Remembering Bernie Glassman

By Chuck Lief

This piece, written by Naropa University President, Chuck Lief, memorializes the passing of Bernie Glassman, a pioneer for Buddhism, teacher, and dear friend to many. We hope that you will join us in reflecting on his life, work, and passing. 

My heart is heavy as I acknowledge the death yesterday morning of Roshi Bernie Glassman, my longtime friend and collaborator, champion of Naropa in our formative years, and pioneer of social entrepreneurship. Bernie was a brilliant, caring, and unpredictable Zen teacher and mentor to a remarkable number of activist Buddhist practitioners working with social enterprise, end of life care, social justice and interfaith engagement. When the history of the first-generation 20th Century American Buddhist teachers is written, Bernie’s contribution will be celebrated for its lasting impact and powerful new forms of practice.

So much is already being written about Bernie’s life and work that I will not try to repeat that in piece. Western Buddhism was a direct beneficiary of his commitment to his own teacher, Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and by extension to Trungpa Rinpoche, as Asian Buddhist teachers who trusted that western students were worthy of the full transmission of the Buddhist Teachings. Through Bernie, these teachers worked to support western students as those students created new forms of expressing their understanding of Buddhism. In 1977, when Trungpa Rinpoche entered a yearlong retreat, he asked Maezumi Roshi and Bernie to come to Naropa and serve as Naropa’s wisdom tradition holders, which they did so beautifully and with so much heart-connection to our work. Bernie then joined our board of trustees, and while, like much of the rest of his work, he was an “out of the box” board member, it was a joy for the board, students, faculty, and staff to engage with him.

Bernie is perhaps best known for the creation of the Greyston Foundation, a social enterprise based in Yonkers, NY. Greyston serves homeless individuals and families offering housing, child care, health care, and employment. The Greyston Bakery, which hires chronically unemployed, often ex-offenders, within their  radical model called “open hiring,” is famed for its longtime business relationship with Ben and Jerry’s, baking the brownies for a number of their products. I was privileged to serve as president of Greyston from 1993 to 2002, and I worked side by side with Bernie for much of that time. Bernie visualized Greyston as an integrated group of non-profit and for-profit enterprises, built upon the Tibetan Buddhist model of the Five Buddha Families. This is also the foundation of Naropa’s Contemplative Psychology curriculum and Maitri practice, making Bernie’s connection to Naropa University even more intimate.

He also pioneered the Street Retreats, a multi-day plunge into living a homeless life, as well as an annual Bearing Witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The 2018 retreat began recently in Poland, poignantly echoing Bernie’s own departure.

Bernie was also a leader in interfaith work, closely connected to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and its longtime Dean, James Morton. He was also associated with the Temple of Understanding; Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi; and other important progressive rabbis, Sufi teachers, and Christian contemplatives, including Father Thomas Keating, whom we lost last week.

Bernie was also known for manifesting as the clown, Mr. YouWho, inspired by the teaching of Moishe Cohen and Clowns Without Borders, using that manifestation as he made several trips to Israel and Palestine to support Arab-Jewish dialogue and action.

Bernie was blessed to have been married three times to three extraordinary women. His first wife, Helen, is the co-founder of the original Greyston Bakery. His second wife, our friend Sandra Jishu Holmes, was also a dharma successor and worked to build and nurture Greyston until her untimely death in Santa Fe in 1998. His current wife, Eve Marko, a powerful Israeli-American Buddhist teacher, was a true partner and successor. Bernie had a daughter, Alisa; a son, Mark; and four grandchildren.

Please join us in remembering Bernie and honoring a lifetime’s work of compassionate action and fierce commitment to social justice, and for re-defining what it can mean to be a Buddhist in the world.

Photo by Kanzeon Zen Center, via Wikimedia Commons

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