Bernie Glassman tribute

Death Teacher Stories Teachers Zen

Richard Bryan McDaniel, chronicler of all things Zen in the West, forwarded this Bernie Glassman Roshi tribute, and asked if I would publish it here. I heartily agreed.

Personal Impressions About Zen master and Social Activist Bernie Glassman Roshi 

by Monika Jion Winklemann, Dharmaholder, Zen Peacemaker Circles. Founder, Not-Knowing-Sangha Bonn International

The news reached me Sunday night through my ex. “Did you hear that Bernie died?” No, I hadn't. For once, I hadn't been on Facebook for a few hours because I had been attending, with my sister, a concert and a reading by the actress Iris Berben in memory of the end of the First World War in 1918 and the Pogrom Night in 1938. The performance had moved me to tears. After all, I am German and burdened by my individual and collective history. Shaken by the poetry and letters read and the music played, we went to my sister’s home in Stuttgart. I live in Bonn.

I was also feeling fragile because I knew that the following Monday morning, yesterday, the 23rd Bearing-Witness-Retreat was scheduled to begin at Auschwitz. As I write these words, many friends, two of my former teachers, and other teachers are in Birkenau, the biggest cemetery in Europe, meditating many hours a day on the selection ramp. I wanted to be there but had decided to use the days off in my calendar to write about my experiences with the previous five retreats I had attended. And now this.

Bernie is dead. An outstanding Zen teacher with a doctorate in mathematics had died at home on Sunday morning. His wife, Eve Marko – also a Zen master – was there when he left his body and immersed himself in the Great Not-knowing.

Facebook has naturally become a flow of texts, photos and films since that moment. Condolences came from all over the world, personal reflections from his closest former students, many of them also friends. Zen master Joan Halifax – one of the first Zen Peacemakers – wrote about Bernie as her teacher and friend.

I first discovered Zen Peacemakers through a book with the shattering title, Bearing Witness in Auschwitz. It was the first step in a journey that continues to this day. When I read the book, I trembled inwardly. I had wanted to go to Auschwitz since I had heard of the existence of this un-place as a teenager, burying the shock of it in the depths of my heart. Bernie Glassman, who writes excellently, touched this place, just as he feels, touches, and transforms other places. For me Bernie was a healer, a shaman, a wanderer between worlds.

He had been born on January 18, 1939 in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York, the fifth child and only boy in the family. His mother was Polish and his father Russian, both Jewish immigrants to America. His mother had lost a large part of her family to the Shoah. Bernie was an uprooted man, like so many Americans I would meet later.

I wondered if I would one day travel to America and study with him. Questions arose as I sat at home, alone, in the mornings in front of our altar, reciting the Zen Peacemaker vows, which contained the three principles fundamental to Bernie's teaching: Not knowing, witnessing, loving action. Back then, in 2006, I didn't identify with them as deeply as I do today, but I knew I wanted to be Zen Peacemaker.

In 2009, the opportunity arose. Glassman Roshi was invited to speak at an event along with the Dalai Lama – whom I already read, venerated, and followed – and others, including Anselm Grün and Bernd Scobel.

I came, I saw, and he won: Bernie moved into my heart, and I immediately enrolled for my first testimony retreat at Auschwitz, which, unusually, took place in June 2010; previous and later retreats took place in November. After that, I participated in another four retreats in Poland, and then others in the Black Hills, South Dakota, with Lakota Indians; in Greece, Piraeus, near a refugee camp; in Lampedusa; in Bosnia/Herzegovina; and on the street in Paris, because Bernie was famous for his street retreats, not only in New York.

Bernie taught me to follow one’s deep inspirations, one’s highest aspirations, as one does in the long Zen retreats, called sesshins. While bearing witness in a place like Auschwitz, one should hurl oneself, body and soul, into the unknown. Become one with where one is, what one is. One learns that there is no other. I am Auschwitz. I am the murdered souls, the tortured ones. I am the torturer, the sadistic person. I also have all the seeds in me. "What do we humans do to other people?" the Zen master, who had long since discarded his priest's robe, asked again and again.

The older he got, the more I heard him mourn that he, like so many future monks who left their families for the vocation, had left his first wife and his children alone. So he committed himself, with his third wife Eve (his second wife had died early) to demonstrate that Zen, or any other spiritual practice, could also be practiced at home. Zen Peacemaker circles are conceivable and desirable in all circumstances. He demonstrated that the rigid hierarchy between Zen teachers and their sanghas could be loosened or even abolished in a healing way. He established "Council" - sitting in a circle and exchanging information from the heart - as an integral part of all Bearing Witness Retreats, street retreats and even of many Zen sesshins led by his former students, many now Roshis in their own right.

This democratic style, I believe, limits or prevents abuse of power, sexual and emotional exploitation. Glassman also advocated the practice of non-violent communication, an idea that is slowly gaining ground in Buddhist Sanghas. Others, of course, complain that Bernie’s Zen is no longer Zen.

Bernie cultivated close friendships with representatives of other religions and faiths and also appreciated agnostics. His Bearing Witness retreats were always “interfaith.” Thus at Auschwitz different kinds of services were celebrated daily, promoting tolerance and deeper understanding between people. I continue to admire such vision and energy.

Many people believe that a stable spiritual practice is needed in order to be grounded in life-promoting values which support us in acting wisely and with compassion for all life on this wonderful but vulnerable planet. Bernie demonstrated this in his life. This multi-talented man and father, husband and teacher has left a radiant legacy in this time of crises.

And I did not even talk of enlightenment.

With three deep bows! I am so honored, to have known you, Bernie! And I miss you.

Stuttgart, November 6, 2018



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