Buddhism, Activism and Not Knowing: A Day with Bernie Glassman
by Christopher Queen
Since the 1980s, Roshi Bernie Glassman has become a familiar figure to readers of Buddhist journals like Tricycle and Shambhala Sun. But now the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Time magazine can scarcely report on the explosion of interest in American Buddhism without mentioning street retreats — penniless week-long excursions into lower-Manhattan led by Roshi Bernie –and the Greyston Foundation, a mandala of for-profit and not-for-profit businesses that serve the poor in Glassman’s adopted neighborhood of Yonkers, NY. Indeed, the vision of urban renewal and human reclamation only dimly imagined by ’60s radicals is vividly embodied in the work Glassman and his community have done in this often forgotten corner of affluent Westchester county.
The Zen Peacemaker Order was founded three years ago by Bernard Glassman Roshi and his wife, Sensei Jishu Holmes. Plunging into the Unknown is its first principle. The second is bearing witness to the pain and joy of the world, and the third is a commitment to heal oneself and the world. As a university lecturer on Buddhism, I have followed what Glassman and others have written about the rise of this sort of socially engaged Buddhism in the West. His is a particularly good story: a Jewish boy from Brighton Beach becomes head priest of a major branch of Japanese Soto Zen, then contributes to a worldwide shift in the practice of Buddhism–from a religion of contemplative retreat and devotion to one that plunges into direct engagement with society’s discarded people, places, and problems.
When I arrive in Yonkers, the Peacemaker community, which today includes the visiting Joan Halifax, a Zen teacher and hospice movement leader, is sitting down to a picnic dinner. Some order members speak of their plans to return to Oswiecim, Poland, for another Thanksgiving retreat at Auschwitz and Birkenau. This, they say, is the experience of bearing witness. Bernie is chatting affably with table mates and working on a plate of salad, beans, and rice. He’s beginning to let his hair and beard grow out in preparation for an upcoming street retreat. He welcomes the newcomer warmly without being effusive. A complete stranger, walking in, would see that Bernie was at the center of everything, and then wonder how he does it.
Gazing around the room at the thirty order members, candidates, students, and visitors, I am reminded of a time when small gatherings of spiritual seekers and social misfits sat on the floors of city brownstones, sharing visions of a new America and a world at peace. Then the politics and religion were inchoate and raw, like the drunken ravings of Kerouac’s Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder and the angry memoirs of Malcolm X. Today’s group is infinitely more evolved–Buddhists with a sense of history stretching back 2,500 years and deep feelings for the mystery of life in its most extreme manifestations.
Later, in the Peacemaker order’s offices, I leaf through voluminous notebooks outlining its scope: mission and vision statements, business plans, and endless committee and board minutes and reports. I read about a growing network of Peacemaker Villages, local groups engaged in service and activism, and affiliated with the Peacemaker Order through publications, funding arrangements, training, and planning. Some include Upaya, a foundation headed by Joan Halifax devoted to death and dying hospice work and environmental activism; the Latino Pastoral Action Center devoted to inner city community development; and the Prison Peacemaker Village, which has created a hospice network in prisons.
I learn of plans for a Peacemaker Institute, which will offer practical training in peace activism, mediation, community development; academic study of peacemaking traditions; conferences and internships for practitioners; peace library, web site, and publications; and a Children’s Peace School.
Then, I make my way to the Glassman-Holmes apartment where a space-age-chiropractic-massage-and-vibrating-lounger-chair with NASA-style controls rests in a corner. An electrically heated, liquid-filled toilet seat graces the bathroom. I tease the Roshi of the Streets about these Sharper Image catalogue items. “Jishu gave me the toilet seat for my birthday,” he shamelessly replies. We settle down on couches to talk.
Queen: I guess you spend a lot of time doing interviews these days.
Glassman: Yeah, we get about one documentary film crew asking to come every month, and print media people about once a week. It says the work we are doing is of tremendous interest to society at this time. There are plenty of others who are doing this work without the spotlight. But when the News of the Week in Review [Sunday New York Times, July 6, 1997] covers Joan [Halifax]’s work, it says to people that a Buddhist perspective is worth considering. But it takes a lot of time.
Queen: Are you criticized in the media?
Glassman: The L.A. Times carried a piece that talks about the people who say I am moving too much to social action and leaving Zen behind. Then it quotes the president of the Buddhist Association of L.A., Ven. Ratnasara, who said that Buddhism always moves into the streets when it comes to a new culture and that Bernie is doing what has to be done. Of course, if someone thinks I’m leaving Zen behind, that’s fine with me. I’m just doing what I’m doing.
Queen: What is engaged Buddhism, anyway? Some people say your street retreats are just consciousness raising for the rich–you don’t hand out blankets or food–in fact you soak up some of the limited good will that still exists on the streets of lower Manhattan.
Glassman: The same question could be raised about the Buddha. How did he benefit mankind by sitting in meditation? This is a problem with the term “engaged Buddhism” in a broad sense. Anything anyone is doing to make themselves whole in their own life, or realizing the Way, or becoming enlightened–whatever term you would use–these are all involved in service, because if we realize the oneness of life, then each person is serving every other person and is reducing suffering.
Queen: You and Thich Nhat Hanh [a Vietnamese monk who works with American veterans of the Vietnam War] are very non-dualistic about this: not separating your own suffering and its relief from that of others. But Dr. Ambedkar, the Untouchable leader in India during the fight for independence, said no religion should romanticize poverty. Aren’t you doing that by spending a week on the street and then coming home to a hot shower?
Glassman: I think that the person who has lived with the Untouchables can work with the Untouchables in a way that others cannot. You can’t become Untouchable in this way, of course. At the same time I believe that those who came out of that experience have a deeper understanding of it, and we should learn from them. I want to figure out how to learn from those who have suffered in a certain way, even though I can’t fully enter that realm. So we go on the streets. I know we aren’t homeless and I make that quite clear. At the same time those who came will experience something that is closer to that world than those who haven’t been there. This is the meaning of ‘bearing witness.’ It’s like entering a church knowing you’re not God or the priest. But you will experience something different from someone who stays out of the church or someone who is just hired to fix the roof.
The Magnet of Suffering
Queen: Why are you attracted to places of great suffering–the inner city, Auschwitz, the notorious needle park called the Letten in Zurich where thousands of junkies used to buy, sell, and shoot up in broad daylight?”
Glassman: I don’t know. The words that come to me are the desire to learn. I don’t know what it is, but it happens a lot to me when I encounter a situation I don’t understand. It generally involves suffering. When I enter a situation that is too much for me and I don’t understand–I have a desire to sit there, to stay a while.
Queen: You talk about an energy that surrounds such places.
Glassman: Yeah. There’s a magnet that pulls me so that I want to stay there. I haven’t figured it out, but I’m not sure it’s so unusual.
Queen: Is it possible to imagine a twisted individual who derives some kind of sadistic pleasure from being near human pain and suffering?”
Glassman: Sure. But the people and situations I’m talking about are a metaphor for our whole society–all the attachments and addictions. In the drug zone in Zurich the metaphor is so naked you couldn’t miss it unless you ran away. You had addicts shooting up and dealers making money from their suffering. A few blocks away were the large banks laundering the dealers’ money, with the good citizens of Zurich looking away, trusting their police to keep everything under control. But if you stayed and looked, the human condition is laid more bare than it is in a bank lobby.
Queen: Let’s talk about this Not Knowing, the first precept of your order. You have a Ph.D. in mathematics and have acquired expertise in countless areas of Buddhist teaching and practice, psychology, business management, finance, and so on. Yet you teach Not Knowing. Is this some kind of a Zen trick?
Glassman: In the Zen liturgy the words source and essence are the equivalent of Not Knowing, and they come up again and again. We have the absolute and the relative perspectives about life, and not-knowing is the one foundation or source of both of these.
Queen: Early Buddhism in India is very comfortable with notions of knowledge, wisdom, and technique. Yoga, meditation, and philosophy were all developed by experts, the virtuoso monks. But in China a mistrust of words and concepts and intellectualism came into the early Zen tradition from Taoism and we hear about book-burnings and Zen masters who do wild, irrational things to break their students’ dependency on logic and learning. Is this part of Not Knowing for you?
Glassman: Yes, and for me it fits in with my Jewish background. In contrast to the whole rabbinical tradition of Talmudic learning and scholarship comes the mystical tradition of Kabbalah and Hasidism, where all the earthly qualities and emanations come from the infinite Ein Sof. And the Sufis have some of the same ideas. But the important thing is that Not Knowing was emphasized by my teacher Maezumi Roshi, and it fits my temperament. It just makes so much sense to start from Not Knowing.
Queen: But how does this work when you are dealing with people with no educational opportunities, who have a desperate need for knowledge and expertise? Ambedkar was just as jealous for education as he was for economic opportunities for the Untouchables who converted to Buddhism in 1956.
Glassman: Yeah. But the other side must be stressed. At every moment one starts from unknowing so that all the acquired knowledge will arise spontaneously and be used in a new, creative way.
Life in Community
That evening, the Peacemaker community participates in evening exercises. Tonight the program was a full-dress rehearsal of the Kanromon, “The Gate of Sweet Nectar,” a traditional Zen ceremony of rededication, chanted partly in Japanese and partly in English translation. Roshi Bernie, Sensei Jishu, and several senior order members are in full priestly regalia, while others wear the Zen student’s bib or kesa. An orchestra of gongs, bells, and wood blocks is positioned near the door to accompany the formal procession, liturgical movements, and periodic gassho, or bowing. Choreography is everything here, but the places, movements, and sequences are still being worked out, as Roshi frequently stops the whole thing to correct the person playing the woodblock or the person rounding the line of officiants slightly late.
Now, curiously, Bernard Glassman seems to be fully in his element, teaching a motley but earnest assembly of middle-aged Americans how to bow and play the gong, to invoke the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and to appropriate and internalize the tenets and precepts of engaged Buddhism for the twenty-first century of the Common Era and the twenty-sixth century of the Shakyamuni Buddha Era.
Attention! Attention! Raising the Bodhi Mind, the supreme meal is offered to all the hungry spirits in the ten directions throughout space and time, filling the smallest particle to the largest space.
All you hungry spirits in the ten directions, please gather here.
Sharing your distress, I offer you this food, hoping it will resolve your thirsts and hungers.
Christopher Queen is Dean of Students for Continuing Education and Lecturer on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University. He is coeditor of Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (State University of New York Press, 1996
June 19, 2019