My remembrance, presented at a Memorial Service for Roshi Bernie Glassman, at the Greyston Foundation, Yonkers, New York, February 17, 2019.
I am Ken Byalin. I am going to read in order to stay within five minutes.
I am honored to speak about Bernie’s impact on my life, and I am thrilled to be here at Greyston to celebrate his life and teaching. Bernie’s was a life of many beginnings and many changes. I got to know many aspects, but it was Greyston Bernie whose example most shaped me.
I had been a social activist all my life; and when I met Bernie for the first time in 1992, I had been practicing Zen for two years. Like many activists of that era, I was burning too many candles at too many ends. There was little peace in my life. I came to Zen in search of some balance.
Almost immediately, I heard Bernie say that Zazen and social action were both aspects of a balanced Zen life. I was hooked.
I studied with Bernie. I studied with Jishu. I went on the Street with Bernie because that was the way to spend time with him. When Diane and I got married, he officiated at our three Sensei wedding along with Bob Kennedy and Don Singer — a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, and a Zen master.
I was able to participate in the bi-monthly study group with Bernie and Jishu in which the Zen Peacemaker Order was given shape.
In 1999, when the possibility of early retirement appeared, I flew to La Honda for Bernie’s advice. I wanted to step from the 100-foot pole and see where this Peacemaker path might take me. I was frightened but with Bernie’s encouragement I took the step, not knowing where I was heading, where I would land.
I learned shadow work from Bernie. Bernie’s shadow was homelessness. I was engaged by my shadow, mental illness. I found myself building a not-for-profit with the mission of combatting stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illness. From that work, we embarked on building our first charter school, a college prep program which would fully integrate students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. We opened with 75 students in 2009. This year we have three schools on Staten Island serving 1000 students. A fourth school will open in 2020 and when fully operational, these schools will be serving 2000 students.
Everything we have done has been animated by Bernie’s teaching.
Fundamental is his injunction to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded. When you visit our schools, you cannot tell who the special needs students are. They are succeeding, they are graduating from high school, they are going on to college. These are the throwaway kids.
Bernie taught me to beg. Bernie set the admission price for my first street retreat: To raise a mala, 18 beads at $108, 1 bead at $1,080. From friends and relatives and associates. I was terrified. I did it because I want to be with Bernie on the Street. Small beads from my dentists, my accountant, from friends, from my mother, a big bead from Diane. Over the years I raised additional malas for Street Retreats, the money we raised going to support Greyston. I raised a mala to support the work a friend of mine was doing with child soldiers in Angola.
As we were beginning to plan the first charter school, I called Bernie for help on fund-raising, for advice, for guidance. “If I were hiring a fund-raiser,” he told me, “you would be the last person in the world that I would hire.” It seemed a very harsh teaching at the time.
Yet here I am today, doing another mala, 72 small beads (a multiple of 18), each bead valued at $5400, 1 large bead at $10,400 (a multiple of 108). Every time I ask some for a bead, I think of Bernie and his kick-in-the-butt teaching.
The first time I asked for a large donation, I was terrified. “We could name a school for $500,000 or a program for $250,000.” I couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth. Bernie’s teaching.
Jishu used to say, “There is not perfect teacher outside. I have a perfect teacher inside.”
My Imperfect Teacher
Bernie was my imperfect teacher outside. For years, I hated his imperfections. But as I learned to accept his imperfections, I became able to accept my own. I was able to become a teacher, to carry on Bernie’s teaching, at least my piece of it —to build schools of second chances, where students retake tests without shame, where teachers turn freely to colleagues for help and where that help is gladly given.
Every day I turn to Bernie and share his Zen.
None of the wonderful things which our teachers and students are doing would have happened were it not for Bernie’s wonderful blending of spirituality and social action.