"Who says you need robes and a bald head?" he asked.
I was driving the much-beloved RoshiBernie Glassman from the airport, my Path-of-Service assignment as a resident at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, truck wheels hurling us through that impossibly blue horizon. We were heading north to a workshop he was teaching with a roster of neuroscientists and scholars in the exquisitely lush high desert of New Mexico.
Who could forget such a moment? Or not love the swirling, warm, sage-scented air through windows rolled down to soothe the skin, baked so easily in the southwestern heat? The mahogany-hued earth profile of the Sangre de Cristo mountains shifted with the miles in the hour-long drive as Bernie talked about Buddhism, how its cultural forms adapt through each new cultural meme and topography. Arroyos, those deep clefts between rock and soil in low plains, cut curious angles to the left and right of us on the long road. The conversation cut just as deep an impression in me of something true. I felt my private fortune -- time with this man, a deeply wise exemplar of what some of us called "boots on the ground Buddhism."
Bernie Glassman has soft, observant eyes. His suspenders might just be surgically attached, supporting as they do his playfulness where others lead with a sober reserve. One feels steady in Bernie's presence and attunes quickly to his many years of wisdom using great imagination as skillful means in service to our better angels. Especially the ones found on gritty streets and prisons, the disenfranchised who fall too easily through clefts in the rock. Bernie leads people to places like Rawanda and Auschwitz, what he calls "bearing witness" retreats, to anchor practice in the full spectrum of who we are as human beings.
A 35-year student of Hakuyu Taizan Maezum, Roshi, Bernie took seriously his teacher's analogy of the egg. Namely, that dharma teachings are the yoke, the whites are the context in which one lives. He encouraged his students to develop appropriate Western forms of practice. Like my Catholic childhood heroes, Bernie teaches through re-enchantment! A clown's nose is always within reach. Like him, the Berrigan brother priests dared to provoke the comfortable; Sister Corita Kent, the courageous Catholic nun who pre-dated Andy Warhol with her appropriated pop culture idioms, was my favorite. She, like Bernie, could so masterfully illuminate the sacred in the seemingly banal.
Not two years before meeting Bernie, I was in a packed auditorium at the University of Washington where I met another ground-breaking American Roshi, Joan Halifax, founder of The Upaya Zen Center. She was leading a seminal conference for educators called Seeds of Compassion along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and many spiritual leaders from around the world. Her style and passion stopped me in my tracks. Not soon after, I joined 20 others arriving to an adobe zendo well known for its zen monastery and southwestern aesthetic. We were a collective from many faiths, ages, ethnicities, identities and traditions from all over the globe to study intensively with researchers, educators, hospice workers, prison reformers, social workers, filmmakers, writers and artists. Just regular folks really. We shared an eagerness to study livable, teachable practices born of and sustained by the wider imagination.
Talking on the open road with Bernie that day as my year came to an end, I felt supported in my heart's desire to find practices that sustain the deep interior spaces while walking in a complex contemporary world.
Along with other special guests, this past Sunday (Dec. 9), Bernie Glassman read passages from his soon-to-be-released new book,"The Dude and the Zen Master," in a generous expression of support to an extraordinary young community, The Interdependence Project. Like all new great ideas, support and resources are critically needed. Though the campaign continues to the end of the year collecting donations in any mulitple of $5, the end-of year holiday fundraiser Five for Five took place at the premier experimental theater Dixon Place in the Lower East Side.
To much laughter and recognition, Bernie read the table of contents, each chapter title reading like a series of funny zen koans, co-written by actor and zen student Jeff Bridges. Sharing the stage was Shastri Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, another visionary leader with a keen imagination. Ethan, like Bernie, has a history of moving others to social activism that is effectively transformational. Also like Bernie, Ethan is a superbly gifted writer and inspirational teacher who has gathered an exponentially growing community interested in creating practices that are uniquely authentic, honest and generative.
Ethan was interviewed last year by the wonderful filmmaker Vicki Hitchcock for her documentary "When the Iron Bird Flies," which previewed at the Rubin Museum of Art this October. It is a work of love exploring Tibetan Buddhism's history in the west. In it, Ethan's speaks forcefully that contemporary western practitioners are not afraid of what is rigorous. What they want are practices absolutely relevant to their lives.
The Interdependence Project is in a sweet moment of history rolling forward. A kind of karmic ripening born of countless hours of devoted practice as a community leaning forward always to a more skillful effort creating an activism both personally and collectively transformational. Bernie began his work in the Bowery 30 years ago this year. IDP celebrates five years of bringing the same message to a young, often urban, but vastly socially interconnected community, its N.Y. center a mere block from where Bernie's work began at the Bowery Mission. His "street retreats" continue to this day engaging people who long for practices that truly alleviate suffering in the world. The Interdependence Project is fast becoming known for its innovative work committed to "engaged" practices as well, meeting people where they live. A "boots on the ground" secular Buddhism.