feeding the hungry ghosts

roshi Bernie Glassman on the disenfranchised, Zen Buddhism, & making cakes for the White House

photo by andrea rollefson

When I call Bernie Glassman, he’s not there. The night before I was supposed to interview him, he became a grandfather, and as soon as he got the news he drove to Yonkers. Now I am just going to have to wait. This gives me a little longer to wrestle with the question at the forefront of my mind: who is Bernie Glassman? Grandfather is one more adjective to add to the already burgeoning catalogue I have to describe this giant of a man: Space Engineer, Rocket Scientist, Mathematician, Baker, Zen Master, Social Activist, Clown, Writer, Visionary, Dharma Bum, Social Worker. From his work with the homeless to his multi-million-dollar bakery, Roshi Glassman is certainly not wasting a single moment.

Here are the facts: Roshi Bernie Glassman was born in Brooklyn, New York, to left-wing East European Jewish parents. He received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from UCLA and worked as an aeronautical engineer on a project that was to send unmanned flights to Mars. In 1967, he began practising Zen Buddhism with Maezumi Roshi at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and was ordained as a Zen master by his teacher in 1995. In 1980, he moved back to New York to start a practice centre and ended up founding the Greyston Mandala and later, in 1996, the Peacemaker Circle.

When I finally do reach Bernie Glassman in his home in west Massachusetts, he tells me that the reason he does what he does is because of several epiphanies he had as a Zen student – one was the realization of the oneness of life and the other was an experience of the hungry ghosts, the inexhaustible spirits who are never satisfied. This vision was so strong that before he left his nine years of monastic training at the LA Zen Center with Maezumi Roshi in 1979, he made a vow to feed all the hungry ghosts. “That decision said to me that I was going to work with all elements of society,” he tells me.

Bernie Glassman is not one to exclude anyone or anything. He uses the metaphor of food as a way to live life to the fullest: “Take the ingredients you have and make the best meal you can.” He wrote an entire book on the subject, Instructions to the Cook, and he has put this seemingly simple approach into action in his own life. The results of working with the ingredients around him have proved enormously successful; they have had far-reaching effects in the community where he works, and have inspired others to use his pragmatic, visionary approach as the basis for socially conscious business and a model for reinventing  the social welfare system.

In 1979, after receiving dharma transmission from his teacher, Bernie Glassman moved to Yonkers with a vision. “I was just working with my ingredients,” he tells me, matter of fact. And in the inner city neighbourhood of Yonkers, New York those ingredients were poverty, homelessness (most alarmingly of single-parent families), drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, massive unemployment and a welfare system that was perpetuating the cycle. Rather than giving handouts to feed the needs of the people around him, Bernie Glassman created a bakery that would provide jobs for the homeless and the so-called “unemployable.” He set out to make the bakery a for-profit business in order to use the funds to further his social activist work and to teach practical, real-life skills to his employees. From the beginning, Bernie saw his work as a mandala incorporating five energies: spirit, learning, livelihood, social change and community. At his first board meeting in New York, when he proposed his ideas, the members said, “You’re crazy, but we’ll go along with you anyway.”

Well, crazy as it may sound, the Greyston Mandala now consists not only of a highly successful bakery, but has created housing for the homeless, child care centres, medical clinics for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as providing life skills and job training to empower people and promote self-sufficiency. In keeping with its original mission, the bakery still holds to its open-hiring policy; every second Wednesday the homeless and unemployed line up to get work.

The Greyston Bakery now makes cakes for the upper echelons of society, and list among their clients Godiva, Bloomingdale’s and the White House. They have also established a highly successful partnership with Ben and Jerry’s. In fact, this is no coincidence. Bernie Glassman did not just want to create jobs for the disenfranchised, he wanted to prove that the people society had deemed unacceptable, those who had been rejected and labeled as garbage, could not only work, but could be extremely successful at what they do. “Definitely one of the dreams I had in working with people that were homeless or unemployed was for them to work within the world, to get out of the welfare mentality. To be self-sufficient was an incredibly important element.”

When I talk to Bernie about the creation of the Greyston Bakery, he sounds extremely focused and pragmatic in his approach. He looked to the famous Tassajara Bread Bakery in San Francisco as a model of a business he could create in Yonkers: “What I learned was that the Tassajara Bakery was known for its bread, but it actually made its money off its cakes.” And so Bernie Glassman and his team of socially conscious confectioners went into cakes: mud cakes, angel food cakes, cheesecakes. “In fact, our cheesecake won an award for the best in the New York area, which is an area known for its cheesecakes,” he tells me with a smile in his voice. I can’t help but hear his Eastern European Jewish roots shining through. Although Bernie does a lot more than bake cakes to change the world, he recognizes that the bakery is where the money and the attention came from and it has enabled him to undertake all of his other projects involving Buddhist dharma and social activism.

I wonder if using entrepreneurial techniques to further practice is not a particularly American manifestation of Zen. Bernie confirms: “Actually in this country I’m looking to apply Zen to our culture – to the world of social action, the world of social entrepreneurs, the corporate world.” At the same time, even in North America, most people do not equate Buddhism with turning a profit and I wonder how people have reacted to Bernie Glassman’s successes. “My teacher always talked about Zen as being life. If you are going to say that life excludes all the for-profits, then you don’t have life. And to do whatever you do, you need money, and the bakery provides a lot of revenue for the other aspects of the mandala which allows us to do a lot more.”

Actually, Zen seems to attract a wide range of misconceptions with its esoteric, Eastern (and on the surface) simple approach to life. From the outside, people often mistake Zen as a retreat from the world, a quiet, passive practice. The simplicity of the language used in Zen teaching can easily be misleading. When the Buddha realized his own enlightenment, he said that “all beings are perfect just as they are.” And often it is heard that Zen is “just sitting.” If everything is okay and all you have to do is sit and be your perfect self, why bother doing anything at all? Bernie balks at this idea and clarifies that it is indeed a misunderstanding: “We actually have a term that is called Buji Zen, which means you can fall into the trap of saying, ‘well, everything is what it is, so I don’t have to do anything.’ That’s a trap. Everything is what it is and you have to do something. If you see all the ingredients clearly, you’ll act. One of my teachers said, ‘You’ve got many dolls sitting in a doll’s shop, sitting in full lotus, and they’re just sitting there forever.’ That’s not Zen. Zen is action.”

There is another concept in Zen practice of starting where you are. Rather than waiting until you have all the ingredients you need to make an enormous feast, Bernie encourages people to work with what they have. He uses the analogy of making a sandwich; if you only have cheese and bread and you decide you can’t make a sandwich because there are no tomatoes, then you starve. “I think too many people put off doing things because they don’t have enough of whatever – they don’t have enough money, they don’t have enough ability, they don’t have enough time. People can get so caught up with the clutter of their minds that say, ‘I don’t have this, I don’t have that.’” His solution is simple: “Pay attention to what you do have, to what is available.”

But the simplicity of Zen can be a trap in itself. If we work with our ingredients, with the bread and cheese of our existence, we may be making a pretty meagre sandwich out of our lives. The teachings in Zen that tell us to start where we are can, if misinterpreted, lead to a feeling of complacency. We might be in danger of accepting a cheese sandwich, when the seeds for growing rocket and sorrel and a bunch of yellow cherry tomatoes were right under our noses. Bernie clarifies: “First, you’ve got to make the meal with what you have and then try to get what you don’t have. One of the important ingredients would be the desire to be more stable or to be more enlightened. This is what you have; it does not mean that it’s enough. I don’t have the word ‘enough’ in my vocabulary.”

Clearly not. The Greyston Bakery he founded in 1982 is now part of a $14 million foundation employing 180 people. Rather than rest on his laurels, Roshi Glassman is no longer directly involved in Greyston and has shifted his focus to another multifaceted project, the Peacemaker Circle. The organization is so broad in its scope that even its founders are struggling to come up with a paragraph for their website that sums up what they do. Peace is the framework, approached from the perspective of Zen dharma and social action. The Peacemaker Family incorporates Roshi Bernie Glassman’s sixteen dharma successors from around the world, as well as the communities they work in. There is even an “Order of DisOrder” amongst them; a clan of trained Clowns without Borders, who work globally with refugees. Bernie explains the apparently disparate nature of his organization: “The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’ and the root of the word shalom is ‘shalem,’ which means ‘to make whole.’ So I define peace as bringing together the pieces, to make whole.”

With the enormous scope of all these projects, it is hard not to wonder whether Bernie Glassman isn’t spreading himself a little thin. Or is his work a living example of Indra’s Net? “My understanding of life is that we are all one body. That we are all interconnected. I don’t know what to exclude. I don’t exclude anything.” Pretty mind-blowing stuff for the average person.

There is a lot of talk in Buddhism about the interconnectedness of things, that we are all one body. It comes up so much that it starts to sound like a Buddhist cliché, some Eastern idea about dissolving the self and extinguishing the ego. Part of the problem is that there is no intellectual explanation for the state that is being described. “Oneness” and “interconnectedness” are just words that leave you feeling like you are standing far outside of their definition. It seems that those who have truly seen through to the “interconnectedness” of things do something with that realization rather than dissolve into a state of bliss. It leads to action, compassion and the desire to save everyone and everything in this realm and beyond – after all, if there is no distinction between me and you, won’t I be far more inclined to know your suffering and need to do something?

The more I listen to the quiet conviction in Bernie Glassman’s unwavering voice, the more I hear a visionary. He almost sounds tired of having to explain himself, as though he has seen the world from another perspective for so long, has held fast to the vision of the interconnectedness of all things, and does not have time to wait for the rest of us to wake up.

For the moment, Bernie Glassman is particularly passionate about the Maezumi Institute he has founded, a study/practice centre for Zen training, and the school they are currently setting up for children with disabilities. Another important focus of his work is the “Bearing Witness” retreats he leads. This year will mark the tenth anniversary of the retreats that have been taking place in Auschwitz. He is going back after a hiatus, for what he says will be his last time. There is an urgency in his voice when he tells me that he is busy training those around him to continue the work he has started.

“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around,” he says quietly at the end of our conversation. Bernie Glassman has just become a grandfather for the first time, and maybe he is feeling the reality of growing older. Or maybe this kind of work is simply never done and the rush of time is a pressing issue.

“Is it possible to feed all the hungry ghosts?” I ask. “No, it’s lifetime after lifetime.”

In the end, Bernie sounds humble and embracing of everyone’s particular path in life: “I always feel, no matter what people are doing, that is what they are doing. We all have twenty-four hours and we’re filling up our twenty-four hours with whatever we are doing.” I would like to see what a day in the life of Bernie Glassman looks like.

Talya Rubin practises in the Rinzai tradition of Zen Buddhism. Her writing has appeared in Grain, Matrix and Macleans Online and won the national Bronwen Wallace Award for poetry. After seven years in Australia, Talya recently returned to Montréal, where she teaches theatre and creates solo work for the stage.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life