An interview with Bernie Glassman.
Born in Brooklyn to an immigrant Jewish family, Bernie Glassman began his Zen studies with Taizan Maezumi Roshi in 1967 while pursuing a career in the aerospace industry. After receiving dharma transmission, Glassman established the Zen Community of New York in 1980 and later the Greyston Mandala in Yonkers, New York, which provides social services to local residents.
Glassman and his wife, Roshi Sandra Jishu Holmes (1941-1998), co-founded the Zen Peacemaker Order in 1996, and later the Peacemaker Community, an international, interfaith network integrating spirituality with peacemaking. Glassman is noted for organizing “plunges” such as retreats that immerse participants into the street life of the homeless, and the annual bearing witness retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 2000, he disrobed as a priest to put emphasis on Zen lay practice.
Glassman is the author of Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace (Random House, 1999), and the forthcoming The Infinite Circle (Shambhala, Spring 2002). Bernie Glassman lives in Santa Barbara with his wife, Eve Marko. He was interviewed at his home in June by Tricycle’s Editor-in-Chief, James Shaheen.
You’re training as a clown, now, is that right?
Yes, I’m training as a clown. I have a clown mentor. We’ve formed an order of clowns—The Order of Dis-Order. But “clown” is not quite the right word. In German there’s a better word, Narr, or jester, as in court jester. Of course, we have the contrarians, and the coyote in the Native American tradition—the trickster. That’s the kind of training I’m doing.
How did you end up doing this?
A number of years ago, I entered a new phase. I have eighteen dharma successors, and they’re all running centers and doing very useful things. And I’ve developed many projects and founded several organizations over the years, and they’re functioning well. I wanted in the latter part of my life to be able to come up unexpectedly and make sure people aren’t taking themselves too seriously or becoming sanctimonious, that they really understand the notion of letting go. I’m learning how to do that through clowning. What I’m doing has got to do with not coming on too heavy.
Is clowning another form of teaching?
Yes. In the Native American traditions the clown, or trickster, holds one of the highest positions. They have to be pretty well-trained, and they are allowed to make fun of the priests openly. After all, it’s easy to fall into the trap of just preaching and not looking so much at your own actions. So the clown watches for us, and points out contradiction and hypocrisy with humor when no one else dares. But more important, the clown, the trickster, understands the oneness of life. It’s the clown’s job to deal with those things and people that we push away—the homeless, those in prison, those we’ve pushed to the margins of society, or even just those we disagree with. The clown wakes us up to the fact that they are all a part of us, however narrowly we’ve defined our lives.
So what’s it like playing the clown?
It’s fascinating. When I clown I wear a red nose. I have a minimum of clown attire. The training I’m doing is not so makeup- or dress-oriented; you create your identity from within. But I do use a nose most of the time. When someone’s wearing a nose, people can listen to that person without offense. What I’ve found is that if I can visualize the nose on someone else, then no matter what they say I can take it a different way. Visualize a nose on George Bush and listen to him talk and you’ll find that you react very differently. I’ve taken some people’s words that I completely disagree with, but put a nose on them, yeah, I still disagree with what they’re saying, but it’s not so terrible. [laughs]
Is putting on the nose liberating? Does it give you a more flexible identity?
Well, for me, yes, and for most people who do it. There’s an interesting thing that happened last year at the end of our street retreat in New York. We were walking up Fifth Avenue. It was warm when we started out from the Bowery, but it had cooled down by the time we reached St. Patrick’s in the late afternoon. On these retreats I allow no change of clothes, but you can have many layers. So there was this fellow—he was studying up at Pema Chodron’s abbey in Nova Scotia [Gampo Abbey]—and he was cold and wanted to put on his long johns. He put his nose on—he had been inducted into the Order of Dis-Order—and somebody held a coat around him and he changed. Well, there we were on Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s, but he had his nose on so it was perfectly okay. Put the nose on and everything’s perfectly okay; in fact, there’s nothing you can do that is wrong. It’s just what you’re doing, and you can laugh at it or you can take it however you want.
Were a lot of your students’ expectations upset when you began clowning?
I’ve always been changing things. And there have always been students who have come with an expectation of what a Zen teacher is. If you depart from their expectations, they get angry. Then there’s the group that came because I was what they wanted, but then I shifted. And they were angry because I didn’t remain what they wanted. And then there are students —and I would say they are in the majority—who have taken me for what I am, and part of what I am is this constant shifting. That’s the group that’s been with me the longest and it’s the group that saw me move into the clown world. Students who come now have read about me and they don’t know what to expect except that that’s part of what to expect—not knowing what to expect.
So dashing expectations is part of your job?
Well, I think so. That’s the name of the game, not to have expectations. And that’s what we all have, expectations, either about ourselves or about teachers or about anything at all.