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Monday, 15 July 2013

7/15 - Bernie Glassman

                If one gets off the Interstate and the Turnpike (and avoids the corn fields), rural
Massachusetts is very picturesque. Small towns, lovely rivers, and trestle bridges. Western Massachusetts is Johnny Appleseed country. There are either striking big green hills or small green mountains—perhaps part of the Berkshires. Montague is a village surrounded by farms, some of which profess to be organic.
                Bernie Glassman’s house is found down a narrow county road where the trees come together overhead. His wife, Eve, is just going out for a swim in a nearby lake; Joan joins her while I conduct the interview.
                We sit in an area in front of a glassed fireplace. On the coffee table there is a copy of Cigar Aficionado with Jeff Bridges’ photo on the cover. He and Glassman recently released a book entitled The Dude and the Zen Master. There is a large calligraphy scroll on the wall behind Glassman’s chair; an eight-foot Jizo in the further part of the room, as well as a small table or altar with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a statue of Kannon.
                Glassman is wearing a blue patterned shirt and loose white slacks with suspenders that he occasionally adjusts as we speak. He is bearded, and his gray hair recedes from his forehead (my white hair does the same); he wears it long, tied in a pony tail. Looking at him now, it’s difficult to picture him in formal Zen robes and rakusu—but at one time he was very formal in his appearance and his teaching. His days of formal teaching are over.
                “I have twenty Dharma successors, which is insane.” Many of them carry on traditional Zen instruction; however, if he thinks they might be getting a bit stuffy “or too arrogant”, he shows up at their centers unannounced, dressed as a clown and “disrupts things.”  He earned his clown nose legitimately, having studied with a couple of teachers named Wavy-Gravy and Mr. Yoo-hoo. He tells me he carries the nose all the time and, indeed, it is in his pocket as we speak.
                There’s nothing clownish about what Bernie Glassman is doing, however.
                While he was at the Los Angeles Zen Center with Maezumi Roshi, he had a deep experience of the interconnectedness of all things. The purpose of Zen, he tells me, is to elicit such awareness, and it makes use of a number of upayas—skillful means—to bring it forth. Meditation is certainly one, but not the only one. Out of that experience he moved gradually into social engagement. After all, basic to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all things is an awareness of the interconnectedness of people—even people, perhaps even especially people, whom we have marginalized or whom in some way we have defined as “other.”
     When he left Los Angeles, he went back to New York—where he had been raised—and established the Zen Community of New York. In addition to standard meditation training, he began to do street meditations. Twenty students would join him living on the street with the homeless; Father Robert Kennedy was one of the students who took part in these. Participants shared the life of street people; as Father Kennedy remembered, if he wanted a cup of coffee, he needed to beg for the money. The only preparation was to not bathe or shave for two days before going on the street. The only rules were not to lie and to stay together in small groups of three. Every morning there would be a shared reflection; and in the evening they found a place to sleep together. They tended to avoid shelters because of the dangers of violence and tuberculosis. “You could sleep in bus stations, but you’d be kicked out by the police.” The only “practice” was to be present.
                Bernie identified three "tenet koans" which he carries over to his work with Zen Peacemakers. 1) Not knowing; 2) Bearing witness; 3) Loving action. If one wanted to, one could analyze how these tenets evolved from the classical Hakuin koan curriculum, beginning with Mu (not-knowing) and proceeding through to the precepts. But it isn’t a pattern unique to Buddhism, or even Zen. A friend of Glassman’s has shown how they also relate to a contemporary approach to the Torah.
                He and his previous wife (Sandra Jishu Holmes who died in 1998) founded Zen Peacemakers in 1996. Every year they hold a Witnessing Retreat at Auschwitz. “There’s no teacher,” he says. “Auschwitz is the teacher.” The Nazi program at Auschwitz was the supreme example of defining people who don’t represent a specific norm as “other”—whether Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped, or whatever.
               The retreats have had as many as 160 participants, although now it is capped at 120. The majority would never have done any formal Zen training. It isn’t only Zen practitioners who can realize interconnectedness.
                When I ask to take his photo, he suggests we do it in the back of his house. There is a tall wooden Kannon statue with distinctly non-Asian features. “It was carved by a guy who didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but he carved it for a woman who was a Buddhist.” Again, the Bodhisattva of Compassion is not unique to Buddhism, as the Virgin of Guadalupe in the house attests.

[Bernie Glassman died on November 4, 2018.]

Cypress Trees in the Garden:

Glassman, Bernie [Tetsugen] – 76, 134, 173, 235-50, 255, 258, 260, 274, 276, 280, 287, 296-97, 305-07, 309-10, 468

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