Bernie Glassman is an American Zen teacher and the first dharma successor of the late Taizan Maeumi.
Posted on: Apr 24th, 2012
Thanks to volunteer Jason Nottestad for transcribing.
SZ: What brought you to Zen practice and what was going on in your life at the time?
BG: Okay. I should mention that yesterday I actually just put up a new page on our website that gives you a little history of my Zen teachers and also gives you a list of my Dharma successors. As I get older I want to make sure I remember all of the gurus I’ve had. I’ve had quite a few. So, the first time I encountered Zen was a long time ago–1958. That was by chance in an English class. We had to read The World’s Religions
, at that time it was called Religions of Man
by Huston Smith (it had just come out). There was a page about Zen and it just struck me, like I felt I had come home reading it. So I started to study Zen at that time (basically by reading). There wasn’t that much in English–Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, D.T. Suzuki and, uh, I got quite interested in it. And then, around 1961 or 1962, I actually started meditation. None of the books that I had read talked much about meditation.
SZ: Sure, more the philosophy.
BG: Yeah. Yeah. And then in 1963 I went to a Japanese Zen temple in Los Angeles, in Little Tokyo, and met for the first time the person who was going to become my teacher, Taizan Maezumi
roshi. He was a very young monk and he was assisting in that temple. But I sat and did my own sesshins and got into a regular sitting practice (and kept reading, of course). I had been dabbling in many religions. I studied different religions from maybe the age of 12 or 13, but I started to concentrate on Zen. And around 1966 I ran into this Maezumi again. At that time he was still just a monk, he was not a teacher. 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. I started to sit with him on a pretty regular basis, a daily basis.
SZ: And you said that his English was pretty good; that’s something I don’t hear too often about some of the early teachers that came here from Asia. With Katagiri Roshi, nobody could really understand him at first. They had to get their feet into the practice first before they started to understand what some of these teachers were even saying.
BG: Maezumi actually came to the country in 1956 and worked in the temple, but he also went to San Francisco State College to improve his English, and he had decided he was going to stay in the US. So he was only dating Western women and he was studying English.
SZ: Was that where he met Yasutani roshi?
BG: No. He was a missionary essentially. He was sent by the Japanese Soto sect to work in the temple in Los Angeles, Zenshu-ji. Those Japanese temples, their main role was to help the Japanese immigrants adjust to the US system and society. With Yasutani roshi it’s a longer story, which you may know. A man that lived in L.A. also, Nyogen Senzaki, had invited Soen Nakagawa roshi to come to this country, which happened, and Soen started to do sesshins around the country. But Soen tells him, “I’m not in the best of shape”. And when he got ill, he would invite Yasutani roshi to take his place in coming to the States to run sesshins. Maezumi met him that way. He wound up being a translator for him on the West coast. On the East coast it was Eido Shimano roshi who was the translator. And then he started to study with Yasutani. Back in Japan, before Maezumi came to the United States, he had started koan study with a leading Zen teacher named Koryu Osaka roshi. So he was already involved in koans and that’s why he studied with Senzaki in LA. The Soto sect was not happy about that. Senzaki was a lay person and Rinzai.
But Maezumi wanted to continue koan study so he studied with Senzaki. And when he heard about Yasutani coming and doing sesshins he volunteered to be his translator on the West coast and, because he was very much into koan study, he started to study with Yasutani. I had the good fortune of having my first koan work with Yasutani roshi, so I knew Yasutani back then and he stayed with us on the West coast at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. So, I got to know him quite well. And then the person that Maezumi had started his koan work with in Japan, Koryu roshi, was also a lay teacher. And he started to come in 1970 to the States, basically so that Maezumi could finish his koan work with him. And at that time I was already ordained and was quite involved with Zen Center of Los Angeles, so I started to study under Koryu Roshi also and did my first one hundred koans with him.
SZ: Was the Soto-shu unhappy then with his studying under Koryu Roshi, too?
BG: Yeah. Japan is pretty ‘clubbish’. If you belong to a certain club, and we were all part of the Japanese Soto sect, the Japanese Soto sect was not happy about anybody studying outside of the Soto sect.
SZ: Do you think that has changed at all in recent times or not much?
BG: 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. I got to know all the headquarter people, and he would also visit various roshis in the Soto sect that had studied koans with different Rinzai people. So there is a circle of people within Japan where that was fine but, within headquarters itself and with many of the upper echelon of the Soto headquarters, that was never fine and that remains so to this day.
SZ: The way I understand it, the Harada/ Yasutani lineage actually started out as a Soto Zen reformation?
BG: Harada was a Soto teacher and he studied with a Rinzai Abbot, Dokutan roshi, but Harada was in charge of one of the more important Soto temples. They were bonified Soto people but Yasutani roshi in particular; he went to study with Harada when he was fairly old (in his 40’s).
Yasutani was very critical of the Soto sect in his writings and he got to be really disliked by the Soto hierarchy and, as you probably know, in the Japanese Soto sect you have to be a priest in order to teach. Harada and Yasuntani had many lay students that they thought quite highly of. In fact, Harada was probably the first one to really start training Catholic priests. Fr. Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle studied with him, as did others. They formed their own group, the Sanbo Kyodan, and their group was not associated with the Soto sect. They remained Soto priests, but they also formed their own group, the Sanbo Kyodan. That’s where Aitken Roshi studied, in that tradition.
SZ: Okay. Now, tell us a little bit about what Zen Center Los Angeles was like in those early days. What were your first impressions of Maezumi roshi?
BG: When I first started to study with him, he had dharma transmission in the Soto lineage via his father, and that’s common in Japan (that was done at a very early age, before he came to the US). Until he finished koan study with Koryu Roshi and Yasutani Roshi, he would not do koan study with people, so he would talk about meditation and things of that nature. When I started to study with him, he was not introducing any of the Soto liturgies. As I said, I started studying in 1966; things that we take for granted now as Zen liturgy within the Soto sect he introduced to us during my ango (three month training period) which was in 1973. So that’s the first time we heard about oryoki or doing services. And he actually brought somebody from Japan to train me in that.
So it was quite a while where we were meeting and talking about life and meditation. And that’s….in those early days, those of us who were drawn to Zen, I think that’s what we wanted. We didn’t know anything about Japanese Zen. Most of our readings were of the Chinese masters and the hermits. We were hippies more interested in a communal life and things of that nature, not necessarily interested in another religious institution. In the years since, that institution became more formalized. 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 1970’s and got rather large.
SZ: I think you guys had an entire city block at one point.
BG: Before I left, I was sort of his right hand person, if you will, and sort of instrumental in buying the property as we were growing. At first there was some resistance from everybody, but Maezumi wanted me to do those things. So I did, and we grew as the people came. By the time I left to go to New York yeah, we had at least half the block, maybe more, and it was quite large. And then after I left, Zen Center of Los Angeles sold maybe half of the properties and lived on that money.
While I was there I was sort of the executive director and we had different businesses and different things, so we had income coming in. When I left, that sort of fell away. So they sold a lot of the properties and lived off of that money. There was a lot of equity in the buildings by the time I left. And then of course there were scandals around Maezumi Roshi in 1982. I left in 1980, December of 1979, and a couple years later there were the scandals and attendance went way, way down. Then, little by little, it all started growing back.
SZ: He had to go to the Betty Ford Clinic for a little while, right?
SZ: You were the one entrusted with carrying on the Harada-Yasutani facet of Maezumi’s lineage, is that right? You received inka as your final empowerment from Maezumi and have gone on since to give inka to several others.
BG: Yeah. Within the Soto tradition you have what is called dharma transmission. What’s not so clear (even to this day I think) is that, within Soto tradition, there are two major transmissions or empowerments. One is empowering you as a priest. Until that time, you are essentially a novice priest. So, there is a ceremony to empower you as a priest, and then there’s also a ceremony to empower you as a teacher. That’s literally dharma transmission. Two separate paths.
In Japan, Keizan Zenji brought Soto Zen to the masses by building up the priest function with dedications to health, wealth and memorials. Due to the rise in the number of temples, they needed a lot of priests. In my studies with Maezumi Roshi he emphasized to me that the priest and teacher roles were different and I have maintained these roles as separate.
So, there is a priest path and a dharma transmission path. Dharma transmission path, as far as I’m concerned, is open to anybody–lay, clerical, and anybody in any religion (not just Buddhists). The priest path is open only to Buddhists and I’ve kept that distinction for all these years. Now, as you know, the lay movement is growing in this country, but I still think it’s not clear that there are really two different paths; so in many cases where there are lay teachers, they are not quite given the full authority that a priest who gets dharma transmission would be given.
A lay person getting dharma transmission is not given all the entitlements due to him or her as a teacher if they are not a priest. But that does not have historical precedence, and certainly that is conditioned a lot by Japanese Soto thinking. In the Rinzai tradition there were a lot of lay teachers, and Harada and Yasutani got upset with that kind of thing and started their own group (the Sanbo-Kyodan) so that they could empower lay people. I think now in the next few years we’ll see the lay teachers in the US get more empowerments.
Let me get back to your question, because your question was did Maezumi empower me or does something move me in terms of Harada.
To answer your question directly, with that all as a background: within the Soto tradition, dharma transmission is the last step. He talked a lot with me about the fact that Harada created inka as another step, and that the inka term in Japan was pretty much a Rinzai term, and it was equivalent to dharma transmission in Japanese, or shiho. Those were equivalent terms. So in the Soto tradition, shiho was your last step. In the Rinzai tradition, inka was your last step and they were equivalent.
Harada made inka another step past shiho, and Maezumi thought a lot about that and decided that he would do that also–that he would have those two steps. So, in the end, a dharma transmission (I use Zen Teacher in English for that) and then another step called inka (in which you become a Zen Master, in terms of English).
SZ: I understand it that at one point you decided to disrobe. What informed that decision and what are your feelings regarding the role of a Zen priest?
BG: Okay. The history about this dates back to around 1975. Maezumi roshi had dharma transmission from his father in Soto Zen, he received inka from Yasutani roshi (leader of Sanbo Kyodan) and then he also receives inka from Koryu Roshi, Koryu roshi’s school was called Shakyamuni Kai. The Shakyamuni Kai was formed by Koryu roshi’s teacher, a man named Joko roshi; Joko roshi was actually a priest and teacher in few different Buddhist traditions.
Joko roshi had gotten very upset with the priesthood in Japan and felt that they were just drinking and whoring a lot, that they weren’t that interested in the dharma. He created his own group (Shakyamuni Kai) and he made it a rule that no priest, nobody with robes on, could study in the group. So, Koryu roshi became his main successor and vowed that he would not ever take robes. Maezumi became an exception, as he was an ordained monk. He studied in Shakyamuni Kai and saw Koryu in sesshin, eventually receiving inka from him.
Now, what we have to remember is that the Japanese take on several roles. There is part of Japanese culture that is coming from a Confucian culture, where it’s very important that a lineage doesn’t die–your family name can’t die and things of that nature; you’ve got to continue the lineage. These are not things that are part of Buddhism at the time of Shakyamuni, of course. It develops later, in China. So Maezumi had discussions with me about how we would continue the Koryu roshi lineage (the Shakyamuni Kai lineage), which is a lay lineage. Remember that this is 1975.
How to continue a lay lineage? I said that it seems obvious to me that you’ve got to have role models. Everybody in positions of power at Zen Center of Los Angeles, and this was true of San Francisco Zen Center as well, had ordained as novice priests and were on a priest path wearing robes.
Maezumi said, “I’d like to have strong lay role models but, as people advance in their practice, they want to ordain.”
I said, “They’re all ordaining because, when they look around, everybody in power is in robes.” There were no lay people at all in power.
Maezumi said, “What do we do about it?”
I said, “Why don’t I disrobe and become that lay role model?”
He shot back, “If you do that, I’ll disown you!”
So he had this rational thought pattern of wanting to have a lay lineage but you’ve got to remember that he was born in a temple; his whole system, his innards, were all about temple priests. I was his first or main student at the time and there was no way he would let me disrobe. It was then I realized there was no way we were going to have lay role models at Zen Center of Los Angeles and that discussion sort of died down until after his death. But, the issue was always there.
If you looked around (and I know all the old timers), they would all talk about these wonderful lay students and ask why ZCLA had no lay teachers. I’d respond the same as I did with Maezumi, saying that I thought we needed lay role models. They’d then say that all of the strong people want to ordain and I’d say, “Well, that’s because when you look around those are all the people running things.
This factored strongly in to my decision to disrobe, and I disrobed 15 years ago.
By the time I disrobed, I had served as abbot at a number of places, including ZCLA following Maezumi’s death and the place I later started, the Zen Community of New York. By that time I had installed other people as abbots and my main work was socially engaged Buddhism; I was not running a temple. My feeling had always been that you were a priest if you had a temple to run and take care of. Not a zendo. If what you were doing was concentrating on meditation and zendo aspects, you don’t have to be a priest. But if you’re going to have a temple, and if you are going to serve in that role, yeah, that makes sense.
So I had seen so many people ordaining that had no connection with running a temple. They were doing their work and then they would become Zen teachers, but it didn’t make any sense to me why you need all those priests besides there being this historical precedence within the Japanese Soto sect that says in order to be a teacher you have to be a priest. So I felt that was an unconscious thing to say, that you guys have to be ordained as priests. To me it never made sense.
Now, I do feel you need priests, but the priests should be people who have temples, and running a temple in the Soto sect means holding three services a day; very few priests that I know do that. Most of the people that I know that are priests have nothing to do with temple life. They have other jobs.
I felt that as priests that should be their vocation: they should be working at a temple. They might or might not be a teacher. You can be a great priest but a lousy teacher. I see them as two separate tracks and I actually make the studies and the paths that way. I have paths for priests and paths for teachers. I had some folks that I felt would be great priests but not teachers, and I did not make them teachers; they stopped at becoming full priests. From early on I saw these as two different paths. By the time I had disrobed, I saw my path as being out there doing socially engaged Buddhism, not being a temple priest.
SZ: Part of that includes your Bearing Witness retreats? You go to Auschwitz once a year, right?
BG: Yes. I also work in different kinds of socially engaged Buddhism. I’ve done prison work. I’ve worked on conflict resolution in the Middle East and all around the world. That’s what I’m doing now, now that I’m in my 70s and retired from being in charge of any big projects. I’ve been trying to do that for about five years; my main work now is going to different parts of the world where I’ve had connections and where I can do socially engaged Buddhism.
In India working with the Dalit, in Sri Lanka working with Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, in the Middle East working with non-violent work in Palestine and Israel with poor villages, in Brazil with people who are living in garbage hills, and also working in Rwanda, Africa. That is the kind of work I’ve been drawn to. It’s not priestly work. In fact, a lot of my work is just non-Buddhist. Of course the big work is Greyston. I’ve put a lot of energy into Yonkers, working with homeless people and with people with AIDS, working on inner city poverty. I’m still doing that.
SZ: Work that requires one to roll up their sleeves. Now, you’ve pretty much already addressed this but, what is socially engaged Buddhism as you see it?
BG: It’s very clear for me. The social engagement part would be working with aspects of oneself and society that are underserved (that’s my definition for social engagement). The Buddhist part (for me) means doing that work coming from the standpoint of non-duality and, in doing that work, trying to help people realize the interconnectedness and oneness of life. So that’s the basis, the foundation from which I do the work.
In all of those works, I try to create ways of doing it which would help the people that I’m serving to realize and actualize the interconnectedness of life–the oneness of life. That I look at as being my role as a Zen teacher. Those are some of the vows that I’ve made to myself and out loud, that I would serve all of society and not just those who come into a meditation hall. I’ve changed the venue to be society and the main service is to realize and actualize the interconnectedness of life. The secondary service is to work with those aspects of society and oneself that are underserved.
By the way, a lot of this stuff about the priest versus teacher whatever, I don’t think it’s been written up. I mean I’ve certainly talked a lot about this over the years, but I don’t remember any kind of articles anywhere that talk about this stuff, so that would be a first time for you I think.
SZ: Thank you. I’d heard about your having disrobed, but I never knew the details. It was interesting listening to you talk about it. It looks like you were friends with Maha Ghosananda, and everybody I’ve talked to that met him just speaks the world of him. What were your impressions of him?
BG: He actually stayed at our place in New York when he was working at the UN, so I got to know him very well, and we actually hired some of his Cambodian students; they didn’t have green papers but we hired them to work in the activities we were doing. But I have to say: face-to-face he was just a beautiful and sweet guy.
He stayed with us and then I’d see him around the world at different conferences or wherever. Of course, when you live together you get to know somebody really well. During the week he was living at Soen Sa Nim’s place there in New York, near the UN. He was working in the UN at this period. And during the week he would stay there, with Richard Shrobe. He’d stay at that place. But the air, the New York air, was really deadly for him. So on weekends, Friday, he would come up to us in Riverdale. Up north. It’s the Bronx, but it’s on the Hudson, so the air was much, much different. So he would stay with us on the weekends and he’d recuperate from his inability to breathe in Manhattan.
So we got to know each other really, really well. And he was extremely sweet. There are a few people I became very close to over the years, another being Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne of Sri Lanka. They are Gandhi type people. They’re just beautiful people.
SZ: From the descriptions that I’ve heard of Maha Ghosananda, people say he always seemed to be beaming with positivity. Kobutsu Malone says he’d often leave a place without notice and visit various practice sites, not telling people back at home that he’d left. They’d be calling all around the country asking, “Hey, do you know where he is right now?” They’d be kind of worried about him.
Now, it sounds like you feel that one does not necessarily have to be Buddhist to function as a Bodhisattva. Bodhisattva’s are found in all kinds of traditions. I look at someone like Martin Luther King as a Bodhisattva. You’ve been someone who has empowered a lot of people from different traditions as teachers.
BG: Yeah. The bottom line for me is that the person has realized and is living the realization of the interconnectedness of life (the oneness of life). For me, that’s the awakening. For me, the enlightenment experience is awakening to the interconnectedness of life, that oneness of life; independent of what institution you belong to you can have that realization and you can function that way, and you could be within the Buddhist institutions and not be functioning that way.
So that’s my standard for making somebody a teacher. I don’t even like the word empowering or transmitting. I like the word recognizing. I recognize somebody as a teacher in my family, the Zen Peacemakers, if I feel that they have not only studied and mastered the trainings in Zen that we do (we don’t do everything, but the trainings that are passed down in my lineage) and that they understand that and can teach that, and that that they are also living a life that shows they are an exemplar of someone who has awakened to the interconnectedness of life.
SZ: You mentioned before that socially engaged work is grounded in non-duality. Is compassion a natural expression of non-duality?
BG: You know, in some sense yes. I’ll just relate this to myself. If my actualization of the oneness of life is that ‘Bernie’ is always connected, and one of my hands gets gashed, the other hand is going to take care of it. Now you can call it compassion, or you can call it taking care of yourself. If my realization and actualization expands to not just ‘Bernie’ but to all of society and the world, then when something is gashed or starving you naturally take care of it. Because, in doing so, you are taking care of yourself.
Now standing apart we can call that compassion. With somebody like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I think he is manifesting that actualization in the world. He’s not just taking care of his particular sect or particular tribe or the Buddhist world–he is serving the world, because that is who he is. So yes, we would call that compassion. I think it’s just the normal functioning of non-duality.
SZ: I almost look at it as ‘enlightened self-interest.’ I’ve sometimes said to friends, ‘Hey, if you’re really selfish, help the world. It’s all going to come back to you.’ If you go out there and crap on everybody, you’re going to have people crapping back on you at every turn.
BG: I would go further and say help the world because that is who you are. The world is you.
It’s just like in that case of the hand bleeding. If I have to decide whether to help that hand and I decide not to and the hand bleeds to death, then Bernie bleeds to death and dies. If there are issues in the world and I don’t serve them, then I’m going to have more problems and if I do serve I’ll be in better shape. Because you see that’s me that I’m serving.
SZ: I think the only thing that really separates us is our thinking.
BG: Exactly, our delusions. It’s just what Shakyamuni Buddha said. How wonderful everything is enlightened, but, because of our delusions, our attachments to our concepts, we don’t see it. But, that doesn’t change the reality. One concern of our practice, and that’s another thing I’ve tried to do, is to introduce new upayas, new Zen practices, coming from the standpoint of what you would call compassion, to realize, to help you come to the realization of the wonders of life.
I’ve said, ‘What on earth is coming from karuna to help gain prajna?’ A lot of our practices were developed from the standpoint, ‘How do I increase prajna so that I will function in compassion?’ I have this little theory that if there were more women teachers creating upayas (most of our upayas come from men), that if there had been more women through history doing that, we would have more techniques coming from the standpoint of karuna, or compassion, to realize the oneness of life.
SZ: Karuna can bring about prajna.
BG: Exactly, exactly.
SZ: One thing I did want to ask you has to do with your dharma brother, Genpo Merzel, who recently had to resign as a Zen priest due to personal and public scandal. I wonder what your thoughts were around all that, as I’m sure you had some. What were your feelings surrounding that whole thing?
BG: Of course I’ve known Genpo a long, long time. In the early days of Zen Center of Los Angeles he was my protégé, my next in command there, and we spent a lot of time together. In fact, I was the one who gave him inka. As you had mentioned earlier, Maezumi gave me inka before he died. In fact he was going to give me inka around 1982, and that’s when his standards were full bore. But he didn’t want to do inka at that time, because it would be a blotch on my record; he felt it wouldn’t be good for me. People would just talk. But he did give me inka before he died and I was pretty sure he was going to give it to Genpo within a few years. He always wanted to do things with me first before others, and Genpo was his next person.
We were really close and I did give him inka within the next couple of years I think, I can’t remember the exact date, after Maezumi had died. And I am still friendly with Genpo, and we talk quite often. I’ve never approved of all the stuff that all these scandals are about. Mostly they’ve been about women issues. I’ve never felt good about it, and he and I talk very frankly. I talk very frankly with him.. From my early days there were all kinds of things that weren’t part of my life that I didn’t approve of.
In the early days, for example, I very rarely talked about this kind of stuff with Maezumi roshi. And later on, I felt that I was probably an enabler for not doing that. So I am critical of myself. With Genpo I do talk, we do talk. I do not talk publically; I’m not going to share what I talk with him about in public ways. He generally calls me and asks my feelings right away. In this last episode (it happened about a year ago or more), pretty soon after that he called me and went over what had happened and asked how I felt and, I’m always very frank with him. I think we are quite transparent with each other, but I do not go public. That’s just the kind of person I am.
Let me just say one last thing about that. I have no illusions to say that is good or bad; that’s just who I am and that’s how I function, and I can be criticized for that and I would understand that. But at any rate, that’s who I am.
SZ: I just wanted to touch on that at least. Now, you’ve been somebody who I’ve always looked at as being very big in the idea department. You’ve had a lot of ideas about where you would like to see things go and have gotten your hands in a lot of different projects. You seem to have slowed down a bit now.
BG: I make it very clear in the places that I’m volunteering, because they look at me and they think of projects that maybe I can do or run or whatever. I make it very clear that I’m talking about serving in projects that they already have and serving in a way like washing the dishes (that is, not being in charge of any kind of big projects). Though, I am interested in serving in places around the world that I would call ‘hot spots.’
SZ: One other thing that I did want to ask regarding Genpo, while I remember. What was your sense of the letters that were being sent out at the time? I think it was 66 American Zen teachers that signed an open letter with recommendations to Genpo. What was your reaction to that? Was it necessary? Was it unnecessary?
BG: I’m not sure about those words necessary
. I think people need to be free to express how they feel, and there were a lot of letters and emails going back and forth within our White Plum world. The piece that…what’s the right word…that I didn’t appreciate
…I know many of the people, and many of the people saying things. I’m doing a book with Jeff Bridges now, The Dude and the Zen Master
, and one of the themes of The Big Lebowski
of course is, ‘That’s your opinion man’.
So I think it’s important for people to feel free to express their opinions. I would have liked it if some of the people that I know, that were doing the same kinds of things as Genpo, had prefaced their opinion by saying, ‘You know, I’ve been involved in the same stuff.’ That is, not be hypocritical. Not be just criticizing him without taking into account what you were doing. So, to express the opinion and to give a little context as to who you are that is making this opinion, which might have been more helpful to me. And, to tell you the truth, I’m close with people within the White Plum, and I felt a certain amount of hypocrisy going on there.
In some cases, I saw it as a chance to blast somebody else without looking at your own conduct. Now, I’m not saying that just because you’ve engaged in the same conduct that you shouldn’t give your opinion. Just make note of your own conduct also, or give some type of context.
SZ: A person coming from that standpoint may have an even better insight into the whole thing.
BG: Exactly, exactly.
SZ: Personally, I felt it was necessary but, at the same time, it did feel a little bit like Monday morning quarterbacking, where everybody just sort of chimed in after the game was done.
You know it, I know it: there are other situations like this out there. Everybody talks about them but nobody really goes on the record with any of it until after the fact.
BG: What we don’t have yet in Buddhism are arenas like they have in the Catholic world, in particular, where stuff is looked at impartially. We don’t have it in White Plum, but we’re moving in that direction. We don’t have clear rules of conduct or ethics. There are often different sects that have their own ethical rules now, but there’s no ethical rule for the world of Buddhism (or the world of Zen, in a smaller world).
So if you have your ethical rules, and you’ve thought it through, and you have a way of looking at all the situations within a dharma center, then that makes sense. But now, for me, to come out with proclamations in an arena where there has been no body that has looked at all the stuff from the different standpoints–that has talked with say, his dharma successors, that has done the rounds of stuff–many of the people that I saw writing things, they were writing from third party information, or sometimes just hearsay and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t like that.’
But, they had no way to see if the things they heard are real. What’s the other side of the story? What are the various sides?
All that is needed and some day it will happen. But, the Zen world doesn’t have that. Like I said, we are just starting to do that within the White Plum. I think San Francisco Zen Center is probably in better shape with that kind of thing. But that’s within their own arena. This bigger letter that came out, they don’t have such a body. So all they could act on was second-hand and third-hand information, and you can get into trouble that way.
SZ: I think the Zen traditions, oddly enough, probably handle these situations better than some of the other Buddhist traditions. In the United States here, say in the Tibetan tradition, this sort of thing has been going on quite a bit, and there’s not always been a whole lot of willingness to really look at it. I think that, at the very least, our willingness to look at this stuff is a positive thing.
I would also think that some would argue that those ethical rules you mention are already in place: the precepts themselves. I wonder what you think about that, whether that would be the framework through which they would come up with something like you’re discussing.
BG: I think that’s a framework to begin to develop those ethical rules. The precepts are too general and the way the precepts are studied with the Rinzai Zen and within our lineage…the precepts are studied differently within different Zen groups. The precepts when they are studied within the koan system are studied only via the koan system. In the Zen Peacemakers, for example, we’ve changed that quite a bit. When we started the Zen Peacemakers, we developed a very comprehensive study of the precepts.
When I studied Zen, it was via koans, and many of our White Plum people did it that way (the early people of course). Via the koan study, the emphasis on the precepts was always taken from a standpoint of non-duality, and that leads into a trap.
There is no lie, there is no liar, there is nobody lying to you. You know.
The precepts can be studied in different ways, and one of the ways is from this so-called ‘Buddha Nature’ (I don’t like that term for it, sort of a non-dual way of looking at it), and can lead into a problem of, from my sense, of arrogance.
So the precepts are a good starting point, but if you are developing an ethics for Westerners (and believe me, when I say Westerners it’s a quite different thing if you’re European or US), it has to be pretty local. If we looked at it from a US standpoint and developed an ethical guideline, and it should be based on the precepts, I agree. But it needs more work.
SZ: We could take a page from psychology.
BG: It would happen. If you’re gonna put together that kind of a document and guidelines, there’s no way if you’re doing it in the US that you wouldn’t be bringing in all that; you’d be bringing in everything that is current now, which includes psychology.
SZ: Are Zen teachers and priests professionals? There has been some debate on that.
BG: Yeah definitely, definitely. There’s so much work that’s been done on that, and that all should be used.
SZ: Alright. I just have two more questions. One is whether you have any book recommendations, books that you found helpful over the years in your practice? Of course your own, I’m sure ….
BG: Of course I would highly recommend all of my books, but that’s a little egocentric! I don’t read that much anymore. I recommend watching the movie The Big Lebowski
. (Laughs) If you’re talking about Zen books, if I go way back, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
by Suzuki Roshi is one of my favorites. But, there have been so many books and I find that, at least at my age, there is so much repetition. It’s not my world anymore.
SZ: The last question is pretty open. Have you got any parting words for our readership?
BG: Whenever you hear anything, and whenever you say anything, say, ‘Keep in mind that this is my opinion. I’m not saying this as truth or fact, it’s my opinion.’ And if you hear somebody saying something, that is their opinion, and opinions cannot be right or wrong. They are just opinions.
And, if there’s somebody you really dislike, and they are talking, imagine them with a clown’s nose on and again repeat, ‘That’s your opinion, man.’ Those are my parting words. With that, you won’t have any problems.
SZ: Thanks Bernie.
Posted on: Apr 24th, 2012