in the drug-infested neighborhood where they lived.
JAMILLA SHABAZZ, RECEIVED ASSISTANCE FROM GREYSTON FOUNDATION: Where I was living, my children, one, they could never go outside and play because it was too dangerous.
SIMON (on camera): Dangerous because?
SHABAZZ: Because of the drugs, because of the guns, and the fighting constantly.
SIMON (voice-over): That all changed when Jamilla and her family moved into a safe, clean, low-rent apartment owned by the Greyston Foundation. It also came with an unimaginable luxury — daycare.
SHABAZZ: The daycare was great. It was a great feeling to know that your children are safe.
SIMON: Jamilla found a job working with kids, and her oldest son, Kevin, got a scholarship from the Greyston Foundation to help pay for college. (on camera): What kind of future do you see for you and your family now?
SHABAZZ: My daughter, my son, they`re going to do well. I`m blessed. I`m very blessed.
SIMON: The little bakery that started it all is about to become a bigger bakery, which will presumably help more people. The Greyston Bakery is about to move into a new building, designed by architect Maya Lin, whose past projects include the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
MAYA LIN, ARCHITECT: We were going to try to get light to filter through all levels of the bakery.
SIMON: The building she designed is nothing like the cramped space the bakery is in now. She wanted a clean, well-lighted place with high ceilings and low construction costs.
LIN: I couldn`t resist getting drawn into it. One, because of what they do; two, it`s sort of a very happy, very fun, very challenging design problem.
SIMON: When it`s finished, Greyston hopes to be able to employ nearly twice as many people and quadruple its profits. (on camera): It`s interesting that what you`re really into are good works, and you`ve discovered that running a profitable business is a better way to do good works than running a charity.
WALLS: That`s right. Do good and do well. It`s called a double bottom line. Our social mission is as important as our business mission. Our people are as important as the dollars we make.
SIMON (voice-over): And he hopes people will keep that in mind when they`re shopping for desert. (on camera): Let them eat cake, huh?
WALLS: Let them eat cake.
YONKERS , N.Y. — The Greyston Bakery, which was founded by a Zen master, hires the homeless and makes brownies for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, has a new bakery building designed by Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The $9 million, aluminum-clad building on a once-contaminated site in southwest Yonkers is Lin’s first industrial design. In a brief speech at the opening ceremony last week, she said the building “is about food, water and light.”
She used paint inside in shades of oatmeal, wheat, butter and coffee. She opened the building to light with huge skylights and sheets of clear plastic between floors. And she honored the Buddhism of Greyston founder Bernard Glassman, she said, by featuring water — in communal sinks for the bakery workers, in a still-unfinished outdoor fountain and in the views of the Hudson River from the roof.
The baking machinery — including two U-shaped assembly lines, a 40-foot tunnel oven and a spiral cooling rack — were still being tested Friday. Officials were not sure when the production will move from the current bakery, a cramped former lasagna factory around the corner.
The move will triple the bakery’s capacity and increase the number of workers, now at 60, most of whom are hired almost literally off the street. Federal, county and local officials who spoke at the ceremony praised the Greyston Foundation for its work not only at the bakery but in child care, housing and health care.
Glassman said the new bakery building was “the required next step so that we can create more jobs. I think it’s beautiful.”
Yves Couette, chief executive officer of Ben & Jerry’s, the socially conscious ice cream company, said Greyston’s unique structure made it “a risk well worth taking” when Ben & Jerry’s was looking for a brownie supplier in 1987. Greyston’s expansion, he said, was “near and dear to our hearts.”
The ice cream company is Greyston’s biggest customer, buying 2 million pounds of brownies a year. But Greyston also makes gourmet cakes sold in the best stores and restaurants in New York . The new building will include a retail outlet.
“Sinful Desserts, Saintly Causes”
When Julius Walls Jr. gave up his dream of becoming a Catholic priest at age 19 because he wanted a family, he felt certain he was leaving the ministry behind forever. Now he’s not so sure.
As chief executive of Greyston Bakery, a maker of gourmet brownies, cakes, and tarts in Yonkers , N.Y. , Walls runs a business that is explicitly guided by spiritual principles. He hires people off the street, first come, first served, because he thinks everyone deserves a shot at a job. The company helps its workers with problems whether or not they’re job related. Meetings begin with a moment of silence. And all the bakery’s profits, roughly $200,000 last year, go to the Greyston Foundation, which helps the needy. Says Walls: “I think of a lot of what I do here at Greyston as my ministry.”
Greyston serves the poor by feeding the rich. Much of its $4 million in annual sales are generated by selling bits of brownies to Ben & Jerry’s for its chocolate fudge brownie ice cream and frozen yogurt. Greyston also bakes cakes and tarts for Manhattan restaurants and cafes, creates elaborate cakes to order, and sells desserts like Triple Chocolate Mousse Cake and Lemon Tart over the Internet ( www.greystonbakery.com). In a Zagat survey of 160 New York City area bakeries, Greyston ranks just behind top-rated Payard, a French patisserie on the Upper East Side . Greyston, says Zagat’s, offers “sinful desserts that support saintly causes.”
Walls, now 39, happened upon Greyston almost by accident, although he sees divine forces at work. (“I was supposed to be here, honestly,” he says.) The son of a prison guard, he grew up in a Brooklyn housing project and attended a Catholic high school and seminary on scholarship. Later he studied business at Baruch College , where he was elected student body president. An outgoing man of strong opinions, Walls rose through the ranks of a New York chocolate manufacturer, where he made good money but chafed at the way that traditional companies treated people. “It was a matter of us vs. them,” he said. “You paid the least amount possible to your employees and suppliers, and you charged the most you could to your customers.” He wondered whether he’d ever be able to marry his faith with his business skills.
In 1993 he made a sales call at Greyston. There, Walls, who is African American, was impressed that the bakery was staffed by poor blacks and Hispanics from Yonkers , a blighted city just north of the Bronx . Walls wangled a job as a marketing consultant and was named CEO in 1997–by which time he’d come to appreciate the venture’s spiritual underpinnings.
Founded in 1982, Greyston was the brainchild of a Zen Buddhist and entrepreneur known as Roshi Bernard Glassman. Born a Jew in Brooklyn , Glassman had worked as an aeronautical engineer for McDonnell Douglas before turning to Zen. He created the bakery to support a Zen group called the Peacemaker Community–and to bridge the worlds of the spirit, the street, and the startup.
What Walls brought to Greyston was business savvy, Christian faith, and a strong ethic of personal responsibility. Greyston remains “spiritual,” he says, but its aim isn’t to produce Buddhists or Christians; rather it’s to support people as they pursue their own path. The company maintains a three-person department, overseen by a social worker, to help employees with problems ranging from landlord- tenant disputes to marital discord. Workers also get lots of on-the- job training, grants for education, and even help writing a resume if they decide to seek a job elsewhere.
Of the 55 Greyston employees, many are working for the first time or are former substance abusers or convicted criminals. Walls explains his “open hiring” policy by saying, “Everyone deserves an opportunity for a job. Period.” Workers then must prove themselves during a 12- to 16-week tryout.
That reflects a bedrock principle at Greyston: People are responsible for their actions. That may seem self-evident, but Walls says the welfare system has created a class of people who have been taught to depend on others. Still, he preaches self-sufficiency in the context of a caring workplace where people are willing to listen to one another and lend a helping hand. That, he argues, is enlightened capitalism. “As we’ve taken care of our employees,” he says, “our employees have taken care of this business.”
YONKERS — GARRY NASH, the Greyston Bakery troubleshooter, was having a double barrel day. A glitch in the machinery had brought the day’s brownie production — 8,000 pounds destined for Ben and Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream — to a halt. With the bakery’s 45 employees just coming off a month of seven-day weeks to fill holiday orders for Balducci’s and Sardi’s, would it be fair to ask them to work yet another extra shift to make up for lost time?
Sitting in an upstairs office, he pondered the possibilities. In any other business, there would be no question; the workers would work. But the Greyston Bakery is not like any other business. ”I think the guys have earned their time off,” Mr. Nash said, nodding his head in the paper shower cap everyone on the production floor is required to wear.
He is known in the bakery as a big old softy, but he has his reasons. While the Greyston Bakery specializes in expensive fancy desserts like the Grand Marnier cake, chocolate cheesecake and the opera cake (too rich to describe) in the Balducci’s catalogue, its hires the poorest of the poor, veterans of many struggles: homelessness, drug addiction, prison, single parenthood. It’s an effort just to make it to work every day. And Mr. Nash knows it, having been a homeless shelter resident and recovering crack addict when he came to the bakery eight years ago.
”The shelter I was in,” he remembered, ”had a sign on the wall: ‘The Greyston Bakery is hiring.’ I thought that must be an unusual place to recruit employees from a homeless shelter.”
Of course, it is. The bakery, which sends the aroma of sweet butter through a block of warehouses and factories by the Hudson , is run by the Greyston Foundation, which provides permanent housing for former shelter residents, low-cost day care, drug and alcohol counseling, and, soon, housing for people with H.I.V. and AIDS. (The foundation, within walking distance of the bakery in the city’s tough southwest side, is the brainchild of Bernard Glassman, abbot of the Zen Community of New York.)
MR. NASH went from the brownie line, where every one starts, to a supervisor’s job, in charge of hiring, while juggling his role as a single father of twins who are now almost 5 years old. ”Greyston helped me a lot,” he said. ”They’ve given me interest-free loans, they’ve been very understanding when I have to take the kids to the doctor or what have you.”
The bakery, which pays $8 an hour on average, with medical benefits and, as of this year, a pension plan, hires anyone who walks in the door for a job, assuming there are openings.
This isn’t easy. Turnover is high, especially within the first three months when employees are on probation. Two out of five quit. ”We don’t see that as a failure on our part,” said Julius Walls, the general manager. ”We know we hire people who would’ve been weeded out in the interview process. We don’t weed.”
He remembered one recent tough case of a new employee who just couldn’t make it to work. One day, he called to say he had missed work because his grandmother had died. Two days later, he had that same grandmother call to say he couldn’t come in because he was sick.
The next week, the employee — he was still an employee — called to say his grandmother hadn’t really died, but his mother was having alcohol problems and could he make an appointment to discuss this with Mr. Walls privately? The day of the appointment, he never showed up.
THEN he called again. ”I said, ‘O.K., now, you don’t have a job but let’s talk about what you can do to keep the next one,’ ” Mr. Walls said.
Not a half hour after he told the story, he excused himself to answer a phone call. It was from that ex-employee. ”A month later, he’s calling to ask for a job again,” Mr. Walls said, obviously torn between pity and his instincts as a manager. But in the spirit of the bakery’s philosophy, he said, ”I’m going to let the supervisors decide.” And knowing Garry Nash, he said with a wry smile, he has a feeling he knows what’s going to happen.
On his ninth wedding anniversary, Mike Smith flew from Atlanta to Poland and Auschwitz . His wife, Marlise, flew home to Salt Lake City and their two boys. With Marlise’s blessing, Smith went on a weeklong retreat at the site of the Nazi concentration camp; this month he talked about the experience in a presentation at the Jewish Community Center.
During his talk, Smith sought to show how people in Utah , Poland , and around the world share the experience of suffering due to their religious beliefs. When he asked audience members how many had been singled out or looked down upon because of their religion, 70 percent said that they had. To another question, “On a scale of 1-10, how much have you and your group suffered?” 76 percent answered 8, 9 or 10. Smith provided personal keypads so that audience members could give instant, anonymous responses.
Next Smith posed a question to himself, one that was probably on the minds of those who came to hear him: Why spend a week at Auschwitz ? Smith isn’t Jewish; nor were many of the 100 retreat participants. The group included Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus from around the world; they were brought together by Bernie Glassman , a Brooklyn-born Jew turned Zen Buddhist. Last summer Smith heard about Glassman’s Peacemaker Community, an interfaith activist network. When he visited its Web site, a pop-up window appeared, telling him of the “Bearing Witness” retreat at Auschwitz .
“I was quite shocked there was even such a thing,” Smith recalled. “I wasn’t planning on going at all.” Then, last October, he was in Washington , D.C. , on business. He visited the Holocaust Museum there, and soon after exiting, he called Marlise.
“There were a million reasons not to go” on the retreat, he said. Yet, moved by what he saw inside the museum, he told his wife he felt compelled to go. She urged him to do it.
“On day one, I was absolutely numb. Nothing prepares you to go there and experience this, to see what man is capable of doing to man,” Smith said. In the ensuing days, however, he went through a process of opening up to the others on retreat. They sat together at the Selection Site, on the railroad tracks that brought Jews into the camp. They prayed, meditated and read aloud names of those who died at Auschwitz . Their connection deepened through the week, and the retreat culminated in the kaddish, a Jewish prayer of mourning. “Everyone participated: the priests, rabbis, the Muslim clerics . . . we lit candles, we prayed, we cried.”
The kaddish, and later a Jewish traditional dance, was an act of sealing each individual’s commonality with the others in the group, regardless of their religious traditions.
Auschwitz ‘s 300 acres of barracks, crematoriums and graveyards were built on the Nazis’ belief that they held the singular truth. Jews and others were seen as obstacles to Germany ‘s success. The Holocaust, as Smith and the other retreat participants saw at Auschwitz , was a drive to snuff out diversity.
More than 60 years later, you can still find religious groups and religious people who are sure they’ve found the one right way. Smith, Glassman and Peacemaker Community members advocate acceptance of differing traditions and beliefs — that, they say, is the only path to global peace.
“Bearing witness,” the name of the Auschwitz retreat, refers to an embrace of all people who have been ostracized for their religious or ethnic identity. Humans have suffering in common; we also have the capacity to accept each other’s differences. By contrast, holding too tightly to our ideas as being the only correct ones has led to violent conflict.
Smith grew up LDS in Salt Lake City . He went to Hong Kong to serve his mission, but decided while there that the LDS faith wasn’t for him. Since then, he’s studied Buddhism, Judaism and other traditions — yet he doesn’t reject Mormonism. It is still “part of who I am.”
It’s not necessary, Smith says, to define himself within a particular faith. “As humans, we need to enlarge the definition of who we are . . . Has not one God created us?” read two of the slides shown during his JCC talk.
“Bearing witness,” the name of the Auschwitz retreat, means slowing down your daily pace, consciously honoring people whose beliefs differ from yours, and cultivating compassion toward those outside your religious or ethnic group.
He asked his audience whether they considered themselves spiritually active — working on themselves — or socially active, as in working on the world. About 38 percent responded that they were primarily bent on spiritual development; 11 percent were socially active, and 56 percent said they are both. That kind of integration helped form the Peacemaker Community, Smith said. And it can create peace anywhere.
Smith’s final question: “Is world peace possible, in your lifetime?” Twenty-five percent said yes; 33 percent no; and 42 said not in my lifetime, but one day.
On a bright morning in September, as the humidity lingered and autumn struggled to find its grip, a small classroom on the second floor of Divinity Hall was buzzing with chatter and anxious movement. Some 40 students were crammed into room meant for 17, crowding into chairs pushed tight against the conference table, sitting on window ledges, and standing along the walls and in the doorway.
The students took in their surroundings, said hello to friends they’d not seen in months—and waited. It was the first day of classes at Harvard Divinity School for the academic year 2007-08, and, at 9:01 am, the man they had all come to hear was running late. Bernie Glassman, a renowned Zen master and Buddhist thinker, is at HDS for the fall term, as Preceptor in Buddhist Studies, to teach “Buddhist Arts of Ministry in the Zen Peacemakers Order.”
Glassman was born into a Jewish family and grew up in Brooklyn. During the 1960s, he worked as an aeronautical engineer for McDonnell-Douglas, and in 1970 he received a PhD from UCLA in applied mathematics. He began studying Zen in Los Angeles in 1967 with Taizan Maezumi Roshi and, in 1976, became sensei, or teacher, and was named the first of Maezumi Roshi’s Dharma successors.
In 1980, Glassman moved back to the New York City area, and, two years later, founded the Greyston Bakery. It eventually become part of the Greyston Mandala, a varied group of social service companies, also including the Greyston Family Inn, which helps to refurbish homes and buildings for low-income families, and Greyston Health Services, which provides a diverse range of care for persons living with HIV/AIDS.
“Many people, when they think of Buddhist practice, think of the meditation call or the service,” Glassman says. “When I think of Buddhist practice, I think of society and ways of working in different fields.”
Tucked next to the Hudson River in Yonkers, Greyston Bakery provides job opportunities for the under-classed and continues to hire on a first-come-first-served basis. In 2005, the CBS news program 60 Minutes called the bakery “a role model for companies that want to inject some social action into their business.”
Glassman is a man of many titles. He is an author, businessman, leader, and, of course, teacher. “I talk from inside,” Glassman says. “I tend to teach more from who I am and experiences I’ve had.”
In 1995, after 28 years of practice and teaching, Glassman received inka-shomei, or “the legitimate seal of clearly furnished proof.” Having now given up a formal leadership role with Greyston, Glassman serves as spiritual director and president of Zen Peacemakers, a collection of various peoples and organizations, who, according to its mission statement, “seek to bear witness to the joy and suffering of the universe, and to realize and actualize the oneness and interdependence of life through study, practice and action for personal and social transformation.”
The Maezumi Institute, located in Montague, Massachusetts, serves as a center for learning, study, and practice. In April 2008, the seminary, as Glassman calls it, plans to launch a resident program with a focus on serving individuals living in inner cities.
Glassman is also planning to develop Zen parish houses, which will pay regular salaries to staff members and serve as bases for Buddhist ministry within urban communities. For their final paper, his HDS students will be required to write versions of what a Zen parish house would look like. Glassman is hopeful that the class will yield a crop of students who are interested in developing and working in these Zen houses.
“The staff of the Zen houses will be people who have finished their training,” he says. “This one class is probably not enough training, but it depends on the person’s background.”
What is the timeline for the first Zen house? “January 2009 is my 70th birthday,” Glassman says. “And I’m going to give myself a birthday present of the first Zen House. That’s my goal.”
In the last four years, Janet Gyatso, HDS’s Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, has, with Cheryl Giles, Francis Greenwood Peabody Professor of the Practice in Pastoral Care and Counseling, spearheaded an initiative to develop a Buddhist ministry track at HDS. In fall 2006, Gyatso and Giles together taught the course “Teaching and Adapting Meditative Skills,” a Buddhist Arts of Ministry and Leadership course. During that semester, they invited Glassman to serve as one of four guest speakers at one of their classes.
“Roshi Glassman has a very unique approach,” says Janet Gyatso, who is also the author of several books, including most recently Women in Tibet. “He employs not only meditative techniques, but also a kind of viewpoint on how things should be done that shows his Buddhist heritage.”
Glassman’s presence at HDS is important, says Gyatso, “for students who are doing ministry at the School, as well as for some students who, after they graduate from HDS, might want to go on to take a lay ordination that Roshi Glassman’s organization is developing for people like graduates of the Divinity School.”
On this first day of class in September, Glassman walked through the door at 9:09 am. The room became still, and, as he walked the few paces toward a seat at the front of the conference table, he calmly scanned the faces gathered in the stuffy room and delivered a warm smile. He apologized for his tardiness and told his new pupils he had been under the impression he had a 10-minute cushion. So, according to Harvard time, he was, in fact, one minute early.
Matthew Turner, a third-year student working toward a master of divinity degree, was one of the lucky ones to have a seat at the table with Glassman. He later said that he hoped Glassman’s class would inspire him to continue to catch the “social action bug.”
“I’m intrigued by Roshi Glassman’s work in that he’s moving the Zen community in so many new directions that I’m interested in,” says Turner. “He’s done work with people living with HIV/AIDS. He’s worked with the homeless. . . .” Turner then paused for moment before finishing his thought: “He’s shaking things up.”
ANDREW COHEN: This is a delicate moment in the history of planet earth. Overpopulation, environmental pollution, and modern technology’s weapons of mass destruction threaten the survival not only of our own species but of all life on the planet. Duane Elgin, social scientist and evolutionary thinker, in this issue of WIE, states, “What we’re really facing is the convergence of a number of powerful trends—climate change, species extinction, the spread of poverty, and the growth of population. All these factors could develop individually, but what’s unique about our time is that the world has become a closed system. There’s no place to escape, and all of these powerful forces are beginning to impinge upon one another and reinforce one another. Our situation is something like a set of rubber bands that you stretch out and out and out until they reach the limit of their elasticity, which is the breaking point of the system. Something powerful is going to begin happening at that point, and while right now we can turn away from this, in another twenty years a systems crisis will be an unyielding reality that we will have to deal with.”
And cultural historian Thomas Berry, in his new book The Great Work, states, “We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the Earth’s functioning and its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself.”
Roshi Glassman, you’re a Zen activist, a passionate Zen activist. For many years you have been responding in very practical ways to the immense suffering that you have seen in the world around you. Ethically and spiritually, how should we deal with this crisis? What, in your view, is the appropriate attitude for us to cultivate in order to come to terms with the ultimacy that Elgin and Berry so graphically describe?
BERNIE GLASSMAN: You know, Andrew, I’m basically a simple person. The way I look at the issues you’re talking about, which are issues of the globe, is to bring it back to our own bodies. My understanding is that we are all interconnected. But it’s not so easy to think that way—so I like to talk about it in terms of our own bodies. Because in a way, all those issues that you talked about for the planet are constantly happening within us, within our own bodies. I have diabetes and prostate conditions, and if I look at it, it could be extremely overwhelming. I mean, I could say, “Well, I can’t do anything about it.” And yet, if we don’t do anything about it, we die. So the point is, we do do something about it! We do something to the extent that we can see clearly. If my hand is bleeding, I can’t sit around watching it just bleed and say, “I don’t know what the hell to do.” If your hand is bleeding, you’re going to do something about it. If you don’t have a bandage, maybe you’ll have to just suck the blood with your own mouth or tear off a piece of your shirt to use as a bandage. You’re going to do something. You clearly don’t just sit there and think, “Is that me bleeding?” You do something.
So for example, if I see myself on the streets as a homeless person or as somebody who’s defoliating the forest, I’ll say, “That’s me doing this, so what can I do about it?” I’ll do what I can. That’s my only answer. I don’t have any solutions, because I don’t know. That’s the first tenet of our Peacemaker Community. We may have lots of tools-knowledge, languages, equipment, whatever—but we approach every situation from the standpoint of not knowing. That means being completely open, listening. And then doing whatever we can do. Not saying, “I don’t have enough money. I don’t have enough knowledge. I don’t have enough enlightenment. I don’t have . . .” But saying, “Here’s what I do have”, and then doing the best actions that we can. That’s what drives me to keep working in all these arenas. When we step back, we can just say, “It’s overwhelming, you know—it’s all going to fall apart.” Yes, it is all going to fall apart. But, in the meantime, this is what I’m going to do.
AC: So you would say, “Abide in a state of not knowing and do the best one can”?
BG: Yes, approach the situation in a state of not knowing. Then bear witness to it. Try to become it, and out of that, I believe, automatically will come the right actions. Those actions are loving actions just like the action of trying to stop our own hand from bleeding. That is, they will arise automatically.
AC: You’re saying that if we bear witness, if we face the suffering, if we truly face it, then there’s going to be a natural response?
BG: I’m sure of it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. But if we’re trying to solve issues, then we’ll be trapped.
AC: Because we don’t have the capacity to do that? activism. What I try to encourage folks to do is to do whatever they can with whatever they have at the moment.
AC: And how should we respond to the “ultimacy” that Berry mentioned, which is so overwhelming because it potentially implies the end of life as we know it?
BG: In some sense, it doesn’t matter how big or how small it is. Those who can work on a larger scale are going to do so, and those who can work on a smaller scale will do what they can. I define enlightenment as the depth to which one sees the oneness of life, the interconnectedness of life. And the degree of your enlightenment can be measured by your actions.
AC: How can we remain attentive to the severity of the crisis without being so overwhelmed by it that we become completely paralyzed by fear and despair?
BG: I think we become overwhelmed only because of our expectations—our expectations that we are going to be able to resolve the problem.
AC: I see, so that’s the key.
BG: Step by step, see it in its broadest perspective, and then do the things that you can do without any expectations.
AC: Without any expectations that you’re going to solve the problem completely?
BG: Yes, or even help it. You’re going to do what you can do, and something’s going to happen—who the hell knows what.
AC: In your book In Bearing Witness, you say that “in Zen practice we . . . do our sitting meditation not for ourselves but for the world.” Under the present circumstances, do you think it is still possible to do spiritual practice outside the context of this extraordinary crisis? In other words, is it still possible for an individual to pursue personal enlightenment or spiritual transformation only for his or her own sake? Or does it now no longer make sense for a sincere individual to pursue spiritual awakening without that search being the expression of a deeply committed and engaged relationship with life as a whole?
BG: We have many metaphors that show enlightenment as something that is only for one’s self. I think those are old metaphors. I believe that in this day and age, we have evolved to the point where the oneness of life is part of our consciousness, independent of whether one is pursuing individual transformation. And if I use the monk as a metaphor—these days I think that metaphor is about the pursuit of enlightenment for the transformation of the world, not merely of the individual self. Whether we realize it or not, I believe that we somehow have in our consciousness the knowledge that we are not only an individual, but we truly are the world—one piece of the whole. And practices for enlightenment, I feel, have to lead to action in the world.
AC: So you’re saying it wouldn’t be possible to pursue enlightenment only for oneself in this current context?
BG: I don’t think so. And I think that those who are still caught in thinking that one can stay out of the world, so to speak, just wind up frustrated. I agree with what you mentioned before—that the world is a closed system and that everything that happens affects the whole world. Yes, all of our actions are affecting all of the world, and we cannot do any actions, including practices for transformation or enlightenment, that are not affecting the whole world.
AC: In Bearing Witness, you describe the enlightened perspective as a state of unknowing. You say, “When we live in a state of knowing, rather than unknowing, we’re living in a fixed state of being where . . . our notions of what should happen block us from seeing what actually does happen. We get upset because our expectations aren’t met. . . . The truth is . . . no matter what we think, we are never in control and things will happen as they happen. But in a state of unknowing we actually live without attachment to preconceived ideas. There is no expectation of gain, no expectation of loss.” So what I wanted to ask you is, What is the relationship between that state of unknowing, where there is no expectation of gain or loss, and the awakening of spiritual conscience, that conscience that compels us to transcend ego and selfishness and begin to live not only for our own sake but for the sake of others? How can we have no expectation that things will change for the better and yet still feel compelled to act, to respond to the ignorance and suffering that we see in the world around us?
BG: I think if we truly are in that state, that state of not knowing, we will do the best thing possible. And our actions will be “healing”—but I’m not sure if that’s the best word to describe it.
AC: But could you say a little bit more about the relationship between, on the one hand, not knowing and having no expectations and, on the other, the awakening of compassion, that passion to respond to the ignorance and suffering that we see in the world around us?
BG: I think that the desire to respond comes more passionately from the state of not knowing than from the state of knowing.
BG: Because it’s more immediate. In the state of not knowing, the suffering that’s appearing becomes a part of me, and therefore I need to take care of that suffering. Because I’m suffering; it’s not separate from me. But if I have some preconceived idea of how I’m supposed to respond, then I’ve created a separation from the experience itself, from the thing itself. And I get caught up then with the “dos” and “don’ts” of my understanding rather than with feeling that experience and then reacting directly to it.
AC: You’ve been saying, “The right response is going to happen”—and I believe you and I agree with you. But I still want to ask you, in terms of the dharma, what exactly is the relationship between that state of unknowing and the awakening of conscience that transcends ego?
BG: I think they’re the same state. But it’s not a passive state; it’s very active. And that active state is bearing witness. That’s, for me, the way to approach it. Instead of waiting for something else to happen, say, “Right now, I, to the best of my ability, will approach this situation from the state of not knowing.” I think that gives you the best shot at doing something. It gives people permission to do something from their state of enlightenment. And it means bear witness to the suffering; don’t run away from it. Bearing witness is really important. To bear witness is to sit with it—and by “sitting,” I don’t necessarily mean physically sitting—but to sit with it, and try to simultaneously keep coming from that place of not knowing. Stay with it and bear witness to it—then you can do something. Now, each one of us has got whatever attachments we have, and that’s why I say that the degree of our enlightenment is the degree of passion that we will have for the whole world. That passion will arise. Stay with it. Bear witness to what’s coming up. Out of that, action has to happen.
AC: You’re a Zen master and a teacher of meditation. In Buddhist meditation, the goal is to realize and experience emptiness of self. What is the relationship between the realization of emptiness and the awakening of compassion?
BG: I look at compassion as the functioning of that empty state. So again, I use “not knowing” similarly to the term sunyata, or emptiness. And in Zen, we sort of force people toward what we call the root of emptiness, the essence of it, which really is the state of not knowing. Because once I even use the word sunyata, or emptiness, that’s a—
BG: Something in the mind, yes. But the functioning of that state is what I would call compassion.
BG: Because my understanding of it is that when one comes from that place of emptiness, then one is full of this passion for life and for the end of suffering. And the actions that arise out of that emptiness are going to be actions that are trying to reduce suffering.
AC: Would you say the reason is that in that emptiness there is freedom from ego or self-concern, and when we’re in a state of egolessness, or freedom from self-concern, there will be a spontaneous arising of compassion?
BG: Yes. But you know, “ego” is a tricky term. I tend to use the word “ego” to refer to the set of conditioning arising from our concept of who we are. I’ll put it this way: I haven’t met anyone—whatever degree of enlightenment they say they have or the world says they have—who doesn’t have some set of conditioning or some ego structure.
AC: But what if we refer to ego strictly as being pride or arrogant self-importance or the deeply conditioned need to see one’s self as standing apart from or separate from the whole?
BG: With that definition, I can agree with you. Ego will fall away then.
AC: So would you say then that emptiness would be synonymous with, or not separate from, that falling away and that, as a result of that falling away, compassion would spontaneously arise?
AC: And that that would be part of the miracle of who we really are and of awakening itself?
BG: Yes. And I personally am moved toward the word “love” rather than “compassion.” Because compassion, for me, has a little bit of a judgmental sense. For each of us, what we see as compassion and noncompassion is different. I see the state of love arising out of that egoless state, and that’s generally looked on as compassion—but not always.
AC: So would you say that love, in the way you’re using it, is not personal?
BG: Yes. In our three tenets of the Peacemaker Community, the first is not knowing, the second is bearing witness, and for the third I use the word “healing,” which again, I don’t like so much. That word could have been compassion; I think compassion is the more typical Buddhist term to use. These are just semantics in some sense, but my own inclination is to talk about the healing of one’s self and the world as that third tenet that arises naturally out of the first two. That’s really a state of love, and out of that love, action arises. And I guess the actions themselves, which are the function of that love, we could call compassion. I call it “healing.” The love arises and compassionate actions happen. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to fix the situation. Because my feeling is that the world at every moment is the perfect world as it is. It’s not like something is broken that I’m going to put together. But I’m going to work toward making a more loving situation.
AC: That’s a very delicate distinction you’re making.
BG: It is.
AC: Because that is the challenge of enlightenment. On one hand, everything is already full and perfect and inherently free as it is, and yet at the same time—
BG: Yes, but if you’re attached to that—then you may not act.
AC: But aren’t both true? Isn’t everything already full and complete and already free, and at the same time, isn’t there an overwhelming amount of suffering that urgently needs to be responded to in every moment?
BG: Exactly. Some people experience that first stage and get caught there. They think, “There’s nothing to do.”
AC: Yes. And may even use it as an excuse not to have to do anything. That’s how many people actually squelch the expression of their own conscience, their own humanity. That’s a pretty bad place to be.
BG: That’s sort of where I started—trying to encourage people not to remain in that place. There’s a state in Japanese Zen that’s called the “Cave of Satan.” It’s that place where you just stay—because there’s nothing to do. And you can get in that state and it can be an overwhelming experience. But the point is to kick the person out of that cave.
AC: It’s a place of complacency and self-satisfaction.
BG: Yes. I had that experience once in 1969 in a sesshin, a meditation retreat. I was working with a teacher; Koryu Roshi was his name. He was one of Maezumi Roshi’s teachers. I was working on my first koan with Koryu Roshi, and I got into a very, very deep state. I got into this place where I didn’t want to leave, and Maezumi Roshi pushed me out of it.
AC: Was it a very blissful place?
BG: Very blissful.
AC: Was there anything specific that he said to you about why you had to get out?
BG: No, when he saw me, somehow he knew. Of course, he was talking with Koryu Roshi so he had a sense of where I was at, and he also could tell by my movements or whatever. He just broke me out of it. He stood behind me when I was in meditation and in that state, and just screamed in a way that pushed me right out of that place into a much deeper space, a space of acting.
AC: We could probably find a contrast there with some interpretations of Vedanta, where it could seem like the whole goal was to—
BG: Get into a deep trance.
AC: Yes. To get out of here.
BG: Sometimes we’ve used the expression “samadhi freaks” for people who want to get to that place because it can be very beautiful. But for others it can be very terrifying.
AC: Because it’s too much?
AC: If the Buddha were alive today, do you think he would no longer advocate the intense practice of meditation and renunciation of the world in order to experience transcendence and nirvana? In light of the present crisis, do you think he would instead advocate the practice of meditation in service of passionate and committed social activism, as you do?
BG: Well, you know, from an egocentric standpoint, I would say sure. The one thing we know about him—or at least that we get from the texts—is that he was certainly very broad. So he would incorporate all of the things going on in his time and all of the traditions.
AC: But there seemed to be a big emphasis in his teaching on leaving the world.
BG: Well, that was part of the Indian culture of that time. My sense—and I can only say this because of who I am—is that he would be moving in the bigger world. Like His Holiness the Dalai Lama—I think he’s a beautiful example.
AC: What’s the source of the extraordinary love, passion, courage, and profound commitment that you have to alleviate the suffering of others?
BG: I don’t see them as others. It’s pretty egocentric—I want to have less suffering!
Rabbi Don Singer sips a bowl of tea in the library of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. His dear old dog snores blissfully by his side. Over the rabbi’s shoulder, an austere portrait of Maezumi Roshi, the Zen Center ‘s late Japanese founder, peers down as if to say affectionately, “What’ll I do with you?”
Singer, a Reform rabbi, is a leading interpreter in the intermingling of Jewish wisdom and Zen Buddhism. Based in Los Angeles , he is founder of the free-floating Shir Hadash congregation, the rabbi of the Zen Community of New York Interfaith Program and a frequent guest teacher at the Zen Center.
Though he hesitates to identify himself as part of a “movement,” Singer acknowledges the burgeoning interest in Jewish contemplative practice. A new generation of Jews is turning inward, seeking a spirituality that was not emphasized in the Reform and Conservative Judaism with which they grew up. On the West Coast, there are two new organizations–Chotmat Halev in Berkeley and Metivta in Los Angeles –dedicated to Jewish meditation.
For decades, Singer has been exploring what he calls “the authentic roots of Judaism,” and what he considers its most radical commandment: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”
Recently, adherence to that precept has led Singer to an extraordinary interfaith retreat at the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In his “Tales of the Hasidim,” the philosopher Martin Buber wrote that “the core of Hasidic teachings is the concept of a life of fervor, of exalted joy.” This idea is one embraced by this silver-haired, forgivably absent-minded rabbi, who finds light even in the darkest of places.
Singer cheerfully recounts his formal introduction to Zen.
“Twenty-two years ago, I attended a spiritual retreat called ‘Judaism and the Religions of the East.’ The East walked in,” the rabbi chortles, “and he was from Brooklyn .”
The “man from Brooklyn ” was a Zen priest named Bernie Glassman , now Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, abbot of both the Zen Center of Los Angeles and the Zen Community of New York. Glassman, in turn, was a student of Roshi, the Japanese Zen master who in 1967 founded the L.A. Zen Center , now located on South Normandie Avenue .
Glassman and Singer soon began a mutual teaching relationship, exchanging the Zen paradoxes called koans for Bible study and the cryptic tales of Jewish Hasidic masters.
“Studying with Bernie was an intimate sharing of the wisdom of the heart,” says the 62-year-old rabbi. In 1995, Rabbi Singer received Dharma transmission (acknowledgment from a teacher that knowledge has been realized) from Glassman.
Social involvement is a hallmark of Glassman’s Zen order, and Singer has participated wholeheartedly in various projects over the years. He has joined other Zen students for five-day “street retreats” in New York City , sleeping in subways and doorways.
“I was lucky to get a cardboard box last time,” he says without irony.
The head teacher of the Zen Center , Egyoku Nakao, joins Singer in the study. Both she and Singer have recently returned from the second annual “Bearing Witness Retreat” at Auschwitz , organized by Roshi Glassman.
“Bernie calls it a plunge,” explains Nakao, “plunging into a totally different environment. Out of that comes whatever the teachings are that a person receives.”
Singer and Nakao joined 132 other participants from the United States , Israel , Poland and western Europe: children of concentration camp survivors, children of the Wehrmacht and the SS, Catholic priests and nuns, rabbis, Muslim imams.
“We came together to bear witness not just to the evil that occurred, but to bear witness to all these peoples coming together,” Nakao says.
For five days they engaged in formal rituals of atonement and meditation. They conducted religious services on the train tracks that lead into the death camp. They recited the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in five languages. They recited the names of those who went up in smoke. “
‘How can you pray in Auschwitz ?’ a friend in Los Angeles asked me,” Singer says. “Now I know but before the retreat I could not know.”
Nakao seconds his observation. “One of the basic teachings of this Bearing Witness Retreat is ‘unknowing,’ simply not knowing. The healing comes from knowing that you don’t have to turn away from evil, the darkness.”
“To be intimate with the place,” Singer continues, “a few of us went to the place where the Nazis first did their experiments with gas–they buried ashes there, surrounded by woods. We got there probably around 2 a.m. , and a man in our group blew the ancient Hebrew shofar and the sky kind of rang, the birds started to answer. He sounded the shofar again and again. The birds became quiet.
And in the distance, there was the constant chugging of a train.”
Singer first visited a death camp at the age of 14, when his father, Los Angeles painter William Earl Singer, took his only son to visit Dachau , and from there to Israel .
“It was the source of what I was as a rabbi, though I didn’t speak much about it,” says Singer.
Many years later, when he entered Poland for the first time, Singer realized the depth of the antipathy toward Polish people many Jews carried with them.
“When I went to Poland for the first time, and met some Polish people, I realized that they had a bum rap. I felt somehow we knew them, we understood them.”
He felt a sense of responsibility to facilitate an emotional exchange between Jews and Poles. “I felt we should get closer to them, and it was mutual, you see. And that was the great joy of this trip.”
“The spirit of the retreat is really to see others as yourself,” Nakao says. “And once that happens, you can’t help but feel responsible. You see that any separation between people can have very dire consequences. The fact is, any person, anyone who was different, who was ‘other,’ who did not fit the idea of what the Nazis believed should exist, was murdered.
“It’s frightening to see what that separating out leads to. In Zen we say ‘a hair’s breadth of separation, and Heaven and Earth are split apart.’ “
Singer interjects with a line from the Talmud: “Three fingers separate us from Heaven.” He demonstrates, placing three fingers over his eyes.
Yet for all the grimness with which they have recently been in contact, on this clear December morning the rabbi and the Zen teacher both radiate an aura of calm and joy. Their dialogue is frequently punctuated with laughter. Nakao offers Singer a memento of their time at Auschwitz : on rice paper she has drawn in ancient script form the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, and pasted around it oak leaves taken from trees growing on the grounds of the concentration camp. Singer is visibly moved. This is a new translation of the kaddish, by Los Angeles poet Peter Levitt together with Rabbi Singer, and among its stanzas is this haunting one:
Though we bless, and praise, and beautify and offer up your name Name That is Holy, Blessed One Still you remain beyond the reach of our praise, our song, Beyond the reach of all consolation. Beyond! Beyond! And say, Yes. Amen.
Last spring, Nakao invited Singer to celebrate Shabbat on Friday nights at the Zen Center . (There is also an annual spring Christian/Buddhist retreat at the Zen Center led by Father Robert Jinsen Kennedy.)
In October, Nakao invited Singer and his Shir Hadash congregation to hold Jewish high holiday services in the Zen Center’s garden and meditation hall. Singer encouraged the 100 or so congregants to experience Zen sitting practice, as a way to “experience silence and know themselves.” Salsa music and party sounds from nearby apartments mixed with the piercing call of the shofar.
Singer and Nakao are among those who feel that these two disciplines–Buddhism and Judaism–can nourish each other when practiced side by side.
Not all members of the Zen Center , however, were initially pleased that their teacher had invited a rabbi to lead services there.
“I had two members leave. They told me there were too many priests and rabbis around here,” Nakao laughs. “We talk so much about the ‘oneness,’ but the fact is, we need to learn how to deal with our differences. . . . In a country like ours, where people come from such mixed backgrounds, we don’t think we can be so big as to contain it all. But we can.”
And it’s not just in L.A. that the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue is occurring. In San Francisco , Rabbi Alan Lew of Congregation Beth Shalom leads Jewish-Buddhist retreats with his friend Norman Fischer, the Jewish abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center .
Lew has written: “Many Jews are attracted to the intellectual rigor of Buddhism. Buddhism makes almost perfect sense. The problem is that life doesn’t make nearly as much sense as Buddhism does and our Buddhist friends feel very nourished by the irrational joy of Jewish prayer, and even by the warmth of our considerable Jewish angst.”
Singer explains a fundamental connection between the two traditions: “Zen sitting practice helps you to know yourself. As Bernie says, you ‘just sit.’ To ‘know the heart of the stranger,’ the core Jewish commandment, means not to make a stranger of yourself, to become intimate with your own heart.”
Toward that end, Singer is now planning a meditation retreat in Israel next spring. Singer dreams of Israelis and Palestinians sitting side by side, learning to understand “the heart of the stranger.”
“The best Hebrew translation of the Zen concept of ‘enlightenment,’ says the gentle rabbi, “is ‘shalom.’ “