A visit with the co-founder of the Zen Peacemaker Order finds him still lively, still inspired, still inspiring. By Rev. Tony Stultz.
Twenty-one years ago I met my teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman, a pioneer of both Zen and Socially Engaged Buddhism. And now, here I was, making my way through the mountains of western Massachusetts to pay him a visit. With me was Dr. Christopher Queen, Buddhist scholar and one of the leading voices in Engaged Buddhism, whose courses had introduced me to Bernie’s work.
Earlier in the year, Bernie had suffered a life-altering stroke that affected the right side of his body. I was uncertain what to expect when we arrived at his home. To my delight he seemed to be recovering well. He gave us a huge smile and his eyes twinkled as we hugged and greeted one another. Over cappuccino we asked Bernie questions from Chris’s current students, which they had prepared after reading Bernie’s book on socially engaged Buddhism, Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Living a Life That Matters. Some of these pointedly prompted him about his stroke and recovery.
In your conversations with your wife, Eve, in the first days after your stroke, you said you were in a state of non-thinking [known in Zen Buddhism as hishiryo, consciousness] which was very restful. But Eve then reminded you that you had said previously that the purpose of Zen is not non-thinking; that if you didn’t wish to think you could have a lobotomy! How has your view changed?
Bernie Glassman: First, I have the same opinion as Shakyamuni Buddha, that we all change and that’s what we are all about. Second, my understanding of a lobotomy is that the brain is not functioning. This could be wrong, but that is how I think of it. Not Knowing, the First Tenet of the ZPO [Zen Peacemakers Order], is about having a state of mind in which you are not bound by what is coming up. The thinking arises and it leaves, it arises and it leaves. [The three tenets are: Not Knowing, Bearing Witness, and Taking Action.]
In the hospital after my stroke I was doing exercises almost all day. I was really gung-ho and in between exercises I was lying on my bed in a state of non-thinking. What does that actually mean? It is really hard to explain but if you look into the state of Not Knowing or non-thinking, it is not being attached to a thought that comes up. I was just simply doing that; nobody told me to, I just did it between my exercises and within half an hour I would be ready to go again.
Looking back at that period, [I see] it was extremely important for my being to refresh itself. In fact, what I learned later on as I began reading about the brain is that the brain actually rewires itself when you are resting. My exercise, which is based upon the work of the exercise therapist Moshe Feldenkrais, also taught me this. But before knowing about all these concepts I was letting my brain rewire itself and then, on to the next exercise. And I believe that this is what led the therapists at the rehab place to say that I was going much faster than most people in rehabilitation for a stroke. It is not common to have as much motion as I had so quickly.
So non-thinking has nothing to do with a lobotomy! If you are doing shikantaza [“just sitting”], if you are doing meditation, you are seeing thoughts happening almost in slow motion, which allows you to see them in a very enlightened way. I think that is what I did in rehab. What surprised me was that while doing shikantaza before, I had never gotten that deeply into the space of Not Knowing; it is hard to explain but it is very important. And it is definitely not a lobotomy! [Lots of laughter]
The next question is about gratitude. You often say how grateful you are for the help you have received from individuals and groups along the way. There are customs for showing gratitude for material things, but how do we show it for immaterial things? How do you thank your teacher? How do you thank someone for supporting your cause?
That is a beautiful question and very important. And again, because of my stroke I went much deeper into this question of gratitude.
You know, when you have a stroke you are dealing with something that is pretty major. I had so many caretakers, all coordinated by my wife. That job was much more difficult than what I was going through. And what came up for me in seeing what she was doing and what other people were doing was just a great sense of gratitude.
Now the other side of my brain is much more active and gratitude is much more important.
So before my stroke I would say that my brain was oriented around getting things done, and I was not as thoughtful or thankful for what was going on around me. I was a person who thought, “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that. If you can’t help me then I will move on to somebody else.”
But now the other side of my brain is much more active and gratitude is much more important, which is part of the Third Tenet, Taking Action. It’s hard to say one tenet is more important than another but without the third… For me, that is what led me to social action. Of course there are many teachers, including mine, whose emphasis was on sitting and knowing the truth. It was not on doing. But my emphasis on social engagement (and the reason I ran into trouble [when starting out]) caused people to think that what I was doing wasn’t Zen. I love just sitting, but if it ain’t got that thing, it ain’t got that swing!
…As we finished the interview I expressed my own love and gratitude: I’d seen a great, positive change in my teacher. It was a testimony to his life and practice that the frightening experience of having a stroke had not caused him to fall into suffering but instead had opened him up to a deeper and more profound experience of awakening.