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Older Brother Bob

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

Roshi Robert Kennedy. S.J., always introduced me as his Dharma brother, Dharma brothers because Roshi Bernie Glassman was both of our teachers. I always responded, “Roshi Bob is my older brother. He helped to raise me.” Poshu Huang, a long-time member of our Tuesday evening sitting group, pointed out that in Chinese there is no single word for ‘brother,’ only ‘older brother’ or ‘younger brother.’ I love that.

This week we are celebrating my older brother’s 90th birthday.

Our teacher, Bernie, was complicated. He moved quickly, and it often looked like some of us were having trouble keeping up. Sometimes we were. And sometimes we were choosing to stay with the work begun and left behind.

When I arrived in Yonkers, the most exciting aspect of Bernie’s innovative teaching was his embrace of interfaith practice. Bernie was on a mission to end interreligious strife. In those days, that was the core of his peacemaking practice. Frequently, he would reference the wars that were going on all around the world, -- how many were there? 90? I don’t remember, -- and ask, “How many are about religion?” All but one, I think. For Bernie, putting an end to suffering was about ending these conflicts, not by denying the differences among us but by embracing them.

He was working at this, as far as I could see, along two tracks. One which he called the House of One People involved creating a practice space that many faiths could share. At the same time, Bernie was welcoming practitioners of other faiths into the Zen practice and not just as visitors. “You don’t have to be Buddhist,” he said, “to practice Zen.” Bernie meant it. He began making clergy of other faiths Zen teachers. Father Bob Kennedy was the first. Bob was already a Sensei when I arrived in Yonkers. And Bob had a major part in Bernie’s plans for the House of One People.

As was so often the case with Bernie, he often moved on to other projects quickly. It seemed to many of us that he moved too quickly from his focus on interfaith work. Bernie was, however, I think satisfied that he had opened a window. Others if they were interested would take advantage of the opening.

No one took better advantage of the window which Bernie opened to Zen in an interfaith context than Roshi Bob. It’s one of the great good fortunes of my life that I was able to join Bob on this journey for a while.

Early in 2002, Bob invited me to join him at a sesshin that he was leading at St. Benedict’s, the Trappist monastery in Snowmass, Colorado. I was amazed, and thrilled by the opportunity.

I was a gigantic fan of the journals of Thomas Merton, the Trappist priest. He was one of my spiritual companions on what at times seemed a lonely journey. I had felt a wonderful kinship. I waited for the next volume to be published the way others waited for the next Harry Potter. “Would I,” I wondered, “ever have the opportunity to spend a night at a Trappist monastery?” And here the opportunity presented itself.

I was thrilled. I was intimidated as well. I wanted to go. I didn’t want to pretend to “pass” as Catholic. I would wear my rakusu for the sesshin, something I didn’t do when I sat with Bob in Jersey City. When Bernie made me a Dharma Holder in 1998, he presented me with a new, brown rakusu which he had purchased in Japan. This Dharma Holder rakusu was the one I would wear at Snowmass.

In my first interview during the sesshin with Roshi Bob, he complimented me on my beautiful rakusu.

“It’s my Dharma Holder rakusu,” I explained.

“I didn’t realize you were a Dharma Holder.” He was embarrassed. “You have to give a Dharma talk this week.”

Would I be willing?

I was honored. “Of course.” I was also terrified.

Seats were rearranged in the meditation hall, moving me to a place of honor among the teachers. In my talk at Snowmass, I shared some of the teachings which I had received from the firefighters who I had been privileged to sit with at Mt. Manresa following 9/11.

Toward the end of the sesshin, Bob gave the homily in the Trappist Church at their weekly public service. He began by thanking the Abbot for welcoming us to St. Benedict’s where Catholics and Buddhists and Jews could practice together.

I looked around the chapel. I thought I was the only Buddhist here. And I was the only Jew, too.

I was glad I’d worn my rakusu.

Heading home, on the flight from Aspen to Denver, I was sitting with Russ Ball — a great supporter of Bob’s and a benefactor of the Jesuits. Russ told me that at a recent dinner with the Jesuit Provincial, the Provincial had told him that he wanted to have a Zen meditation group in every retreat center in the Province.

Very energized by the experience of the week and having thoroughly appreciated the hospitality of Mt. Manresa in supporting the 9/11 first responders, I didn’t hesitate to offer, “If you ever decide to start a Zen group on Staten Island, I would love to help.”

It seemed like less than a month later, I was back at Mt. Manresa, invited to a meeting with Father Ed Quinnan who was the Jesuit in charge at Manresa, Roshi Bob, Russ, Rosemary O’Connell and myself. Ed showed us around, drove us in his golf cart to the top of the hill overlooking the harbor, from which he had watched the smoke and the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Two months later, on the eve of the first anniversary of 9/11, Roshi led the inaugural session of our Staten Island Zen group at Mt. Manresa. It was a bravura performance in Beginners’ Instruction. The Jesuits had done a good job in publicizing the event. Staten Island was still overwhelmingly Catholic in those days, and a good crowd turned out to hear what the Jesuit Zen master would have to say about Zen.

They were, to say the least, a skeptical group. Some listened politely, others less so. From me the most memorable question, “Father, you know what you are saying is heresy, don’t you,” would have provoked a fierce response. Bob just rolled with it, explaining how it was the job of the Jesuits to “bring jewels to the Church.” Bob charmed them. By the end of the evening, he had them all sitting cross-legged on the floor, breathing.

At the end, finally, he told them, that he would be visiting occasionally, that I would be leading the group every Tuesday. I was blown away by that. Totally unexpected. I thought this would be like the group at St. Ignatius in Manhasset which Bob met with every week. He was their teacher. I thought I had signed up to help out, fill in if Bob was travelling.

Not so many people came back the next week. Or the week after that. And then during the summer, there was only me and one other guy. Sitting alone with him, I remembered stories of Katagiri Roshi, sitting alone, every morning in a store front in Minneapolis, morning after morning, month after month, before anyone arrived to join him. It was a very inspiring story, but I told Roshi Bob that that wasn’t me, if people didn’t arrive, I would let it go.

Happily, in the Fall, people began to gather. We kept the sitting user friendly, easily accessible. We got notices in the local newspaper, emphasizing that “you don’t have to be Buddhist and you don’t have to be Catholic to join the Manresa Zen group.” We kept Buddhist “liturgy” to a minimum, the Four Great Vows (in English). Not much more.

I kept the “Buddhism” pretty much out of my talks. I offered interviews. Once a month, on a Saturday, we offered a Day of Reflection. We didn’t call it a zazenkai. We did a period of work practice, during those days, weeding the Mt. Manresa flower beds, policing the grounds.

Roshi came a couple of times over the years and offered wonderful talks. I still quote from them. We had a sesshin there one year which Roshi led. We hosted a well-attended dialogue on Interfaith practice with Bob and Roshi Bernie.

We continued to sit at Mt. Manresa every Tuesday evening until the Jesuits were about to sell the retreat house. We knew it was coming, could feel it coming, even before anything was announced. All the Jesuits had moved out. Management of the Retreat House had been turned over to a lay committee. I suppose they were developing a business plan. They told us they were going to raise our rent. The arrangement we had worked out with Father Quinnan in the first July meeting had been very simple: We would offer the Tuesday evening sittings for a recommended donation of $5. Half the proceeds would go to Mt. Manresa, half to the Zen Community of Staten Island. We would charge $25 for the Day of Reflection. This would go to Manresa to cover the cost of morning coffee and lunch. Ed liked this. It would help to keep the kitchen staff working. It was a deal we could live with.

We had done what we could in addition to support the Retreat House. When we opened our first charter school, we rented the space for a couple of events, an ice cream social for incoming 6th graders and their parents, a staff Christmas party.

The new management committee wanted a lot more money. It was a desperate effort to keep the Retreat House afloat by a group of people who didn’t have a clue. All they ended up doing was driving away the few remaining sources of income that they had. The Jesuits had no choice but to sell Manresa, as tragic as it felt. After all, Manresa was the first Catholic Retreat House for lay practitioners in the United States.

When we got out one jump ahead of the sale, I felt the loss. The years with the Jesuits had been good years. I particularly cherished the years in which one of the Jesuits had joined us regularly for sitting. I had thought we would be there for a very long time. I remembered thinking during those years about the ancient Chinese Zen masters who were known by the name of the mountain on which they had lived and taught. Would I someday be known by the name of the mountain on which I taught? Would I be referred to in a footnote to the history of interfaith Zen as “Manresa”?

I watched another wistful fantasy bubble away. During the Manresa years, in one of the fantasies which I enjoyed, I was kneeling before the Pope receiving a medal in honor of the support which I had given to Roshi Bob’s interfaith work.

Leaving Manresa was not the end of my interfaith practice, but it was the end of a wonderful chapter. What a privilege it was to join Roshi Bob on this journey.

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