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Lions Roar : March 2019
ONE MORNING in the early seventies, Bernie Glassman was getting a lift to work with some colleagues from McDonnell Douglas. He’d recently asked Maezumi Roshi a question about reincarnation, but Maezumi hadn’t answered it. That left Glass- man in what he called “the powerful space of an unanswered question.” In that space of not knowing, sitting in the back seat of a car, Glassman suddenly had a vision. A vision of hungry ghosts everywhere. Called pretas in Buddhist cosmology, hungry ghosts are beings who experience (and represent) endless, unfulfillable desire. At first, Glassman saw these suffering, unsatisfied beings outside himself. But then he had the keen sense that there was no separation: he was those beings, they were him. Glassman knew then that his life’s calling was to feed the hungry, literally and figuratively. He could not stay forever holed up in a zendo. He needed to take the realizations won on the meditation cush- ion out into the world. In 1982, Glassman and his students opened the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, a city challenged by unemploy- ment, violence, and drugs. His conviction was that a business could both generate profits and serve the community. This has meant hiring people generally considered unemployable and providing them with competitive wages, medical benefits, and the support they need to actually be successful, such as help accessing child care and safe housing. So, let this sink in: Greyston Bakery hires without conducting interviews or background checks or even reading resumes. If someone shows up wanting to work, they put them on the list for the next available position. And, contrary to what some might expect, this is no recipe for disaster. Today, the bakery has 176 employees who were hired using their Open Hiring model, and they produce 35,000 pounds of brownies daily. If you’ve ever had a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie or Half-Baked ice cream, you’ve had brownies from Greyston Bakery. In time, Glassman and his team created the Greyston Foun- dation, which receives the profits of Greyston Bakery. Today, the foundation includes Issan House, which provides permanent housing to people living with AIDS/HIV; community gardens, which produce harvests in excess of seven tons annually; and a workforce development program that offers college prep and job readiness assistance to youth and trains people to work as security guards, home health aides, and more. As the Greyston Foundation, or Greyston Mandela as it is also called, was being developed, Glassman and his second wife, Sensei Jishu Angyo Holmes, settled in a sketchy neighborhood in Yonkers and held intensive meditation practice periods in the yard of a con- demned school, which was also a hangout for junkies. The prac- titioners put on thick gloves to clear out the discarded condoms and needles and they sat on hunks of broken concrete and old tires instead of zafus and zabutons. “It was an incredible experience,” recalls Joan Halifax, “to practice in this place with boom boxes and shouts and traffic and graffiti everywhere.” Chuck Lief was always amazed that Glassman never got mugged. “He had a dome of protection around him,” Lief remembers, which was grounded in the totally genuine way he interacted with people. “Bernie was the guy who made the con- At bearing-witness retreats at the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, participants sit on the train tracks where victims were brought in on freight cars. They alternate silent meditation with chanting the names of the dead. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2019 48