The Rites Preparatory to the Commencement of a Journey

ZPI encourages reflections from retreats participants, staff, members & others touched by our work around the world, as part of the practice of bearing witness, to share their personal reflections, stories, and responses to the teachings behind the Three Tenants & Bernie Glassman’s legacy. Stephen Billias, published author & former student on Bernie Glassman’s at HOOP, shares a poem with ZPI, starting with what lead to his musings on the piece.

DEERFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS, USA. Roshi Bernie Glassman was both my employer and my teacher at the House of One People/Maezumi Institute in Montague, Massachusetts for a short time in 2006. It was a rich, fascinating, and all too brief period. As a beginning Zen student, I had the banal misconception of Zen priests as holy people who would be soft-spoken, gentle, wear robes, and shy away from too much human contact. Roshi Bernie was just the opposite. He was a man who enjoyed life. He sat drinking cognac and smoking cigars with Jim Bastien on the back deck of the HOOP on many an afternoon. His habitual dress was plaid work shirt, blue jeans, and rainbow-colored suspenders. He loved to play around, pull people’s legs, say things that tilted people’s perspectives. He was, truly, a Cosmic Clown. I grew to love him. He had converted the space in Montague into a magnificent zendo, situated on hilly farmland, with outbuildings including a farmhouse where several people lived who worked as volunteers. 

Zen Peacemakers meditation circle at the Shintaido Farm, 2006

My stint at HOOP lasted only three months. In that time, I sat zazen daily in the morning, often with Roshi Bernie, sometimes with his wife and fellow teacher Eve, almost always with Jim Bastien, the shaggy, bearded, motorcycle-riding, serious Zen adept and President of the organization at the time, and with a few other people. I saw Bernie in many different contexts–as a teacher and as a visionary. I saw him as a fiscally challenged leader of a business, and in his red clown nose incarnation with Mister Yoo-hoo that he took into refugee camps with Clowns without Borders. I saw ‘The Zen Master’ with ‘The Dude’ when Jeff Bridges came to visit, and only once I saw Roshi Bernie in full Soto Zen regalia for the opening of the HOOP, when all the Roshis came from Japan for a lengthy, formal, elaborate, and solemn traditional opening ceremony.

All of that experience played into the writing of the poem The Rites Preparatory to the Commencement of a Journey that is the heart of this journal entry. The title comes from page three of The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, and is just a random phrase from the text that stuck in my mind and pulled me to reflect on my journey and how Roshi Bernie instructed and influenced me. His was a powerful presence. His idea of “not-knowing” took hold in me. I’m still working on “bearing witness” and “taking action”. My grateful thanks to Roshi Bernie and teacher Eve for their patient instruction.

Although I did not continue with formal Zen practice, my wife Bela and I teach and study Shintaido, a body movement and martial art. Shintaido was created by Hiroyuki Aoki-sensei in Japan and brought to America by Haruyoshi Ito. Shintaido has many meditative components that align with Zen. For the last six years I’ve been studying T’ai Chi also. In 2016 we sold the Shintaido Farm we had built to Fleet Maull and Kate Crisp, and the place is now known as Windhorse Hill Retreat Center and the home of the Engaged Mindfulness Institute. Fleet and Kate graciously opened the dojo/zendo for us to use for a book launch party recently. We’d like to feel that we are still connected with the Zen Peacemakers in the Pioneer Valley, and I’d like to think that Roshi Bernie would have enjoyed this poem, and that he might have gotten a laugh out of it.

The Rites Preparatory to the Commencement of a Journey

For Nancy

What are these rites, you ask?

What is this journey?

“Whither Goest Thou?”

Out the eye of the hurricane,

Through that eyewall so smooth and soft and impenetrable,

From calm peace to shaking terror in seconds.

Up inside the funnel of the tornado,

My Fifty-Seven Chevy spinning upward beside me.

Raise your hand if the words Quo Vadis came to mind.

It’s easier to leave this world than to enter it.

First, we should eat. That seems only proper.

Then, a long walk off a short pier.

I’m not seeking to know.

I’m seeking to not-know.

The Late Roshi Bernie Glassman’s mantra.

Outside, the New England weather goes from snow

To sleet to rain to sleet to snow 

In the space of an hour.

I sit cross-legged and toss the I CHING.

A book all about journeys.

My life’s companion.

Whither I go

I do not know. Said another way, in the affirmative:

I do not know.

About the Author

Stephen Billias is the author of A Book of Fields: Tales from the Pioneer Valley, recently published by Odeon Press. He lives in South Deerfield with his wife Bela. From 2006 to 2016 Stephen and his wife Bela Breslau operated the Shintaido Farm, a center for the practice of the esoteric Japanese body movement/martial art Shintaido. To learn more about Stephen’s writings you may visit his website.


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