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 raided 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”?
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.
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.
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 thing 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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The publication of Peter Matthiessen’s final novel “In Paradise” is coinciding with his obituary. He died Saturday at the age of 86. We’re going to listen back to an excerpt of my interview with him. Matthiessen was a naturalist, as well as writer, and his fiction and nonfiction books were often inspired by his travels to remote regions, including mountains and rainforests. His books include “The Snow Leopard,” “Men’s Lives,” “At Play in the Field of the Lords” and “Far Tortuga.”
Along with George Plimpton he was a founder of the literary magazine The Paris Review, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that a documentary film revealed he was working for the CIA at the time and he used the Paris Review as his cover. I spoke with Matthiessen in 1989, before that revelation, And asked about a subject that was central to his life and his writing, Zen Buddhism.
He was initially reluctant to write about Zen. I asked him why.
PETER MATTHIESSEN: Well, I think it almost – in the nature of Zen, to speak about it is already kind of missing the point because Zen, the whole teaching depends on the immediacy and the spontaneity of this present moment. And the minute you talk about it, you’re introducing ideas and concepts that get in the way of seeing directly, which is the whole basis of the training.
And then to see behind it another way of looking at reality, which is what happens through meditation practice and really enhances one’s life. So there’s a built-in contradiction in writing about it. On the other hand, even the meditation is a tool, and the writing is a tool, and it helps people, prepares the ground for this sort of insight and training.
GROSS: Did you seek out Buddhism, or did you happen into it?
MATTHIESSEN: No, I didn’t seek it out, nor did I happen into it. I was – during the ’60s, very early on, my then wife, who since died, we were very interested in finding a teacher of some kind, and we couldn’t – there weren’t really any around in the early ’60s. And we got into experiments with LSD, and we did a lot of LSD during the ’60s not as a recreation but as a way of seeing something else, seeing things another way.
And that kind of wore out for her pretty early. I went on with it a bit longer. And she went over to Japanese tea ceremony and then from there, through friends, to a Zen teacher who was then working in New York City. And, I, a year or two later did the same thing and found that it was far more effective and far closer to what we originally had in mind than the drug use was.
GROSS: Had you ever asked any of your teachers what they thought about taking LSD?
MATTHIESSEN: I don’t think – I think they feel that any chemical is a screen that gets in the way, and I think that’s true. I think these drugs, if properly used, and if you knew what you were getting, which you don’t anymore – in the old days of LSD it was quite different because Sandoz Chemicals in Switzerland was making it, and you knew exactly what the dose was, and they knew exactly what the amount was.
But a Zen teacher, or any spiritual teacher, would be against it simply because you’re seeing things purely. There always is that, finally that chemical screen, even if you are having an extraordinary vision of existence.
GROSS: One of the founders of the school of Buddhism that you practice, Soto, had said that the way to be truly universal is to be particular, moment by moment, detail by detail. And I wonder if you see that as really applying to writing, as well, that to be universal you really have to focus on detail.
MATTHIESSEN: I think so. I think all really good writing is attention to detail. It’s that one detail, that one scrap of dialogue, one color or smell that brings the whole scene to life. You can’t throw in everything. You’d be just writing all day long over one small scene. So you have to find that one thing that the reader can build up from.
For example, William Faulkner, he was extraordinarily skillful. He would pick out one, or at most two, physical characteristics of somebody and then just repeat them over and over again, and the reader gradually builds up a whole character around that one physical detail because the detail is so well-chosen that it serves you in this way you can do it.
GROSS: I want to ask you something else about Zen, and this is from something that you said in your Zen journals book, “Nine-Headed Dragon River.” You were explaining that you were studying to be a Zen monk, studying in the States, and you had passed 13 of 14 checkpoints. You failed the last, which was about the vital expression of the inexpressible. And you said you were only able to come up with a weak intellectual answer.
I found that a fascinating thing to stumble on for a writer, and I was wondering if you’d tell us a little bit about what this means.
MATTHIESSEN: That’s in Koan training, which is part of formal training for the priesthood and so forth. In Soto Zen and also in Rinzai Zen, any kind of Zen, and that’s a very famous Koan, that, the sound of one hand, usually it’s called the sound of one hand clapping, but it’s actually the sound of one hand, what is the sound of one hand?
This is a Koan that stops you dead like an iron wall. I mean, where can you go with that logically? It just makes your whole logical apparatus collapse. And that’s the point of it, that you would see it all from a different way. And nonetheless, you could arrive at a kind of an answer, which would be adequate, a presentation which would be adequate, without quite understanding the subtleties and what’s behind it.
So there are 14 checkpoints of that Koan, and you have to pass all 14 of them, and they’re kind of increasing in difficulty and subtlety and so forth. So finally an intellectual answer is not nearly good enough. You have to manifest that Koan and present it, and this is part of the training.
GROSS: Well, let me ask you again how that connects with your writing. Has that training in not using the intellectual to explain or to understand helped you in your writing?
MATTHIESSEN: I wrote a novel called “Far Tortuga,” which is my own favorite of my books, and one reason it is is because I tried to replace, similarly in metaphor, an image with just these very simple descriptions of the thing itself, of, for example, the feelers of a cockroach coming out from underneath a galley cabin on a ship deck or the water vibrating in the rim of an oil drum on the deck because of the diesel motor, just these things, just to see over the line of birds migrating along the horizon, just if the reader could see those and see the immense mystery and hugeness of existence shimmering behind those very, very concrete details.
GROSS: Peter Matthiessen, recorded in 1989. He died Saturday at the age of 86.
I’m Terry Gross.