Interview of Bernie Glassman by Melvin McLeod for Shambhala Sun while Bernie was still working at Greyston, 1996.
In the inner city of Yonkers, New York, Roshi Bernard Glassman has a big vision, big ambition and a big vow to help all beings in need. If his audacious experiment works, he hopes (with a smile) it will replicate all over the universe.
Melvin McLeod: Where did this unique program arise that you call Greyston Mandala, this combination of Zen practice, social action and multi-faith work that you promote with such drive?
Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman: I had a strong inclination to study with my teacher, Maezumi Roshi, because of his very broad and penetrating view of Zen as all of life. I was strongly attracted to him for a number of reasons, but a key one was his very strong equation of Zen and life, with no boundaries. That is still an attraction to me. One of the reasons I had moved out of mystical Judaism study was a feeling that too many boundaries were being set up, and not enough doors. And I have to say that within Buddhism I also ran into many teachers who set up boundaries.
If Zen is just life, then how does one define spirituality?
Spirituality is doing all actions from the standpoint of non-duality. So for me, the center of the mandala-Vairochana Buddha-is the formless form, the state of non-duality. Every action is in a state of duality, but if it is based on a state of non-duality, then by definition it’s a spiritual practice, it’s a spiritual mandala. If an action isn’t, then it’s a different kind of mandala.
So I equate the word “practice” with non-duality. If I say “work practice,” what I mean is “just work,” a non-dualistic work. That’s what makes it spiritual, that’s what makes it practice. So if you do meditation or abhishekas dualistically, then it’s not practice for me. It’s not spiritual. It’s copying old form.
I just read something interesting about how the hyphen has become important now. That we do things, but there’s a longing for something else. So we work, and maybe there’s a longing for that the work to be meaningful, to be a spiritual practice. So you could say “work- ,” and that dash is there for almost everything. If you’re born Jewish and you’re in the Jewish tradition, there’s still a longing for something else. If you’re in the Tibetan tradition, there’s a longing for something else. I don’t think that’s wrong. Many people try to get rid of those dashes, but I think the unity of life says that as we unfold and do more and more things, there are going to be more dashes. So the dash becomes very important, and when what follows the dash is practice, ” -practice,” that’s putting the spiritual element into it. There could be other connections, for example there could be social action-livelihood, but I am particularly interested in having a dash to spirituality. And to me spirituality means non-duality.
The social action ventures you are creating here in Yonkers could be seen as valuable but relatively conventional projects to give people work, to house them, to heal their sickness. Are you are still at a preliminary stage where you are providing people with physical sustenance before you can provide them with spiritual sustenance?
Yes and no. Yes, in that I fully believe that when somebody is very hungry, what they need is food. I worked on koans, and in the koan you become each of the elements of the koan. So if I’m dealing with a hungry person, I become a hungry person, and I say, what do I want? I don’t have to say what I want. Being a hungry person, I know I want some food.
Then if we use the metaphor of teaching the hungry person to fish instead of just giving them a fish, once I have some food I want to learn how to fish, and I want to learn the oneness of life. All those things I’m going to want to do. But there is a timing. So in the works we’re doing, I look at who we’re working with, try to become that person or situation, and ask, what’s required?
So that would be a yes to your question. The no to your question is that I call that Buddhism. That is my whole training in Zen koans; when we say that Zen is life, dealing in the moment with what is, that’s the essence of Buddhism. So if there’s a starving person, giving them food is the essence of Buddhism.
But have you yet gone past providing physical comfort to where you can start providing dharma itself?
No, no, I don’t differentiate them.
But how does that differ from anybody else’s social action? Perhaps it doesn’t and that’s not a problem…
It does in the spirit. Here’s the key: if what you’re doing is based in non-duality, then what you’re doing becomes the teachings.
Of your 90 employees, how many of them are practitioners?
Again, what is practitioner? What’s important to ask, I think, of the people that come into our mandala, into our work, is how many of them are transforming into understanding the unity of life. How many of them are moving towards non-duality?
If you want to ask, how many of them are doing abhishekas, or sitting on a cushion, that’s a different kind of question. And not as relevant to me. For me the relevant question is, how many are raising the bodhi mind? How many are having their lives transformed into seeing beyond their own needs into the unity of life, the interconnectedness of life? I think a lot. And that’s what I’m trying to do within the context of the work we’re doing.
I think what differentiates our model from other social action models, or other business models, is that the basis has to be the buddha family, the non-dualistic family. And it has to be working towards a raising of the bodhi mind. Otherwise it’s not my Buddhist model.
Tell our readers about your life that brought you to this point.
Bernie Glassman, born in Brooklyn in Brighton Beach, and grew up in an environment of left-wing socialism. Jewishness, but not religious Jewishness, more as cultural Jewishness.
I had interests in the sciences and in, I don’t know if social action is the right word, but I was caught up with the whole liberal movement. Ingrained in me was a desire to put an end to prejudice, which was rampant in the community in those times. I grew up in somewhat poor areas and people were being beaten up because they were black, they were being beaten up because they were Jewish. I was very aware of all of that.
So that’s sort of the way I grew up.
I became interested in airplanes very early in my life, and went to a high school that specialized in engineering in Brooklyn and from there to an engineering college. In college I got interested in Zen through reading. One of the professors who influenced me was a man named Lewis Zukovsky, who turns out to have been one of the mentors for Ginsberg and that whole crowd. He was a poet; I don’t know why he was in a small engineering school.
I read about comparative religion, and in reading Huston Smith the page on Zen struck me as home. Nowadays on the Web, we might call it my home page. That was home for me. It was immediate, but I had no prior knowledge of that world so I went out and read whatever was written about it. That was your D.T. Suzuki, and your Alan Watts. This was ’58, ’59.
It was a karmic thing, was it?
Well, as a Buddhist, everything is a karmic thing, I would say. Yeah, it was just a matter of time before I ran into those connections and found it was the right path for me.
My first readings didn’t tell me how to do zazen. Alan Watts didn’t talk about it, D.T. Suzuki didn’t talk about it in those days. When I first found out about zazen, I didn’t have teachers so I sat on my own. Then I built a little zendo in my garage and did retreats on my own. Those were the early sixties so there were a lot of drugs around, but I was already pretty heavily involved in sitting. So although I was in a crowd that was into drugs, I really didn’t get involved. I guess I wasn’t caught up in that as a practice. I already had my practice.
I went to Israel for a year. I came back in ’63 and heard there was a Zen temple in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. There was a group of people sitting together one night a week, and there was a young monk helping the Japanese Roshi in charge. That young monk was Maezumi, who was to be my teacher. I was twenty-four and he was thirty-two, and at that time he wasn’t even called Sensei. He was just a young monk and he did not speak much.
I dropped out of that group because there wasn’t much English spoken and because it was pretty much just sitting, and I felt I could sit on my own. During that period I did have an experience in which I thought I was going crazy and I stopped sitting for about a year, but then started again.
Several years later, around ’66, ’67, I went to a one-day workshop given by Yasutani Roshi, and the translator was this young monk Maezumi, and his English was now perfect. I was looking for a teacher and when I saw Maezumi speaking English, I went up to him and said, “Can I study with you?” I found out that he was renting a house and had just started a small zendo, and I started to sit. I was somewhat a fanatic practitioner in those days and I was there just about every day.
Besides Maezumi Roshi’s big view, what were the other things about him that affected you?
It was not just the big view; it was also an emphasis on clarity. It was an emphasis on depth of clarity and breadth of action that really caught me. I felt I always had something to learn from him. I felt that depth and breadth as long as I studied with him. I felt those things in him and appreciated his demand that I go in those directions myself.
Was he hard?
Not on me. Some people say he was very hard, but not on me. In some sense we were more like lovers, I think.
How did you come back to an emphasis on social action?
Never left it. I’ve always been interested in social action. I’ve always been interested in the sciences. I’ve always been interested in multi-faith work. These are not new.
I had a big experience quite a number of years ago in which I felt the hungry ghosts everywhere, and made a vow that I would work to feed all of them. That’s a big vow, but it means I have to work in all those areas.
Literal hungry ghosts [pretas] or human beings as hungry ghosts?
It was seeing everything and everyone as hungry ghosts. It was a literal experience and a formative experience. Seeing the variety of cravings and beings all around us.
That’s become my main theme. My main liturgy is called “The Gate of Sweet Nectar,” a liturgy in which we invite all of the hungry ghosts to come into our mandala and we vow to raise the bodhi mind to feed them. Basic food means the raising of the bodhi mind. That’s the only food that can really satisfy. But there are a lot of steps that are needed in order to be able to get to raising the bodhi mind.
So in 1979 before I came to New York to start the Zen Community of New York, we gathered in the house of one of the students, whose name was Lex Hixon, to talk about what the community was going to be like. And I described the five buddha families and the multi-faith work and the social action; I described what is unfolding here now.
If non-duality emanates from the center of the mandala, the buddha family principle, does that mean it emanates from you as teacher?
In some sense, as the founder, yes, but there are others working here who understand this also. Then there are other teachers or other people who are attracted to doing this and want to see if it can really happen, and they become part of it. Then to another degree there’s the whole environment: if we create the environment in which this is happening, the environment itself becomes the teacher.
The exciting thing about all of this is that new upayas [skillful means] have to be developed with this non-dualistic understanding in mind. So we had a visionary committee-we call it the Office of the Mandala-to ask, is the work becoming something that isn’t headed in the direction of raising the bodhi mind? Are the companies that we’re forming, or the social action ventures, moving in a direction which is not based on non-dualism?
That’s a very difficult thing. Can you create things which have an intrinsic non-duality in their infrastructure and in their environment, so that they’re going to help move things in the right direction? It’s almost like, how do you build a monastery to help the practitioners that come there to accomplish their practice? Different teachers in different traditions came up with different ways, and those are their upayas.
So in your “monastery,” the practitioners who come are the people in need.
Yes. Our monastery is the community. When I first moved here I was talking about it as a monastery of the streets. The whole community. The whole mandala of Yonkers.
The whole community. Obviously the people who come in directly are going to be more involved, but it doesn’t stop there. People talk to each other, people look at what’s happening, people come to do interviews, to do TV shows. So if the model we’re creating is good, it will replicate. And if it isn’t, then it will fall apart.
And how far will that community grow or that influence reverberate?
[Smiles] I hope the whole world, the whole universe. I made a vow to feed all hungry spirits. They’re everywhere.
You are literally taking over a building from the Catholic church and picking up some of their traditional social action responsibilities, which perhaps they can no longer fulfill. Yet Buddhism does not have a strong tradition of social action.
You know, I’ve heard this kind of approach many times but I really don’t understand it. It seems to me every religion and every spiritual practice has dealt with social action.
I don’t know where our views about traditional Buddhism arise, to tell you the truth. I know that the first people who talked about Zen in this country had no idea what Zen was all about. The people I was running into were talking about Zen and they’d never been to Japan. What they had was D.T. Suzuki writing, Alan Watts writing, and one or two centers in North America, and from that they knew what it was all about. They had no idea of the breadth of it. At one time, the hospitals, the old age homes, the schools were all in the Buddhist monasteries. That’s where you went. They weren’t separate.
Japanese Zen has not been involved in recent years with social action, but the founder of the Shingon sect was considered a social activist of his time, and there is a huge Buddhist sect in Japan where all they do is social action.
So you feel firmly within Buddhist tradition.
Another one of my pet peeves is that in different interviews and discussions, Buddhists have been made to apologize for doing social action, as if it were non-Buddhist. It just blows my mind to think that social action could be considered non-spiritual in any way. That any of the spiritual traditions would not be involved in social action in one way or another. It is karuna, compassion. How we could even think that way makes no sense to me. That a spiritual tradition could be just the prajna, or wisdom, side of it, or just the discipline side of it, and leave out the compassion side-I don’t know how anybody could create such a thing. It doesn’t work.
Acknowledging your marvelous capacity to initiate projects and magnetize resources, do you have a strong enough community around you to sustain such a large enterprise?
Sure. And again, the reason is that I don’t look locally. To put it another way, the question is, are there enough people in the world who are interested in seeing a Buddhist-inspired mandala come to fruition, and I think the answer is yes. Do I know where they all are at this very moment? No.
For example, when we started the AIDS facility, we didn’t have enough resources and people here to do it, but there were wonderful people who came and joined in. When I started the homeless work, we didn’t have enough resources and people to do all of that. But when we started it, they came.
I really believe in the interconnectedness of life. So I don’t see a limit. I’m driven by the needs, not by what resources I see. So when I see a need, all of a sudden new ingredients open up. If the resources that I have are very small but the need is there, then I’ll work on that need and all of a sudden more ingredients appear, more resources come.
Many times we fail in business because we see it as a family business, whether it’s our own family or our friend’s or whatever. We limit who we will involve, and as the business grows we may not have the skills within our family. If you think of a family as everyone, then you’re only limited by everyone.
My family is the whole world; that’s why I’m in multi-faith work. And when I say “my family” I don’t mean that I’m the father of the family or the teacher of the family. I’m part of that family.
What is the secret to your ability to magnetize resources, which is unparalleled in the American Buddhist world? Is it because government agencies and private funders and potential supporters respond to the sincerity of that vow you took to respond to people’s needs, to feed the hungry ghosts?
It could be. I think that’s got to be there. But another factor is that I really believe I’m not after controlling any of it. I don’t need to be in charge of it, and I think people recognize that and that makes it easier for it to flow. I think we’re somewhat put off by those who we think just want to grab everything.
I think my vow is sincere, that I want to serve and offer. It’s not that I just want to take. And I think people can feel that, and I think that builds trust and confidence. I’ve said many times that I’d be interested in helping other community groups in doing their work. But what is it that I can say? The problem is that what I can say not everybody wants to hear: that to do the work you can’t assume that you’re going to be in charge. You’ve got to work together with others, make coalitions. It’s the padma energy in the mandala. The padma energy and the buddha energy are extremely important and not everybody wants to deal with those. Even here, we don’t necessarily want to do what it takes to get it done.
It’s really hard to care for others.
In my tradition, and from my experience, it’s not that you’re caring for others, you’re caring for yourself. So it’s having the realization of others as yourself. That’s important.
When your hand is bleeding, it is not hard to care for it. You don’t sit around saying, should I do something about it or not. But if you experience your hand as something separate from yourself, then you can sit around and say, should I do it or not.
So that’s the key. The key is realizing the oneness of life; experiencing that. In the meantime, all you can do is say, yes, intellectually I want to do that. But it’s not the same.
So that’s a basic ingredient, and that’s the importance to me of Buddhism, of the awakening. It’s a qualitative shift and the quality of that shift means you can’t get away from taking care of others, because you’re taking care of yourself.
Your latest project is the creation of a new order of ordained social activists called Peacemaker Priests. This is a daring idea.
I gave a lot of thought to what it means to be a layman and what it means to be an ordained priest. My feeling was that the time had come to have an order of priests where the role has to do with Zen practices, and social action practices, and to differentiate that from a priest whose main role would be running a monastery or a temple. These folks, their main role would be social activism of one form or another.
This came up because there was one person in particular who had been asking to be ordained as a priest for quite a number of years, and it wasn’t clear to me exactly why. This person was not going to wind up living and working in a monastery or a temple. He had an active life, and part of that life was a very heavy involvement in social action. And it finally dawned on me that the only way that made sense for him to express his commitment to the dharma was by robing and by being an activist.
It was not clear then what this container would look like, other than that an instance had occurred where I felt it was the right thing to do. So as I’ve done many times in my life, I made that step, and after I did it, some other people whose lives were social activists’ lives contacted me and said they would like to ordain in this way too.
This ordination would be an expression of their deep commitment?
They were already acting as I would imagine an ordained person would act and as a social activist would act. They seemed very strongly committed to the dharma. One person involved from your Shambhala tradition is Fleet Maull, who is a prisoner doing hospice work. He wrote, “I heard that you’re doing this, and it’s what I want to do.” I look at him and I say, well, this is what you’re doing. So for me, he is a natural Peacemaker Priest. Another person who has ordained with me this way is Claude Thomas.
So very quickly there were three people who were starting to give shape to this. Then I discussed this with a Jesuit priest and a Mother Superior of a Catholic order who are both Zen teachers in my lineage and very involved with social action. They liked the idea, so we thought of a Multi-Faith Peacemaker Order where the Peacemaker Priests would be trained within their own traditions and work together on social action.
That’s about as far as we’ve gone, but there will be a few Catholic priests joining this Peacemaker Order in December.
What would you like to see the Greyston Mandala be ten years from now?
What I hope is that in ten years it will be very obvious to anyone walking around here that this is a Buddhist-inspired mandala. That it will be obvious to them that what’s going on here is helping to raise the buddha mind.
If that happens I will feel happy, because that means it could clone all over the place. People will come, feel something, and go away and do it. In my mind, something that’s helping to raise the bodhi mind can only lead to a better situation. So people will recognize that and incorporate that. So that is be my biggest hope: that in ten years it will be really visible, that you will feel something’s going on here. If you walk into a temple or a monastery, you feel something’s going on. You know that something’s different. I want that-that there is something different and yet the same. That it is a whole community, and yet it’s different.
Within that context, you’re going to see all kinds of things. You’re going to see an old age home, and schools, and all kinds of things of that nature. And you will also see what I would call mystics, practitioners, of many traditions. We already have in the little block where I live a house of Zen priests, a house of Sufis and a Pentecostal Church where the minister is practicing zazen. That’s already on the block right opposite where our first college is going to go, and in ten years you’re going to see yogis and Hindus from different sects, and all kinds of Buddhists.
This is a big vision and it’s still just you and a small group of people, by real world standards. Yet you have obvious confidence that you can pull it off. Where does that confidence come from?
Oh, I was a change of life baby and had four older sisters who loved me (laughs). I was a spoiled baby with four older sisters. It’s not so much confidence. I mean, I do have confidence, but I also have no expectations. So I don’t feel bad if it doesn’t happen the way I would like it to. When I came here in 1980 I wanted a multi-faith center that had all these houses functioning. It didn’t happen. The timing wasn’t right. It’s now starting to happen. This is fifteen, sixteen years later.
So you go for it, and you don’t get upset if it doesn’t happen. If you go for it, it’s going to happen, whether it takes a hundred years or a thousand years or two kalpas.
It doesn’t matter. But that doesn’t mean you don’t put your all into it.