An American Zen Master has died: An oral history of Roshi Bernie Glassman
Updated 2216 GMT (0616 HKT) December 6, 2018
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(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."