Whether we call it engaged Buddhism or the Zen of bearing witness or simply compassionate action, the bodhi mind has manifested in exemplary form in the teachings and community work of Bernard Tetsugen Glassman. Shortly after becoming the first Zen heir of the influential teacher Maezumi Roshi, Glassman moved to Yonkers, New York to start a Zen community. At that time, he also took a vow to offer “the supreme meal to all of us hungry ghosts in the ten directions.” Glassman’s vow has since grown into a complex of projects and businesses, including a bakery that creates jobs, a company that creates affordable housing for homeless people, housing and services for people with AIDS, several job training programs, and a Zen center that is both traditional and not-so-traditional. All of these are part of what Glassman calls “The Greyston Mandala,” a bold and imaginative blossoming of dharma in America.
Glassman tells the story of his work and explains the ingredients of “the supreme meal” in his new book, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters (Bell Tower, 1996). The following interview was conducted by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Inquiring Mind: You could have been the Roshi of a nice quiet zendo, yet you chose to take Zen to the streets. What motivated you?
Bernard Tetsugen Glassman: I had an experience in which I felt deeply the suffering of the hungry ghosts, and I was moved enough to make a vow to try to bring bodhi mind to a much larger population. Remember that those of us who got involved in Buddhism in the ’60s were looking for a way to transform both ourselves and society. However, we wound up sitting and relating only with the people in our immediate sangha, safe and isolated. I wanted to move it out.
IM: How do you train your Zen students to embrace the larger community?
BTG: The answer to that question is that I don’t. The real teachings of a teacher is his or her life, and students are attracted to a particular teacher because of that teacher’s interests and concerns. It’s self-selecting in a certain sense. If a person who really wants to be meditating in a mountain cave comes here to Yonkers to work with me, he or she will soon move away.
In particular, I do a lot of what I call street retreats or “bearing witness” work, and some people come here to do those retreats with me, while others come to work at our various projects in Yonkers. Most people who come to sit with me are here because there’s something about the social action activities that’s of interest to them. With those students we explore what volunteer work means as dharma practice. I don’t particularly like the word “practice,” but to me it means an elimination of the subject/object duality. So if you’re doing social action as a practice, you’ve got to be working in a nondualistic way and using that work as a path. It’s the same if you’re going to do business as a practice; you’ve got to learn how to do it in a nondualistic way.
IM: Describe how you conduct a typical street retreat.
BTG: If you want to come with me on a street retreat, first I ask you to raise money from your friends—almost like a walkathon. I might ask you to raise a thousand dollars a day, which would mean that you had to raise $5,000 for a full five-day retreat. I want you to raise a relatively large amount. You’re going to tell your friends that you want this money so that you can go live in the street like a homeless person. And they’re going to look at you as if you are crazy. At that moment, you are already beginning to enter the skin of a street person who is asking people for a quarter and being looked at as ridiculous. Then you explain to people that the money will actually be used for shelters or some of our other homeless projects.
Before the retreat begins, I ask the men not to shave for a week. Nobody gets to bring a change of clothes, and you can only carry two dollars a day with you, along with one piece of identification, preferably a Social Security card.
After a little bit of orientation, we divide ourselves into packs, each one with a pack leader who has done these retreats with me before. Twice a day we all join up to sit together and have a service at some suitable outdoor location. At night we gather together again to find a common place to sleep.
IM: Do the students have to beg for money in order to eat?
BTG: I ask everybody to do a certain amount of panhandling, because I want them to feel what it’s like to be turned away. When you try to panhandle from people, you almost always see their eyes moving away. It’s a feeling of rejection that we middle-class people are not used to, and nobody who has been with me on the streets can ever be the same with a street person again.
When you’re out on the street, pretty soon you start to smell, and nobody wants to look at you, and they don’t want you in their restaurants where you would normally go for a cup of coffee. It’s a very profound experience.
One of my students is Peter Matthiessen, who has been all over the world and has done hundreds of sesshins. He went on the first street retreat I ever did, which was held in the Bowery. Peter says it was one of the most transformative experiences of his life.
IM: Are there any special precautions that you take while on a street retreat?
BTG: We tell students not to take their shoes off when they go to sleep. Sometimes we sleep in the train or bus terminals in New York, and if you take your shoes off they’re going to be stolen. We also tell people not to lie. Don’t try to make believe you’re really homeless. You are out in the streets with a Zen teacher doing a retreat, and you shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise.
IM: When you meditate together on a street retreat, what is your practice?
BTG: The meditations change depending on the circumstances. If there are people present who are new to Zen, I would give them beginning meditation instructions, and I also would work with older students who are doing koan practice. However, sometimes the meditation is directly related to the retreat.
For instance, a couple of years ago for my birthday we did a street retreat in Washington, and we sat on the steps of the Capitol. It turned out to be the coldest winter in Washington in fifty years. At that retreat I wanted to examine the issue of AIDS. We are involved in a number of different AIDS programs, and I wanted to do a personal retreat to look at that issue. I asked the people who joined me to sit with the whole catastrophe of AIDS and by the end of the retreat to make a resolution about what they were going to do about AIDS—not “what should be done about it,” but what they were going to do about it.
IM: Are you doing any other kinds of retreats that you would call “bearing witness”?
BTG: All of these retreats are bearing witness to issues or to aspects of ourselves that we are afraid of or are denying. So next November I’ll be leading a retreat at Auschwitz. The purpose will be simply to learn from the experience and from the denizens of that place. At the concentration camp itself, we will learn from the spirits who are there. I got this idea last December as I was giving a student lay ordination at Auschwitz after he had decided to walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima on the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. I could just feel all the spirits there at Auschwitz.
What interests me is the tremendous learning and healing that goes on in these settings. Remember that the Buddha’s father tried to protect his son from seeing old age, sickness, and death, and only after he saw it did the Buddha set about his great transformation. In our lives we deny a lot of things and don’t want to deal with certain aspects of life. But when we confront the most difficult issues, a healing usually happens, and often some action gets motivated as well.
IM: In your Greyston program in Yonkers, you have started organizations that build permanent supportive housing for people who have been homeless and for people with HIV/AIDS. Do any of the homeless and unemployed people you work with become interested in Zen as a result of being part of your organization?
BTG: Yes, but usually only in the sense that they start to feel the interconnectedness of life and begin moving into a more spiritual realm. I often encourage people to get involved in their own religions if they want, and generally they do not become interested in formal Zen practice or in the Zen center. What we are trying to do is create an environment that naturally leads to the raising of the bodhi mind and the experience of the oneness of life.
Most of these people were in shelters or unemployed for long periods of time. The only issue for them was their own lives, how to get food or shelter, or if they were on drugs, how to get the next hit. When they work with us, they start to move beyond themselves into their family units, and then beyond that into the community. That is happening, and that is our success story.
On the other hand, although I’m not proselytizing, I do think that there will be some strong role models who will become interested in our meditation practices and eventually take them to their communities. I have a feeling that will happen organically.
IM: If that process happens to any significant degree, it will begin to change the face of Zen and Buddhism in America.
BTG: Zen is not finished evolving in America, and at this point I don’t think it is offering very much to the family. In Japan families also have Shintoism, which complements Zen and provides something for family life. In Tibet you have the remnants of the old Bon religion. Zen in America is still more of a monastic practice.
The people that we’re working with get their family structures and values from Islam and the Christian Baptist movement and Judaism. I think that by working together we will all learn and grow.