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Embodying Engagement

by Vishvapani

Embodying Engagement: Observations of Bernie Glassman, Jon Kabat-Zinn

and Engaged Buddhism in the West
by Vishvapani

Paper for Dr Ambedkar and the Modern World Conference, Nagaloka, October 2006

1. Introduction

Buddhism attracted many American and Europeans in the Nineteenth Century but their
feelings were ambivalent and few became Buddhists. An important reason was that they
believed it to be opposed to activism which has been defined as:
‘the tendency to emphasise the spiritual significance of vigorous moral action in the
world … a concern to uplift individuals, reform societies, and participate energetically in
the economic and political spheres.’
For this generation, ‘engaged Buddhism’ – which Christopher Queen defines as ‘the
application of the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings, to the resolution of social problems’ –
would have been a contradiction in terms. But since the 1950s many westerners have
seen Buddhism as a viable option, and an important part of the western Buddhist world is
engaged Buddhism which explicitly combines the inward-looking values of Buddhism
with those of activism.
Over the last half-century observers have asked if engaged Buddhism in the West is a
faithful re-expression of unchanged Buddhist values; if it is western liberalism in a new
guise; if it is ‘a fourth yana’ that expresses ‘a world view and a praxis that is fresh and
unprecedented in the history of Buddhism.’ With these questions In mind I want to
consider the work of two prominent western engaged Buddhists – Bernie Glassman,
founder of the Zen Peacemakers Order (ZPO), and Jon Kabat-Zinn, originator of
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

2. Bernie Glassman and The Zen Peacemakers Order

Roshi Bernie Glassman founded the Zen Peacemaker’s Order in 1994 and in 1997 I
traveled to Yonkers – a small city up the Hudson River from New York – to see the
social projects of the Greyston Mandala. Glassman started to practice Zen in 1960 and in
1979 his teacher sent him to Yonkers. Soon Glassman wanted to expand activities beyond
meditation and Dharma study, and he established a bakery as a right livelihood business
for Zen practitioners to work in. Then, as Glassman he responded intuitively to the
vitality and poverty of the mainly black population of inner-city Yonkers, he decided to
open the Buddhist projects to people from this community. He told me:

‘I asked the practitioners if they would be prepared to open up to the unemployed. It
would be much more difficult. By then we had sort of learnt how to run the bakery, but to
train people with no skills was a whole different prospect … [So] I stopped hiring
Buddhists and the main focus of the bakery became to provide work for the unemployed.’

Greyston Bakery is now a profitable business providing training to formerly ‘hard-to-
employ’ individuals, and its profits help fund other projects. Greyston provides
permanent affordable housing for several hundred low-income and formerly homeless
people, and Greyston Health Services offers help to people living with HIV/AIDS. Other
Greyston projects are concerned with the arts, ‘seniors’, and ‘developing community
gardens’. Altogether, Greyston has attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding.

Glassman was closely involved in the running of activities in Greyston’s early years, but
by1997 he was preparing to move on. Glassman told me that he wanted Greyston to do
much more than survive without him. From the outset he had wanted it to be a new
embodiment of Zen:

‘I told my teacher I felt I had to let go of my training, to become part of the people here
and wait until a new buddhadharma arose. It needed to be an appropriate model for the
inner city. If we tried to pass on our forms, no matter how much we tried we’d be
imposing a form upon them.’

His aim was to establish an interconnected community in place of the fractured society
that was failing people, which he envisaged as ‘a monastery of the streets … where the
whole environment is conducive to the raising of the bodhi-mind.’ I wondered if this was
a fantasy: it seemed more likely that Greyston would go the way of many religious-based
charities and offer good, useful, but essentially conventional social work. Glassman
commented that the key was finding people in the community who could make his vision
a reality:

‘I’m waiting for the leaders to arise, to be trained and to create the forms for Greyston …
I need to work with those role models: people who are comfortable with what I’m doing
but are steeped in their own culture, and aren’t looking to leap out into ours and leave the
others behind.’

Nine years after my visit and several years after Glassman himself moved on from
Greyston, I have not been back to Yonkers to see how the projects are faring. They seem
to be thriving materially. I cannot say if they have fulfilled Glassman’s larger hopes, but
Greyston has become renowned for its ethos. Most of the staff are not Buddhists, but they
meditate or pray together before work; meetings begin with a few minutes of silence; and
the entire organization closes down once a year for a staff retreat. Greyston staff aim to
embed cooperation and effective communication in the day-to-day interactions of
everyone involved in its work.

I learned more about the ethos underlying ZPO activities in my second contact with
Bernie Glassman, when I attended a ZPO-led interfaith ‘bearing witness’ retreat at
Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where millions of people were systematically
murdered by the Nazis. The heart of the retreat was several days spent silently meditating
and performing simple rituals in the grounds of the camp. Like me, many of those
attending had family connections with holocaust victims, so the event was emotionally
charged, and it left us asking how to respond to this evidence of inhumanity. This
question was pressing, yet imponderable and the impossibility of answering it suggests
the ZPO’s first tenet: ‘not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the
universe.’ Glassman explains that this teaching counteracts what he sees as a western
emphasis on figuring out problems in order to fix them. As he writes:

‘Doubt is a state of openness and unknowing. It’s a willingness not to be in charge, to not
know what is going to happen next. The state of doubt allows us to explore things in an
open and fresh way.’

What you can do in this state of ‘non knowing’ is to practice the second peacemaker
tenet: ‘bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world.’ As well as the usual
connotations of mindfulness, bearing witness also suggests imaginative sympathy with
others and a refusal to take sides. For example, ‘bearing witness to someone's
kidnapping, assaulting, and killing a child means being every element of the situation,’
including the traumatised victim, the suffering relatives, the kidnapper and the police. It
also implies placing oneself in real-life situations that confront one with difficult or
uncomfortable aspects of reality. By engaging with the black community in Yonkers,
Glassman stepped outside the comfortable surroundings of his Buddhist sangha. The
Auschwitz retreats confront people with past suffering, and participants in the ZPO’s
street retreats share the lives of the homeless for several days. In such events participants
encounter their limitations and are encouraged to respond with patience and openness. As
Christopher Queen notes, Glassman ‘identifies the encounter with suffering as the most
powerful incentive to spiritual awakening.’

The third ZPO tenet is ‘loving actions towards ourselves and others.’ The implication is
that bearing witness allows solutions to emerge as one develops an awareness of
interconnectedness. As Glassman says: ‘If this is me and it’s bleeding, I take care of it. I
don’t join a discussion group or wait till I am enlightened or go off to get trained.’

Since 1994 ZPO activities have expanded dramatically in many countries and the
Peacemakers Community has become a widespread, interacting network of sympathetic
projects whose directors feel at home with Glassman’s teachings and his freewheeling,
collaborative approach. Independent projects can affiliate as ‘peacemaker villages’, and
these include the Upaya hospice and environmental project, and the Latino Pastoral
Action Centre in New York, while other projects are involved with prison meditation
teaching, the arts, refugee relief. The network is becoming an important focus for
engaged Buddhists in the US, and to some extent in Europe, and it attracts support and
cooperation from many non-Buddhist individuals and agencies who are sympathetic to
spiritually-based activism.

3. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

We are used to thinking of engaged Buddhist activities as those undertaken by Buddhists
who are engaging with the material needs of society. ZPO projects differ from this by
involving non-Buddhists within a Buddhist-influenced ethos; and another variant is found ...

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