The great Bernie Glassman, one of my Zen teachers, died Sunday morning in the United States. I’m still reeling a bit, three days after the news first reached me, in Portugal, hours after the end of a retreat there. Dining with some students later that night, we raised a toast of white wine to Bernie, whose teachings are so much a part of our Wild Flower practice. His favorite dinner of pizza, beer and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream might have been a better culinary tribute to this cigar-smoking clown bodhisattva. But as he taught me, as he demonstrated time and again, the perfect tribute to him, a brilliant, loving, revolutionary Zen master, was a generous offering of whatever we had — which was Douro white wine!
Around the Internet, many teachers and students are posting pictures with Bernie — he touched so many hearts and minds throughout the world. So I’m posting here an old photo of Bernie and me, when both of us were much, much younger (wow!). We look so serious — somebody should have given us some red noses! (We were at a Zen Peacemaker retreat at Lasalle House in Switzerland.) At the time, Bernie had taken us under his wing — my teacher Genno Roshi and me and Frank de Waele (her students) when she and her teacher, Genpo Roshi, were a bit estranged (that’s another story).
I first met Bernie on a bitterly cold evening in November 1996, in the lobby of the Hotel Saski in Crakow. It was the night before the first Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness retreat and Bernie greeted me warmly. I was moved by his eyes, seemingly bottomless wells of compassion. For me, nothing would ever be the same after that. Bernie introduced us to his mandala, a fabulous feast of work, practice and study that changed my life and my practice forever. He taught us to plunge into not knowing and bear witness, to see the oneness of all creation, to include what he called « the yucky piles » of what we most did not want to see — the homeless, the sick, all pain and suffering and the places it was most manifest (in ourselves, at Auschwitz, in Rwanda, Israel, city streets, Pine Ridge…), to make peace. How blessed we are to have worked, studied and practiced with him. Our debt to him is unfathomable.
It’s the end of an era for Zen in the West. Tonight our sangha will mark it, celebrating Bernie’s life and teachings with a ceremony, offering all that we have: chants, flowers, candlelight, incense, open hearts filled with gratitude and love.