Weekend at Bernie’s
Trish Deitch Rohrer visits Montague Farm, where Roshi Bernie Glassman is launching his newest venture, the Maezumi Institute. Through his many incarnations—from engineer to social activist to peacemaker to clown—Glassman has faced the question: Is this Zen?
When Zen master Bernie Tetsugen Glassman was a little boy in the 1940’s, he went out for a meal with his family at a diner in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. It couldn’t have been an easy time for Glassman. They had just moved to Brownsville. His mother had died not long before, and his father had remarried just a year after that. On that particular day, though, Glassman, seven or eight at the time, had a good vision: In the middle of the meal, he looked over at a nearby booth and noticed a bunch of bums, as he calls them, arguing over what he calls the funny papers. (He looked at me dead-on as he told this story, his brown eyes neutral, his thick, silver eyebrows—and his beard, and his tiny ponytail—all haywire. We were sitting on a wooden porch in northern Massachusetts, looking out over a deep, green valley, drinking coffee.) “I realized,” Glassman said (painting traces in the afternoon air with his cigar), “the bums were philosophers.”
Or maybe he didn’t say exactly that. I’d driven up to Massachusetts earlier that day from New York City to talk to Glassman about his most recent project, the Maezumi Institute, a new school for Zen studies, peacemaking, and contemplative arts—and a center where people of many faiths can come together—and my cassette player failed to record the conversation. I discovered this while I was rounding a bend in a country road shortly after leaving Glassman at Montague Farm—once a famous anti-nuke commune and now the place where the Maezumi Institute is located—and I went into a panic behind the wheel: How could I write about Glassman without verifiable quotes? And then, suddenly, I rounded another bend, and came upon a homemade wooden sign, nailed to a tree. This was my first vision after meeting Glassman, and I attribute it to him, as if he had painted it himself. The sign said, in messy, black, handwritten letters, “Free sawdust.”
The bottom line, when it comes to Glassman’s work, whether it be as the founder of the Maezumi Institute, or as the cofounder of the international Zen Peacemaker community, or as the creator of the Greyston mandala in Yonkers, New York, or as the first dharma heir of the renowned Japanese Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi, is this: He is trying to help the people he comes in contact with to realize and actualize, as he says, the interconnectedness—the oneness—of life.
One tangible entryway into this profound and difficult realization is to dive into situations (or “plunge” into them, as Glassman puts it) that leave you in a state of what Zen practitioners call “not knowing”: You stand in the middle of any moment or situation, your preconceived notions, preferences, and labels for things obliterated. An example of a situation that throws you into a state of not knowing, Glassman says, is spending time with a person you love who’s dying. Another example is finding yourself living on the street with no money and no food: You have no reference points. Your world goes topsy-turvy.
“If you’re truly in a state of not labeling things,” Glassman said to me over the phone a few weeks after our first meeting, “then it’s all one. As soon as you label anything—I don’t care what it is—it becomes ‘other,’ and you’re not in that state of oneness anymore.”
Glassman orchestrates, through his life’s work, situations that help create a state of not knowing. He has done group meditation retreats at Auschwitz, he has lived with students on the sidewalks and in the subway tunnels of New York City, he has no doubt created chaos for the three women he has been married to over the course of his life, and for many of his more conventional Zen students who cling to the idea that the only path to enlightenment is through strict dharma study and meditation practice.
“I don’t like boxes,” he said to me that day at Montague Farm. “I like to tear them down.”
Or at least that’s what I thought he said, before I discovered that, tape or no tape, there was going to be no simple answer to the question, Who is Bernie Glassman?
“I don’t think it’s useful to try to pin Bernie down,” says Joan Halifax, one of Glassman’s eighteen dharma heirs, and the abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe. “He’s a shape-shifter. He has no fixed identity.”
“So how do you relate to him?” I say.
“I’m in my mid-sixties,” she says, “just a little younger than he is. I want somebody I can talk to toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball. I’m not interested in a relationship qualified by mutual projections.”
“What do you mean?” I say.
“Our relationship is not a typical student–teacher relationship,” she says, “where the student is enthralled by the teacher. It’s more a path of unusual mutuality, where discovery is the primary quotient.”
“Discovery of what?” I ask.
“Anything,” she says. “The first tenet, after all, is not knowing.”
Glassman was standing on a dirt road, trying to light a cigar, when I pulled up. He squinted at me, and then went back to the lighter and the cigar. There was an old dog asleep in a shadow nearby, and the sound of rushing water in the distance. Otherwise, there was nothing but him and me, a ticking car, some flying bugs, the bright summer sunlight and the hot breeze through the leaves of the trees.
He was wearing a blue Hawaiian-style shirt and a pair of loose-fitting gabardine pants held up by wide, yellow suspenders decorated with blue-and-red polka-dotted cows. The outfit, including Birkenstocks and socks, made him look a little like a clown (which he is), or even a bum (which he has been). But the look in his eyes was unmistakable: He is present. His eyes are calm and deep. And though there’s no lack of friendliness in his demeanor, there’s also no added friendliness either. There’s no added anything, in fact: just space.
Flustered by his silence, I started gabbing about someone we knew in common, but Glassman just walked slowly, slightly ahead of me, in the direction of the wooden porch, listening to what I was saying and waving me on in the right direction.
What does it mean when we stumble upon a person or a place or a thing we hadn’t known before, and we feel home? That’s how Glassman felt when, assigned the book Religions of Man by his aeronautics professor at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn forty-odd years before, he read Huston Smith’s one-page chapter on Zen: He felt “home.” But this was the late fifties and there were not many Zen Buddhist practitioners or teachers in the United States yet. So Glassman, the child of non-practicing Jews and socialists, read whatever books he could find, and taught himself to meditate.
Then, in 1963, after he’d graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles to work as a senior aeronautical engineer at McDonnell Douglas (he worked on the Mars Project there, among other things), he went down to a temple in Little Tokyo to see if he could join a sitting group. What he found was an old priest who didn’t speak any English, and a young monk. Glassman sat zazen with them, and afterwards, he asked the old priest why they did walking meditation. The old man motioned for the young monk to answer, and the young monk said, “When we walk, we just walk.” That was Taizan Maezumi, who would later become Glassman’s teacher and one of the most influential Zen masters to come to the West.
But Glassman was turned off by the temple in Little Tokyo because of the language barrier with the old priest, so he didn’t go back. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1967, at a talk given by Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, that Glassman saw Maezumi again—again acting as translator. Glassman, this time impressed by Maezumi’s English, asked if he was part of any temple in town. Maezumi told Glassman that he was just starting one, and invited the young engineer to come. Glassman went the very next day.
Seven years later, Glassman was driving to work at McDonnell Douglas with some colleagues when he had what was probably the most significant vision of his life. He was nearing the end of his six-year-long koan study (having just finished his Ph.D. in mathematics at UCLA), and there was a question lingering in his mind about reincarnation. He’d asked Maezumi Roshi the question, but Maezumi hadn’t answered it. So it was in that space—what Glassman called “the powerful space of the unanswered question”—that this particular vision occurred: Sitting in the back of the car going to work that morning, Glassman saw hungry ghosts everywhere.
“There were all kinds of people,” he said, his voice deep but soft, with a slightly worn-down Brooklyn accent, “all kinds of animals, all kinds of things that were unsatisfied. At first there was a sense that they were out there, these hungry spirits. But that moved quickly into a realization that the hungry spirits were all me. That is, there was no separation.”
“No separation?” I asked.
“As one practices,” he said, and sighed, “the notion of self grows. So at some point early on the notion of self is yourself. At some point the notion of self is your family. At some point the notion of self is your community. At some point the notion of self is the world. At some point the notion of self is the universe. For me, what some people call ‘no self’ is equivalent to realizing and actualizing the self as larger than what you thought it was. That’s what I meant when I said that the hungry ghosts were me.”
Glassman, that day in the car in L.A., started to laugh and cry together, and couldn’t stop. He went to his job but had to go home. He knew that he somehow had to work to feed these hungry beings who were everywhere. “Before that I had thought that my life path was going to be forever in the zendo,” he said, “pushing people into having realizations—” Glassman, apparently, was a very, very tough taskmaster in the zendo, using the stick hard and often—“but this opened it up, and brought so many questions: How do you do the same kind of work in all the aspects of life?” He laughed, a kind of exhausted laugh. “It was a lot bigger path,” he said. “An endless path.”
He didn’t eat with me the day I came to visit. He said he’d just had some beef jerky and wasn’t hungry. So I picked at the thick cheese sandwich with sprouts and the fruit salad served to me by one of Glassman’s young assistants, while Glassman drank coffee and smoked his cigar off and on. A word people use to describe him is “charismatic”—and sometimes “seductive”—but I didn’t find him that way. I found him brilliant, very gentle, and a bit weary.
“The actual definition of the word ‘Zen’ means ‘meditation,’” he said, sitting back and exhaling. “But Maezumi Roshi defined Zen as ‘life.’ And life includes everything.”
In 1979, when Maezumi Roshi asked Glassman, by this time a priest in the Soto Zen tradition, to move to New York City and start a Zen center in an old mansion in Riverdale, Glassman imagined starting a “modern-day Safed”—a city like the ancient center of the kabbalists in Galilee, where mystics would feel comfortable creating their communities and interacting with different traditions. He imagined starting a business locally that would help pay for the Zen center, and give his students a place to practice some of what they were learning in the zendo. (“My goal,” he said in one of his several books, “was to eliminate the distinctions people made between what they considered practice and what they considered non-practice.”) He imagined inviting the local poor to work at whatever business the center opened. But, according to Glassman, the board of trustees for the fledgling Zen Center of New York was not supportive. They felt that Glassman was there to start a zendo—and a small business to support it—and teach Zen. That was all.
So when Glassman moved to New York with his first wife, Helen Yuho Harkaspi, and his two small children, he sent some of his students to the Tassajara Bakery in San Francisco to learn how to run a bakery. (Monasteries in Japan had always supported themselves by growing rice, and so a bakery seemed apt.) And then, in 1982, Glassman and his students opened the Greyston Bakery in one of the poorer sections of Yonkers.
Over the next few years, Glassman began to see the neighborhood poor as his sangha, and he wanted to bring them into the bakery. But he knew that they couldn’t work unless they had homes and health care for their families, and daycare for their young children. So Glassman conceived of the Greyston Family Inn, which would include apartments for homeless people, a daycare center, and an after-school program.
Over the seventeen years that Glassman was at the helm, the Greyston mandala developed into one of the first genuine “welfare to work” programs in the country, including all of the above-mentioned programs as well as a medical center and housing complex for people with AIDS. Last year, Greyston, on whose board Glassman still sits, had a combined operating and capital budget of $28 million.
In the process of developing this huge business, though, Glassman lost many students.
“He was still trying to have the Zen community,” says Pat Enkyo O’Hara, one of Glassman’s dharma heirs and the abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City. “And, quite frankly, it’s very hard to maintain a regular sitting schedule when you’re also trying to run a business and start a social-action network. So I think it was an enormous struggle.”
Enkyo O’Hara adds, “He’s focused on what’s at hand. If there’s a starving person at hand, then it’s not time to be chanting.”
Glassman writes about this period in a not-yet-published book: “Many of my students left. They disapproved of how much energy we put into the bakery, saying this wasn’t serious practice, as if serious practice was confined to the cushion. But now more than ever I felt I was finally doing what I really wanted—working and teaching in the area of social action, feeding the hungry spirits. I loved talk. I loved action. I loved working alongside my students, rather than preaching to them in the zendo.”
“My experience of Zen is how radical it is,” says Wendy Egyoku Nakao, another of Glassman’s dharma heirs, and the abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. “It cuts through the layers and layers of conceptual thinking. It is not about the right way, the Zen way, the whatever way it needs to look in order to be ‘acceptable’ to the staus quo. Not at all. There will always be a place for Zen masters like Roshi Bernie, whom people can’t make sense of, who are willing to use unconventional upayas, skillful means.”
Was he using unconventional upayas, or had he simply forsaken the dharma for activism? Fleet Maull, the founder and executive director of the Prison Dharma Network and another student of Glassman’s, says, “He was primarily living the life of a social activist for some years. And yet he knows his stuff when it comes to the dharma. Bernie knows his stuff in his bones. He was Maezumi’s senior dharma heir and worked with him on all the translations. I think it would be fair to say that he is one of the two best-trained Zen people in the West.”
When I asked Glassman how he felt about the commonly held notion that he’d left Zen for social activism, he said, “Yeah, well, I never thought I went away from Zen.”
Zen, of course, being everything.
In 1986, early in the tumultuous Greyston years, Glassman met Sandra Jishu Holmes, a Zen student who would later become his dharma heir and second wife. (Glassman and his first wife were divorced in 1988.) Together Holmes and Glassman built the Greyston mandala. By all accounts, Holmes worked very hard under Glassman, who was, by his own admission, as tough out of the zendo as he was in it, and his toughness—and stubbornness—took its toll on Holmes.
A colleague of Glassman’s says, “He’s a mathematician and an engineer. You have to remember that. So when he’s able to solve something in his mind, the rest of it is just kind of implementation work.” Meaning Glassman had the big ideas, but it was his students—including the student who was his wife—who had to do the very hard work.
“That’s not entirely fair,” that same colleague adds, “because he’s extraordinarily energetic, and worked very, very hard.” Holmes herself said in her journals, quoted by Glassman in his unpublished book, that he was “like a blast furnace. You either get shaped like fine steel, or you melt.” Though the couple was clearly very much in love and devoted to their work together, equality was a problem.
“Jishu was brilliant,” says Enkyo O’Hara, “but everyone would listen to Bernie. You’d be at a meeting, and all eyes would be on him. Jishu would have organized a whole aspect of the mandala, but there was no recognition. And so she called him on it. She said, ‘This leads to an imbalance of power, and an imbalance of relationship in the community. What ways can we find to work with it?’”
When I ask Joan Halifax why it was that Glassman made interdependence the center of his teaching, she says, “Well, I think at the wisdom level, Bernie sees the truth of interdependence really closely. And at the compassion level he wants to actualize it. And at the level of reality, that’s both his aspiration and his shadow.”
“His shadow?” I say.
“He’s very individual,” she says.
Glassman celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday in 1994 on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., with Holmes and some other students. They were doing a weeklong “street retreat”—living on the streets of Washington with no money, no food, no place to go to the bathroom or take a break from what Glassman called “the coldest winter in fifty years.” It was a memorable plunge.
During that retreat, Glassman and Holmes came up with the idea for the next phase of their life together: They’d start what they’d call the Zen Peacemakers family—an international organization of social activists devoted to “peacemaking and partnership.” The idea was that Holmes would run with the organization—she’d take control—and Glassman would be freed up to go off and finally train with his friend Wavy Gravy to be a clown.
It took the couple three years to wrap up their work at Greyston. During that time, Maezumi Roshi died unexpectedly. Since Glassman was the only student of Maezumi to have received inka, transmission, the official confirmation from the teacher that the student has completed his training, he became the head of Maezumi’s large and far-flung association of Zen teachers, the White Plum Asanga. But even with all that—and what must have been a huge sense of loss—Glassman and Holmes packed up their things and caravanned from Yonkers to New Mexico at the beginning of 1998. They were going to live there together, in a house that Holmes loved. She was going to develop the Zen Peacemakers community, and he was going to be a clown. But six days after they arrived in New Mexico, Holmes suddenly got very sick, and four days later, after two heart attacks, on the first day of spring, she suddenly died.
Once you’re in a state of not knowing, you can, as Glassman calls it, “bear witness.” That is, you can be present for the joys and the suffering in the world around you, without separating from them in the way we normally do. And bearing witness in that way naturally leads to what Glassman calls “loving actions.” These are the three tenets of Glassman and Holmes’ Zen Peacemakers community: not-knowing, bearing witness, and loving action.
Glassman gave up the position of head of the White Plum Asanga after only one year. He went into a kind of exile that lasted for the first two years after Holmes’ death. He lived near Joan Halifax in New Mexico for much of that time, reading Holmes’ journals, listening to the music she loved, and trying to see, finally, the world through her eyes. People came by to visit, but mostly Glassman just sat and bore witness.
When he emerged, in the year 2000, it was with a beard and a ponytail and a new wife, Eve Marko, a writer and dharma heir whom Glassman and Holmes had known for many years. And he emerged without his robes. He was sixty-one years old, and, having taken the most devastating of plunges, he was changed.
At the time, he wrote about his experience in this magazine, saying, “When she was still alive, Jishu had brought into our relationship certain energies that lay dormant in me. She had brought her softness, her femininity, her down-to-earth practicality and deep empathy into our life together. Now, with her death, I either had to manifest them myself or watch them disappear from my life. Jishu was not the only one to die on that first day of spring. Bernie died, too.
“Someone else is now emerging, someone else is coming to life. For lack of a name, I call that person Jishu-Bernie. That new human being is unfolding. I still don’t know who that person is or what that person will do. There are many things I still don’t know. The third tenet of the Zen Peacemaker Order is healing ourselves and others. But often I think that what’s really happening is more basic than that. When we don’t know—when we let go and sit with shock, pain, and loss, with no answers, solutions, or ideas, with nothing at hand but this moment, this pain, this grief, this absence—then out of that something arises. And what arises is love. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to create anything. Love arises by itself. It’s been there all the time, and now, when I’m less protected than at any other moment in my life, it’s there.”
When Glassman came out of his retreat, he had more fully, or finally, understood his own teachings. He didn’t want to teach anymore—not in the conventional, hierarchical sense of the word—he wanted to hang with his students, and talk, and listen, and learn.
Back in the 1970’s, Maezumi Roshi spoke to his first heir about starting a Zen school. But it wasn’t the right time, and the idea was shelved. But when Glassman got a call in 2000 saying that he could have Montague Farm for about $250,000 in legal fees, he decided to take it and make good, while he still had time, on his teacher’s vision. The Maezumi Institute is now the main study and practice center of the Zen Peacemakers—it is their “mother home.” The Institute offers classes and long-term programs in five main areas: Zen, social enterprise, peacemaking and social action, contemplative arts, and what Glassman calls “multi-faith.” Glassman will eventually open a restaurant nearby as part of the institute, and a hotel and a school for children, all of which will serve as Greyston-like “labs” for his programs. Maybe, eventually, Glassman says, the Institute will be another Safed.
A step in that direction, for Glassman, was appointing Enkyo O’Hara as the co-spiritual director of the Zen Peacemakers family last year. Many of Glassman’s students agree that this was one way their teacher was beginning to honor Holmes’ vision of greater partnership.
When I asked Glassman, though, if he felt he’d actually learned about partnership in the years since he and Holmes spoke about it, he shifted uncomfortably in his seat and thought for a few moments before speaking. Finally he said, no, he hadn’t really learned completely about partnership. He said, very seriously, shaking his head, “Male conditioning is a terrible thing.”
“He wants to embrace a concept of working together and listening to the community,” says Enkyo O’Hara. “And he’s been trying to be active in the world and at the same time work on this issue. So how do you have an organization that functions,” she says, “and at the same time is meeting the conditioning of the ego that he’s talking about? I mean, the ego is so wonderful when it gets something done, and yet it can create harm as it does it. I think it’s very heroic to try to work with that—probably doomed to failure, but it’s wonderful activity.”
Glassman’s wife, Eve Marko, thinks for a while before she addresses the question about whether, in her opinion, Glassman has made any progress working with his male conditioning. At first she says, “Well, he’s older now, so he’s mellowed.” But after thinking about it for a while she comes back with a fuller answer: “Dogen says that our practice is a spiral,” she says. “We don’t stay in the same place. But, at the same time, the practice is endless. I think that can be said for Bernie. Ten years ago he worked on partnership issues in one way. Ten years later his spiral has widened—that is, more issues, more voices, greater levels of understanding. And he’s still practicing. He and I haven’t stayed in the same place, and at the same time, there’s no end.”
Joan Halifax doesn’t want to analyze Glassman’s difficulty with partnership: “He’s a very, very insightful visionary,” she says, “and he’s very groundless in the way that he works, which threatens people who are not secure. And I think he’s an extremely good friend to those of us who don’t have opinions about him that are neurotic.”
Glassman’s cigar is out again, and our coffee is cold. “It’s amazing to me how often you’ve actually put your visions into play,” I say to him. “You’ve accomplished a lot.”
He breathes out hard and says, quietly, “Yeah. I think so.” He smiles. “What do I think about it?” he says. “It seems like, ‘Isn’t that enough? Shouldn’t you stop now?’ But things keep coming up.” He quotes a friend, then, defining retirement as “changing tires.” I expect him to laugh, but he doesn’t. Instead he seems a little sad.
“So which is it,” I ask him, “do you want to stop, or do you want to keep going?”
“I want to run into things that I don’t understand,” he says, “that I don’t grok—and then to bear witness to them. That’s what pulls me forward.”
The truth is that what Roshi Bernie Glassman would really like to do is disappear into the streets for the rest of his life, a philosopher bum. But his is an endless path, and he has too much to do: so much to teach, so much to learn, all that chaos to create, and still, and always, so many hungry spirits to satisfy.
Trish Deitch Rohrer is a freelance writer and the former executive editor of the Shambhala Sun. She has been a contributor to a number of publications including Elle, O: The Oprah Magazine, GQ, and Premiere. Trish lives in Brooklyn.