For many Western Buddhists, practice doesn’t end with what happens on the floor. They’re out in the community, volunteering at area shelters, teaching meditation to prison inmates or organizing food and clothing drives.
The social piece wasn’t always a given. Zen master Bernie Glassman, who founded the Zen Community of New York (later known as the Zen Peacemakers), helped popularize socially engaged Buddhism three decades ago, around the time he led his first Bearing Witness retreat to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. More recently, Glassman co-wrote The Dude and the Zen Master — a New York Times bestseller — with actor (and Dude) Jeff Bridges. The book, which relates Zen concepts to the language of The Big Lebowski, raised awareness for Glassman and Bridges’ hunger-based projects. This weekend, Glassman co-hosts a program at Chester’s Guest House Retreat & Conference Center. He spoke to the Advocate by phone from his home in Western Massachusetts about socially engaged Buddhism and his work with the Dude.
Q: Was socially engaged Buddhism a strange concept to many Zen practitioners when you began making it a part of your practice? How have you seen it change over the years?
A: It was sort of new in this country. It was about 1980 when I started getting involved in socially engaged Buddhism as a form of Zen practice. In the beginning, in those early years, I got a lot of push-back by not just Zen teachers but Buddhist teachers, who said it wasn’t appropriate. But I’d say in the last 10-15 years, it’s quite common now. And I’m sort of listed as the founder of Western socially engaged Buddhism.
Q: Why do you think it wasn’t received well at that time?
A: Well, it was still early on for Buddhism in America. I think people just had this sense that meditation and other Buddhist practices that came from the East should be the ones that everybody focused on. Of course, there was a lot of socially engaged work going on in Asia that they weren’t aware of. I’m not sure what their thinking was, but for me it was an appropriate thing.
Q: It strikes me that a lot of people approach meditation with the goal of improving themselves, as a means to take them somewhere happier or safer, away from their fears. Is there a valid self-improvement component to meditation, or is that an approach that’s destined to fail?
A: I do think it’s certainly a beginning practice. The word “Buddha” means an awakened person, awakened to the interconnectedness of life. So, at first, it’s somewhat natural to think that it’s all about oneself. Obviously one’s self is not the interconnectedness with all of the universe, with all of life. But that’s generally how people start. They’re looking at themselves awakening, that if they do so, a by-product, as you say, is they will be happier and more stable, and in fact that’s true, that that very awakening leads you to the next step, that the interconnectedness of life does not mean just yourself. It’s serving your family, your society, and eventually the world. So somebody like the Dalai Lama is a great role model. He works for the world. He’s not just working for himself. He works for the Tibetan people, for the groups that he’s in charge of. He’s working for everyone. So, we needed role models, and when they appeared, things changed in this country. In a person’s practice, ideally, if they are awakening to the interconnectedness of life, it’s just natural that they would start working with everyone, with society.
Q: When did you first lead a Bearing Witness retreat to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, and how did the idea come to you?
A: I was invited to a workshop that took place in Auschwitz, about 20 years ago. There was a group of people who were going to walk from Auschwitz through war-torn countries, ending up in Hiroshima. A student of mine was part of that group, and I went really to support him... When I went into Birkenau, I could feel all these souls crying out, wanting to be remembered, and I felt I had to go back and do a retreat there. At first, I was going to go by myself, and then I thought, this is a place where differences were appreciated by killing everybody that was different than yourself. If you were Aryan, everybody who wasn’t an Aryan was going to be killed. That’s a place where handicapped people were killed, and gays were killed, and gypsies were killed, intellectuals, and of course Jews. I decided I would invite as many different voices to that retreat as possible: children and grandchildren of S.S. officers, survivors, children of survivors, various folks who were being persecuted because of being different from other people. That first retreat did have all of those elements, and it was a very healing retreat, because it was a whole new way of dealing with the notion of “other.”
Q: How many times have you returned, and how does the experience change every time you go back? Is it growing in numbers? How has it evolved?
A: The first retreat had about 150 people. It was quite big. We were at that number, between 100-150, until 9/11. This will be the 18th year. It’s an annual retreat, in November. After 9/11, people were afraid to fly, and certainly they were afraid to fly to Eastern Europe. [Auschwitz is in Poland.] The number dropped to about 80. I stopped going for a couple of years, then I started about four years ago. Four years ago, we had 160 people. I’ve since put a cap on the number at 120, and we’ve been at that number since then... Each year, a different theme arises, but it’s still around the basic theme of how we deal with others. We’ve had Native Americans come because they wanted to do a Bearing Witness retreat. We’ve had people from Rwanda. We have Israelis and Palestinians come each time. The theme shifts a little, but it’s always around that. Many of the Germans have a sense of guilt, and they’re afraid to meet up with Jews and Poles. Poles didn’t come for a while because they were afraid to meet up with Germans. But as they come, they get over that. They meet with people they were afraid to meet with, and healing around that happens.
Q: You approached your friend, Jeff Bridges, when you realized that, through the popularity of The Big Lebowski, that there was an opportunity to make Zen more accessible to our times and culture by connecting it with a pop culture phenomenon. What are some of the indications you’ve noticed that the experiment was a successful one? It was a bestselling book, for example.
A: Let me first say that, when I met him for the first time 15 years ago, he was in Santa Barbara, and I had just moved to Santa Barbara... We had mutual friends, and he was already involved in socially engaged work. He was already meditating daily, and he’s been involved in hunger projects... I met him to talk about all of that. Then he and I really hit it off, and we started to study together. He wanted to study Zen, and we had a great time. We both like to smoke cigars, and we both had a big interest in social engagement, so our discussions and our studies went really well. Then, about two years ago, I said, “Why don’t we write down some of our conversations and put it out as a book?” At that time, I had the sense that [The Big Lebowski] would help introduce the ideas of Zen to a larger audience, because he had such a following. We spent four days being hooked up to portable mics, and somebody was filming, and we talked about all the stuff you see in that book. Of course, it was edited quite a bit. It was a great “hang,” to use his words. Some of the themes that come out of the movie resonate in Buddhism, but in a different language. A good example is “that’s just your opinion, man.” I use that in all my talks. I say that what I’m about to say is my opinion, and you may consider what you have to say to be the truth, but I consider it just your opinion, man. That language has spread through a lot of the Zen teachers that I know. I’ve backed away from talking about giving the truth in favor of just one man’s opinion. And as I say, through the book we’ve reached a wide audience. We get requests to be interviewed by people like yourself. It is going out to a whole other market. I don’t know any other book that’s so deeply involved in Zen thinking that made it to the New York Times bestseller list.
Q: I love the idea of experience as “jamming” with what’s around you at any given time. Why don’t people do enough of that?
A: I don’t know. In some sense we do. Even meditation, although it’s not verbal or musical, it is vibrations. Even if you’re sitting with only one other person, the vibrations intermingle and stuff will come up. It wouldn’t come up if you sat by yourself. That’s one of the benefits of sitting with a larger group. It’s like sitting down with an orchestra. All of a sudden, there are all these vibes, and you go places you never thought you’d go. Much more appropriate, maybe, would be a jazz band, where some sort of riff comes up that affects you in a way you never thought of. When you sit with a group of people and you talk and share your opinions, that does happen.
Living a Life that Matters: Integrating Action and Realization to Unfold Our Potential, May 10-12, Guest House Retreat & Conference Center, 318 West Main St., Chester, (860) 322-5770, guesthousecenter.org