'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

In the 1990s the American Zen teacher Bernie Glassman ditched traditional forms of practice and plunged into the poor, black community that surrounded his Center in Yonkers, New York. In 1997 I travelled there to witness this remarkable experiment in Buddhist social action and ask Bernie Glassman: is it working? and is it Buddhist?

Bernie Glassman’s name is all round the Buddhist-inspired Greyston projects in Yonkers, just up the Hudson River from New York City. He’s Roshi Bernie in Greyston bakery, where formerly unemployed men and women produce gourmet cakes and bread. He’s Bernie Roshi in the Family Inn, which provides housing for the homeless. He’s Sensei in the nursery school for the children of the Inn’s occupants. And he’s plain Bernie in the Greyston headquarters and the huge building site next door, where a Catholic monastery is being turned into a health centre and apartments for people with hiv and aids.

I was expecting to meet a charismatic teacher, a dynamic whirlwind of energy – Bernie from Brooklyn, Jewish fixer turned Zen entrepreneur. But I found myself facing a short, unassuming man in late middle age, with a bulbous nose and quiet eyes. I liked the way he paused to think before answering. He listened.

Listening seems to lie at the heart of Glassman’s philosophy. He talks about ‘bearing witness’, by which he means being open and receptive to experience, and he relates this to his formal Zen training: ‘In a koan you have a problem. You can’t bring your intellect to it. You sit with it. You bear witness to the situation and then a solution will come. It is the same in regular meditation, which I call “bearing witness to the wholeness of life”.’

Glassman’s koan has been how to bring what he sees as the spiritual core of Zen Buddhism to modern America in a flexible, effective and non-dogmatic way. He is a radical, he told me, an experimenter. ‘I was brought up a socialist and, though I started to practise Zen in 1960, I never left the area of social action. I always wanted to integrate the two. At the Zen Center of Los Angeles I helped to create various projects – a medical clinic, businesses and so on. So when my teacher Maezumi Roshi asked me to move to New York in 1979, I wanted to bring Buddhism to all aspects of community. I printed up a letterhead with the slogan “integrating zazen with social action in an interfaith environment”.’

This approach to Buddhist practice was met with incomprehension and mistrust. In New York Glassman found a middle-class group with a fondness for Japanese ritual and the quiet of meditation. They wondered if his approach was ‘real Zen’: ‘At my first meeting with the people who were to become the board and students, many people just didn’t believe what I was saying’.

In 1997 the situation is different. Now that Buddhist ideas and practices are starting to pervade American society, many people are outgrowing the attraction of exotic Asian forms, and the desire to escape into a mysterious spiritual realm. They want Buddhism to be relevant. For some this means addressing the emotional issues articulated by psychotherapy; for others it means stepping outside the generally affluent, mostly white social enclave inhabited by most western Buddhists, to engage with the problems of the wider society.

Despite the danger of forgetting that the central Buddhist practice of transforming consciousness through meditation practice is itself a form of engagement, this approach is catching on. At a recent conference the writer Peter Matthiessen (one of Glassman’s leading disciples) argued that the emergence of ‘socially engaged Buddhism’ marks a new epoch in the history of the Buddhist tradition and defines how it should be practised in the West. Glassman himself is one of the leading Buddhist proponents of ‘social engagement’, and the best-known aspects of his work are emblematic of the new attitude. These include street retreats, in which participants live the life of down-and-outs, and interfaith ‘bearing witness’ retreats, the first of which was held last year at Auschwitz.

The more I looked into the growing interface between Buddhism and social action, the larger Glassman’s influence seemed to loom. There are many examples of western Buddhists building their own forms of practice and institutions, thereby changing their bit of society; but I found nothing comparable to Greyston as an attempt to change the wider community. What happens, I wondered, when Buddhists step outside an environment where they can easily set the terms? How can the values of spiritual life be sustained in that exposed territory?

Glassman told me how his work in Yonkers had developed from a conventional Zen centre to the current network of projects. ‘I had a sense of timing. The first thing we needed was a meditation and retreat schedule. Then it was Right Livelihood, which in the beginning was a work-training for Zen practitioners.’ This meant starting a gourmet bakery where the workers treated the work as form of Zen practice, one which Glassman insisted was as valuable as sitting in meditation. But he was soon itching to engage with the world beyond the Buddhist community. ‘We were living three miles south of the bakery. When I walked to work, I set out in a beautiful, wealthy area but as I got closer, moving into poorer and poorer areas, somehow my spirits would lift. And I would feel, yes, this is where I want to do my work.’

As the bakery became financially stable, Glassman decided the next step was social action, in response to the needs of the poor districts. But rather than adding on a little social work to existing Buddhist activities, he looked seriously at the needs of the run-down neighbourhood around the bakery. ‘The greatest problem was homelessness, but the homeless were mostly single-parents and it was obvious that as well as housing they needed jobs and child-care.’

For those involved, this decision to take on the community’s needs as their needs changed everything. ‘We had a meeting and I asked the practitioners if they would be prepared to open up to the unemployed. It would be much more difficult. By then we had sort of learnt how to run the bakery, but to train people with no skills was a whole different prospect. Even so, it was a unanimous vote to do that. I stopped hiring Buddhists and the main focus of the bakery became to provide work for the unemployed. That was 10 years ago and there is now one Zen practitioner left in the bakery.’

Whereas conventional government programmes might treat social difficulties as isolated problems that can be solved by spending money, Glassman saw the apparent difficulties as the product of a web of interconnected conditions, and evolved a holistic approach to tackling them. In 1991 Greyston opened the Family Inn, with apartments for homeless people, mostly single mothers, and a day-care centre for 60 children. As Greyston has attracted more attention it has won funding from government agencies and trusts, and catalysed local help and support. When I visited in early 1997 its activities were expanding. New apartments for the homeless were being built; while the health centre and apartments for those with hiv and aids marked a whole new area of activity. Meanwhile, the bakery has sales over $3 million (including an exclusive contract for chocolate-chip cookies with Ben & Jerry’s, the gourmet ice-cream business) and has been joined by other business projects.

The most distinctively Buddhist aspect of Greyston’s philosophy is the idea that the underlying cause of social problems is not just poverty, but also people’s attitudes and behaviour. Meeting some of the more experienced Greyston workers, I was impressed by their gratitude to Greyston and their commitment to its work. Typically they had been caught in the problems of American inner-city culture: drugs, homelessness, teenage pregnancy. Years ahead of ‘welfare to work’, Glassman saw the need to help people help themselves; and Greyston had offered them a chance to make sense of their lives. Above all, it enabled them to be part of a community, and to give something back through helping others follow the same path. As an alternative to the fragmentation of the broader society, Greyston seeks to establish a sense of belonging, which is a basis for feeling connected with others, and therefore for ethical action.

It was striking that there were very few Buddhists now working in Greyston – 15 out of 100, Glassman estimated. But as far as Greyston was concerned, Glassman had clearly left his white, middle-class Zen students behind and become interested in communicating his Zen values to the ghetto, and the society he was creating was the form of that communication. In his mind, the Greyston activites form a mandala, the Tibetan symbol for integration. ‘I’ve always had the idea that we were trying to embody a mandala of five Buddha families. The Buddha family, at the centre, I defined as spirituality; vajra as study, the need for clarity, which is what I’m developing now; ratna as Right Livelihood; karma as social action; and padma as communication, meaning all the families working in harmony. So we are trying to integrate all these aspects and form a greater whole.’

Clearly there is far more to this than improving social conditions, and Glassman’s ambitions go way beyond those of conventional social work. ‘I’m not looking for a way folks can get off the streets and make money,’ he told me. He believes that out of the community he is creating will emerge a new expression of the spiritual values he has been trained in. ‘Many years ago I told my teacher I felt I had to let go of my training, to become part of the people here and wait until a new Buddha-dharma arose. It needed to be an appropriate model for the inner city. If we tried to pass on our forms, no matter how much we tried we’d be imposing a form upon them.’

It took me some time to understand what Glassman was driving at, partly because of the scope of his vision. It is as if Greyston were a field and Glassman a farmer waiting for seeds to sprout. ‘I have had to be patient, but I’m really not concerned how long it takes. The question is, are we going through transformation? Is this somewhere that leads to the raising of the bodhi-mind?’

At first I assumed that what Glassman had in mind was a new form of Buddhism appropriate to the inner city. This was an intriguing prospect – Buddhist centres in both the us and Europe attract a relatively narrow range of people, and usually there are few black faces to be seen. It became clear, however, that when Glassman uses terms like bodhi-mind and Buddha-dharma he does not mean anything that could be called Buddhism. Instead he speaks of ‘a spirituality which helps people realise the oneness of life’, which may or may not bear some relation to the forms of the Buddhist tradition. In other words, he hopes that by establishing an interconnected community based on ethical action and informed by his values, a new spirit would grow up between people which would constitute a new form of spirituality in its own right.

I found it hard to know what this might mean or see how it might come about. The more I probed, the more indeterminate Glassman’s formulations seemed. Glassman himself stresses the importance of ‘not knowing’ and his freewheeling approach is what makes his work so unpredictable and adventurous. However, this characteristic highlighted for me Glassman’s curious relation to the Buddhist tradition. Although a senior figure in American Zen, he believes in ‘a spirituality that goes beyond particular religious traditions while at the same time honouring the differences’. Buddhism is, then simply ‘a form’ of spirituality, while others have their own and equal validity.

Taking this a step further, Glassman has controversially given Dharma transmission (the ‘authority’ to embody and pass on the Zen lineage) to a rabbi and to a Catholic priest. Roshi Philip Kapleau, a member of an older generation of western Zen teachers, described this practice as ‘a threat to the integrity of Zen’. Certainly it suggests an ultra-liberalism, and a view that the conceptual rigour and the systematic nature of practice (which have characterised the Buddhist tradition) are of secondary importance for Glassman.

Despite concerns that Glassman’s liberalism throws out the Buddha with the bathwater, it also seems closely related to his Zen teaching. He is palpably frustrated with the many forms of Buddhism that have been domesticated by mainstream middle-class American society, and whose limitations are shown up by their inapplicability to the inner city. As an alternative, Glassman is organising a network of sympathetic social projects, the Peacemaker’s Community, which will include Joan Halifax’s hospice in New Mexico and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with mindfulness meditation in Massachusetts hospitals. Greyston may also choose to join. For Glassman this and the associated Zen Peacemaker’s Order will provide something missing from American Buddhism. ‘Many people with a vocation for social action felt they were doing something wrong. It seems crazy that religious people should feel guilty about doing social action, —but that has been the atmosphere in this country!’

One danger is that without people committed to spiritual change within themselves, Greyston may lose contact with its spiritual roots. Economic pressures threaten to re-absorb Greyston’s values into the prevailing values of society. In the day-care centre I met Wendy, whose experience seemed to embody this dilemma. Her first contact with Greyston was when she was given an apartment in the Family Inn. ‘Greyston had confidence in me when I didn’t have confidence in myself. I love Jishu [Glassman’s wife]. She encouraged me to go back to school.’ Wendy now works as an administrator in the day-care centre and told me about the issues it faces. ‘The Greyston philosophy is wonderful, but it’s hard to work with unqualified people. We always took staff from the Inn, but that lessens the service to the children. We asked ourselves: “Are we here for the staff or the children?” Now we hire professionals.’

The pressure to improve quality also threatens the centre’s ability to meet the needs of the poorest people for whom it was originally intended. ‘We are drowning financially, so we’re looking at putting our rates up $30 a month above what welfare will pay.’

I asked Glassman if the day-care centre was being sucked into the educational system and becoming essentially no different from any other pre-school. Was Greyston losing control of the values on which the projects operated? ‘It’s a good question. We’re at the stage where more emphasis needs to be brought to the spiritual component. This is what I call the padma energy, the spiritual energy that keeps it all together. If we don’t, it can easily go the route you are describing. The tendency is for each bit of the mandala to go in a standard egocentric way. So yes, we want to serve the children and the staff, and the whole mandala.’

The crux of the problem, however, is where are the people who will be able to make this real and effective? In the past Glassman was a personal mentor to many Greyston staff and personally provided much of the impetus and direction. But now there are many calls on his time. ‘I miss seeing him’, one worker at the Inn told me. ‘People are saying the Greyston administration doesn’t care, there won’t be jobs for us at the new facilities that are being built. They need to communicate more what it is all about.’

Glassman acknowledged the problem but he has faith that the process he has started in Greyston will throw up the answers. ‘I was a founder, and as I moved from piece to piece there was that reaction. Yes, the problem is real, and I haven’t figured out a way of doing it smoothly. But I don’t think it would have worked if I had stayed as a mentor. The mentors need to come from within.’

These leaders who will emerge from the community are the missing link in realising the Greyston vision – people who have picked up the values implicit in Greyston, and can act as catalysts in the community. Without them Greyston will surely go the way of so many religious-based charities and become merely good, useful, but essentially conventional social work. However, the process Glassman describes is slow and organic. ‘I’m waiting for the leaders to arise, to be trained and to create the forms for Greyston. If that doesn’t happen, this experiment won’t have worked. But I’m sure it will. I can see the people already, and we’ll see it as soon as we can provide a means for them to be trained in a way that makes sense. I need to work with those role models: people who are comfortable with what I’m doing but are steeped in their own culture, and aren’t looking to leap out into ours and leave the others behind.’

As an example of this process Glassman cited Gary, a man of impressive clarity and conviction whom I had met at the bakery. ‘A number of years ago a visitor came from a foundation that was evaluating the bakery and asked Gary, “Is Zen Buddhism being taught here?” Gary replied, “The bakery was started by Buddhists who had a way of doing the work for the work itself. They trained us and then we trained other people. So if you ask someone on the bakery floor they’d say they don’t have anything to do with Zen Buddhism; but they do – in their way of working”.’

As well as the Peacemaker’s Community, Glassman has plans for a new academy called the Peacemaker’s Institute, where people can learn his approach to social action. This would give Glassman a way to work with future mentors. ‘The Peacemaker’s Institute is the last piece of the jigsaw. It is essential to produce leaders and mentors. Until then, the gap you’re seeing will remain.’

Precisely because Glassman takes radical stances it is hard to understand his work; there are few points of comparison. Time alone will tell whether Greyston is truly developing ways to make the spiritual resources of the Zen tradition accessible to the ghetto. Even if it is ‘merely’ social work, it is none the less doing enormous good. For all my questions, Glassman’s work is being pursued with vigour and imagination and, as he said, it is an experiment. It is hard not to be impressed by Glassman’s huge patience, his ability to think long-term and to open himself to the needs of a situation. Adopting the perspective of the inner-city population in itself radicalises him.

Despite the hyperbole of his language, there is something highly attractive in his essential approach. Through creating projects that meet immediate material needs, a community is perhaps being born in which people care for one another, and where the social structures are themselves a teaching of interconnectedness: ‘It will be another 10 years before what I’m hoping for will happen. It will have grown out of the people. I’m trying to create a monastery of the streets, a monastery of the community, where the whole environment is conducive to the raising of the bodhi-mind.’

Vishvapani, 1997, Dharma Life

News, FeaturedRachael Savage