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My Hardest to Pass Koan

Bernie was my hardest to pass koan.

A long time ago, perhaps at the same moment that Johann Sebastian Bach was composing the Brandenburg Concertos, the great Japanese Zen teacher, Hakuin, reviver of the Rinzai sect, reorganizing the koans into categories, created the concept, “the hard to pass koans.”

I went to Yonkers to find a teacher. When I had been sitting at the Soho Zendo for two years, sitting sesshins with Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi at least twice a year, his visits to New York were interrupted, became increasingly uncertain. His duties as Abbot of Ryutakuji came first. By then, I knew that I needed a Zen teacher to work with regularly. Work with an authentic teacher is one of the two critical ingredients of Zen practice, along with Zazen, seated meditation.

And just at that moment, beginning to get involved with the Staten Island Society of Clinical Social Workers, I was asked to help with their annual conference. Zen practitioner and psychoanalyst Diane Shainberg was to speak on Spirituality and Psychotherapy. Would I liaison with her? Although this was pushing me out of my “shy” zone, I did. On the phone, I discovered that she would take public transportation from her Manhattan town house to the Historic Richmond Town courthouse. I was still new to Staten Island, but I already knew enough about our public transport to know she’d never make it.

You should check out Roshi Bernie Glassman

I would drive into Manhattan and bring her to the conference. No problem. We hit it off immediately on the drive. I told her about my practice. You should check out Roshi Bernie Glassman in Yonkers, she said. I took her advice and made my first trip to Yonkers on a Saturday morning, got directions from someone sitting on a bench in the hall of the mansion on the grounds of the convent where the Zen Community of New York met. I didn’t know that it was Bernie.

I felt very quickly that Bernie was my teacher, even before he agreed to formally take me on. That formality was a big deal at the Zen Community of New York when I arrived there in 1992. It may have been my first day there that I heard Bernie say that meditation and social action were both aspects of a balanced life. For two years, I had felt myself torn between these two aspects of my life. I heard Bernie, and I knew I was home. I had found my teacher.

It was some time later that I made an appointment to meet with him. I would make the formal ask: “Will you be my teacher?” Dusk was approaching as I drove from Brooklyn to Yonkers. What if he said, “No”? What would I do? Would I be able to show my face in the ZCNY zendo again? Where would I go to find a teacher?

Will you be my teacher?

By the time I got to Yonkers, I knew the answer. Bernie was my teacher. If he said, “No,” then that was the teaching. That would be my koan. I would just have to sit with it. I had found my teacher.

No doubt.

I sat with Bernie on the couch in his living room. There were no lights on in the room.

“Will you be my teacher?”

It was dark. I knew that Bernie was shedding students, shifting the center of his life away from Yonkers. He had already detached significantly from the zendo. For years, his focus had been on other aspects of the Greyston Mandala, but now he was being drawn beyond Yonkers. A friend of mine had cried as she told me that Bernie had just informed her that he would no longer be her teacher. I was asking anyway.


I was elated. I didn’t know yet that Bernie would be my hardest to pass koan.

Then out of the blue, Bernie had made me a Dharma Holder six months after Jishu’s passing and then almost immediately sent me to Roshi Bob Kennedy to do koan study. Although I stayed closely connected to Bernie through his Santa Barbara years, traveling to California a couple of times a year, while working through the koan collections with Bob.

Until then, although he was never easy for me, he was always my teacher.

At Bernie’s urging, I had agreed to serve as chair of the ZCNY board. Bernie had a plan to raise funds. He would lead a tour of Buddhist sites in Japan and charge a lot of money. I thought it was a terrific idea. He had a lot of followers who would pay big bucks.

Fundraising isn’t for me

“You have to lead the sales effort,” he told me, although I don’t think he called it a “sales effort.”


“And, of course, you have to lead by example. You have to be the first person to sign up.”

The rug flew out from under me. Where would I get that kind of money?

What a relief when the trip did not materialize.

When at the first international Zen Peacemaker gathering in 1996, in a large group discussion about how the new Order would be financed, I raised what I thought was a very practical question. Bernie cut me off at the knees. “That’s just your hang-up about money.” I was embarrassed. Humiliated. Of course, I have hang-ups about money, did then and still do.

As we were beginning to plan the first charter school, I called Bernie for advice on fund-raising. I was hoping he would offer to introduce me to some of his deep pocket donors. His response, “If I were hiring a fund-raiser, you would be the last person in the world that I would hire,” stung deeply. Another rug yanked away. But, of course, I had to agree with him. I didn’t have the social polish which all fundraisers seemed to possess.

Then, a year and a half after our daughter Morri was born, an opportunity for early retirement arose. I flew out to California to talk with Bernie, who then was living in La Honda in the midst of redwoods. I don’t think he gave me any advice but on the plane home, I knew I would take the step from the 100-foot pole, allowing the space into my life to find out where this peacemaker path might take me.

I wanted advice, but Bernie was my Kuei-shan, who in one of my favorite koans, had told Hsiang-yen, “I really have nothing to teach you… Whatever understanding I have is my own and will never be yours.”

My hut in the mountains

Hsiang-yen, with Kuei-shan’s approval, dropped all ambition, taking up the care of an abandoned temple. Each day, he meticulously swept temple grounds, tended to the altar. One day, he swept a stone into the air, striking a bamboo, thwock!

That thwock awakened Hsiang-yen. Immediately, he prostrated himself in the direction of Kuei-shan’s temple, crying out in gratitude Hsiang-yen, “Your kindness is greater than that of my parents. If you had explained it to me, I would never have known this joy.”[1]

Hsiang-yen was becoming my hero. I didn’t burn my books. I didn’t move up into the mountains. Without leaving Staten Island, my meandering led first to founding The Verrazano Foundation, finding myself at home in the mission of bringing people living with mental illnesses to the societal table. We created some wonderful opportunities for artists in recovery to create and exhibit their work.

And then we stumbled onto charter schools and before I knew it, we were building the network of schools which would become Integration Charter Schools, four distinct schools, each with a unique program, all sharing the mission of fully integrating students living emotional challenges and other disabilities in college prep programs. These were my huts in the mountains.

My doubt that Bernie was ever going to give me transmission was growing. Bob was giving transmission to students who had become Dharma Holders years after me, leaving me to work with my jealousy. Time went on. Would I ever get transmission? Once I even raised with Bob, “Why don’t I change teachers? Why don’t I get transmission from you?” I asked.

Worth waiting

“Bernie is a very important teacher,” Bob replied. “He is worth waiting for.”

Doubt kept growing. Twice I asked Bernie if he regretted making me a Dharma Holder.

At the time of Jishu’s death, I was preparing to be Jishu’s first Shuso, was actually in the middle of my Shuso period, and was expected to be her first Dharma successor. I had taken this on, including ordination, to support Bernie and his vision for the development of Zen in America. I had become very close to Jishu. Bernie had known that. Had he made me a Dharma Holder in a moment of grief over the loss of Jishu? I had no intention of trying to hold him to this.

“No,” he said each time. No regrets.

Would I ever get transmission? Perhaps not. Finally, I just settled down. I would just be the best Dharma Holder, carrying forward Bernie’s Zen teaching of social entrepreneurship, just keep sweeping my yard, no longer waiting for the thwock.

And then I heard the thwock.

Years earlier, as we moved to sell the Greyston Bakery, — part of Bernie and Jishu’s exit strategy from Yonkers was to sell the Bakery which was still legally owned by ZCNY to The Greyston Foundation, -- Jishu had asked me, “Try to see what you can do to heal Bernie’s jagged karma.” A number of former Zen students whose sweat equity helped to get the bakery going were asking where “their share of the profit” was. There was a lot of upset­­­­­­.

This was normal Bernie. An enormously creative teacher, when he felt “done” with a project, with a way of teaching, he moved on. There were always students being left behind.

Although I hadn’t been there in the early Bakery days, when the Bakery was being built to provide livelihood for Zen students, I’d seen Bernie moving on firsthand when he was dropping students in order to reduce his Yonkers teaching commitments, when he and Jishu left Yonkers, essentially closing down the Zen Community, leaving the remaining components of his Greyston Mandala without a spiritual center, without what Bernie called “a Buddhist Family”. When Bernie was ready to move on, he moved on, whether or not his students were ready to move with him.

My imperfect teacher

I hated Bernie’s imperfections, perhaps in a strange way because they reminded me so much of my own. I called mine, “poor object relations,” a psychoanalytic concept, meaning that I had always taken pride on not looking back at relationships that had ended. I, too, just moved on, something which I needed to do, I thought, in order to survive, but something which seemed a bit shameful.

I just kept sweeping my “temple grounds”. And then, thwock. Bernie was my imperfect teacher.

I never discussed this with Bernie, never told him about it, but not too much later he gave me transmission. Somehow, he knew that I had passed my hardest to pass koan. That thwock allowed me to become a teacher, an imperfect teacher.

How wonderful, an imperfect teacher.


[1] (1) Adapted from the commentary on Case 5, The Gateless Barrier (translated with a commentary by Robert Aitken). San Francisco: Northpoint Press, 1990: 39.

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