Sunday, November 07, 2004

Prominent American Buddhists, Part II

Most Americans have never heard of Bernie Glassman, but in some ways he is perhaps the biggest threat to the ideology of the religious right to come along...

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.

Glassman has been very successful at blurring the distinctions of "left" and "right" and "government sector" versus "private sector," and showed that socially responsible endeavors can be highly profitable. What he's been doing is working, in all senses of the word, and his work is a very useful paradigm for what we have to do in the United States.

As with all people there's points of difference, but if you haven't heard of Bernie Glassman (who, as I last recall, hadn't gotten a red cent from the much touted Bush "faith based" initiatives), you haven't begun to see the potential of what Americans can do.

He's also an alumnus of may alma mater, by the way.

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