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Roshi Bernie is My Teacher

When Richard Baker, Suzuki Roshi’s first Dharma successor was caught up in his sexual impropriety scandal, Isan Dorsey, himself a remarkable teacher who lived a life of amazing self- transformation, was asked to comment. Dorsey responded quite simply, “Baker Roshi is my teacher.”

I have always found that one of the clearest expressions of the heart of lineage in Zen. Roshi Bernie is my teacher. He has been gone now for five years, and I am still studying with him every day. It is an endless conversation.

This year I am having the wonderful experience of leading a seminar for the Zen Peacemakers on Bernie’s Instructions to the Cook. Although we are meeting on Zoom, we are working together as much as possible as if we were in a live circle, as if we were in Council. We have had five sessions so far (out of eight). We started with 15 of us, including Bernie. We’ve lost a few along the way, but Bernie is still there.

You heard me. Bernie is a very important member of the circle.

As I think about Bernie and this circle, I am remembering my first Street Retreat with Bernie. It was wonderful. It was Holy Week, and Holy Week in one of those years when Holy Week and Passover coincided. We tried to sleep the first night in Central Park, hoping the cops would not roust us. Even curled in scrounged cardboard boxes, it was too cold. By 1 AM, we were up and wondering downtown. Walking was warmer. We ate breakfast with the Franciscans near Penn Station and then meandered toward Tompkins Square Park. We would have a Seder in the Park.

At a Seder, an empty seat is always left for Elijah. Growing up, I was always awkward at the Seder, uncomfortable reading. We weren’t very Jewish. We were always guests at someone else’s seder, friends of my parents. But I always loved the empty seat for Elijah. No one ever came to take Elijah’s seat. Until that Seder in Tompkins Square Park.

We gathered around a picnic table in the park. We had all been out during the day begging, gathering matzos and the other Seder ingredients. Rabbi Don Singer, having been turned away by every synagogue and temple in the East Village, had managed to get the kosher wine we needed from the Latino manager of a local liquor store. The rains held off. It was a beautiful evening, not nearly as chilly as our first night in Central Park.

And the king and queen of Tompkins Square Park showed up, and they took Elijah’s seat. They were squatters, living in one of the abandoned buildings in the neighborhood. They brought their little dog with them, and we all sang songs.

There is a seat for Bernie in our circle, and he is there. Through his writing and my memories of things he did and said, he is sharing — “Just my opinions, Man,” — he would say. We are all sharing. What does Bernie’s experience bring up? It is a real circle.

He is the senior. Bernie speaks first. We have only an hour and a half for each meeting, so we don’t take the time to read from Instructions while we are together. We read the portion individually, in advance. This is far from ideal Council practice, and as my friend Rabbi David Curiel has been showing me — we have been studying the Tales of Baal Shem together — it is not the way of Talmud study either. It is better not to prepare. It is better to come fresh to the text. Ok. Our practice in imperfect.

We are doing as best we can with the ingredients that we have. We take turns, then in our circle, to share what is arising in the moment, sparked by Bernie’s text and by what is arising in the circle.

This is the first time that I am leading this seminar. We will learn from the experience. Maybe we will find a better way to bring Bernie into the circle. Or, maybe he will point us in a new direction.

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