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January 18, 1939 – November 4, 2018
Bernie & Me
By Ken Byalin
ROSHI BERNIE GLASSMAN
Bernie Glassman, my Zen teacher, most importantly showed me that I didn’t need to choose between social action and spiritual practice. One of the leading figures in the emergence of Engaged Buddhism late in the 20 th century, Bernie showed me the way.
Growing up in the 1950’s, I was an outsider without a church, often alone among my classmates in my allegiance to social justice during the gray flannel Eisenhower years.
In the 1960’s, much to my relief, the passion for social justice became mainstream, at least among my generation. I built a successful career in social work and mental health administration. I was doing good and doing well. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, introduced to the I Ching by Dee, I began to sit every day. I did not sit very well until one day, tossing the pennies, I asked the I Ching for advice on sitting: “Stop judging the practice,” the Sage advised. A door opened.
Sitting became easier, and I began to look for a group to sit with, landing at the Soho Zendo with a group of lay practitioners. Eventually, I found myself wanting a bit more. I began to think I should find a teacher to work with who I could see more often. Enter Bernie Glassman.
For Roshi Bernie (then still Tetsugen Sensei), social action and spiritual practice were not pulling in opposite directions. His example has been decisive in my life. At the time I met him, Bernie was probably the most important American Zen teacher, enormously well-trained in the Japanese Soto tradition of his teacher Taizan Maezumi Roshi. After completing his training with Maezumi Roshi, Bernie had returned to New York and established The Greyston Foundation, a mandala of social service programs, — housing, employment, childcare, and at the center the renowned Greyston Bakery and Zen Community of New York. Greyston flourished in southwest Yonkers, an area of great poverty in the wealthiest county in America. Sitting with Bernie in Yonkers, I absorbed the energy of his work there, even as I continued to work as a mental health administrator for the State Office of Mental Health.
A year and a half after Jamie was born, an opportunity for early retirement arose. I was already in my late 50’s. I didn’t feel old, but I thought I had at least another 20 years of work ahead me. The prospect of working for the State for another 20 years was too depressing. I flew out to California to talk with Bernie, who by then was living in La Honda in the midst of redwoods. With his encouragement, I decided to take the early retirement plunge, to step from the 100-foot pole, to allow the space into my life to become a peacemaker, whatever that might turn out to mean. From his wonderful guide, Instructions to the Cook, Bernie’s description of the peacemaker, “to bring to the societal table those who have been excluded,” reverberated. With Dharma brother, Francisco “Paco” Lugovina, I set out to create a management consulting practice, allowing life to unfold. At the time, the path seemed uncertain. In retrospect, it seems to have emerged almost seamlessly. Finding myself at home in the mission of bringing people living with mental illnesses to the societal table, we built some exciting programs.
Fourteen years later, we now have four schools in our Integration Charter Schools family. We serve over 1300 students and employ over 280 people. All of this flows from the possibility of compassionate social action, which Bernie continues to teach two years after his passing and which he introduced me to in Yonkers almost 30 years ago. Through his teachings, his impact on me has not only changed my life, but has led to a profound impact on the lives of over a thousand students and their families on Staten Island.
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