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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 34 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 Mas- sachusetts earlier that day from New York City to talk to Glass- man 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 to- gether—and my cassette player failed to record the conversa- tion. 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 verifi- able 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 commu- nity, 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 real- ization is to dive into situations (or “plunge” into them, as Glass- man 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-eye- ball. 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 relation- ship,” 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 dis- tance. 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 suspend- ers 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. Asked how he felt about the commonly held notion that he’d left Zen for social activism, Glassman said, “Yeah, well, I never thought I went away from Zen.”