Roshi Bernie Glassman

by Claudia Herrera Hudson

So for me the question became, 'What are the forms in business, social action and peacemaking that can help us see the oneness of society, the interdependence of life?'
--Bernie Glassman
Bernie Glassman, courtesy of the Peacemaker Community
Bernie Glassman, courtesy of the Peacemaker Community

Bernie Glassman, better known as Roshi Glassman, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a close-knit Jewish-American family. His parents were from Eastern Europe and brought with them strong opinions, particularly about socialism, which influenced Bernie’s personality and ideals.

As one of the founders of the Peacemaker Community, which strives towards social transformation through Zen teachings and social action, Bernie is a peacemaker at heart, aided by his brilliant mind and astonishing drive.

He holds prestigious degrees–including a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from UCLA–and a resume to match–including working as an aeronautical engineer for McDonnell Douglas in California. Yet Bernie felt there was more to life than merely earthly success. Better yet, he found a way to make his own successes beneficial to others.

While working as an aeronautical engineer in the mid 1960s, Bernie became very interested in the practice of Zen. In 1967, he began his Zen studies with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, as well as with some other well-known Japanese Zen masters.

An avid student with an intense passion for his calling, Bernie was ordained as a Soto Zen priest in 1970 and soon became the chief administrator at the Zen Center of Los Angeles where he had not long before been a student. At the request of his teacher Taizen Maezumi Roshi, he began to teach. In 1976, he became Sensei Glassman--Maezumi Roshi's first Dharma successor.

He returned to the Bronx in 1980 to work on establishing a Zen community there: the Zen Community of New York in Riverdale.

Yet he found controversy there because of his interest in Zen as business and Zen as social action. Bernie believed in teaching about work, action and business as being Zen practice rather than on just sitting meditation or “zazen.” He felt that “you get attached to the form [zazen Zen practice] and that becomes a substitute for life.” In other words, Bernie believed it was important to bring Zen into everyday life, and to practice a moving, acting meditation, rather than one simply focusing on sitting meditation.

To support his hatchling community, he started the Greyston Bakery, which over time became a multi-million dollar industry. He was not so much concerned with the potential profit, but with issues of social action along with the integration of Zen practice within daily life. By founding the Greyston Mandala, a network of successful socio-economic community development organizations enlightened by Buddhist values, Bernie was able to both bring vast employment to the area. He was also able to bring social causes into a typically money-driven economic world.

What is known today as the Greyston Mandala includes the bakery and the Greyston Family Inn, which renovates and manages apartment buildings for formerly homeless and low-income working families. It has developed 176 permanent housing units thus far for needy individuals and families, and also provides childcare and other support services to the community. The Greyston Health Services operates Issan House, a housing facility for individuals living with HIV/AIDS, and the Maitri Center, a day-health program providing medical services and alternative treatment to people with AIDS. The location provides a variety of on-site services including counseling, rehabilitation and daycare. Finally, the Greyston Garden Project has brought together community residents of all ages to create five plentiful gardens on what were formerly doomed plots of land. All the elements of the Greyston Mandala strive to promote a holistic approach and draws on its Buddhist roots.

Bernie's own work affected him deeply, and he found it important to get a fuller understanding of the lives of some of those his organizations are helping, the homeless. In the early 1990s, he decided that he wanted to experience firsthand what homelessness is like, so he began what became an annual tradition of “street retreats.” During these outtings, those on "retreat" live on the streets for five days as homeless people, begging for food. This action helps others understand what it feels like to be completely at the mercy of others and their generosity, or lack thereof. Promoted by the program's success, he went on to lead retreats to Auschwitz were every November, 150 people “bare witness to the to unthinkable horror of the Holocaust."

In 1984, Bernie spent his 55th birthday sitting in the snow on the US Capitol building steps, asking himself one question: "What can I do about homelessness, AIDS, and violence in this country?"

This deep meditation led him to the idea of the creation of the Zen Peacemaker Order, an order of Zen practitioners dedicated to the cause of peace. He co-founded it with his wife, Jishu Holmes. Since then, the Zen Peacemaker Order has broadened to become a global, multi-faith network. But the integration of spiritual practice and social action continues to be the focus.

In 1995, Bernie received the honorable "Inka," the final approval from his teacher, and became Roshi Bernie or Roshi Glassman.

Throughout his lifetime, he has received several awards, including the 1991 Best of America Award for Social Action (US News & World Report) and the Ethics in Action Award (Ethical Culture Society of Westchester).

Bernie is also the co-author of On Zen Practice I & II, The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment and Instructions to the Cook, which describes the Greyston Mandala's vision. He also wrote Bearing Witness and Infinite Circle.

Bernie once told a reporter: "I chose not to live in a monastery. I got involved in business, social action and peacemaking. So for me the question became, 'What are the forms in business, social action and peacemaking that can help us see the oneness of society, the interdependence of life?' My entire teaching life has been dedicated to creating new environments and structures, new businesses and social forms that will move each of us toward the realization and actualization of the enlightened way, which is nothing other than peacemaking."

Bernie has been able to find a balance with the corporal and the spiritual that is true Zen in motion.

Page created on 5/16/2007 10:17:22 AM

Last edited 1/6/2017 10:27:18 PM

Related Links

The San Francisco Zen Center - where Bernie gave a workshop called "Peacemakers Without Weapons"
Zen Peacemakers - Bernie Glassman biography
The Greyston Foundation - is an integrated system of non-profit and for-profit organizations that offer a wide array of programs and services to more than 1,200 men, women and children.

Related Books