One Day with Bernie

At the memorial service for Bernie Glassman, longtime student Michael O’Keefe reflects on his teacher’s life and legacy.

Michael O’Keefe
15 November 2018
The body of Bernie Glassman at his memorial. Photo by Peter Cunningham.

On Sunday, November 4, 2018, an email blast went out from the Zen Peacemakers that Roshi Bernie Glassman had died. Details about his death would follow. It was a brief, yet devastating email.

I became a student of Bernie’s in 1985. I took Jukai and Tokudo vows with him, and I was the first person to ordain in the order of the Zen Peacemakers, which he created with his second wife Sandra Jishu Holmes, in 1994.

I loved — and still love — Bernie, immeasurably and unconditionally. But that’s not to say I didn’t hold him in a critical light. When he offered me dharma succession in the Zen Peacemakers lineage in 2011, I declined for two reasons. One was that I was certain I was not as advanced as a Zen teacher should be. The other was that Bernie was willing to bestow succession on someone not as advanced as a Zen teacher should be. We couldn’t agree on the standard for the role of a teacher. So, I refused his offer.

My refusal cooled our relationship, but didn’t do anything to the depth of gratitude and devotion I held for him. He was a unique individual whose successes far outshone his failures. And, as his widow Eve Marko remarked at his memorial, “Which were the failures, and which were the successes?” Each “success” can be seen from many sides. As could each “failure.” So I agreed with Eve. Which was which?

The memorial took place on Monday, November 5, at Bernie’s place in Montague, Massachusetts.

Paco, one of Bernie’s closest friends, called me to ask what time I would arrive. I told him I hoped to be there by 3 pm.

“Good,” he said. “The men are going to wash him and prepare his body for cremation. We’ll wait for you.”

“Yes,” I replied quietly. “That would be good.”

The conversation ended there, but its weight remained in the air. We were going to clean and dress the body of Bernard Baisen Tetsugen Glassman Roshi to prepare him for cremation.

My day began with an early Thanksgiving celebration at my five-year-old son’s school. To express their Thanksgiving gratitude, the kids sang — and simultaneously signed in ASL — Natalie Merchant’s song “Kind and Generous.”

You’ve been so kind and generous
I don’t know how you keep on giving
For your kindness I’m in debt to you
For your selflessness my admiration
For everything you’ve done you know I’m bound
I’m bound to thank you for it

I cried more than once, as did my wife. After gathering myself, I had a cup of coffee and hit the road for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Montague.

The rainy drive passed quickly until I crossed the creek onto Bernie’s road and headed the last several hundred feet to the house. My caution on the wet road added to a growing slow-motion effect. It was raining lightly, the skies were grey, and — though I had no dread as I arrived — the weight of the day created a sense that one’s feet were sinking into the floor. Grief has weight, I thought.

After greeting some fellow students in the living room, I went to see Bernie on the porch. Paco and a few others were sitting with him in meditation. After bowing to Bernie, and the room, I sat down. Taking a few breaths, I steadied myself and took in Bernie lying there.

His body rested on a single bed in a chilly glassed-in porch, it’s windows open to allow the cold air in to preserve him. Outside, the creek nearby rushed with the sudden influx of rain. The rain pattered on the leaves.

He was shrouded in the Matriarch’s Quilt, made by his second wife Jishu Holmes and his female students from the 1990s. It was a patchwork quilt, homespun. In its center, the name “Jishu” was emblazoned on a patch, along with the names of other female students.

His eyes were half open — not unlike they might have been in meditation. His hair, long, grown-out, and grey, seemed thinner than I remembered. His countenance had a hint of a smile. It was the smile of someone who, in his last moment alive, might have exclaimed, “Ha ha. Told ya.”

I don’t think Bernie said that upon dying, but maybe he felt it. He lay there with a certain wryness — happy, content. Complete. It seemed everything had been put to rest.

So we sat.

Eventually, I started taking stock of him. His energy was enormous. Bigger than the room. Bigger than the house. It felt like a hand resting on your shoulder, leaning ever so slightly into you, urging you on. His face seemed to be in transition, as if a feeling were passing upon it, yet placid — like a great, clear lake, frozen in winter, but teeming with life underneath.

Then I looked to his abdomen. Was it a trick of the eye, or was there some movement there? Bernie’s energy appeared to move under the blanket. It didn’t rise and fall like it would on top of a living, breathing person, but something was afoot. And it felt like Bernie.

No, I thought. That can’t be it. Maybe it’s the rise and fall of my breath in my field of vision. Surely Bernie isn’t moving around inside his body.

After a while, the women left the room and someone entered with a large bowl of herbed water. Eve, his widow, came in with instructions on bathing. Bernie was in a hospital gown, she pointed out. It would have to be removed so we could put on his clothes, which were in a pile by the bed. This was a Mitzvah, she reminded us — a Jewish blessing. We would wash and clothe his body, because he couldn’t do it for himself.

We cut off his hospital gown. I used the scissors to remove the hospital ID tag and began to peel back the tape holding the cotton over the little wound where his IV went in. His skin was smooth, soft to the touch, and cold. Eve had mentioned that there were ice packs under his body to keep him chilled. He hadn’t been embalmed. According to the Buddhist tradition, he would travel in his own fluids.

The tape over his IV wound was stuck, and difficult to remove. I had to search for the edge, and use my fingernail to peel it back. I didn’t want to disturb his skin. Finally, after an initial period of frustration, I got it. Daiken, another student of Bernie’s, was working on the other side, where another piece of tape held another piece of cotton. “I can’t get it off,” he said. “We may have to leave it.”

No, I thought. We’ll get it off. I didn’t know why, but — to me — it was important.

After Daiken got the other piece of tape and we removed the gown, we rolled him onto his side to replace the ice packs with fresh ones. It was then that I smelled it: death. The odor briefly filled the air, like an assault, and then receded, not to return again. Even death is deferential around Bernie, I thought.

Tim, Andrej, Eric, Paco, Daiken, and I patted down his body with white cloths dipped in the herb-infused water. One of the little leaves stuck to Bernie’s arm. I have to remove that, I thought — and did.

“Remember, just pat the skin,” said Paco. “We don’t want to abrade it. Be delicate.”

After gently cleansing him, it was time to put on his clothes.

“We may have to cut the jeans and the shirt,” Paco said, “if we can’t get them on because of rigor mortis.”

Paco held Bernie’s feet through the jeans and a couple of us grabbed the pants and pulled them up while others held Bernie’s body off of the bed. It was terribly awkward.

Andrej, from Poland, remarked in accented English, “I can’t help but think he sees us and is laughing at us.”

Eve had selected a pair of Bernie’s jeans, a tattered Hawaiian shirt, piggy suspenders, and — to top it all off — his red beret. God, he was a horrible dresser. After stepping down from his role as monk and abbot he’d taken to dressing like a hippie cigar entrepreneur, in stark contrast to his prior monkish look.

After getting the shirt on his left arm, we lifted him up and rolled him, but couldn’t quite bend the right arm enough to get it in the sleeve. Everything was moving too quickly. We weren’t rushing, but there was a sense of urgency.

“Easy,” said Paco. “Remember. Easy.”

Eric cut the sleeve, and Daiken ripped it down. Then we draped it around him, so it looked like he was just wearing it. We figured out the suspenders, attached them on the front of his pants, and got them around his shoulders and down his back. His red beret went on quite easily, and there he was. Bernie. Bernie the bad dresser, with the impish look behind his wide, all-knowing eyes.

We left the room, and Daiken and I spoke about the service, called Gate of Sweet Nectar, which Bernie had adapted from a ceremony usually performed at Obon, the Japanese Day of the Dead. There was a time when I performed this service every day for eight years. Bernie and I studied it as a koan practice in the 1990s. Just recently, I had started chanting it again every day.

The house started filling up. They included students of Eve’s; the local minister; Father Kevin Hunt, a Trappist monk who lived nearby; Peter Cunningham, the photographer who’d chronicled Bernie’s life since 1980; Shaykha Fariha Fatima al-Jerrahi, a Sufi spiritual teacher and intimate friend of Bernie’s; and Krishna Das, the great Kirtan artist.

We gathered in the living room to begin the service. There must have been sixty of us. Sally, officiating the ceremony, was in her kesa, koromo, and kimono. Then Daiken, who would ring the bells, appeared in his robes. I was leading the chanting. I donned my rakusu, a gift from Bernie that had been made by the Dragon Gate Zendo out of prison mattress.

Eve, Bernie’s widow, spoke first, welcoming everyone with her powerful compassion. We started studying with Bernie together in 1985.

Eve invited Krishna Das to sing — “Bernie loved Krishna Das,” she said.

“I’ll sing a line and then you can all repeat,” he said, before starting a slow riff on the harmonium, squeezing it intently, the drone supporting his melody line.

“Om Nimah Shivayah,” he intoned. And we repeated, “Om Nimah Shivayah.”

His mesmerizing baritone lulled and moved us like an otherworldly Hindu reed.

After the performance, we heard from Bernie’s daughter Alisa, Andrej, and Father Hunt. Father Hunt invited us to do the Christian prayer the Kyrie Eleison together. “It’s a simple prayer. I’ll sing a line and you sing it back.”

He had a fast vibrato and had clearly chanted the Kyrie for years and years. “Kyrie Eleison,” he sang. Lord have mercy. “Kyrie Eleison,” we replied in tune. Lord have mercy.

And after a while he brought us to a close, with a slower, lower end to the line, “Ky-rie Elei-son.” Lord have mercy.

Then Fariha offered a remembrance before leading us through the Sufi prayer the Tahlil, “lā ilāha illā allh. lā ilāha illā allh,” she uttered in a drone — literally, “No God but God” — turning her head from left to right continuously, and we joined her. Ali, her husband, riffed over us in Arabic.

After, Eve said she wanted to read the Jewish prayer the Kaddish. “This translation was done by Rabbi Don Singer — another successor of Bernie’s — for our Auschwitz retreat in 1995. At Auschwitz, people started translating it. Every day they would show up with a new translation in a new language. Arabic. Polish. Yiddish. German. So many wonderful translations. Let’s do Don’s.”

May the Great Name whose Desire gave birth
to the universe Resound through the Creation
May this Great Presence rule your life and
your day and all lives of our World.
And say, Yes. Amen.
Throughout all Space, Bless, Bless this Great Name,
Throughout all Time.
Though we bless, we praise, we beautify,
we offer up your name,
Name That Is Holy, Blessed One,
still you remain beyond the reach of our praise, our song,
beyond the reach of all consolation. Beyond! Beyond!
And say, Yes. Amen.
Let God’s Name give birth to Great Peace and Life
for us and all people.
And say, Yes. Amen.

And then it was time to do The Gate of Sweet Nectar, Bernie’s service. Eve introduced it, explaining its importance to Bernie, its historical significance to Japanese Zen. We invoked the names of the Buddhas, offered a meal to the hungry spirits, and finished it off with a song Krishna Das had written at Bernie’s request.

Calling out to Hungry Hearts. Everywhere through endless time.
You who wander, you who thirst I offer you this Bodhi Mind.
Calling all you Hungry Spirits, all the lost and left behind.
Calling out to Hungry Hearts everywhere through endless time.
Gather round and share this meal. Your joys and your sorrows I make them mine.

Afterward, we let the silence linger for a moment before Eve turned to me. “Michael?”


“Yes. Please say something.”

I wiped my face and then began, “So, in the 1990s we were doing a homeless retreat…”

The homeless retreat is a plunge where you live on the street for days at a time, take meals in shelters, beg for money, and wander aimlessly, experiencing — or at least glimpsing — what the homeless experience on a daily basis.

It was a cold, wet April. Rabbi Singer had begged a meal in Ratner’s Deli on the Lower East Side and we met in Tompkins Square Park to have our donated feast. A couple, both of whom wore dreadlocks that went way below their waists, and who were squatting in one of the nearby buildings, came out and asked, “Who are you guys?”

We told them, and they joined us for supper. Later, as we parted ways, we ran into Lloyd, a friend of Bernie’s, who was the rector of St. Mark’s Church at 2nd and 10th.

“Bernie,” said Lloyd. “What are you doing?”

We were wearing layers of tattered clothes to buttress ourselves against the cold.

“We’re plunging on the street,” Bernie said.

Lloyd invited us to sleep on the floor of the church.

I woke up before the others and wandered down 2nd Ave., where I saw a newsstand with the Times. The headline was about the capture of the Unabomber. I had to have it, so I used 50 cents of the emergency fund and headed back to St. Mark’s for coffee.

“Look at the headline,” I said to Bernie and the group. “They caught the Unabomber.”

“Yeah? Wow. Where did ya get the paper?” Bernie asked, knowing full well that I’d bought it — cuz he was like that.

” I… you know… bought it,” I said.

“Gimme your money,” Bernie said thrusting out his hand, chastising me.

So I did.

Later, we were outside the church and a homeless man we had met the night before came by with several copies of the Times under his arm. “I wanna sell these papers, but no one is buying. Know anyone who wants them?”

“Yeah,” Bernie said, gesturing towards me with his thumb. “He does.”

Fuck, I thought. Leave me alone you crazy monk.

We went off and wound up in a Chinese Buddhist monastery, where a service was in session. The monks seemed to be chanting the Heart of Great Perfection of Wisdom in Chinese. We approached the altar and offered sticks of incense. Then we bowed. The monks were poised, engaged in the chanting, and barely gave us any notice — though they looked like they were thinking, “Who are these guys?”

We left and walked west toward the mosque on West Broadway for dinner and Zikr, the whirling Sufi service. We passed an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue and along came the Rabbi. Wearing a suit, and sporting a Fedora he asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“Oh, yes. We’re Jewish. Sure.”

“Can you join us?”

He needed a minion of men because without one his service couldn’t be held. And were we ever Jewish. Rabbi Singer knew all the prayers in Hebrew, as did Arnie, and Bernie seemed right at home.

After the service, we made our way to the lobby to leave and the Rabbi came out and asked, “Who are you guys?”

“No one special,” one of us said.

And off we went.

We arrived at the mosque and waited for the Sufis to arrive. As we waited, the poet Robert Bly came along.

“Is this the mosque?” he asked, his slight lisp evident, his gaze boring into me, and his collar turned up against the cold.

“Oh, yeah man. It’s the mosque.”

He looked at us — ragged, tired, hungry, but lit by the mild euphoria of our practice. He paused a bit while thinking and said, “Who are you guys?”

We went into the mosque, were served a feast, and danced and danced and prayed and prayed.

That was just one day with Bernie. I began with him 33 years ago, and that was just one day.

I finished telling my story a bit choked up.

Eve asked Peter the photographer to say something. “How long were you documenting Bernie in photographs?” she asked.

“Since 1980. Yeah, I’ll say something. Not too long ago, I was talking to Bernie, and I said, ‘We need to go on one more adventure. We’ve been all over the world. Let’s have one more adventure.’”

Peter smiled, looked around at the sixty or so friends and family of Bernie’s and said. “And now we have. Here we are on Bernie’s final adventure.”

I gathered myself, issued goodbyes all around, and went in for a final look at Bernie. I leaned down and whispered into his left ear.

“Love you. Love you. Love you.”

Then I was gone.

You’ve been so kind and generous
I don’t know how you keep on giving
For your kindness I’m in debt to you
For your selflessness my admiration
For everything you’ve done you know I’m bound
I’m bound to thank you for it

Michael O Keefe

Michael O’Keefe

Michael O’Keefe is a Golden Globe- and Academy Award-nominated actor. He’s appeared in the films Eye In the Sky, Michael Clayton, Frozen River, The Pledge, Ironweed, The Great Santini, and Caddyshack. Television audiences will recognize him as CIA Agent John Redmond on Homeland. His writing has appeared in BOMB, Mindful, and other magazines. A practitioner of Zen for almost thirty years, he is a Dharma Holder in the Zen Peacemaker Order.