Buddhism, activism, and Unknowing: a day with Bernie Glassman (interview with Zen Peacemaker Order founder)

by Christopher Queen


Vol.13 No.1

Jan-Feb 1998


Copyright @ Institute for Labor and Mental Health

            A Day with Bernie Glassman 
            Since the 1980s, Roshi Bernard 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 Sixties radicals is vividly 
            embodied in the work Glassman and his community have done in this 
            often forgotten corner of affluent Westchester County. 
            The Peacemakers 
            The Zen Peacemaker Order was founded in the summer of 1996 by Roshi 
            Bernie Glassman and his wife, Sensei Jishu Holmes. The order is 
            based on three principles: plunging into the unknown, bearing 
            witness to the pain and joy of the world, and 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 
            socially engaged Buddhism in the West. His is a particularly good 
            story: a Jewish boy from Brighton Beach becomes head priest and 
            teacher 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. 
            Glassman started his work with those on the fringes in the 1980s, 
            with the Greyston Mandala. Then, the Greyston network of companies 
            and agencies committed to community development were fragile 
            startups. Today, the thriving organizations include the Greyston 
            Family Inn, with fifty units of permanent housing and a handsome 
            street-level daycare center serving fifty children; the Greyston 
            Bakery, a million-dollar gourmet confectioner providing job training 
            and employment to homeless and formerly homeless men and women; 
            Greyston Builders, specializing in the renovation of affordable 
            housing; Maitri Center and Issan House, a housing center and walk-in 
            clinic for people with AIDS and HIV; and Pamsula, a handicrafts 
            company that recycles used and discarded clothing, providing 
            employment for low-income women. Still growing without Bernie's 
            direct involvement, the Greyston Mandala is now renovating two 
            abandoned apartment buildings. 
            When I arrive in Yonkers, the Peacemaker community, which today 
            includes Zen teacher and hospice movement leader, Joan Halifax, 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 tablemates 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. In those days, the politics and religion were inchoate and 
            raw, like the drunken ravings of Jack 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 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; a peace library, web site, and 
            publications; and a Children's Peace School. 
            Then, I make my way to the Glassman-Holmes home 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. 
            The Interview 
            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. ! know we aren't homeless and I make that quite clear. At 
            the same time, those who come 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 that 
            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 
            QUEEN: Is it possible to imagine a twisted individual who derives 
            some kind of sadistic pleasure from being near human pain and 
            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, then the 
            human condition is laid more bare there than it is in a bank lobby. 
            QUEEN: Let's talk about the first precept of your order, Unknowing. 
            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 Unknowing. Is 
            this some kind of a Zen trick? 
            GLASSMAN: In Zen the words source and essence are the equivalent of 
            Unknowing, and they come up again and again. We have the absolute 
            and the relative perspectives about life, and Unknowing is the one 
            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 Unknowing 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 Chasidism, 
            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 Unknowing was emphasized by my teacher 
            Maezumi Roshi, and it fits my temperament. It just makes so much 
            sense to start from Unknowing. 
            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. The program was a full-dress rehearsal of the Kanromon, 
            "The Gate of Sweet Nectar," a traditional Zen ceremony for feeding 
            the hungry spirits, 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 rakusa. 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 wood block 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 Budhi 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 at Harvard University. He is 
            co-editor of Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia 
            (SUNY Press, 1996).