Bernie Glassman was a Brooklyn-born Jew and an American Zen master.
CNN  — 

One of Bernie Glassman’s favorite koans asks: Where do you step from the top of a 100-foot pole?

His answer seemed to be: You plunge.

Glassman, who died November 4 at age 79, was a Brooklyn-born Jew, a recognized Zen master, a Buddhist trailblazer, a restless mensch and a serial plunger.

Glassman plunged into aeronautical engineering, into Zen, into leading a Buddhist community, into running a bakery, into growing that bakery into a constellation of social services, into holding spiritual retreats among the homeless and at Holocaust-haunted concentration camps, into writing a book of koans with a Hollywood star, into mourning when his second wife died and into learning to walk and talk again two years ago after a stroke.

The plunges, as Glassman called them, served a spiritual purpose: to uproot preconditioned ideas, bear witness to what’s going on and serve those most in need. At a time when many American Buddhists preferred self-development to social engagement, Glassman dismissed “mannequin meditation” and carried his Zen practice from clean-aired monasteries to chaotic city streets, where he led weeklong retreats on sidewalks and in crowded parks.

“Bernie was very clear that meditation was not a refuge from life,” said Roshi Eve Myonen Marko, Glassman’s third wife. “For him, meditation was total engagement.”

With his longish hair, sad-eyed smile and Churchill cigars, in his later years Glassman looked less like a traditional Zen master than a “hippie cigar entrepreneur,” to quote a former student. But his carefree aesthetic masked intense ethical commitments.

After an epiphany in which he saw people as “hungry ghosts” – Buddhist beings whose swollen bellies and pencil-thin necks symbolize the insatiability of desire – Glassman vowed to serve them.

“It was a literal experience and a formative experience,” said Glassman in 1996. “Seeing the variety of cravings and beings all around us.”

Bernie Glassman in 1981. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, which Glassman co-founded in 1982 with his Zen community, has grown into a $10 million business selling sweets to companies like Ben & Jerry’s while employing ex-cons, the disabled and former addicts through its “open hiring” policy. The profits are donated to Greyston Foundation, which offers affordable housing and social services for the poor and health care for people living with AIDS.

“One thing Bernie Glassman was great at was feeding people,” said Frank Ostaseski, author of “The Five Invitations” and founding director of the Zen Hospice Project. “He fed their material needs, and he fed them spiritual sustenance.”

Zen Peacemakers International, Glassman’s other big venture, has nearly 1,200 members, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, in 25 chapters worldwide. About 2,500 people have participated in its “bearing witness” retreats, many held at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other sites of notorious inhumanity, said Rami Efal, the group’s executive director.

“Everyone doing engaged Buddhist work owes a certain debt to him,” said Hozan Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in California and a longtime social justice activist.

Trained by Japanese missionaries in the intricacies of Zen, a school of Buddhism brought to China in the 6th century, Glassman was an influential bridge between its ancient teachings and his modern American following.

He was also ambitious and iconoclastic, preferring Hawaiian shirts to a Zen teacher’s brown robes, and came to believe that Eastern practices were insufficient for the tradition to blossom in America.

“In our evolution in this country, we have imported these wonderful techniques from the East,” Glassman said in 1997, “and we are now at the point where we know it’s not enough.”

Some of Glassman’s Zen experiments found a following; others did not. At times, some Buddhists questioned whether they were authentically “Zen” at all.

“He moved pretty far to the edge of what Zen was,” said the Rev. James Myoun Ford, a Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister who has written several books about Zen.

“Zen needs people who break the mold, but we also need the mold.”

Glassman’s empowering of non-Buddhists to teach in his Zen lineage, relentless focus on social justice and refusal to adopt the traditional trappings of a Zen teacher stirred the waters of American Buddhism.

“People either thought he was a heretic or an avatar of the ‘New Zen,’” said Helen Tworkov, author of the book “Zen in America: Five Teachers and the Search for an American Buddhism.”

“So much of what he tried to do is broaden the parameters of Zen, especially for underserved populations.”

Glassman’s restlessness and unconventionality likely prevented several of his Zen projects from attracting large enough flocks to flourish, several experts said. But his idiosyncrasies also inspired fellow Zen adepts.

“Bernie is the one who really gave us the permission to be ourselves,” said Senauke. “His influence will be wide that way.”

Glassman passed his direct influence on to 29 dharma heirs, the Buddhist term for spiritual successors, whom he recognized as masters in his Soto Zen lineage. The eclectic heirs include a National Book Award-winning author, a pioneer in prison ministry, an expert in end-of-life care, a Jesuit priest and a Catholic nun.

“Bernie completely revolutionized our sense of what it means to be a Western practitioner of Zen in the 21st century and to make a difference in the world,” said Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, abbot of the Village Zendo in New York City and one of Glassman’s dharma heirs. “I learned from him how to really serve.

“It was great – and sometimes it wasn’t great. It was like: Oh my, my whole world is changing right in front of me.”

Glassman leads the Zen Peacemakers on a "bearing witness" retreat. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

The following is a brief oral history of Glassman’s life, based on previously published interviews, a documentary and recent conversations with his family, friends, students and former students. Some quotations have been lightly edited for length and clarity. The photographs in this story were taken by Peter Cunningham.

Bernie Glassman was born January 18, 1939, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, to secular Jewish immigrants.

Glassman: “I was a spoiled baby with four older sisters.”

Roshi Eve Myonen Marko, Glassman’s third wife: “At the same time many people comment about the sadness in his eyes. He lost his mother at the age of 7, and that affected him deeply. On some very basic level he knew about suffering.”

Glassman: “I grew up in somewhat poor areas and people were being beaten up because they were black, they were being beaten up because they were Jewish. I was very aware of all of that.”

Glassman: “I became interested in airplanes very early in my life and went to a high school that specialized in engineering in Brooklyn and from there to an engineering college. In college I got interested in Zen through reading Huston Smith … the page on Zen struck me as home. Nowadays on the web, we might call it my homepage. That was home for me. It was immediate.”

Glassman: “I went to Israel for a year. I came back in ’63 and heard there was a Zen temple in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. There was a group of people sitting together one night a week, and there was a young monk helping the Japanese roshi in charge. That young monk was (Taizan) Maezumi, who was to be my teacher. I was 24 and he was 32. He was just a young monk and he did not speak much.”

Glassman: “Around 1966 I ran into Maezumi again. He was translating for a man, Yasutani Roshi, who had become somewhat famous in the Zen world because of “Three Pillars of Zen.” And he was translating for him at a workshop and I saw that his English was really good so I went up to him and asked if he had his own place, which he did.”

Glassman: “In the early days there weren’t very many people. I’d go to sit every morning and many times it would just be Maezumi, myself and maybe a few other people. But then it started to grow in the 1970s and got rather large.”

Glassman was given the dharma name Tetsugen, or “penetrator of subtleties.” Ordained a novice priest in 1971, Glassman and his family moved into Maezumi’s Zen Center of Los Angeles.

Glassman and his teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Alisa Glassman, Bernie’s daughter: “My mom, Helen, was raised Orthodox Jewish, and my brother and I went to yeshivas in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile we lived in the hood in Los Angeles. It was odd to everybody else, but it wasn’t odd to our family. We kept kosher in the home and Zen masters from around the world would come to our house for Shabbat. It was sometimes hard to bring people home. I had to explain a lot to people before they came to the house.”

In 1976, Maezumi Roshi conferred dharma transmission on Glassman, making him the first American authorized to teach in his Soto Zen lineage.

Glassman: “I became very involved with the Japanese Soto sect because Maezumi would basically take me with him to Japan every year for about a month and we would always visit headquarters and various teachers within the Soto sect. Maezumi was looked at as somewhat of a rebel, but he would always visit headquarters.”

In 1983, Maezumi was accused of sexual impropriety with female students and entered rehab for alcoholism, according to the White Plum Asanga, an organization that includes his students and successors.

Glassman: “Before I left, I was sort of his right-hand person, if you will. … I left in December of 1979, and a couple years later there were the scandals and attendance went way, way down.”

Maezumi encouraged Glassman to start his own Zen community. With donations, he bought a mansion for his small flock in Riverdale, New York.

Glassman's Zen community in New York started a bakery called Greyston. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of Zen Center of Los Angeles: “He immediately starts a bakery, and that created a huge mess because people didn’t want to work night and day. Many students decided not to follow him because they wanted him to be the image of the Zen master in the zendo and he was so brilliant at that.”

Marko: “If you look at old pictures of when he was a priest, you can see this intensity and fierceness in his eyes. Sometimes it rankled people.”

Glassman: “I’m pushy. I’m very determined to get things done. If someone is hungry, I want to feed them. If someone is homeless, I want to find a place for them to live.”

In the 1980s Glassman moved his community to an impoverished area of Yonkers, New York. He conceived of a “mandala” of social services for the community, including a homeless shelter, addiction treatment, child care and jobs at Greyston Bakery.

Glassman: “I didn’t want to start a business that would provide work for just a few students and help support our community. I wanted to start a business that could also provide jobs and training outside our community. I was looking for a way for business itself to become a force for social change and a way of spiritual transformation.”

Helen Tworkov, a former student of Glassman’s and author of “Zen in America:” “He was tremendously restless. He seemed most comfortable in his office, plotting and planning.”

Marko: “He used to give excellent dharma talks, but when he started talking about construction and state approvals for grants, people used to get pissed and say, ‘That’s not Zen!’ And he would say, ‘That’s exactly Zen!” There was an exodus of students who didn’t want to move to Yonkers. He watched so many people leave him.”

Glassman: “When we say that Zen is life, dealing in the moment with what is, that’s the essence of Buddhism. So if there’s a starving person, giving them food is the essence of Buddhism.”

Man identified as “Batman” in the documentary, “Instructions to the Cook”: “I was living on the streets homeless and suffering, drugging and drinking and everything. I needed help, and he was there for me. He came up to me and asked if he could sit down beside me and I looked up and saw this strange man in his robes and stuff and I said sure. He was comforting, reassuring and energizing. It made me feel warm. I felt wanted. He invited me to come up to Westchester and at the time I thought he was joking. Four days later, I decided to make a phone call, and he sent one of the monks down to bring me up to the monastery.”

The Rev. James Myoun Ford, Zen priest and Unitarian Universalist minister: “Bernie cared about hunger, basic shelter, people at the edge. Before him, the big social justice issues for many Buddhists were ‘in-house’ issues like peace. It was social justice from the vantage of the middle and upper class. Bernie talked about soup kitchens. He was going to be the Zen Buddhist Dorothy Day.

Glassman leads one of his "street retreats." Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

In 1997, Greyston Mandala opened the Maitri Center and Issan House to provide housing and health care for people afflicted with AIDS.

Unidentified man featured in “Instructions to the Cook,” speaking to Glassman: “Seeing over the years the things you have done for people who are living with AIDS, people living with no hope, and I was one of them. I am so thankful for the things you pulled together. When I came in this door in 2000 with kidney failure, I learned to live all over again. There’s a hope for living here and I just want to give it to the next person.”

Frank Ostaseski, founding director of the Zen Hospice Project: “What I learned from Bernie was a willingness to stay in the room when the going got tough and to take loving action. It changed the way I practice. I’ve learned to stay in the room when people are suffering and not leave.”

Maezumi died unexpectedly in 1995. Soon after, Glassman stopped wearing robes, grew his hair out and told people to call him Bernie.

Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, abbot of Village Zendo in New York City: “He felt like the name Tetsugen didn’t cut it when he was at a city council meeting trying to get approval for a project. He made that decision right after his teacher died, and that is important. He didn’t do it before because of his love and respect for his teacher, who was a Japanese man with a family that was well known and very much a part of the hierarchy in the Soto Zen school. When Bernie disrobed and grew his hair, some of us who were more traditional were like, ‘How could you do this?’ But it was also liberating. We could practice no matter what we looked like, and we didn’t have to hold onto traditions that were not suiting us.”

Hozan Alan Senauke, vice abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center: “For Bernie it was a challenge because when Maezumi passed away, it was assumed that Bernie would become the leading figure for Soto Zen Buddhism in the United States. But he absolutely stepped away from that. He had already made the decision long before that he did not want to be saddled with that responsibility. He wanted to follow his own path. That was a radical step – and perplexing, from what I understand, to the Japanese, who were looking for Bernie to be the point person for their Zen project in America.”

Nakao: “I don’t think he could have done the religious institution thing. I think it would have killed him.”

Alisa Glassman: “My dad was always a searcher, and I think things unfolded for him through his life. He was always questioning: What does it mean to be a Zen Buddhist, a human being, just to be? For him, it wasn’t about the traditions, the bells, the robes. It was the actions, the way he led his life. That was Zen to him.”

Glassman: “I couldn’t have hair when I was with Maezumi Roshi and I couldn’t be Bernie. Then he died in ’95, and by ‘96 I was Bernie again, and I had a beard and hair.”

In the mid-1990s, Glassman was looking for a new venture. He had already begun experimenting with “street retreats.”

On his 55th birthday, Glassman meditated in Washington, searching for his next adventure. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Glassman: “I wanted to figure out, what am I gonna do next? So I decided to do a retreat on the steps of the Capitol, in Washington, D.C. There were about 20 of us. And I gave as a theme for that retreat: What actions are we gonna take in our lives that will help the aspects of society that we’re not dealing with, and society’s not dealing with?”

Nakao: “When he did the first street retreat on his birthday on the steps of the US Capitol in the freezing snow, he saw that the people who were with him had been shaken out of their usual mindsets and that this was, in many ways, more powerful than all the hours they had sat in meditation halls.”

Glassman: “It turned out to be the coldest week in Washington, DC, in 50 years. We slept at night at a local shelter, one of the largest shelters in the country a few blocks from the Capitol. At that retreat came the answer to my question — that I was going to start a peacemaker order.”

Street retreats and “plunges” at Holocaust concentration camps and homeless shelters became hallmarks of the Zen Peacemaker Order, which Glassman co-founded with his late wife, Roshi Sandra Jishu Holmes, in 1996.

Glassman and other Zen Peacemakers meditate on the train tracks at Auschwitz. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Glassman: “I want to figure out how to learn from those who have suffered in a certain way, even though I can’t fully enter that realm. So we go on the streets. I know we aren’t homeless and I make that quite clear. At the same time, those who come will experience something that is closer to that world than those who haven’t been there. This is the meaning of ‘bearing witness.’ It’s like entering a church knowing you’re not God or the priest. But you will experience something different from someone who stays out of the church or someone who is just hired to fix the roof.”

O’Hara: “In all the Abrahamic spiritual traditions there’s a sense of caring for the other, and it’s a beautiful way for us to be generous and kind to one another. But they are still the ‘other,’ and there’s a kind of one-up, one-down relationship. What we learned on the street retreats, when you don’t take anything with you in terms of money or ID, and we try to wear simple clothes, we can go into that space of learning what it is like to be homeless, to be poor. That’s an insight that you can’t read about. You have to do it.”

Marko: “It took me years before I would go on the street with them. A lot happened on the streets. A lot. People who had great fear about what it would mean to be a bag lady, what it is to starve, came out feeling very differently.”

Alisa Glassman: “The first year they did Auschwitz and he asked me to go, but I didn’t want to because I had gone to yeshivas and we had a day every year just for remembering the Holocaust, and it was painful. But he didn’t ask me to do a lot of things in life, so I went.”

Glassman: “We entered Birkenau. And I was struck again – like before when I was struck by all the hungry spirits suffering, and wanting to be fed, wanting their suffering to be relieved – so now I was struck by the feeling of souls. In my head it was like millions of souls wanting to be remembered.”

O’Hara: “His willingness, as a Jew, to go to Auschwitz over and over again and to see the hurt and meet it, is just really powerful for me.”

Ostaseski: “He would sit like a stone on the train tracks in Birkenau in the cold and rainy November weather. The rain was pounding and there was Bernie in his poncho not moving an inch, setting an example for all of us. He was leading with his life.”

Nakao: “He used to say that he liked to go into cracks, not only of our society but also himself.”

Glassman walks at the gates of Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp, where he said he heard souls' voices clamoring to be remembered. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Glassman’s wife, Roshi Sandra Jishu Holmes, died of a heart attack in 1998, plunging Glassman into grief.

Glassman: “Over and over, people talked about Jishu’s lighthearted, happy smile, a smile that none of us was going to see again. What are you going to do? they asked me. I’m going to bear witness, I replied. I canceled my schedule of public appearances for the rest of the year, including a book tour. I put off hundreds of friends, associates and students who called or wished to fly over. I knew from the beginning how easy it would be for a man like me, surrounded by people and programs and plans, with schedules finalized two years in advance, to throw himself into his work. Instead I chose to do a plunge. I chose to plunge into Jishu.”

Nakao: “Jishu held the empathy and emotions for the couple. Bernie was not that. He was a doer, a visionary. He saw where he wanted to go and if you wanted to go with him, great. But when Jishu died he realized that she carried a piece of being human that he had not really developed, so he went very deep into that and became more that way.”

Glassman: “When she was still alive, Jishu had brought into our relationship certain energies that lay dormant in me. She had brought her softness, her femininity, her down-to-earth practicality and deep empathy into our life together. Now, with her death, I either had to manifest them myself or watch them disappear from my life.”

In 2013, Glassman co-wrote a book with “The Big Lebowski” star Jeff Bridges called “The Dude and the Zen Master.”

Actor Jeff Bridges and Glassman wrote a book of koans together. Photograph by Peter Cunningham.

Jeff Bridges: “Bernie and I really hit it off; we both cared about a lot of the same stuff. This is where Lebowski comes in. Bernie has been interested for some time now in making Zen more accessible to our times and culture, relevant and down to earth, and he felt that Lebowski did that big time. So he asked me if I wanted to write a book about that. I said, ‘OK.’”

Glassman had a stroke in 2016, but continued to teach his students and dharma heirs.

Alisa Glassman: “The stroke itself became a Zen practice for him. He pushed himself to walk again and didn’t complain. It was his last plunge.”

Marko: “He was not expressive of feelings, but after the stroke, his feelings started revealing themselves. He would meet with his successors on Zoom (a video conferencing system), and at one point someone asked him what he has left to live for. His life was so diminished, half of his body had been paralyzed, and Bernie just said, ‘love.’ The old Bernie would have never said that.”

Rami Efal, executive director of Zen Peacemakers International and Glassman’s former assistant: “For two afternoons a month, he would meet on a conference call with his 22 living successors, the people he had been working and studying with for the last 30 years. I would always joke that he could be as absent-minded as anybody, but once you put him in front of students he would step right into that role. His students don’t have zendos (Zen centers) or cushions, they work in business, education, all walks of life. He was really proud of that.”

Glassman died on November 4, as Zen Peacemakers were preparing for a “bearing witness” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A ceremony was held there for Glassman this month.

Marko: “The only instructions he gave me is that part of his remains should be put in Birkenau. He felt such a strong pull to that place. He was not much of a believer in reincarnation. He was very clear that the only thing that stays is the effect of our actions. He felt good about the effects of his actions. He came from Brooklyn, where what you really want to do is be a mensch. When you are mensch, you are a human being in the deepest and simplest sense of the word. You are doing things for other people, responding to their needs. A mensch responds.”

Glassman: “What good is it if we just make ourselves more holy? What’s the point? The point is to serve, to offer, to be the offering.”

"A mensch responds." Photograph by Peter Cunningham.