Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Globalization has scrambled just about everything, for better AND worse.

Technology has compressed physical space and time, forcing the myriad human tribes to deal more directly with each other. Nor is there any going back — no matter how isolationist, anti-immigrant or simply anti-change some current political rhetoric may be.

This means that ethnic and religious groups many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, had little chance of meeting in their neighborhoods can now be encountered in any large American city, and also in our nation’s rural heartland.

Buddhism is one such example.

But it's not just that Asian Buddhists — be they Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or others — have come to North America, where their beliefs and practices have attracted considerable interest.

What’s also happened is that some Western Buddhists — formal converts and the larger number of individuals with no interest in converting but who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and meditative techniques (myself included) — have melded broad concerns for Western social justice issues with traditional, inner-oriented Buddhist beliefs.

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These Western Buddhists certainly did not single-handily start this trend. Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest severe discrimination against their co-religionists by the Catholic South Vietnam government in the early 1960s preceded them.

But these Westerners — many of them marinated in 1960s American liberal anti-war and anti-discrimination activism — pushed the envelope far enough to create a uniquely Western Buddhist path now generally referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

A key figure in this movement died earlier this month. His name was Bernie Glassman and he was 79.

The elite mainstream media, as near as I can ascertain via an online search, totally ignored his death. An error in editorial judgement, I think — certainly for the coverage of how American religion has and continues to change. His contribution to this change was monumental.

Western Buddhist publications reacted otherwise, as you would expect. Here are links to the coverage of his death in the two leading American Buddhist magazines and online news sites — Tricycle and Lion’s Roar.

Even the liberal Jewish news outlet, The Forward, gave him a proper send off — which touches on another aspect of Buddhism’s impact in the West that I’ll say more about below.

Over my many decades as a journalist — I've been at this since the mid-1960s — work allowed me to interact with Glassman on several occasions. Here’s a link to a truncated version of a piece that I did for Religion News Service in 1997, as it appeared in The Los Angeles Times (my byline’s been removed — to which I say; oh, the inhumanity!).

The story was about a signature Glassman undertaking, the Greystone Foundation. Here’s how I led it.

In a [Yonkers, N.Y.]  neighborhood whose commanding view of the Hudson River adds natural beauty to an otherwise glum array of boarded buildings and littered streets, a new, American-style Buddhism is blossoming, fed by the bitterness of inner-city grit and the sweetness of chocolate brownies.

It's a Buddhism based on the hybrid vision of Roshi Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, a Zen dynamo who combines the life of the spirit with the life of the streets.

For Glassman--who leads Zen communities in New York and Los Angeles--individual enlightenment and societal well-being are inseparable.

He is both a high-ranking Zen priest and an entrepreneur whose Greystone Bakery produces the key ingredient in Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. The bakery's profits sparked the growth of the Greystone Foundation, Glassman's burgeoning network of institutions providing apartments, jobs, community gardens, day care and medical assistance to AIDS sufferers, street people, ex-drug addicts, single mothers and others facing tough times in Yonkers.


Zen Peacekeepers is another Glassman creation. Rooted in Zen thinking, but open to Buddhists and non-Buddhists of all stripes, it's purpose is to “bear witness” to the world’s pain so, the thinking goes, creative and compassionate responses might organically arise.

While other religions have similar ideas, this was once relatively rare in Buddhist circles, even in the more direct action-oriented West. Today, thanks to Glassman, and others, it dominates Western Buddhist circles.

Glassman was also a major figure in leading Westerners theologically disconnected from the Abrahamic religious traditions into which they were born to find spiritual sustenance in a new way. These are the so-called “spiritual but not religious” who, surveys keep telling us, are growing by leaps and bounds in the United States and across the democratic West.

That’s another reason why American media interested in serious religion coverage should have reported on his death.

Despite Glassman’s deep immersion in Zen Buddhism, he never abandoned his Brooklyn Jewish cultural origins — which brings me back to that Forward story I mentioned above.

Perhaps fittingly, Glassman passed away just as one of the organizations he founded, Zen Peacemakers, was on its way to Auschwitz for its 23rd annual Bearing Witness retreat, which brings between 50 and 100 participants – often spiritual teachers themselves – to see Auschwitz for themselves and confront the radical evil of the holocaust.

The Bearing Witness program reflects many of Glassman’s own values: Jewish history and identity, the pursuit of social justice (this year, as always, a focus of the program is how xenophobia and anti-Semitism continue to manifest today), intensive Buddhist spiritual practice, and, in a sense, the audacity of confronting life as directly and fully as possible.

Born in Brighton Beach to Jewish immigrants, Glassman had a twenty-year career in technology. As a young man, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and taught at the Technion. Later, he got a PhD in applied mathematics from UCLA and worked as an aeronautical engineer.

Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers biography also notes that his “Hebrew name was Benyamin. His mother’s Hebrew name was Chana.”

For non-traditional believers such as myself, Glassman’s example was the permission I sought to explore the broad range of religious expression while remaining connected to my birth religion, Judaism. The path became one of seeking out more intellectually satisfying and heart-centered teachers and congregations.

Today, I’m a regular synagogue-goer, and I know many other Jews who've followed a similar path, freely toggling between their Buddhist practices and deeply Jewish identities, without conflict or guilt. Likewise, I know many Christians who remain regular church-goers while also deeply engaged in Buddhist meditative practices.

For this and his other contributions, Glassman’s death was newsworthy beyond Buddhist circles.

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