No Pretension, Much Humor: Bernie’s Visit to Vassar College, April 2017
By E.h. Rick Jarow, Professor of Religion/Asian Studies and Chairman of the Carolyn Grant Endowment Committee, Vassar College
POUGHKEEPSIE, NEW YORK, USA. Bernie Glassman and his colleague, Rami Efal, recently visited Vassar College and spoke to my Zen and the West class and then to a larger group of people in an evening lecture entitled, “Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Taking Action.” Glassman’s effort, and it was an effort, since he had experienced a stroke a bit more than a year before, was powerful. He came out in a wheel chair. His speech was still slightly slurred, but totally understandable, and it was clear that there was a very strong will to return, a will to serve. But this heroic effort is not quite what I have found to be so moving, nor was it his “name, “ his amazing work, or even his mastery of Zen. After all, I have met with “adepts” and “activists” of all kinds and am used to their scripts. There was something palpably different here.
I do not know if I can put my finger on it. Was it authenticity? Was it hearing someone who has actually walked their talk, or was it the innate humility and ease with which I felt the Dharma being transmitted? There was no pretension and much humor, but there was something more. What I saw and felt was a genius in communicating the reality of the Buddha – not as a religious model, nor as a traditional practice, but as Awakening (thus true to the name “Buddha,” which means “awake”) in this time and in this place. There was no reification of “Buddhism” or of any ‘ism,” nor nostalgia about any romanticized spiritual past culture.
Not once in his speech did Roshi Glassman use words like “consciousness,” “freedom,” or even “enlightenment,” (well he did make a passing remark about pursuing “enlightenment’ in the past). What he spoke repeatedly of was “taking action,” and he did so in a non-rhetorical way. He was not egging people to jump on or off any bandwagon, to “change the world,” and the like, rather the refrain was “bearing witness,” being present to this reality.
Somewhere in the middle of the lecture, I realized that Glassman was actually transmitting the Dharma, “the teaching of the Buddha,” through the most skillful means imaginable. Instead of hitting people over the head with “spirituality,” or claiming to be on some higher platform of reality, Roshi Glassman started off his talk by insisting that, “I know nothing.” His “Bearing Witness,” then, was not one of traveling here and there to observe something external, or even internal. Rather he described how his own action had flowed out of his own life; from seeing the many homeless people in Yonkers, to visiting Auschwitz for the first time, where he had felt the “souls there” who needed to be remembered. So his “taking action,” was to act within the situation that was given to him, to listen deeply to what was calling him, and to respond.
I remembered Sasaki Roshi once defining Zen as the “Activity of the Absolute,” but here Glassman was embodying it, telling people “Don’t do what I do, do what you do,” your attainment is in the acts you do, not thoughts or imaginings. What stirred my heart was the quality of the call to action, the same qualities I have felt from Mohandas Gandhi’s call to “Grasp the Truth” (Satyagraha), and Dr. M.L King’s invoking of the “Beloved Community.” I was being challenged to live fully, to act from the heart, to be in that moment, and to hear voices that need to be recognized.
For the last few days I have been flooded with gratefulness. I felt that my heart had not just been touched, long ago but awakened; in the same way it was when as an 18 year-old student at Harvard, I took up Nobel Biologist George Wald’s suggestion to read the Sermon on the Mount. My life changed that night, and hearing Bernie reminded of his colleague Ram
Dass telling us that once the spirit is ignited, it can never be snuffed out. It might go underground for awhile, but (and this is what I imagine people call the “Grace of the Guru,” or the “Visitation of the Holy Spirit), it gets reawakened. My heart re-awakened listening to Bernie Glassman that night. Through him I felt all of the Beings who have inspired me to dare to love, to give more, to let go, and to let God. I am profoundly grateful.
E.h. Rick Jarow